Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a new email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Nadine Hubbs is a professor of women’s and gender studies and music at the University of Michigan. Her 2014 book is called Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music, and she’s currently researching Mexican American country music fans. You might know her from her appearance on Dolly Parton’s America, and this (gay) version of the song “Jolene.”
This is a lengthy and important interview, so I’m going to keep the preamble short. Enjoy our conversation about the class politics of country music and the limits of the queer visibility movement, below.
Olivia Weeks, Daily Yonder: How did you come to study country music? Did you ever fall prey to a simplistic view of the genre?
Nadine Hubbs: I don’t think I ever did fall prey to a simplistic view of the form. But there’s more to the story than that. How did I come to study country music? Well, I grew up with it. As I mentioned, in my book, Rednecks, Queers and Country Music, my mom was a big country fan. Some of her favorite artists were Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton and my little sister—who’s also a professor down at the University of Alabama—her name is Jolene after the Dolly Parton song. My mom’s sister and her husband owned a bar in a tiny little farming town in Ohio where I grew up, south of Toledo. And they had a great jukebox that was mostly concentrated on Golden Age country music from the 1960s and 70s. So that gave me a real country music education in addition to the music that we listened to at home. I grew up in a small town in Ohio, 1,500 in population and surrounded by cornfields, and soybean fields. And I heard country music all around me.
DY: Has it felt obvious to you to study country music from an academic lens rather than just enjoy it?
NH: Not at all. After I left my small town I went to universities and music conservatories, and country was really looked down on both from a musical perspective, because the only kind of music you could study at that time was classical music—and I was a classical musician—and from a vantage point of higher education, because of these class associations that I write about, and the associations with rural life, country music seemed less than sophisticated. So I stayed away from it in this new world that I entered, because I was trying to pass as someone who belonged there. And if I was a country music fan, that would have immediately suggested that I didn’t belong there. And they would have known my secrets: that in fact, I was a small town native of the Midwest who came from a blue collar family. It took me a long time to come back to country music, and I only felt somewhat safe in choosing country music as a subject of my academic work after I had published a number of articles, published my first book—which is about classical composers and stays far away from country music—and gotten tenure at the University of Michigan. But I wanted very much to write about how social class works in America. And as a musicologist and music theorist, country music seemed like the perfect vehicle. And indeed, it is a very powerful vehicle for looking at issues of how class works, and how the rural-urban divide in America operates today.
DY: Okay, so now I want to get into those questions of class and rurality in your writing and flesh out the opposition between rural or working-class values and identity or visibility politics. In an article about the Gretchen Wilson song “Redneck Woman” you write that the audience for conversations about what makes someone a redneck is typically at least once removed from redneck identity. So do conversations about redneck identity or rural identity themselves kind of automatically exclude those who most represent those labels?
NH: So, my first answer to that is yes. Expert conversations, conversations among the narrating class, pronounce the expert views on rural and redneck or working-class people without knowing those people much of the time, and often without consulting those people, and then sort of cherry picking from what they say.
DY: So do you think that those conversations about identity—among people who might be considered redneck or people who live in rural areas—do you think that those conversations are happening just in a different vocabulary from the one that’s typically used in academic conversations about identity?
NH: Absolutely. Rural people, and so called rednecks—working-class white folks, in the case of rednecks—and working-class people of all races, talk about class, and they talk about class in sophisticated ways. They don’t come to the same conclusions or make the same arguments, however, as the middle-class narrating class does. Very often, they have a more informed perspective on rural and working-class people, but the conversation tends to stay among themselves. And often it doesn’t look at rural and working-class people as the bad guys. It more often looks at the narrating-class and the middle class under a critical light. So it’s the reverse in that respect. But the great sociologist Pierre Bourdieu noted that when sociologists talk about working-class folk, they’re doing something that working-class folk themselves do all the time. Of course working-class people talk about class. They probably talk about class more than middle-class people do, because it’s a huge part of their lives. And as Bourdieu said, sociologists do the same thing.
DY: Another thing that I want to discuss, is that in the outro of Rednecks, Queers and Country Music, you do something that I find really powerful, which is that you’re thinking about the way a group’s politics can stand against its own interests, which is a refrain you often hear applied to the white working-class, and poor whites in general. And then you take that frame of a group “working against its own interests” politically, and you apply it to a subset of Americans other than the working-class. Can you describe the role that middle-class cultural superiority plays in preserving American inequality or, in other words, in preserving this economic regime that’s very much against the interests of the middle class?
NH: Basically, middle-class cultural superiority perpetuates the idea that working-class people deserve their undesirable status in society. They deserve it on moral terms. It keeps the spotlight away from middle-class people whose moral superiority is presumed, and represented time and again in all the stories that we consume in the media, and in expert discourses as well. However, once in a while, you can find an expert discourse that considers the possibility that working-class people might know something of value. And one such place is the important very well known sociological study by Annette Lareau called Unequal Childhoods, where she points out that there are two different styles of child rearing in America: the middle-class style has kids running around from one enrichment activity to another. Like piano lessons, karate, language classes, what have you, which she calls “concerted cultivation.” The other style she calls “natural growth” has kids who are playing with their siblings and their cousins, they see their aunts and uncles and their grandparents more often, and if they have a conflict or disagreement, they are told to work it out among themselves. And she actually finds as a sociologist, that there’s a lot of value in that parenting style, but that expert discourses only ever look at the working class with the assumption of pathology, like, “What is wrong with these people?” And so, when the middle class decided a few years ago, actually free play is really good for children, they treated it as if it was their invention. But it was exactly what working-class child rearing had been doing forever. When it comes to the narrating class, we never approach the working class as if they have something of value from which the rest of us could learn. And we assume not only middle-class cultural superiority, but perhaps even more powerfully middle-class moral superiority. Why? Well, the working class in general is painted as the home of all social ills, and the white working class as the home of the social ills of racism, and sexism, and homophobia and transphobia.
DY: Can you kind of apply that frame to the politics of queer visibility and the way that norm is often in contrast with the culture of queerness that exists in rural places?
NH: Absolutely, thank you for asking that because it is the largest-scale argument of Rednecks, Queers and Country Music. I argue in that book that the historical framework, the historiography, of LGBTQ life, and people in America really needs an overhaul. We have this notion, as I’ve been saying, that the working class in rural areas is the natural home of transphobia and homophobia. But in fact, for the first 100 years of homosexuality—that is, after medical science invented the notion that there are two kinds of people in the world, homosexuals and heterosexuals, which was around 1870—expert discourses very strongly assumed that this was a pathology of the working class. And sure enough, you would find the gay bars in working-class neighborhoods, not middle class, elitist neighborhoods. We queer people were relegated to working-class zones and thrived there. It was the middle class that had scientific discourses defining the homosexual as a deviant. Well, at the same time in the 20th century, in working-class worlds, it was actually true that queer people weren’t necessarily defined as deviant. Among men, for example, one man could have sex with another man, and was considered a normal man—as long as he took the “normal” gender role in sex, as long as he was the “top,” as we say, and not the “bottom.” So from the middle-class, expert, dominant standpoint, the sin of the working class was that they were beastly degenerate queer lovers. Then somehow, starting about the 1970s, the sin of the working class became that they were beastly degenerate queer haters. My research suggested to me that this total flip flop came about after the great social movements of the 1950s and 60s. Then by the 70s it wasn’t cool anymore to keep LGBTQ people at such savage arm’s length. The long-approved stance of antihomosexuality had a new name that first came up in print in 1972: homophobia. Middle-class people didn’t want to be associated with homophobia anymore, and it became working-class people who were the homophobes, after they had spent 100 years being the queer lovers. How does that work? You go back to the notion of the narrating class. If the middle class controls the discourse, well, then they can control who gets labeled how.
DY: Yeah, and you outline a form of quiet acceptance of queerness that stands in opposition to this very specific, and linguistically gatekept, version of visibility politics that I think is really interesting. Can you describe that contrast?
NH: That’s right. So also in the 70s it became part of queer politics that if you are a liberated, gay person, you come out. “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.” Labeling yourself openly to straight people, which queer folks had never done up to that point, became a requirement in the middle-class movement. And that’s visibility politics: that you do your political work by being a visible member of this minoritized group. That is not how social life works, though.
I came up in a rural, working-class space, and I was afraid to go into the middle-class environment. I am myself queer identified and gender non-normative. So does that mean I had never encountered homophobia in my working-class worlds? No, I had encountered homophobia, but I had not encountered vicious homophobia. I had certainly encountered people cracking gay jokes, or maybe things that could have made me uncomfortable. But I also felt like I was familiar with a certain “live and let live” ethos in those rural and working-class spaces that I had inhabited throughout my entire growing up years. Visibility, no. And there’s a reason for that. We didn’t live in towns where you could be anonymous. If I sit down on a barstool in my hometown of Woodville, Ohio, I don’t know who’s going to pull up beside me. But I don’t want to assume that they share all the same worldviews and politics that I have.
In the spaces where I live now, it’s more urban and metropolitan and pretty monocultural in terms of class. I’m surrounded by upper-middle-class people, and many of them don’t know working-class people. In these worlds there’s often an assumption that whoever you’re talking to shares the same politics that you have. Where I grew up there was, ironically, more diversity of a certain sort. I would never presume to try to talk about politics, if I wanted to have a nice time and a good conversation in the small town bar. So, in the narrating class, I think it’s often assumed that if you don’t announce clearly, “I am for this and this and this and I’m against this and that,” it’s morally suspect. That’s really different from social life in spaces where everybody knows everybody and you been knowing them since kindergarten, and you’re going to know them until y’all die. The logic of those social spaces is one of “Are you a good person? Do I know you? Have you lived in this place?” And if you meet these criteria, as one rural gay man said in a study, nobody gives a damn what you’re doing. Now if you go in with an urban or metrocentric perspective you’re going to miss that completely. You’re just going to say, “Oh, look, everyone’s scared to wear their rainbow flags,” or to proclaim their gayness, lesbianism, bisexuality or their trans identity. No, it works on a totally different system. Those are just not quite the right questions. It doesn’t compute.
DY: And to continue this conversation about metrocentric questions and the misunderstandings of the narrating class, and apply it to your work on Mexican-American country music fans: I’m wondering, in what ways are middle-class and metrocentric values supported by a conflation of the kind of patriotism you hear in country music with bigotry?
NH: I have been doing field work with Mexican-American country fans, in Texas down at the Mexico border, Northern and Southern California, and here in the Midwest. When I spoke to some of my academic colleagues saying, I’m doing this new research on Mexican American involvements in country music (which are numerous) my colleagues said, “Ooh, that should be interesting. I wonder what they would think of those patriotic country songs.” The assumption was that those would be really noxious songs to a Mexican American listener. But actually, the Mexican American country fans I spoke to said, “Well, of course, I’m a country music fan. I’m Mexican. How would I not love country music?” which goes very much against Anglo-White American stereotypes. They said, “Look, the values of my Mexican upbringing are identical to the values of country music: family, morality, hard work, love, and patriotism.” So I said, “Well, what about those patriotic country songs? How do you feel about them?” And these country fans, who ranged in age from about 23 years old to about 73 years old, said they liked the songs. I asked what they liked about them and the answers, invariably, were very thoughtful. My interlocutors said “Those patriotic songs make me think about all the sacrifices that my family made for me to live here in the United States, and to have a good life, like I have.” And at the same time, without skipping a breath, they said “those patriotic songs make me think about how proud and grateful I am to be Mexican, and to have my Mexican culture.” And they expressed no contradiction whatsoever in resonating with songs that I think some people would assume are exclusively interpretable in red, white and blue. They were hearing them at the same time in green, white and red, and appreciating them simultaneously, in both the American and the Mexican registers of pride and gratitude.
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This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.