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In Love With a Past That Never Was

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Jon Langford & Rob Lentz

The Rise & Fall of the National Barn Dance

at the Chicago Cultural Center, through May 30

Don't bury me on the lone prairie

Take me where the cement grows

Let's move down to some big town

Where they love a gal by the cut o' her clothes

And you'll stand out in buttons and bows. --Gene Autry

"Chicago is a country music town," insists sculptor Rob Lentz in his artist's statement at the Chicago Cultural Center exhibit "The Rise & Fall of the National Barn Dance." You wouldn't think this was all that contentious a statement--after all, the alt-country bastion Bloodshot has been doing brisk business here for ten years now. But if you're a roots fetishist, a little authenticity is never enough. So Lentz and musician/painter Jon Langford put together an art project dedicated to the Barn Dance, a hugely influential and popular country radio program broadcast on Chicago's WLS from 1924 to 1960. Or as a promotional blurb on the wall of the exhibit puts it, "in an act of unbridled devotion they have thoroughly researched this history and celebrated it with their multi-media installation."

Certainly the installation does demonstrate a sort of devotion, though, as with many acts of worship, both the motives and the beneficiaries are ambiguous. Take Langford's paintings. For the most part, each of them focuses on a single Barn Dance star: cowgirl singer Patsy Montana, for example, or square-dance caller Arkie the Arkansas Woodchopper. Langford's MO is to render a single promotional image of the performer and then doodle around it--cute little country-western icons, flowers, musical notes, whatnot. He then scuffs the surface of the paintings to make them look old. Finally, he scrawls portentous little messages, mostly single words like neglect and erased, to let you know that these performers have been, er, neglected and erased. On many of the paintings, red flecks suggest blood--presumably to imply that a violent crime against culture has been committed, but maybe, for all I can tell, simply by accident.

But the problem with Langford's art is not that it's shallow or repetitive. It's that the only aspect of these performers that really seems to interest him is that they've been forgotten. Practically the only thing you'll learn from looking at his images of Georgie Goebel or Homer & Jethro or Rex Allen is that nobody knows who they are anymore. Lentz's dioramas are significantly more subtle and well realized than Langford's efforts, but their focus is the same. For instance, he's constructed a porcelain model of Bob Atcher, a cowboy singer. In terms of design, it's virtually indistinguishable from commercially produced kitsch--if the Atcher figurine were relabeled "Roy Rogers," I suspect Lentz could sell it in the Nashville memorabilia shops he refers to in his artist's statement. In other words, what makes the figurine art is simply the low profile of its subject. Performers like Atcher are fetishized not so much because of their talent as because of their obscurity, a line of thinking that conveniently shifts attention from the hillbillies who made the records to the urban hipsters who "rediscover" them.

Well, as an urban hipster with a CD player and access to the Internet, I guess I'm as well qualified as the next cultural educator to tell you about forgotten heroes of country music. So let's start with the Hoosier Hot Shots. The Hot Shots had roots in vaudeville, and from 1933 to the mid-40s they were staples on the National Barn Dance. Their metier was novelty numbers such as "I Like Bananas (Because They Have No Bones)" and "From the Indies to the Andes in His Undies," usually played on tin whistle, washboard, clarinet, and guitar. Their signature tagline "Are you ready, Hezzie?" became a national catchphrase.

In his artist's statement Langford writes that the Barn Dance was "enormously popular but never Pop." I beg to differ: if the Hoosier Hot Shots weren't pop, then neither is "Weird Al" Yankovic. A cursory listen to the Hoosier Hot Shots box set issued last summer by Proper Records shows that the band did sing some cowboy- and hillbilly-inflected songs--but then so did Bing Crosby at the time. In fact, the Hot Shots played many numbers that would have been right at home on Crosby's set list: "Avalon," "Saint Louis Blues," and of course "Back in Indiana." Their sound was rooted not in hillbilly fiddle tunes or country-brother duets but in Dixieland and swing, the prevailing pop idioms of the day; they broke into the pop chart's Top 40 twice. Even the Hot Shots' carefully cultivated "wacky" image was perfectly mainstream. You can actually see this for yourself at the Cultural Center. The Hot Shots don't have an individual piece dedicated to them, but if you look closely at the photograph of the entire National Barn Dance cast on the historical timeline, you can pick them out--they're the glee-club refugees in the monogrammed sweater-vests.

In their pop approach, the Hot Shots were far from alone on the Barn Dance. Grace Wilson, the only star to be with the program from its first show to its last, was not a country musician at all, but a contralto who sang popular songs. Red Foley, who began his career on WLS in 1931, had a voice almost as twangless as that of his future son-in-law, Pat Boone. Gene Autry's massive crossover success, too, was fueled by his characterless singing style. Of course, there were many performers on the Barn Dance who sounded hillbilly--Lulu Belle and her banjo-pickin' sweetheart Scotty, for example. Nonetheless, as Richard Peterson points out in Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity, the Barn Dance was significantly less hard-core than the Grand Ole Opry. Which is why, during the 30s, it was more popular.

You would never know any of this from visiting the Cultural Center exhibit, which studiously avoids any indication that the Barn Dance might have been a little slick. It's actually kind of fun to walk around and see how the artists dodge the issue. For instance, Langford and Lentz tell you that WLS music director John Lair left in 1937--but they don't tell you that the reason he departed (according to the Encyclopedia of Country Music) was that he was committed to hillbilly music and felt the National Barn Dance, increasingly obsessed with the cowboy fad, was not.

The masterstroke, though, is Lentz's Old-Time Songs and Mountain Ballads. The subject of the piece is Bradley Kincaid, the Barn Dance's first major star. Lentz has built a replica of an old-fashioned furniture-size radio, and in the radio's interior, behind a glass panel, he's crafted a folksy diorama: one man in backwoods garb plays the fiddle on a porch while a second listens. The radio itself broadcasts hard-swinging country music.

This is a really inspired piece of deception. There are no explanatory notes, so a C & W newbie looking at the diorama would be justified in thinking that the music was by Kincaid, and that Kincaid was an old-timey string-band performer. But the radio is actually playing Barn Dance Favorites, a limited-edition tribute album Langford recorded with his Pine Valley Cosmonauts project. None of the songs on it are even associated with Kincaid.

Furthermore, Kincaid was not a string-band musician, and his image, while folksy, was not exactly authentic. He performed folk ballads in a hugely popular, mannered but comfortable style, much as the Kingston Trio would in their folk-revival heyday. According to the Web site for the Berea College library collection where his papers are archived, he came to Chicago not to perform on the Barn Dance but to attend college. Much of his repertoire came from systematic song-collection trips, similar to those more famously made by the Lomaxes. Kincaid's wife, Irma Foreman, who occasionally performed with him, was a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory.

None of which is to say that Kincaid's roots were middle-class--just his aspirations. He learned his first songs from his father, a Kentucky farm laborer, and he himself worked on a farm for a time. But then he went to school to study, among other things, music. By the time he became a performer, he could claim to be an educated man. And that's what he looks like in most of his photographs. One of these is actually included, as part of a vintage press clipping, in Old-Time Songs and Mountain Ballads. The image is stuffed behind and obscured by the diorama, but if you look closely you can sort of see Kincaid sitting there, smiling. The clipping calls him a "barefoot mountain lad," but with his suit and tie and his wavy, aggressively perfect hair, he looks more likely to launch into the evening news than into a rendition of "Barbara Allen."

Romanticizing the past was a part of country music from the very beginning, but, as Kincaid's story shows, it had its limitations. Yes, WLS was a "comforting beacon for thousands of migrants who headed north," as Langford says: it played music they were familiar with, in a style that recalled their past. But an equally important factor in the Barn Dance's appeal was that it was urban. It can't be said too often--being poor really, really sucks. Rural people came to the cities because they wanted jobs, they wanted money, they wanted to move on up. So they listened to sentimental music played over a modern device by professional-sounding entertainers. It took them back--but not too far back.

And that explains the career of Clayton McMichen. McMichen was a member of the Skillet Lickers, one of the most popular and best known of the old-timey string bands. He was also one of the best breakdown fiddlers of all time. But McMichen hated string-band music; he thought Gid Tanner, the leader of the Skillet Lickers, was 20 years behind the times. What McMichen loved was jazz; his own group in the 40s, the Georgia Wildcats (mentioned in passing on one of Langford's pieces), played Dixieland. During the folk revival of the 60s, McMichen returned to string-band music, but only reluctantly. When he played the Newport Folk Festival, he made a point of mocking the college crowds who had come to hear him play in the old-timey style.

It's pretty hard to imagine, say, Neko Case getting up onstage and seriously suggesting that George Jones was a talentless hack. The whole point of going country is to get the working-class cred--for such performers, the rural past holds no danger. This is why alt-country's irreverence is much touted but rarely evidenced. Lentz, for example, claims that the Waco Brothers' fast, loud renditions of hillbilly standards are acts of "outright sedition against country music." But hillbillies from Bill Monroe to Elvis Presley to Lynyrd Skynyrd have never had a problem with fast and loud. Next to that stuff, Langford and company's pub-rock take on country sounds about as seditious as John Cougar Mellencamp. Perhaps that's subversive in some way, but it sure isn't forward-looking.

Which is too bad, because a healthy genre desperately needs artists who hate the past as well as those who love it. Northanger Abbey was Jane Austen's way of thumbing her nose at gothic literature; Stankonia was Outkast's raspberry to both gangsta rap and Native Tongues. Such productive aesthetic disagreements are few and far between in the nostalgic consensus that is alternative country. In this context, Lentz's diorama Ghosts in the Hayloft is perhaps more pointed than he intended. There's a lovely frame on the wall, and when you peer through it you expect a glimpse of life, music, and art. But the only thing you see is the interior of an empty barn.

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