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Learning country music in the digital age

Recently reading through the Notes and Discographies section of Greil Marcus’s book Mystery Train (first published in 1975), I was struck by Marcus’s meticulousness when it came to recommending records. When remarking on “Rock A Little Baby,” a 1958 single by rock pioneer Harmonica Frank Floyd, Marcus is kind enough to observe in a footnote that the album can be ordered by mail from Down Home Music, and goes on to provide an address for the company and even a telephone number.

Instead of all that, I pull up Google, type “Harmonica Frank Floyd Little Baby,” find the song on YouTube, and – voilà! – thirty seconds later, I am listening to Harmonica Frank. For us denizens of the digital age, there’s obviously no longer any reason to shell out a dozen bucks and wait four weeks to understand what Greil means when he calls “Rock A Little Baby” a “dazzling 1958 single” when the answer is at our fingertips. These days, we can just find the song and press play.

At this point in our media-saturated existence, this seems like nothing special; we pretty much take the instant gratification of the Internet as a given. Haven’t heard that song before? No problem. The Internet will find it. Any unfamiliar morsel of culture that someone pushes your way during a dinner conversation, you can sneak off to the bathroom, whip out the ol’ trusty smartphone, and figure out what they’re talking about in seconds.

The benefit of this approach to digitized culture that it took some time for me to see, though, was how it might help me in exploring entire discographies of musical artists, or even subgenres and genres. For instance, with the help of the Internet, it becomes easy to spend a day listening to the Rolling Stones from their 1964 self-titled debut all the way through to 1971’s Exile on Main Street. (I did this, and it was awesome.) What got me thinking, though, was the kind of deep dive into the entire genre of country music I could do with help of The Encyclopedia of Country Music, Second Edition, a copy of which sat on my desk at work.

It didn’t take long before I decided to start in on the daunting task of “learning,” or, well, at least getting to know, country music. For those who are not familiar with the Encyclopedia, it is no light read, containing over 1,200 entries on country artists, producers, businesspeople, TV shows, organizations, subgenres, and just about everything relating to country music that you can imagine. In short, it is an exhaustive resource, covering everything from Pure Prairie League to the Louisiana Hayride to forgotten A&R men of the 1930s.

Picking my way through the book one entry at time, I selected a song or two from each musical artist or instrumentalist and – if I could locate a verifiable version on Spotify – I would add the songs to a growing playlist. As I worked my way from A to Z in the Encyclopedia, the playlist, which I would listen to on random as I assembled it, ballooned from the manageable size of a few hundred songs to the rather alarming size of nearly 1,500 songs, totaling nearly 75 hours of music, touching on everything from conjunto to Patsy Cline.

But the most shocking part of it all, more so than the sheer lunacy of the project, was how much of this music the Internet seemed to have available. It became almost a game to see what musical artist recognized by the Encyclopedia couldn’t be located on at least Spotify. (I found recordings every artist mentioned at least somewhere on the Internet.) I would hold my breath while searching for Narmour & Smith – “one of the most popular instrumental duos on records in the late 1920s.” No way they would be on Spotify, right? But no: Spotify helpfully had the entirety of Narmour & Smith Vol. 1: Complete Recorded Works (1928-1930). How about the 1920s gospel group Smith’s Sacred Singers, which “never toured or pursued extensive radio work – and personnel typically shifted from [recording] session to session”? Oh, but of course, there is an entire album of songs available, including the group’s 1926 debut single “Pictures from Life’s Other Side.”

Today, you don’t need to be a record collector to follow along – no need to reach out to Down Home Music for that long-lost single – it’s probably somewhere on Spotify, or elsewhere on the Internet. For whether it’s Frank Blevins and his Tarheel Rattlers or The Pickard Family, digging deep in musical history isn’t nearly so hard as it used to be. You want to learn a genre? It’s easier than you might think. No need to pick through bargain bins of dusty records – a Spotify playlist, a trustworthy guide (in this case, the Encyclopedia!), and a certain sense of self-punishment will suffice.

Featured image credit: Grand Ole Opry performers at Carnegie Hall. Photo by William P. Gottlieb. Library of Congress. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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