In the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Appalachia took center stage as a potent symbol of the many ways that decades of economic globalization have marginalized the country’s white working-class voters.
For more than fifty years, bluegrass musicians and fans from around the world have gathered in shady bowers and open fields to trade songs in parking lot picking sessions; hear top local, regional, and national bluegrass bands as they present onstage performances; and buy instruments, books, recordings, and memorabilia from vendors. These bluegrass festivals serve as vital meeting spaces for members of the bluegrass community, and they play a key role in the music’s ongoing economic vitality.
The country music tradition in the United States might be characterized as a nostalgic one. To varying degrees since the emergence of recorded country music in the early 1920s, country songs and songwriters have expressed longing for the seemingly simpler times of their childhoods—or even their parents’ and grandparents’ childhoods. In many ways, one might read country music’s occasional obsession with all things past and gone as an extension of the nineteenth-century plantation song, popularized by Pittsburgh native Stephen Collins Foster, whose “Old Folks at Home” (1851) and “My Old Kentucky Home” (1853) depicted freed slaves longing for the simpler times of their plantation youths.
At least a decade prior to the recording of the first “hillbilly” records in the 1920s, journalists were writing about rural music-making in the United States, often treating the music heard at barn dances, quilting bees, and other rural social events as curious markers of local color. Since the emergence of country music as a recorded popular music in the 1920s, though, the press’s fascination with the genre has not waned.