Robert Cantwell on the Commercial Background of Hillbilly Music

The Monroe Brothers

Cantwell reminds us that “it is always a bit of a shock to realize that the human career, which seems so brief from within, can embrace spans of time which have become historical.”  He relates this notion specifically to Monroe’s recordings, asserting that they “represent what we now regard as the high-water marks of old-time music, the best achievements of what is often called the ‘golden age’ of hillbilly recording” (Cantwell, p.51).

“The Monroe Brothers stood squarely at the center of that tradition, not by virtue of the retrospect that we enjoy, but by virtue of the unique convergence in their lives of rural background, radical dislocation, still widespread social change, and the entrepreneurial energy of the early record companies” (Cantwell, p.52).

Cantrell parallels the emergence of the Chicago style of Jazz as a result of Louis Armstrong’s brilliance with the emergence of the bluegrass style due to Bill Monroe’s innovative mandolin playing.

He says that many bands emphasized certain aspects of hillbilly music.  For example, the short-lived Georgia string band, The Skillet Lickers, exploited the new medium of radio to make lively southern mountain dance music a personal experience for listeners.  Here is Gid Tanner & His Skillet Lickers performing “Cripple Creek”:

While Cantwell emphasizes that Bill Monroe provided hillbilly music with stabilization, it is important to consider that the numerous bands that the Monroe Brothers listened to were extremely influential to their development.  “Elements of instrumental technique, aesthetic posture, rhythm, and even the moral position Monroe would adopt for his music” is evident in those records (Cantwell, p.56).

The Monroe Brothers as an Attestant to the “Binding Influence” of Radio

Cantwell asserts that radio allows people to transmit diverse messages across various geographical and cultural boundaries.  He also says that live radio stations served the social function of informing communities of local activities and is more accessible than other forms of media.  It also brought rural music and voices into urban cities just as it brought urban life into rural homes (Cantwell, p.43).  Additionally, he says that “the structure of live broadcasting and personal appearances built on the radio provided the hillbilly musician with a haven-not, admittedly, a perfectly secure one-from the Great Depression, while at the same time bringing him into regular and immediate contact with audiences far more demanding than the old rural society” (Cantwell, p.48).

Cantwell suggests that the distinguishing factor between the Monroe brothers’ music and others of that time was that they fully utilized radio and excelled by finding ways around radio’s “auditory confines” (Cantwell, p.49).  He also proclaims that the Monroe Brothers simplified Appalachian music.  I wonder what made the Monroe Brothers’ music identify “more closely with the southern mountain tradition” than other hillbilly and old time artists? (Cantwell, p.58).

Additionally, what specifically allows the Monroe Brothers to stand out as the ones whose music resonates more with listeners and their experiences?  In contemplating this question, I’ve considered Cantwell’s opinions regarding Monroe and the Monroe Brothers:

“Monroe’s personal experience repeated the experience of thousands of people like him, his audiences, who had left Appalachia for the industrial North, an experience which literally reiterated what in effect was a kind of national myth, expressed in popular music, of an expulsion from an idyllic South into an urban and technological wilderness in the North…Monroe entered professional music, too, at a time when the hillbilly musician was valued for his power to represent and evoke the past, so that the musician’s very purpose was to explore and in some measure recover his own tradition; in Monroe’s cause, that recovery extended years later to his personal experience, particularly that of his early youth, transfigured by time and distance, and especially to his earliest musical influences, which became for him quasi-sacred prototypes” (Cantwell, p.47-48).

Cantwell, Robert. “Ch.2, Hillbilly Music: The Commercial      Background.” Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern  Sound. Urbana: U of Illinois, 1984. N. pag. Print.

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