TTU's Jim Akenson co-edits first 'Country Music Annual'

Nazi line-dancing, mandolins and metaphors, southern humor and attitudes toward the sacred -- this new book has it all.

The inaugural edition of Country Music Annual (University Press of Kentucky, 2000), compiled and edited by James Akenson, professor of curriculum and instruction at Tennessee Tech University with renowned country music scholar Charles Wolfe of Middle Tennessee State University, is designed to fill a void in the study and appreciation of country music.

"We've got lots of diversity in this book," Akenson said while sitting in his office, an Elvis Presley clock hanging from a bookshelf.

"There is an essay on the legendary 1920s fiddler Sam Long, an essay on the issue of technology in the Nashville studio of the 1960s, research in looking at the music of country music -- one of the most fertile and understudied areas."

And it these kinds of essays, these areas of growing research, that both Wolfe and Akenson agreed needed an outlet on a yearly basis for such work to be distributed.

"He (Wolfe) has felt a need for an outlet on an annual basis of scholarly yet readable papers on various aspects of country music. This book is for those who study country music as well as for the knowledgeable layperson," Akenson added.

Akenson, who, organized the first International Country Music Conference 17 years ago, finds country music both "personally and intellectually interesting."

"It's my music of choice," he said. "But I do listen to everything, including rap once in a while."

Akenson's interest in the scholarly research of country music blossomed after he came to Tennessee Tech nearly 30 years ago from his home in Minnesota.

"When I came here in 1973, I started paying attention to country music more and even integrated it into some of my courses. I started reading about it and how it fit in Tennessee and U.S. history," he said.

Akenson contributes to the first Country Music Annual with his essay, "Teaching Country Music," which explores how lyrics and harmonies can be used in elementary school classrooms to teach such subjects as history.

"The more you work on something, the more you learn and know. My personal interests evolved into professional studies, and I've developed many kinds of teaching materials on country music for teachers to use in their classrooms," he said.

In the Country Music Annual, though, there are many other subjects covered. Essays range in titles from "Songwriter's Signature, Artist's Imprint: The Metric Structure of a Country Song," to "Queer Country, Line Dance Nazis, and a Hollywood Barndance: Country Music and the Struggle for Identity in Los Angeles, California."

There is also an essay that covers "Minnie Pearl and Southern Humor in Country Entertainment" as well another titled, "Figure It Out: The Linguistic Turn in Country Music."

"Country music is a very broad term Ð there has always been lots of diversity in this music," Akenson said.

And in the book, country music is defined as sharing common historical, cultural, aesthetic, commercial and demographic roots, including: old-time music, Western swing, honky-tonk, Nashville sound, traditionalism, Bluegrass, Cajun, roots music, alternative country, power country, Americana, country rock, and more.

"This music comes from working class people, unfortunately many are still called 'rednecks,' making the music easy to dislike and made fun of simply because of its roots -- white, working class rural people," he added.

But while there are those who look at country music condescendingly, Akenson and Wolfe believe their book provides a place for those who understand the music's contribution to America's culture. As they say in the introduction:

"All of these writers (in the book) share a simple conviction: that country music has been an important part of the cultural landscape for almost a century now, and that it is worthy of serious scholarly study. We hope to validate this conviction with this issue and with future annual issues."

Already the two authors are working on the next installment of their Country Music Annual, which Akenson says will probably include essays about such topics as the relationships between NASCAR and country music, women in bluegrass, international opinions on country music and the growing popularity of "alternative country" or what is also known as the "redneck underground."

"I'm pleased with how our first book is doing -- I think we've tapped a nerve out there and are providing a resource for a market that has needed something like this for some time."