After months of (intermittent) searching, I managed to dig up the review of Tex Sample’s book, White Soul: Country Music, the Church, and Working Americans (Abingdon Press, 1996) that I wrote for Journal of Country Music 19/2 (1997). Here it is:
Tex Sample, a sociologist and theologian at St. Paul School of Theology in
Kansas City, has spent the bulk of his distinguished career as an advocate for the working class. In White Soul, Sample turns his scholarly attention to country music as a window through which to gain understanding of the thought-world of poor and working-class white folks, whom mainline Protestantism, like the rest of the American cultural and academic elite, has tended either to ignore or to impugn. Combining autobiography, confession, oral history, sociological analysis, literary textual criticism, philosophical argument, and theological reflection, White Soul is a book Sample has been working toward all his life.
Sample tells his own story of growing up during the Great Depression in a working-class family in Mississippi, listening to and loving country music until he learned from his third grade music teacher that country was “bad music”—that classical music was good. While studying philosophy at Milisaps College, then studying and teaching theology in Boston, sought to put his southern working-class past behind him, taking on the sophistication of a New England intellectual. During his Boston days, while distributing fliers at a George Wallace rally as a white liberal political activist, Sample was converted. He recognized the disparity between his blue business suit and the blue collars of the folks he was trying to persuade, and came to the shocking realization that he no longer knew his own people. And when one fails to know one’s people, one fails to know oneself. One of the ways Sample has sought to make right his path since the early 1970s is by co-teaching a course on country music and working people. Sample’s thesis in this book is that country music embodies “white soul,” the values, struggles, contradictions, and yearnings experienced by the white working class—”the ‘essence’ of white working life,” he puts it. In country music’s irony about love and other ordinary tragedies, in the joyful abandon and moral defiance of the honky-tonk, in the “aggression” of a Hank Williams Jr., Sample discerns a stance of resistance toward a dominant order that dehumanizes working people, He sees the politics expressed in country music as “traditional” rather than “conservative”; i.e., working- class people tend to feel that government is unrelated to their daily lives. Country music, then, is best seen as apolitical— it expresses a “populist anarchism.” The working people Sample describes. prefer “to be left the hell alone,” desiring neither the large and potentially intrusive government of political liberals nor the free-market capitalism of political conservatives, which serves only the rich.
Sample notes in country music the protests of working people as they face dismal socioeconomic conditions—their resistance taking various forms. In Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December,” for example, Sample sees the biblical strategy of lament in the midst of hardship. And in Johnny Cash’s “One Piece at a Time,” Sample analyzes humor as a device used to express the eschatological wish of beating the system. The emphasis on romantic love in country music is traced by Sample to the fact that, when economic prospects are dim, other areas of life have to be the locus of hope and joy. A song like “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” then, comes to be seen as a desperate yet courageous cry of hope for a better tomorrow when even love offers sparing possibilities.
Sample’s philosophical discussion of elite vs. working-class taste provides ammunition for those country music fans who feel a need to defend their aesthetics, and serves as the basis of his call for the church (read upper-middle-class mainline Protestantism) to open its ears and doors to the working class. I share Sample’s distress at the ecclesial (and cultural and academic) elite’s arrogance in matters aesthetic. But I have some problems with his discussion of church life. First, there’s no discussion of working- class Christianity. The rural and mill-town Baptists, Pentecostals, and others (even some Methodists) who share the socioeconomic and cultural milieu of country music’s traditionally working-class audience are virtually absent from Sample’s book. Clearly Sample’s aim is to convict and perhaps convert his mainline peers. But surely the working-class churches have something to teach us.
Second, there’s no discussion of the “sacred” music of the white working class—Southern Gospel. Granted, the academic neglect of Southern Gospel is almost universal: one can scour the literature of musicology, hymnology, ministry, theology, and popular culture (including country music) studies and find very few references to Southern Gospel music. But Sample’s position as a sociologist of religion and of the working class would seem to demand that he not repeat other scholars’ sins of omission in this area. Could Southern Gospel be too lowbrow even for Sample’s rural Mississippi Methodist heritage?
Sample includes an appendix entitled “A’Pickin’ and A’Singin’: A Short History of Country Music,” in which he follows and enlarges upon Bill Malone’s liner notes for the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Country Music. One should probably read the appendix first, because it shows both Sample’s grasp of country music’s history and his perspective on the voice of the working class. The appendix also hints at an apologia for Sample’s failure in the body of the book to distinguish the voices of those artists who more fully embody country music’s traditionally working-class social location, such as Hank Williams, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, etc., from those who represent country’s more recent catapult into the musical and cultural mainstream, such as Garth Brooks. Sample echoes Malone’s contention in Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers that it is a music’s use by the “folk” rather than the purity of its production that determines its authenticity.
Despite its minor flaws, White Soul is a highly valuable resource both to ministers and to others concerned about churches’ relationships with working class folks, and to country music scholars grappling with the music’s (and its surrounding culture’s) deeply rooted religiosity. Sample’s readings of individual songs and his anecdotes about the music’s functions in the lives of people he has known help to flesh out Curtis Ellison’s suggestion in Country Music Culture: From Hard times to Heaven that country music is inherently theological. And Sample’s own theological ruminations are, of course, informed and insightful. Sample also provides sociological support for what most interpreters of country music know—that country has traditionally held a mostly southern rural and working-class social location. White Soul is well-researched, well-reasoned, and well-written. It combines good scholarship with the author’s passionate involvement in his subject matter, resulting in a book that is a joy to read and, at times, downright inspiring. After reading Sample’s concluding story of a revelatory moment at the Starlite Club, one might be moved to believe that the Kingdom of Heaven is a honky-tonk.