The Curmudgeon: Who you callin’ inauthentic?

Music Features

The 25th anniversary of 1987’s Trio album by Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt provides a useful opportunity to look at the troublesome issue of “authenticity” in music. For the Trio project was the result of Harris’s and Ronstadt’s attempts to find authenticity and Parton’s efforts to escape it.

It’s hard to think of a woman in a blonde wig, hourglass figure and tight dresses as a beacon of authenticity, but that’s just what Parton was for Harris and Ronstadt. When Harris fell in love with country music and became Gram Parsons’ singing partner in 1972, she went looking for a role model, a woman who could squeeze the same transcendence out of hillbilly music as Hank Williams or Merle Haggard, a woman who wasn’t adopted by country music but who was born into the family, a woman of Harris’s own generation who was approachable. That was Parton.

When Ronstadt scored 10 top-20 country singles between 1974 and 1978, including remakes of songs recorded by Hank Williams, Skeeter Davis, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly, she sensed she was just a visitor in someone else’s house. To sing such songs from the inside out rather than the outside in, to learn how to inhabit this music like a familiar set of clothes and not as a borrowed outfit, she would need a role model. That was Parton.

Behind the assumed persona of a bubbly, hillbilly sexpot, Parton was a very smart, very tough-minded woman. She had grown up poor and undereducated and harbored no romantic illusions about rural poverty. She wanted to be appreciated as a songwriter as well as a singer, as a thinker as well as a doer. She wanted to be as big a star as possible (hence the calculated persona), and country music was too small a sphere for her ambitions. But what kind of role could a twangy East Tennessee singer play in the larger pop-rock world? Maybe Harris and Ronstadt provided an answer.

When their paths crossed in the mid-’70s, these three women were both in the early throes of self-reinvention. While Ronstadt ultimately didn’t make a big shift, Harris and Parton did. The latter two were moving in opposite directions, but they were aiming right at each other. They would help each other out quite a bit as they passed—and even for a while afterward. It was a relationship not unlike the one between Steve Earle, the son of educated, middle-class professionals in San Antonio, and Rodney Crowell, the son of blue-collar rednecks in Houston. In each case, one person was looking for a way into a working-class culture, while the other was looking for a way out.

Music critics and music fans are always harping on the need for authenticity, as if the value of a song could be judged by the biography of the singer. The impulse is understandable; in a popular culture of such rampant fakery and manipulation, one hungers to encounter an artist who sings from the heart instead of striking a pose. But how can one be sure that the song is truly coming from the heart? Well, one could take the trouble to listen really attentively and make an aesthetic judgment. Or one could take the easy way out and just check the singer’s backstory.

In other words, the emphasis on “authenticity” often stems from laziness. But by insisting that a singer of Appalachian country music must grow up poor in a Tennessee holler, these critics and fans create a worse problem: they make artists prisoners of their biography. They imply that Harris can never legitimately sing hillbilly music and that Parton can never sing anything but. They imply that none of us—listener or performer—can choose our own identities, because we are locked into a destiny imposed upon us at birth. Strangely, this “authenticity” prejudice was shared both by right-wing country-radio DJs like Ralph Emery and by left-wing folklorists like Alan Lomax.

When blues purists insist that the only real blues singers grew up black in Mississippi cabins, when bluegrass purists insist that the only real bluegrass pickers grew up white in Kentucky cabins, when hip-hop purists insist that the only real rappers sold crack on city streets, when punk purists insist that the only real punk-rockers never went to college, they are declaring that biography, even biology, is destiny. Thus, the quest for “authenticity” is a profoundly anti-democratic impulse. It claims to protect a cultural heritage, but it actually keeps people “in their place.” To declare that white people can’t do blues or hip-hop is to imply that black people can’t do opera or country. To declare that educated urbanites can’t do bluegrass or old-time music is to imply that underschooled rural folk can’t do jazz or chamber music.

Moreover, shutting off the musical leakage of one sub-culture into another would mean closing down the primary engine for musical innovation. When Bob Wills imitated Fletcher Henderson, he got some but not all of it right and invented Western Swing. When Chuck Berry imitated Bob Wills, he got some but not all of it right and invented guitar rock’n’roll. When the Beatles and Rolling Stones imitated Chuck Berry, they got some but not all of it right and invented the British Invasion. When George Clinton imitated the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, he got some but not all of it right and invented Funkadelic. When the Red Hot Chili Peppers imitated Funkadelic, they got some but not all of it right and invented funk-punk. When Kid Rock imitated the Red Hot Chili Peppers, he got some but not all of it right and invented funky country. None of these innovators let the myth of authenticity stop them—and it’s a good thing they didn’t.

Harris set the tone for the progressive-country movement she founded by defying that prejudice. She fiercely embraced the baby-boomer credo that one could choose who to be. If Bob Dylan, the son of a Hibbing, Minn., appliance salesman, could turn himself into a Dust Bowl troubadour like Woody Guthrie, if Paul McCartney, the child of Liverpool’s housing projects, could turn himself into an R&B shouter like Little Richard, why couldn’t a suburban army brat like Harris turn herself into a hillbilly crooner like Parton? Why couldn’t Parton, the product of Appalachian poverty, turn herself into a worldly-wise California hybrid singer like Harris? This freedom to transform one’s identity was crucial to the movement.

For all the misuses of the authenticity argument, however, it does contain two kernels of truth. The first is that the people who invented a musical style deserve the credit for doing so. That doesn’t mean that others can’t use and develop the style—you couldn’t stop them even if you tried—but that the newcomers need to honor and acknowledge the originators. If you’re going to build your music atop someone else’s innovation—and everyone does—give credit where credit is due by mentioning them in interviews, by inviting them on your bills and by recording their compositions. The Beatles and Stones were good about this; Led Zeppelin not so much.

The second kernel is that someone who grows up within a culture is going to have a big head start on learning that culture’s music than someone who grows up outside. An outsider can catch up by doing the homework, but the outsider should never underestimate just how much homework is required. And the best tutor is almost always an insider.

It was in that sense that Harris and Ronstadt turned to Parton—as a tutor in the hows, whats and whys of hillbilly music. Parton was willing to be a tutor but only if her two new friends would return the favor by becoming tutors in the ways and means of the college-educated, urban, baby-boomer culture.

By 1972, Parton had been a featured presence for five years on television’s The Porter Wagoner Show and had racked up a string of hit singles and albums with the tall, skinny Wagoner, a gifted singer/songwriter in his own right. With Wagoner as her co-producer, she had also scored Top Ten singles as a solo artist with such original songs as “Joshua,” “Jolene,” and “Coat of Many Colors.” The latter song, which described Parton’s own childhood in Appalachian poverty, was not only brilliantly sung but also ingeniously written, organized around the image of a winter coat assembled from clothing scraps. For someone like Harris, who desperately wanted to believe that an unschooled mountain singer could be as much of a poet as Joni Mitchell or Anne Sexton, here was proof. For different reasons, Parton was just as desperate to believe the same thing.

After Parsons died in 1973, Harris inherited his band and his record company. As she prepared to record her first major-label album, 1975’s Pieces of the Sky, she wanted to include one song by her new role model and chose “Coat of Many Colors.” In Parton’s original, 1971 recording of the song, she sings the story over a simple acoustic-guitar figure and drum brushes, evoking a whole world in her memory of her mother creating a fall coat out of a box of rags someone had given the family as charity. Her soprano swells with the pride of a small girl as her mother compares the garment to Joseph’s coat of many colors in the Bible.

That same soprano takes on the burry edge of surprise and anger, though, when the little girl goes to school with her cherished coat, only to be greeted by taunting laughter at the hand-sewn rags. The voice then turns defiant as she tells her classmates that you’re only poor if you choose to be. The whole story is marvelously compressed into three minutes and sung with a voice not far removed from that little girl’s stunned then steely playground speech. The song became a #4 hit single.

When Harris recorded the song four years later, you could immediately hear how her soprano was different from Parton’s. The country star had a brassier voice with the punchy attack of a trumpet, while Harris’s was reedier, with the vibrato of a clarinet.

While Parton sang the song as if she were back in the moment, as if she were once again a little girl delivering an unambiguous moral lesson to kids at a mountainside school. Harris sings the song as if she were an adult looking back at a ghostly memory, as if wishing she could go back there but also realizing she never could. She sang Parton’s line about being rich despite her dire poverty as if it were true in a psychological sense but not in a material sense. Of course, that element of irony makes Harris’s version an alternative-country song in contrast to Parton’s mainstream-country performance.

Harris’s version of “Coat of Many Colors” wasn’t released as a single but it was part of her Top Ten debut album, and that success gave Parton a legitimacy as a songwriter that she had been craving. Here was proof that she wasn’t just the sexpot blonde on Wagoner’s often-corny TV show; she was a writer who had earned the admiration of the college-educated Harris. Harris was living in California, but when she came to Nashville to do business, she met and befriended Parton.

Each of these two women saw in the other something they wanted to be. In Parton, Harris saw an honest-to-goodness child of Appalachia, for whom hillbilly singing wasn’t something consciously learned but an instinct absorbed along with cornbread and collard greens. In Harris, Parton saw a worldly hipster, someone unrestrained by small-town expectations, someone who could be ironic and reach an urban audience. Harris yearned to be an authentic Blue Ridge Mountain girl, but Parton yearned just as much to be an authentic California pop star. By the time they finally released the Trio album with Ronstadt in 1987, Harris had become a mainstream country star and Parton a crossover pop star. They had exchanged places, but who’s to say they had become any less authentic?

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