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Jewly Hight

Based in Nashville, TN, music critic and journalist Jewly Hight contributes to NPR/NPR Music, Billboard, Vulture, Rolling Stone Country, the Nashville Scene, and a number of other outlets. Her work has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Wondering Sound, VICE, The Oxford American, No Depression, Relix, and elsewhere. She was the 2015 recipient of the Chet Flippo Award for Excellence in Country Music Journalism and has a Master of Theological Studies from Vanderbilt University Divinity School, where she focused on religion, gender, sexuality, and Southern music. She published her first book, Right By Her Roots: Americana Women and Their Songs, in 2011. She moonlights as the drummer/clogger in a country drag show.

“Roundtable: Who Speaks for Country Music?”
Though clearly it appeals to listeners beyond the white, working-class provincial audience with which it is associated, country remains a music that articulates working-class values and concerns symbolically and concretely. Those who analyze and interpret country music in public discourse, however, tend to be academic and media professionals who might be thought of as members of the “narrating class.” They tell the stories about the music—and the social and cultural dimensions of its working-class affiliations—despite the fact that they may know little about working-class life and, as members of the professional middle class, are positioned antagonistically to the core country audience in the class structure. The popular narratives around country music, then, are powerfully and often problematically shaped by significant differences, often unspoken and elided, in class perspectives, values, biases, and incentives. Put another way, you might not be a redneck if you interpret country music from a position of journalistic or academic discursive authority today.

This roundtable will begin with a brief sketch of the class coordinates of country music with respect to audience demographics, lyrical themes, and popular discourse about the genre in order to account for its actual appeal to both working-class and middle-class audiences as well as its continuing status as a form of working-class culture. It will then examine the processes of translation and ventriloquism that arise when middle-class voices dominate the public conversation about country music and its audience. Reflecting both journalistic and academic perspectives, the discussion will explore the diverse institutional and discursive constraints that shape the ways members of the narrating class are able to talk about mainstream commercial country (and allied genres that carry very different class connotations, such as bluegrass and Americana) and will highlight the ability to speak against prevailing discourse as a matter of structure rather than individual will or intent. 

Jewly Hight and Barry Mazor will discuss their positions as freelancers for a wide variety of publications including Crawdaddy, No Depression, The Village Voice, The Wall Street Journal, Billboard, NPR/NPR Music, Vulture, and The Oxford American. In such publications, journalists are expected to deliver, through their talk about country and its audience, a readership that may or may not identify with that audience. Nadine Hubbs and Diane Pecknold will consider the somewhat different constraints placed on academics. Often understood to be participating in a form of identity politics in their arguments and choices of topic, they are presumed to ventriloquize, or to speak for the core country audience as much as about them. And yet, despite such differences, both journalists and academics must negotiate roles as translators, mediating between different class constituencies as they lead discussions of country music and seek approval for their work from other members of the narrating class.

Through this conversation we hope to interrogate how structural power determines which voices can be heard in country discourse, along what socioeconomic lines, and with what consequences.

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