Coal Miner's Daughter. Honeysuckle Rose.
The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia

Taking the class out of country

by Mary Bufwack

from Jump Cut, no. 28, April 1983, pp. 21-23
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1983, 2005

With "Coal Miner's Daughter," a song of working-class pride, Loretta Lynn had a country hit in 1970. Six years later she used its title for her autobiography, which in 1980 was turned into a popular film. This transformation of cultural materials provides a direct example of how the film industry, in its continual groping for new ideas, has turned to the lives and culture of working people as a source for new material.

Eighteen movies with country music-related themes were produced in 1980 and 1981. This explosion of films followed closely on the heels of Hollywood's financially successful movie/sound track, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977). Films about country performers promised to be profitable because of the growing popularity of country music among diverse audiences. The last decade saw a 25 percent increase in country radio stations, to a total of 2,403. In 1980 there were twelve television network country specials, twenty-three syndicated country programs, and numerous locally produced country shows filling the Saturday afternoon airwaves. Country record sales were only slightly behind rock-and-roll sales, and while record sales were off 30 percent, country record sales grew by 20 percent. Hollywood was quick to realize that films about country performers make good vehicles for songs, sound tracks, and greater profits.

Three recent films centered on country music are COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER (1980), HONEYSUCKLE ROSE (1981), and THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT IN GEORGIA (1981). Each of these films tries in different ways to appear as an authentic presentation of the life of a country performer. COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER can be judged against the life of Loretta Lynn and her autobiography of the same title. HONEYSUCKLE ROSE acquires authenticity through singer/songwriter Willie Nelson, who plays the starring role of country entertainer Buck Bonham. However, the character Buck's life as a continually struggling musician in no way resembles that of Willie Nelson, whose early success in Nashville in the 1950s put him in the country music mainstream. Rather, the film draws on the outlaw image Nelson has forged since his return to Texas and encourages us to believe Nelson is playing himself. THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT IN GEOR1A uses neither a real life story nor seasoned country performers. It attempts to generalize about the problems of aspiring performers through the lives of Travis and Amanda Child, a brother-and-sister team traveling to Nashville and country stardom.

The portrayals of country performers in COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER, HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, and THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT IN GEORGIA are different from those in earlier Hollywood films. The in-depth probing of performers' personal and emotional lives contrasts with the superficial presentations of country performers in film shorts as early as 1929, in cowboy films throughout the 1930s: and 1940s, and in teenage rock films in the 1950s. Performers' lives in 1980 are not like the rags-to-riches-through-hard-work saga of Jimmie Davis (LOUISIANA, 1944), best known for writing "You Are My Sunshine." The films' endings are not the simultaneous discovery of love and success which Elvis found, as in his semiautobiographical story of a naive but gifted performer in LOVING YOU, 1956. Nor do contemporary country performers' stories end tragically as did both the film of Hank Williams' life (YOUR CHEATIN' HEART, 1964) and the story of a dissipated, drunken, pill-popping singer based on the life of Waylon Jennings (PAYDAY, 1973). In 1980, performers' lives are depicted on film not without tensions, but without any simple solutions, the singers keep on living and trying. The more recent film characters who are country singers are not distinguished by the largeness of their accomplishments or indulgences but by the tenacity with which they pursue their own vision of a life worth living.

Traditionally, the mass media have portrayed the white working-class audience of country music as macho and racist, a source of social evil and a symbol of a dying United States. An exception was Peter Bogdonovich's THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971), which used Hank Williams's music to highlight the alienation, yet strength, of working people as they confronted a changing world and an uncertain future in postwar United States. Far more often, the white working class has been depicted in Hollywood film as a brutish and spiritually poverty-stricken group. For example, FIVE EASY PIECES (1970), which used a Tammy Wynette sound track, condescendingly drew parallels between middle-class alienation and working people's wasted lives — with the sadistic power of the former shown as preferable. In DELIVERANCE (1970), professional men returned to a natural setting to rejuvenate themselves. Rather than peace and wholeness, they found an animalistic violent backwoods inbred horde, whose only link to civilized sentiment was their music. And Robert Altman's disillusionment and cynicism in NASHVILLE (1975) was middle-class United States' answer to country performers, who often were asserting in their music that they had inherited the strengths upon which the United States was built.

These films used authentic country and folk music to identify characters as poor and working class, yet they encouraged the further denigration of working people and their culture. They presumed the social system was deficient. But their search for an end to middle-class alienation in the communal and cultural life of poor and marginal people was based on a nightmare-like fantasy. The status quo was defended, not by a positive portrayal of life, but by depicting the working class as mired in stupidity, shallowness, and brutality.

The denigration of working people and country music did not escape the notice of Nashville musicians, country fans, or film directors aiming their films at working-class audiences. Country music and working people fared better in films with popular male stars who were assigned a working-class identity. Burt Reynolds was a Robin Hood, a con-man, and a country music promoter in John Avildsen's comedy set in the South, W. W. AND THE DIXIE DANCE KINGS (1976). EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE (1978), one of the highest grossing films in Hollywood history, also used popular stereotypes of country music for comic effect.

Loretta Lynn's already well-formed, defensive, working-class attitude was strengthened in this cultural climate. Her autobiography was written as a direct response to NASHVILLE. In the introduction to Coal Miner's Daughter she writes:

"… Well, I met that girl who played the top country singer in the movie. She came to Nashville and talked to me and watched me perform for a few weeks. If she tried to imitate me in the movie, that's their problem. If they really wanted me, why didn't they just ask me?"

"But I ain't worrying about no movies. My records are still selling, and I get more offers for shows than I can handle. So if you're wondering whether that character in the movie is me, it ain't. This book is me. I've got my own life to lead."

The directors of the three films I wish to discuss here — COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER, THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT IN GEORGIA, and HONEYSUCKLE ROSE believed the authentic tone of their films would contribute to a more positive image of country performers. Michael Apted had experience filming regional stories and the world of music in England. He wanted COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER to be realistic, loving, and close to the life of Loretta Lynn. Jerry Schatzberg describes himself as a fan of Texas music and believes HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, like his film THE SEDUCTION OF JOE TYNAN, expresses the problems of people confronting corrupt systems. Ron Maxwell had experience in public television before directing THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT IN GEORGIA. He chose the script because he identified with the characters and wanted the film to counteract negative myths about the South.

Despite their intentions, the directors did not do justice to the rich stories of southern working people and country performers. Their use of cultural and social reality was guided by concerns that create distorted images. Apted consciously chose to leave out any references to unionization in mining communities because he believed that even broadly defined political issues would distort Loretta's story. He ignored Lynn's own political concerns and the benefits she has performed for miners and Native Americans. Schatzberg wanted HONEYSUCKLE ROSE to be a love story through music, but he was unconcerned with the range of issues generally dealt with in Texas country music. Maxwell made THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT IN GEORGIA a sympathetic story by stripping the southern community of any distinct identity except for an evil, violent sheriff. Even the music performed by Quaid and McNichol is more pop and rock than country.

It's unfortunate that the directors did not stay closer to stories drawn from the actual lives of country performers. If they had, these films might have raised problems shared by working people, problems that country singers raise in their songs. Country entertainers' lives are extreme representations of a central working-class dilemma. How is one to retain ties with friends, neighbors, and family and a pride in one's background and at the same time aspire to the material wealth, fulfilling work, and personal freedom promised by class mobility? Country performers attempt to live in both worlds but remain marginal to both. Though often rich, most performers have working-class backgrounds. Even those who don't must maintain an identity with working-class life, for they are part of a musical culture which assumes the task of representing and interpreting the lives of its working-class audience. Commercial success distances performers from the material and social reality of working-class life, but it does not fully integrate them into a middle-class world.

In all three films, the working-class dimensions of the country performer's life are glossed over, and the terms of the central dramatic conflict are changed. The primary tension in the life of a country entertainer is transformed from the personal and social problems of class mobility to those of a talented individual, who must make a personal choice between a career and a family. In other words, problems shared by the working class are transformed into problems of middle-class professionals. This "story" transformation is ideological and has economic repercussions. The central character's dilemma now lets broad middle-class audiences identify with the film.

Even the story of a performer as class-identified as Loretta Lynn is reduced to the tensions between career and family. COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER accomplishes this by isolating Loretta and her family from more extended social ties and portraying Loretta as a loner. The film opens with Loretta alone on a horse. Here Sissy Spacek's quiet and enigmatic acting style turns Loretta Lynn from the outgoing gregarious person described in her autobiography into a withdrawn and brooding individual, who observes rather than participates. We get brief glimpses of community life. But the main human interaction comes in close family scenes, where squeezed into small dark rooms the family members find a comforting intimacy. When Loretta marries and must follow her husband Doolittle to the state of Washington, she recreates a warm family with her own children, but her success as a singer disturbs family life. Loretta lives her life on the bus and in dressing rooms while Doo and the children watch Loretta in the glow of the television. The film ends with Doo and Loretta on a hill overlooking a valley, arguing about the smaller home they will build. They hope to recover family togetherness on that hillside reminiscent of her childhood home.

In HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, Buck Bonham experiences the conflict of family and career in its most clichéd form — sexual fidelity. Buck too is a loner. In the first scene we see him alone in a field at sunrise practicing his golf swing. The cool, laid-back style of Willie Nelson gives Buck a warm but aloof and controlling presence. Buck's life oscillates between the party with the band on the road and the party with his wife and child at home. The erotic family ice-cream fights, and his playful loving attention, do not stop Buck's wife, Viv, from questioning his sexual fidelity. Then Buck's best friend and fellow band member, Garland, quits the road to remain at home. Garland's daughter, Lily, takes his place as guitarist for the band, and the romance between her and Buck takes place on- and off-stage. Unexpectedly, Viv arrives at a concert to announce from the stage that she is divorcing Buck. In the final scene, he returns to Viv, and from a stage they sing a duet about their mutual love.

The conflict of family versus career is more polarized in THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT IN GEORGIA as brother and sister Travis and Amanda choose different directions. The two are detained in a small town on their way to Nashville and must choose between the friendships and love they find there and the lure of Nashville. We first see Travis running from a motel room pursued by an irate father. Amanda whizzes by in a truck to rescue him for their next engagement. When the irresponsible Travis is arrested, the practical Amanda finds a roadhouse owner, Andy, who will pay Travis's fine in exchange for work in his bar. When the fine is worked off, Amanda prepares to leave town, but in a moving scene Travis says he'll remain with Melody, the woman he loves. Amanda replies that she would not give up her singing career even to be with her lover Conrad. In a too-simple plot resolution, the jealous police chief kills Travis. As Amanda drives out of town after the funeral, Conrad joins her. Even having made a decisive choice against family, Amanda gets both career and family.

These films end on a note that affirms the necessity of the family. But none portrays the family as able to satisfy individual psychological needs or so attractive that it should be chosen over creative work. Lynn's family in Kentucky is warm and good-natured, but Loretta's marriage to Boo only offers a round of battles and a life of loneliness. Buck's wife turns family life into erotic play, but she refuses to go on the road with him, and he gets restless after only a few days at home. Amanda rejects the secluded and quiet life of the small town policeman, who has a major diversion in target practice. Even children do not provide reason enough to keep Loretta or Buck off the road. Family life does not engage the interests of these performers, and relations between the spouses appear to have little depth. A spouse's tenacity and continuing love offers indispensable support to the performer, but since shared concerns are minimal, what holds families together remains mysterious.

Work is portrayed as personally gratifying, social, and a source of enjoyment. This romanticized image of work, which can compete with a sentimentalized image of the family, ignores many of the alienating aspects of work in the music business. Lynn's fans are voracious consumers, driving her to a mental collapse, but we see the roles of agents, corporate executives, and record producers as only supportive. The agent whom Amanda Child contacts is open and helpful, and the worst problem Bonham has is whether or not he will wear different clothes. Work for Buck and Amanda is an erotic party, not the exhausting grind faced by Lynn. The primary criticism these films make of work is its threat to the family, not its profit motive and corporate structure. These change performers into commodities, separating performers from the social roots of their inspiration and producing a negative impact on the culture as a whole.

Since career threatens the family, the promise of wealth would seem like the obvious motivation justifying the career, but each of these films defies the monetary motive. Neither is the impulse toward career socially rooted. Lynn's motivations have a Freudian cast. Pushed into singing by her husband, at her father's graveside she resolves to become a singing success. Is it only to immortalize her coalmining father in song? In real life, while Lynn's father was exceptionally important to her, she has often expressed the pleasure she receives from singing, writing, and communicating with an audience. In HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, Buck Bonham has an artistic, individual vision that compels him to make music. He believes that success will come to him after companies have exhausted the less committed and inventive performers. Although the film depicts his individualism by nothing more than the way he dresses, he is shown as uncompromising in his intention to continue to perform. Amanda Child enjoys the adulation of the crowd, and through performing on stage she is transformed from a dependent girl to an independent woman. The audience and performer's mutual satisfaction in creating a shared experience and the performer's need to influence a larger social sphere never receive their due in these films as motivation or as social reality.

By reducing the drive to perform to individual psychological needs, the performer's culture is reduced in the films to a series of personal statements. The nature of culture as a phenomenon shared and produced by a social group is replaced by an image of the performer as alone, expressing personal emotions. The music in these films seems to grow directly from love experiences. Loretta Lynn's songs, even those with social references beyond herself, are counterpoised to personal events. In COALMINER'S DAUGHTER Lynn sings "You Ain't Woman Enough" after catching Doo in the backseat of a car in the arms of another woman. But real-life Loretta claims she wrote the song after a fan accused her of stealing that woman's man. In fact, Lynn often writes songs to express her fans' lives even if their experiences are not her own. The songs Buck sings in HONEYSUCKLE ROSE are even more personal. They substitute for dialogue about interpersonal relations between himself and his wife and lover. Travis and Amanda Child similarly put their love lives into song.

Like all performers they give personal emotions greater strength and depth through song. However, their songs seem truncated presentations of the range of human emotions as well as limited presentations of the wide range of concerns that country music usually addresses. The special relation between the country audience and performer, in which the performer expresses the lives and desires of the audience, is reduced in these films to shared experiences in love. Eliminating personal responses to other events threatens to reduce performers to singers who remain interesting only so long as their love lives seem painful and compelling. The plot device of using personal love life as the main source of musical inspiration imposes a limiting view in these films of culture and of artists.

Performers' social isolation, pain, and irrational compulsion are shown as bearable because they have pleasurable and supportive relations created through shared interests and work. In these films, people who work together have more interests in common than do spouses. Pleasures in work relations pose the real threat to family. Early in Lynn's career, she and singer Patsy Cline became friends, exchanging gifts, personal problems, and professional insights. This friendship threatens Lynn's marital bond, as we see in one violent scene when Loretta chooses to wear makeup following Patsy's suggestion in defiance of Doo's wishes. Buck seems more disturbed by Garland's decision to leave the road than by his wife's pleas; when he does have a romance it is with a woman who shares his musical and road life. Travis and Amanda have a cooperative and affectionate relationship, writing together and caring for each other. As brother and sister fellow performers, they even watch out for each other's sex lives. These noncompetitive, close friendships finally must give way to the family. Cline dies, Garland leaves, and Travis chooses the woman he loves over Amanda, but these relations still seem the most trouble free and loving, drawing performers into meaningful relations outside the nuclear family

Caught between family and career, wavering and uncertain, the performers are not the real "heroes." Their confusion is contrasted with those who choose the ordinary life. These are the humble ones who do not feel a continual need to distinguish themselves, who give unselfishly, and who find satisfaction in family and community. The performers are flawed and weak, requiring drugs, sex, adulation, but most importantly the presence of these strong supportive people. Lynn's father, Bonham's sidekick who gives up the road, and Travis Child are admirable. Both Doolittle and the patrolman who follows Amanda are so independent that they can act outside of masculine values and stick by their women. Buck's wife's love is stronger than her pride. These friends and family members have no resentment or ambition in their support. Their success lies in rejecting social norms of success and in finding contentment backstage. That the performers continue to need them gives these supporting characters a moral superiority and attractiveness that competes with the performer's appeal.

This same contrast between the striver and the individual satisfied with what s/he has — success versus family — has been a popular theme within country music. And, as in the films, the content individual is portrayed as more valuable. But country music has developed this conflict within a working class context and has carried with it a more subversive social critique. Usually country music articulates the tension between success and the family as a tension between classes. Country music turns the social structure upside down, contending that the poor are the wealthiest. Thus working people have wisdom, love, contentment, and community in Dolly Parton's "Chicken Every Sunday" (1970) and Merle Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee" (1969). According to country music, life is not only bearable within the working class, it is superior to that within the middle class.

Middle-class people — as Hank Williams, Jr., sings in "The American Way" (1980) — care only about the dollar. Mobility brings material prosperity, but it also destroys family and community, resulting in spiritual poverty. Early in her career in 1962, Loretta Lynn sang "Success Is Breaking Up Our Home.”  Jeanne Pruett warned women of the pitfalls of marrying for wealth in "Satin Sheets" (1973). In "Two-Story House" (1980) George Jones and Tammy Wynette tell of how they have accomplished their dreams yet of the absence of love amid their newly acquired material splendor. Love is destroyed by the drive for wealth, not poverty.

Often singers present the love of men and women not just as individual but also as an affirmation of mutual class identity, as in Melba Montgomery and Charlie Louvin's song of mutual praise, "Something to Brag About" (1970). In choosing to love others who like themselves are poor and obscure, men and women express a family solidarity that simultaneously expresses personal love and class allegiance. In country music, personal experiences are closely tied to class realities. The conflict of success versus family conforms to class oppositions that dominate working people's lives.

The picture of working-class life that generally emerges in country music does not stand as a documentary description of working-class experience. Like all culture it is a constructed image which fulfills many of the needs and aspirations of those who make and consume that culture. Country music has provided an arena in which a defensive working-class ideology has been created, preserved, and developed. The music challenges images of the working class created elsewhere. It opposes to the definition of the poor as financially and morally bankrupt an identity with integrity and dignity. It does not encourage people to blame themselves for their hard times but to find virtue within the experience. It does not advance individual mobility as a personal solution, for it exposes the undesirable aspects of middle-class life. It encourages people to focus on the quality of life and to oppose the ethos of production and materialism. It presents the working-class way of life as a choice, and it invests that choice with moral superiority. It offers cultural resistance to widespread images that are destructive individually and collectively.

It is no accident that two of these three films about country performers are about women, for women have taken a particularly important role here in expressing working-class sentiment. Loretta Lynn does not just add a woman's voice to country music. She offers a voice for all working people. As working-class women have used country music to find their own purpose and identity, they have used the image of an egalitarian community to express their need for equality. As women they can more sharply express aspirations to personal autonomy and also more freely voice the desire for community. Articulating their own needs, women country performers give traditional working-class aspirations new life.

When the defensive working-class ideology is taken out of a collective context as in COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER, HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, and THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT IN GEORGIA, it is placed in the context of an individual conflict between career and family. There it loses much of its subversive power. It is no longer part of the constant struggle of working people for self-definition. It becomes a romantic view of the family and individual creative work, which reinforces the status quo, or a pessimistic view of the eternal nature of problems, which makes protest futile.

To do justice to the lives and culture of working people, these films would have to portray a much more subversive and threatening reality. THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT IN GEORGIA comes closest to showing working-class life as one in which working people are conscious of themselves as a group, and have resources for taking their own initiative and creating alternatives. The one room school in COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER and the celebration in HONEYSUCKLE ROSE represent older, disappearing ways of collective life, which are distant from the lives of most working people. The roadhouse in THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT IN GEORGIA is similar to the neighborhood bars of small towns and large cities, where people with similar experiences gather for shared leisure. Although Travis and Amanda are orphans and seem less socially rooted than Loretta Lynn or Buck Bonham, they actually become more rooted as they are integrated into this roadhouse community. Not yet successful, they are not very distinct from their audience. When performing, they are not just individuals expressing their pain but a core around which a group is formed. The music provides an arena of self-discovery and solidarity with a group;  there individuals find themselves and each other. The freedom found in expressing strong emotions is not a lonely experience, it is mutual pleasure. The friendship-work groups seen in 9 TO 5 and TAKE THIS JOB AND SHOVE IT are absent. But this community-in-leisure gives some indication of the possibilities of collective life beyond the family. It shows part of the ground that is necessary for other struggles and for the generation of new forms of living and new visions.

Although these films do not portray the full extent of discontent and creativity among working people, they do use country performers to express the dissatisfaction in the family and work shared by middle- and working-class people. Although people in different classes experience work and family life differently, family and work are images and symbols used across classes in much the same way. They can be used as specific terms, but they are also ambiguous ideas. In contrast to each other, work and family represent broad desires and dissatisfactions. The family, particularly the male-female couple, bears the burden of standing as a symbol for the desire for human relations. The idea of family is opposed to work relations where competition, production, and economic interests dominate. Although people in any class seldom experience the family as ideal, it continues to be a general way of talking about loving relations in units as small as the couple, or as large as the world. Work experience also varies between classes. The films' use of a country performer, a person with experience of both classes, to confront the middle-class dilemma of family versus career is only one indication of deep middle-class discontent. The critique of middle-class life from a person with working-class origins, who has known poverty and menial labor, seems the most powerful of all.

The use of working people and country performers to articulate middle-class needs and discontent distorts the lives of working people. However, it also reveals the potential of working people as a source of universal criticism and vision. Because COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER, HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, and THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT IN GEORGIA represent only a small part of a dialogue about working people, they only point to real-life conditions which generate discontent, aspirations, and creative attempts to find new solutions. Although in these films the working-class story becomes dominated by a middle-class problem, the films reinforce an image of working people as able to act as their own agents as well as the agents of others. The greatest potential in these films is that they lead viewers back to the music, to the lives of country performers, and to the experiences of working people where the denied reality can be recovered.