Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
A Boy Named Sue

A Boy Named Sue: Gender and Country Music

Kristine M. McCusker
Diane Pecknold
Copyright Date: 2004
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    A Boy Named Sue
    Book Description:

    From the smiling, sentimental mothers portrayed in 1930s radio barn dance posters, to the sexual shockwaves generated by Elvis Presley, to the female superstars redefining contemporary country music, gender roles and imagery have profoundly influenced the ways country music is made and enjoyed. Proper male and female roles have influenced the kinds of sounds and images that could be included in country music; preconceptions of gender have helped to determine the songs and artists audiences would buy or reject; and gender has shaped the identities listeners made for themselves in relation to the music they revered.

    This interdisciplinary collection of essays is the first book-length effort to examine how gender conventions, both masculine and feminine, have structured the creation and marketing of country music. The essays explore the uses of gender in creating the personas of stars as diverse as Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline, and Shania Twain. The authors also examine how deeply conventions have influenced the institutions and everyday experiences that give country music its image: the popular and fan press, the country music industry in Nashville, and the line dance crazes that created the dance hall boom of the 1990s.

    From Hank Thompson's "The Wild Side of Life" to Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue," from Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man" to Loretta Lynn's ode to birth control, "The Pill,"A Boy Named Suedemonstrates the role gender played in the development of country music and its current prominence.

    Kristine M. McCusker is a professor of history at Middle Tennessee State University.

    Diane Pecknold is an independent scholar in Chicago, Illinois.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-956-5
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword: Muddying the Clear Water The Dubious Transparency of Country Music
    (pp. vii-xvi)

    However familiar their destination or the landmarks encountered along the way, some expeditions of the imagination seem to be repeated generation after generation, as if the very itinerary was hardwired into our genetic makeup. Like Orpheus or Ahab, we hunger after our private Eurydices and white whales, betting that the reward at journey’s end will compensate for all the confusion and consternation that came before. In the context of American popular music, one of the most traveled paths leads to the satisfaction of an insatiable appetite for authenticity. Confronted by globalization, cross-media merchandising, and the vertigo-inducing transfer of entertainment properties...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xix-xxiii)

    In February of 1969, Johnny Cash recorded “A Boy Named Sue,” his ode to masculine adventure and fatherly transgression, at a concert for the inmates of San Quentin prison. The song’s dark humor and references to drinking, fighting, and rebellion struck a particular chord with the crowd, who cheered the protagonist’s attempts to murder his father, the man who dared to name him Sue. Of course, the song’s resolution—in which the long-absent father tells his son the shameful name “helped to make you strong,” just as he had planned—promised that even wandering and cantankerous fathers could still fulfill...

  6. Bibliography and Further Reading
    (pp. xxiv-2)
  7. “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” Linda Parker and Definitions of Tradition on the National Barn Dance, 1932–1935
    (pp. 3-23)

    On WLS Chicago’sNational Barn Dance, Linda Parker seemed to be the image of tradition embodied. She was born in Kentucky and, like many in her audience, had migrated to the industrial areas around Chicago. But Linda was special: her knowledge of old Southern ballads from Kentucky and “the plaintive note, so typical of mountain music,” as WLS’s 1934Family Albumnoted, seemed to be tradition in all its glory. She had learned to sing “just as her mother and her grandmother sang, artlessly, but from the heart,” and her repertoire included traditional old ballads and tunes such as “I’ll...

  8. “Spade Doesn’t Look Exactly Starved” Country Music and the Negotiation of Women’s Domesticity in Cold War Los Angeles
    (pp. 24-43)

    Country musicians rarely made the society page, so when theAntelope Valley Pressasked to interview Spade and Ella Mae Cooley at the couple’s massive new ranch home in 1960, the couple easily concurred. Newcomers to the Antelope Valley—an area that was quickly becoming the rural playground of the Hollywood jet set—the Cooleys showed off their 1200-acre ranch and talked about the television bandleader’s plans to build a fifteen-million-dollar Disneyland-style water theme park in the area. Although admiring of the surrounding chaparral, the family powerboat, and other toys Cooley and his sons paraded before thePressphotographer, the...

  9. Charline Arthur The (Un)Making of a Honky-Tonk Star
    (pp. 44-58)

    “She was a woman before her time” is the oft-repeated phrase used to describe Charline Arthur and her flash-in-the-pan career as a honky-tonk singer. In the early 1950s she was a charismatic, rising talent who sported an individualism unique to female country performers. She released singles through RCA, performed at choice venues, such as the Louisiana Hayride and the Grand Ole Opry, and toured with the big names in honky-tonk, all the while maintaining a bold and assertive stage persona. By 1956, though, Nashville and the country music audience had lost interest in her. While Charline was an anomaly in...

  10. I Don’t Think Hank Done It That Way Elvis, Country Music, and the Reconstruction of Southern Masculinity
    (pp. 59-85)

    Describing his first impression of Elvis Presley in performance, country singer Bob Luman vividly captured the image of a generational fissure set to rock the southern cultural landscape. His account centered on a mid-1950s touring country music jamboree headlined by the venerable Hank Snow. As adults watched and listened to the traditional artists who made up the majority of the playbill, teenagers sat nervously in anticipation, waiting to see for themselves the new hillbilly singer whose records sounded so exciting, so alive, so . . . non-country. Finally, and abruptly, a handsome “cat” dressed in red pants, green coat, and...

  11. “I Wanna Play House” Configurations of Masculinity in the Nashville Sound Era
    (pp. 86-106)

    The Nashville Sound, producer Billy Sherrill once quipped, was made for “the housewife washing dishes at ten a.m. in Topeka, Kansas.” Music critic John Morthland suggested a similar audience for the smooth countrypolitan style in the 1960s when he observed that, “like country people, country music was moving to the suburbs,” in the process becoming “primarily listening music, even easy listening music.” If honky-tonk had been the lament of men displaced by war and economic upheaval, and rockabilly the sexual braggadocio of their adolescent sons, then the Nashville Sound, with its angelic backing vocals and orchestral strings, was the soggy...

  12. Patsy Cline’s Crossovers Celebrity, Reputation, and Feminine Identity
    (pp. 107-131)

    Patsy Cline is far more famous now than she ever was in life. But who is this posthumously celebrated Patsy Cline? What is her connection to the Patsy Cline who recorded songs from 1957 until her sudden death in 1963, fell into obscurity, and then sparked a revival in the 1980s that turned Patsy Cline into a “country music legend”? Patsy Cline has had two careers—one when she was alive and trying to make hit records, and another after she became a posthumous star. The posthumous Patsy bears only a partial resemblance to the live Patsy, who we can...

  13. Dancing Together The Rhythms of Gender in the Country Dance Hall
    (pp. 132-154)

    The pathway from Nashville, Tennessee, to the Atlantic coast spans nearly seven hundred miles, a stretch of land that houses many of country music’s oldest and richest traditions. The country music that emerged from that area has blended with other sources and styles, evolved, and morphed into the current commercial genre, and this commercial country music is readily accessible through radio stations, recordings, and live performances across the nation, undifferentiated by regional traditions. That very sameness in available commercial country music has led to criticisms of blandness and homogeneity that have plagued the genre in recent years. However, in spite...

  14. Between Riot Grrrl and Quiet Girl The New Women’s Movement in Country Music
    (pp. 155-177)

    During the last decade, the nation’s attention and entertainment headlines have been captured by a fascinating movement in rock music characterized as the era of angry young females. Artists such as Alanis Morissette, Fiona Apple, and PJ Harvey burst onto the scene with an adrenaline-fueled, machismo-mimicking ferocity that equaled their testosterone-driven male counterparts. The antithesis of people-pleasing females, these women revealed raw anger, frank sexuality, and in-your-face attitudes. Meanwhile, a much more subtle but no less important (and perhaps equally as rebellious) women’s movement was happening across the dial in country music. Although largely ignored by the mainstream music press,...

  15. Going Back to the Old Mainstream No Depression, Robbie Fulks, and Alt.Country’s Muddied Waters
    (pp. 178-195)

    In 1972, when Doctor Hook and the Medicine Show sang “The Cover of theRolling Stone,” they cast rock critics as arbiters of stardom. By the time Cameron Crowe used this song in his 2000 filmAlmost Famous, it held little irony. Sex and drugs were good but they just couldn’t compare to joining the magazine’s anointed. Currently, some alternative country aspirant could sing the same tune aboutNo Depression.The magazine, now in its eighth year, invariably uses its cover to showcase an artist. It has sponsored package tours (in which the editors indulge the fan’s dream...

  16. Postlude
    (pp. 196-198)

    The remarkable essays inA Boy Named Suerepresent some of the ongoing research by a new generation of country music scholars, and reflect a variety of new directions in the study of country music. Just how dramatic these new approaches are can only be appreciated by seeing them in perspective of earlier, more traditional efforts to understand one of our culture’s most complex—and misunderstood—art forms.

    Country music is often grouped with two other musical genres that developed out of the folk tradition and which defined themselves through the new mass media emerging in the 1920s: jazz and...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 199-223)
  18. Contributors
    (pp. 224-226)
  19. Index
    (pp. 227-232)