History professor, author Charles Hughes provides lecture on impact of racial inequality on country, soul musicians during ’60s, ’70s

Photo by Caleb Revill / MTSU Sidelines

History professor and author Charles Hughes provided a lecture on the impact racial inequality had on country and soul musicians during the 1960s and 1970s on Monday in the Bragg Media and Entertainment Building.

Hughes is currently a professor of history at Rhodes College in Memphis, and his book, “Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South,” was published in 2015.

“As I began my career as a historian in graduate school, I was really interested in popular music,” Hughes said. “I was also really interested in African American political history, particularly the kind of 20th century civil rights (and) black power age. I was looking for ways to link them, and this was a great way to do so.”

Hughes spoke about his research process while writing the book.

“What I thought was primarily a story about white and black interaction in soul music was also a story about white and black interaction in country music,” Hughes said. “There was this tradition of African-Americans in country music and this very interesting moment in the ’60s and ’70s for black country fans but also black country artists.”

In his lecture, Hughes played the beginning of Latimore’s “There’s a Redneck in the Soul Ban” and noted that the song was a key source on understanding the interracial complexities of soul and country music.

“Country and soul remain ubiquitous markers of racial difference,” Hughes said.

Hughes said that soul and country musicians in this time period served as symbols for the movements they were involved in. He said that black musicians in the music industry were often mistreated and would often voice their objections through music.

Hughes explained that music was so intertwined with racial politics at the time that the Congress of Racial Equality had even begun to experiment with creating a record label.

When researching, Hughes said that he began to analyze the musicians as workers. He said that this helped him demystify the fantastical thinking about the work of the musicians.

“They were craftspeople, not conduits,” Hughes said.

Hughes noted that, while workplaces in the music industry were different from the outside world, it was those very workplaces that produced the language of the racial divide. He found that the racial partnership, at the core of the music industry, was unethical.

“Everybody understood the racial geography of their work,” Hughes said.

One example of the divide that Hughes mentioned was that African-Americans sometimes lost musical opportunities to their white counterparts.

Many popular white artists were able to travel to the “Soul Triangle,” the three cities of Nashville, Memphis, and Muscle Shoals, which had well-known reputations for their soul music. Hughes said that this popularization of soul music led to racial appropriation and economic displacement of many black soul musicians.

Hughes mentioned that, while many African Americans participated in country music, a commonality in musical taste alone did not separate race from music.

Hughes then spoke about the present day and his thoughts about how the music industry has progressed.

“In some ways, there’s been a tremendous amount of change,” Hughes said. “After the digital revolution, so many ways that we think about the music industry are different. I think the way that we think about music and race are still very much in the model that was partly set up but also really reinforced during the country and soul period.”

To contact News Editor Andrew Wigdor, email newseditor@mtsusidelines.com.

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