Amanda Marie Martinez is an MTSU Diversity Dissertation Fellow who is teaching in the Department of Recording Industry, where she teaches the History of Country Music and From Old Time Music to Old Town Road: Race and the Country Music Industry From the 1920s to the Present.
She is a Ph.D. candidate in the history department at the University of California, Los Angeles and is expected to complete her degree this spring.
She has a bachelor’s in history from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s in history from UCLA.
Her work focuses on how race, pop culture and capitalism intersect, with a special focus on country music. Her dissertation is called “The Industry Is Playing the People Cheap’: Race and the Country Music Business in the Age of the New Right, 1969-1998.”
She says, “‘The Industry is Playing the People Cheap’: Race and the Country Music Business in the Age of the New Right, 1969-1998” reframes the country music genre as the product of Black and Brown artists and listeners, and reveals how the music industry disregarded the music’s multiracial and multiethnic roots and embraced a politics of white conservatism. I argue that while Black and Brown artists resisted the industry’s exclusionary marketing practices and suggested country music had the potential to become a symbol of multiracialism, the music business instead found it more financially valuable to cling to the optics of whiteness. During the rise of the New Right, I reveal how the music industry branded country as the sound of wholesome, family-friendly white conservatism.”
Her article, "Suburban Cowboy: Country Music, Punk, and the Struggle Over Space in Orange County, 1978-1981," won California History’s Richard J. Orsi Prize for the best article published in that journal in 2021. Her article, “Redneck Chic: Race and the Country Music Industry in the 1970s,” published in Journal of Popular Music Studies, won a Ruth A. Solie Award, which is given annually by the American Musicological Society for a collection of musicological essays of exceptional merit. She has also written for the Journal of Popular Music Studies, California History, NPR, the Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post.
She is a former Doris G. Quinn Foundation Fellow, and has received fellowship support from the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in addition to several other grants.
Here is a link to recent Nashville Scene story on her: https://www.nashvillescene.com/music/coverstory/country-music-almanac-2022-learn-the-past-know-the-present/article_9f61d4a0-7891-11ec-9a99-efd87af32fcb.html
She spoke to Beverly Keel about researching racism in country music, discovering Freddy Fender and addressing her students’ preconceived notions in music.
Tell us about your area of research. How did you get into it? What have you discovered?
My research considers how the racial color line was maintained in country music in the handful of decades following when Charley Pride was first signed to RCA. There is a lot of literature that documents how the color line in popular music was first created in the 1920s, when the categories of race records and hillbilly music were first invented and artificially separated Southern music along racial lines. But that was basically a century ago, and we still continue to think of country as “white” music, believing that the music only appeals to white people—even though Black and Brown Americans have always loved it as well. So I wanted to better understand how this racial myth was maintained especially after the huge success of Charley Pride, who showed very clearly that a Black artist could not only produce great country music, but be incredibly commercially successful in doing so. I went into the archives expecting to find that a lot of overt racism, and that explicitly racist businessmen were mostly to blame for keeping nonwhite people out of country music. Surely these individuals have existed, but what I mostly found was more murky evidence; of a lot of coded racism that simply went along with the presumption that Black people especially do not like country music. It’s also been interesting to consider the role of class in this process. From the start people have looked down upon country for being associated with poor, rural whites. So this has meant that even up to the present the business has had to work very hard to prove (especially to advertisers) that country’s listeners are not poor. In this process it became implicit that listeners were white, as market research over the past several decades has been compiled to show that country’s listeners are in fact middle-class, affluent, and, implicitly, white. On top of trying to understand how racism has worked within the country music business historically, I have also tried to center Black and Brown artists and fans that I’ve encountered in my research. They have always been here and continue to be here.
How does your upbringing and background inform your research?
My work is completely indebted to my upbringing. I am the only child of a single mother who had me at a young age, and she along with my grandpa raised me. My mom is a former punk rocker, and being Mexican American I grew up listening to a blend of Mexican regional music, punk rock, and country music. I came to love country music the most, but given my background and that I am from the San Francisco Bay Area, a place not at all associated with country music interest, I’ve faced a lot of confused looks about how and why I grew to love the music. When I started reading country music history books it only reinforced my feeling as an outsider in country music. All these books explained that country music started out as the music of white rural Southerners, and that many of these people moved to urban centers around World War II, brought their music with them, and then passed their interest in the music on to their children and grandchildren, etc. This is a narrative I do not identify with, and I know many other country music fans today don’t find themselves in either. I view being an outsider in this way to country music as an asset to rethinking common narratives about the music’s past and present.
You have received media attention for your opinions about the lack of diversity in country music. Why is it important that people from all races and backgrounds be given equal opportunities in this predominantly white genre?
I think it’s simply the ethical thing to do to not make certain sectors of the public feel fear about being an artist of a certain type of music. But of course, country music is a business at the end of the day (and as such not primarily driven by ethics), and one where everyone should have equal chance to pursue a career in it if they desire. With this mindset, I hope the business works more to recognize that great Black and Brown artists and fans do exist, and I believe that most country fans are eager to welcome them. Given this, there should be a business/monetary incentive as well.
Are you seeing change in country music? If so, what gives you hope? If not, what work remains?
I think it is too early to really tell. What’s incredible is that country music has been around as a marketing category for a very long time, about a hundred years. And it’s really only since 2020 that the industry has, for the first time in its history, been publicly pressured on a broad scale to do better and be more inclusive. Prior to this, the business didn’t really have any reason to think beyond white listeners and artists. So while we’re seeing a small number of Black artists receive a bit more recognition, there is still so much work to do and it will be telling whether there will be long-term, wide scale efforts to make every level of the business more inclusive. It will be a long process if there is sustainable, positive change.
Why is studying and teaching history important? What do you tell your students about the importance of history to keep them engaged?
I always say we study the past to understand the present. A lot of people get the impression that history is about memorizing a bunch of boring, useless facts. But it is so much more interesting and important than that. It shows us how we got to where we are today, and, crucially, how unequal systems have reinforced inequalities we continue to live with today. I hope my students walk away with a better understanding that today’s problems didn’t emerge out of nowhere, but are rather deep rooted in the past.
Tell us some of the interesting experiences you’ve had teaching the history of country music course here? Have you gotten any surprising responses?
Obviously all of my students have a lot of familiarity with the recording industry and popular music broadly. This is really a privilege for me as the class facilitator, knowing my students come in with a broader skill set in many ways. But it’s also interesting to see how they have also come in with stronger preconceived notions of what the industry or particular genres represent. In a way what I seek to do most in my classes is to get my students to think about these beliefs in a new way, to reconsider widely-held understandings about not just popular music, but broader concepts like race, gender, and capitalism.
What are some research projects you would like to tackle in the future?
Overall I would like to continue to focus on ways to highlight marginalized voices within popular music history. In terms of country music, I would like to push myself to think more broadly about different time periods that aren’t covered in my current research, which focuses on the post-Charley Pride era. I am especially interested in thinking about Black and Brown engagement with country music in the 1940s and 1950s. I am also interested in doing more research on Latinx music industry history. We have always been a country with a heavy Latinx presence, and yet we generally continue to only think about popular music along a Black/white binary. Especially since the Latinx community is the fastest growing minority in the U.S., I think this area of our history deserves more attention than ever.
What has your experience with our Fellows program been like?
I’m having a great experience as a Fellow. It’s such a privilege to teach a class of my choosing and I have been so impressed with MTSU students, who have been so smart and cool. I feel incredibly lucky to teach not only what my passion is, but to also have such receptive and again very smart students!
Of course, I have to ask what your five favorite musical artists are? Also, what are your five favorite concerts/musical experiences?
It’s always hard for me to pick favorites but I would say the top five all-time are: George Jones, Lee Ann Womack, The Clash, Elvis Costello, and Billie Holiday. For concerts, the last one I went to was the Mavericks at the Ryman and it was amazing. They put on a great show but what really stood out was how much joy emanated from the crowd. I think it had something to do with us all being at a really great show after being in quarantine so long; it just felt incredible to remember how amazing live music can be. Seeing the Rolling Stones in October was a similar feeling. Thinking about other shows that left a lasting impression on me, what comes to mind was the first Social Distortion show my mom took me to for my fourteenth birthday at the Warfield in San Francisco. They put on an amazing show and after that I never missed them when they came around and was always right in front! As a kid what also stands out is all the times my mom dragged me to see Freddy Fender when he’d play the local county fair. I didn’t appreciate it at the time but she assured me one day I’d thank her for it. Our biggest regret is that we never tried to get a picture with him. More recently, seeing Lee Ann Womack at the Troubadour in LA a few years ago was really special, to get to see her to up close and personal. She is incredible!
What do you do when you aren’t working? What TV/streaming shows do you love?
I grew up on flea markets and still love searching for vintage treasures at thrift stores and antique markets. For TV, I’ll somewhat ashamedly admit to being big on a lot of reality TV, with Married at First Sight and 90-Day Fiancé being favorites. I also love cooking shows like Top Chef. We’re living in such difficult times, so I try to use TV as an escape from the darkness of the news. Beyond reality TV, some of my favorite new dramas are Succession and Yellowjackets.