In the summer of 2019, Nadine Hubbs (SMTD 1990), professor of women’s and gender studies, got a text from the producer of Dolly Parton’s America, a nine-part podcast series that ran later that year. Hubbs had been talking with the podcast for one episode about Parton’s iconic song “Jolene.” The song, Hubbs noted, upends country music’s archetypal cheating song because the speaker extolls the beauty and charms of her rival rather than vowing to pummel her. Hubbs had made an offhand joke that the song should have a fourth verse in which the women get together and ditch the guy. The producer wanted to know if she had written it.
“I said no,” Hubbs recalls, “and there was silence. I texted back, ‘Do you want me to?’ I was due at the studio in an hour and a half. I hadn’t even showered yet.”
Hubbs wrote the verse and played it at the studio. In places the hosts sang along with her. As they all signed off, Hubbs offered to record the verse if they decided they wanted to use it. Several weeks later, the producer called to say the episode was about to drop and Hubbs said, “‘I guess you decided not to use that fourth verse.’ ‘Oh, we used it,’ the producer said. ‘We already played it for Dolly.’ “I thought, well, there goes my career,” Hubbs recalls. “I’ve pissed off Dolly and ruined her song. I didn’t even know they knew Dolly. I figured she was going to be like, ‘What the hell?’”
When the episode aired, Hubbs listened with a lot of trepidation. “When I heard Dolly bust a gut, I was like, ‘Oh, thank god.’ That’s all I wanted,” she says. “I just wanted her to laugh.”
Hubbs grew up in a tiny Ohio town listening to country music. Her aunt and uncle had a beer joint where country bands played on the weekends, with, she says, “just the greatest jukebox: ’70s rock, Golden Age country—all the Tammy Wynette and Patsy Cline, all the Jim Reeves.” At home, her mother loved Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton. “We just wore out the grooves on their records in my house.”
Country music might have meant home, but it was also tied to working class and rural life. In college, she says, “I was trying to pass as someone who belonged, so I stayed away from it.” As a blue-collar kid who played classical French horn, she was drawn to performing because it could conjure familiarity from a world that she otherwise found utterly foreign. “Performing is a little bit of a hands-on, blue-collar profession,” she says. “If you’re playing, it’s because you can play. In the orchestra pit, nobody cares if you can talk a good game. And when you’re hired for a job, you’re dressed like the caterers.”
A few years in, when she developed repetitive motion issues that made it clear she couldn’t keep performing, Hubbs was devastated. She had resisted going into music scholarship, she says, “because I didn’t revere it. I revered the people who could do the thing: play.” Still, she began graduate studies in music theory, eventually getting a Ph.D. from U-M. “I didn’t know exactly what I was after, but I just kept pursuing education inch by inch, making my way toward it,” she says. “I knew I wanted some kind of career, but I didn’t have a notion that I was seeking a middle-class life.”
As a classical music scholar, Hubbs found she had things to say about gender and sexuality—a territory where the new discipline had swiftly found fertile ground. “Both gender and queer studies were really strong in scholarship on twentieth century classical music. It had been a queer stronghold, and, especially among composers, such a place of queer genius,” she says. “For many, classical music had been this really safe space. It had no lyrics attached to it, and no images like film. You could totally express your heart and soul—your queer heart and soul—and nobody could call the cops. The vice squad couldn’t get up in there and outlaw it.”
The study of popular music, which had long been marginalized and disrespected by the academy, was also beginning to gain traction in the field. Hubbs was hungry for all of it. She wrote her first big LBGTQ+ paper on Morrissey and The Smiths and delivered it to a music theory society conference—the first queer studies paper the society had ever heard.
“I was terrified,” she remembers, “and rightly so. My dissertation advisor was sitting in the audience and he started to chuckle when I delivered the punchline to a dirty joke I’d planted. Then I exhaled and everybody started laughing and got in the spirit.”
After her dissertation, she published a book about queer composers of classical music. “That seemed hard enough and already close to home.” She was also thinking about her next project, but “I would not touch country music with a 10-foot pole,” she says, “because what I really didn’t think I could touch was class.”
Like a lot of people in her generation, Hubbs had never admitted that she knew anything about country music. “In college, if someone asked what you liked to listen to, the answer was anything but country. It was okay to say your parents listened to country music if you were among the working class, but if you were middle class, you wouldn’t even say that.”
Over time, Hubbs realized the anything-but-country quip was intended less to communicate a person’s musical preferences than to distance the speaker from people who did like country music: people, they imagined, who belonged to the uneducated, white working class.
As a working-class kid who now lived in an elite university world, Hubbs held a unique perspective. “I had really wanted to write about class for a long time,” she says. “The problem was, I didn’t know how to say it without destroying my career and outing myself as someone who doesn’t belong.
“Now I was a member of what I call the narrating class—the writers, reporters, academics, and experts who tell everyone’s stories—and I could clearly see how the narrating class had scapegoated poor and working-class whites and disproportionately blamed them for our social ills,” she says. “We have all of these notions of country music that come from people who never listen to country music, and all of these theories of the working class from people who’ve never met a working-class person. My training as a musicologist helped me see that country music was a perfect vehicle for looking at issues of class and the rural-urban divide.”
Country music came from the working class, which evolved from the old-time hillbilly music of the 1920s. The story commonly told about old-time music’s pure descent from Scots-Irish fiddle music, however, is pure fiction. “When the American record industry was born in the 1920s, the industry confected an audible color line,” Hubbs says. Black musicians were forcefully segregated into what the industry had decreed was Black music and white musicians were shoehorned into what the industry decided was white. This artificial segregation of white music evolved into the country music genre while the music produced by Black musicians was pressed into what were called race records that eventually became R&B.
That country music is still associated with the white working class is a troubling testament to this legacy, and to the decades-long efforts of the Country Music Association (CMA)—an organization, Hubbs says, that has made Nashville a company town. For decades, CMA has used its market research to shape country music’s cultural connection to the white working and lower middle class. But five years ago, a CMA survey showed its listeners were not concentrated in the rural South or West; they made up roughly 50 percent of the U.S. population and were evenly distributed across the continental United States. The survey also showed that non-white and Hispanic listeners were their fastest-growing audience.
In the 1990s Hubbs had understood how to convey the depth with which queerness was intertwined with classical music. Now she’s trying to capture how deeply Mexican culture and country music are linked. In pre-pandemic field work, she ran focus groups of Mexican American country music fans and asked, “What do you like about country music? What does it mean to be an American? What’s it like to be a Mexican American country fan?” Her interlocutors seemed almost puzzled by her questions and answered with similar themes.
“They’d say, ‘Country music is identical to the values we grew up with,’” Hubbs recounts. “‘It’s about family, about faith, and hard work.’ ‘I’m a Mexican American,’ one man said. ‘How could I not like country? Just look at the way country musicians dress.’”
And then Hubbs felt a massive wave of comprehension that she dubbed the umm, duh moment.
“I suddenly saw how the visual dimension of country music is hugely in the debt of Mexican culture. We think of the cowboy as this quintessentially American figure, but it’s a quintessentially Mexican figure that had been evolving for over 300 years before Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show ever stepped onto the scene in the 1880s.
“Movies made the world think cowboys are American,” she continues, “but the belt buckles, the hats, the boots, the shirts—they’re all Mexican. The Nudie suits country singers wear are based on the mariachi’s costume. It was so obvious, but I hadn’t seen it until they pointed it out. Even the word rodeo is Spanish.”
Until the 1930s, neither the United States nor Mexico found the 2,000-mile border between them significant enough to mark with anything more ominous than an intermittent stack of dusty rocks. To Hubbs, this border has long been a meeting place, a zone of exchange. “We have so much Mexican influence in American culture that we can’t even tease it out at this point.”
But music, Hubbs says, is a place where the negotiations between boundaries, borderlines, and identities happen. It’s where social and historical change happen, she says, and where you can hear the struggles such changes require.
The perspective that emerges again and again in Hubbs’s work is the consistent malleability of what had once been ironclad, defining facts. The things we believe about ourselves and others and the impersonal strictures that determine our choices have intimate and outsized effects on our lives. We know race, gender, and class are biological fictions, but we also recognize these stories are true because the people with the power to tell them say they are.
“It was so scary initially to write about class because we lack a vocabulary to talk about it,” she says. “In the UK, they have a vocabulary and have discussed it for years and years. They have a horrible class system, a terrible hierarchy, just as we do, but they at least have the decency to have words to discuss it.”
In the United States, Hubbs says, such conversations fly in the face of our national fable that this is a land of class mobility, that no matter how lowborn you might be, you can end up anywhere. “It’s just a question of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.”
The hard thing about being trapped in such a class system, Hubbs says, is that everyone who didn’t land at the top has to do their own analysis. Are the things you’ve always blamed on yourself because of you and your idiosyncrasies, your family, and your upbringing, or are you stuck because you live in a rigid and pretty inescapable class system?
Hubbs teaches two core courses for the Social Class and Inequality minor that has been housed in women’s and gender studies since it launched in 2019. “Because I teach courses like that, I get diverse students and a lot of first gens, and a diverse group of kids from the working class who have also been taught it’s all on them. And now here they are, at the University of Michigan. I know how lonely that is,” she says.
“I have been doing this work for some time, and I’m at the stage where I’m starting to think, okay, what does this all add up to? Well, the students in my class for whom these questions have deep consequences are learning about social class and its effects. They are not going to have to laboriously figure it all out on their own over decades like I did,” she says. “And that, for me, is a privilege and such a powerfully meaningful experience.”
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