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MASCULINITY AND SIMULATIONS OF THE PAST IN ALT.COUNTRY MUSIC music, also called Americana, has slowly joined the more mainstream indie rock music scene with the rise in popularity of bands such as Wilco and the Old 97’s. This music is rooted in the traditions of classic country and western music, American folk music, and rock and roll. Americana and music (terms coined by the fan base) have infiltrated the American music scene not because the business side of the music industry funneled money and effort into it, but due to the grassroots efforts of the fans. This type of music has become the people’s music. music reflects the social conflicts of today while simulating the traditions of 1950s country western music. Many male artists use their music to explore the conflicting views of masculinity in middle class suburban American culture through the use of simulacra of the 1950s to replicate an authentic American manhood.
The genre of can easily be traced back to the band Uncle Tupelo, which, as David Goodman explains in Modern Twang, was formed in the 1980s as a punk rock band that integrated the elements of punk rock “with a long tradition of country music from old-time through honky tonk, the Bakersfield sound, and Gram Parsons, Neil Young, and Doug Sahm country-rock.” After releasing four albums, the band split and two branches of sprang from this root: Son Volt and Wilco. Son Volt followed the more traditional “twangy” sound (Americana) while Wilco moved towards a more indie rock-influenced sound ( The story (somewhat mythic) of Uncle Tupelo splitting and “beginning” the genre is one that many music critics refer to in passing and most fans know. Much like the genre itself, the beginning of the genre is hard to pin down and document.
It is necessary to differentiate between and Americana because, as Adam Smithers explains, the "music industry persists in maintaining the myth of the punk-country relationship across the entire spectrum in order to fabricate an aura of authenticity while the popular press continues to overgeneralize the unique characteristics of these musical styles and specific musicians.” As mentioned, this music has two distinct veins: Americana and Americana focuses more on the folk, bluegrass, as well as country influences and sounds, while is more akin to indie and punk rock. Son Volt and Wilco were just the beginning of the genre. Although not all critics and fans of agree on this simple genesis story, it is clear that Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, and Wilco have all been major influences in the genre. It should be noted that this differentiation is somewhat arbitrary as there is no specific, clear definition of either Americana or music; many people (fans, bands, critics, etc) use these terms interchangeably. For my purposes, Americana music has more bluegrass and country influence while leans more towards country-rock and indie rock.
In addition, there are obvious influences from traditional country artists ranging from Hank Williams to Gram Parsons and Johnny Cash, just to name a few. Just as it is hard to place a firm finger on the start of the music genre, it is equally as hard to describe concisely and precisely the usual sound or even the instruments used. The typical sound and instruments used (outside the standard guitar, bass, drums) vary from band to band and even from album to album for some bands. For example, Wilco’s A.M. (1995) sounds drastically different from Sky Blue Sky (2007) as does the Old 97’s Fight Songs (1999) and Satellite Rides (2001); these bands are melding and experimenting with different sounds and instruments, and are being influenced by a wide variety of world music. While Wilco’s A.M. and the Old 97’s Fight Songs fit more neatly into the “typical” sound - a combination of rock and roll and country - Sky Blue Sky exhibits more of a blues and Beatles influence, and Satellite Rides has more of a British invasion power pop sound.
In some cases, this diversity of sound can be found within the different musicians in one band. Many artists have a main band as well as side projects, which can be other bands or solo work. All the members of Wilco have side projects, notably lead singer Jeff Tweedy, whose side project Loose Fur has more of a country-rock sound than Wilco’s music, which has evolved to be more pop/rock in sound. The members of the Old 97’s also all have side projects, and the two main songwriters have each released solo albums. Rhett Miller, the lead singer, has multiple solo albums which have more of a pop sound than Old 97’s albums, while Murry Hammond has solo albums that showcases his commitment to the vintage 1950s country and western sound, especially the sounds of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. The variety of these band members’ side projects adds to the respective band’s repertoire while giving these artists an outlet for music outside of what the band as a whole wants to sound like.
Although sounds a lot like country music, it is very much rooted in the middle-class experience, much of it white middle-class male, which aligns this music more with some rock rather than working-class country. This change in background moves the location of many songs to the cities and suburbs, not necessarily the country. The middle-class upbringing of many of the artists also means that many attended college for some time and use this experience in their music, which is not necessarily the case with country artists, who may have also attended college, but tend not to use it as a source for their music. In their article “Alternative Country: Origins, Music, World-view, Fans, and Taste in Genre Formation,” Richard A. Peterson and Bruce A. Beal hypothesize that a "systematic study of the college majors of the artists would be telling. Our guess is that many in alternative country pursued majors in the humanities, while those in commercial country, like Garth Brooks, majored in finance or education.” While these are hypothetical divisions between what college majors and country artists would have, these differences along with an audience that can be characterized as middle-class and educated leads to a music that is more lyrically complex and, in some cases, includes literary and musical allusions and metaphors. The Old 97’s are especially adept at including literary allusions in their songs. One example of such allusions is the song “What We Talk About” from Fight Songs, which seems to refer to Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The song, like the story, is about late night “drunken talk[s]” about love. The prevalence of literary allusions in the Old 97’s music, along with Rhett Miller's solo work, reflects Miller’s short stint at Sarah Lawrence College where he studied created writing. is very much a musical genre based on class; while it’s informed by the working-class traditions of country music, it is very much a music of the middle-class. Many artists, like many indie rock and alternative rock artists, grew up in middle-class neighborhoods or suburbs and many attended college for some period of time. Because of these middle-class ties, has been classified as cosmopolitan; it certainly is a music more in tune with city life than country life, despite the twang. In his article, “‘The Burden Is Passed On’: Son Volt, Tradition, and Authenticity,” Steve Simkin explains: “the genre and its ‘authenticity’ are often defined by the genre’s shifting position on the urban-rural axis. Indeed, the movement’s aesthetic has been shaped and defined in large part by a collision of the rural (country and folk music traditions) and the urban (punk and alternative rock).” Since is combining distinctly urban and rural musical genres, it is easier for the artists to authenticate themselves by having these middle-class urban and suburban backgrounds. The artists can authentically sing about middle-class issues since they are from this type of background. Instead of having to live in the country to be rural, Barbara Ching and Pamela Fox explain in the introduction to Old Roots New Routes, artists have “transform[ed] the rural location into a psychological state where experiences of rural hardship and pastoral ease become symbolic journeys to interiors spaces.” These artists have created a simulacra of country life in their imaginations and have intertwined these imagined experiences with their urban experiences. This intertwining of imagined rural experiences and real urban experiences creates a music that speaks more to white middle-class experience than to working-class experience.
In many of the ways that artists present and market themselves, they are performing a simulacra of 1950s era country music and 1930s-1950s era values. In his seminal work Simulations and Simulacra, Jean Baudrillard explains “simulation starts from the utopia of this principle of equivalence, from the radical negation of the sign as value from the sign as reversion and death sentence of every reference...simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation as itself a simulacrum.” Baudrillard’s concept of simulacra purports that a simulation of something goes further than just being a representation of the object; it replaces the original object and the simulation becomes the referent itself. So in the case of artists who simulate the mode of 1950s country music in dress/costume, instruments, sound equipment used, and in that distinctive Hank Williams-esque twang are in fact becoming in the eyes of their audience the referent for the 1950s country music characteristics.
In the case of and 1950s country music stylings, two bands who subscribe to this simulacrum of 1950s country style are Murry Hammond of the Old 97’s and the Avett Brothers; their use of this style of clothing and use of vintage instruments is evident in pictures of these artists and in the sound of their music. These are not the only artists to utilize this vintage look; members of Wilco wore Nudie suits when promoting their album, Wilco (the album) in 2009 and also used them in some stage performances while touring. The artists’ nostalgia for this seemingly simpler time replaces the real history of this era of music. As Baudrillard states “when the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning”; this nostalgia is evident in the case of artists who either dress in the vintage clothing similar to that of Hank Williams or use vintage instruments to achieve a “scratchy” sound on their albums.

Barbara Ching and Pamela Fox discuss the simulacra of 1950s country stylings and the focus on masculinity in music in the introduction to their book Old Roots New Routes. They argue that “by making country cool - by recasting it as a form of hipness attained through the fetishizing of country ‘tradition’ - and thereby replicating the male-dominated taste-making practices prevalent in most high culture and popular music criticism, may participate in maintaining a tradition as selective and conservative as anything Matthew Arnold purported.” This replication of male-dominance can be seen as a reaction to the masculinity crisis. Since men of the 1990s, especially the latter half of the decade, were in crisis and felt helpless, harkening back to the good ol’ days when “all this shit didn’t mean a thing,” as Matthew Ryan sings in “Disappointed” seems to be one way of gaining back the control that many men lost because of feminism and the 1990s recession.

Many artists lack the credentials of their working-class Southern and/or Western forebears, so they adopt this vintage costuming or ironic distance. The Old 97’s can be seen as an example of this; while they don’t necessarily utilize vintage costuming, they put an ironic distance between their music and the country. They do this by, as Tom Skjeklesaether describes in “The Year of the Old 97’s,” “play[ing] rock with country elements thrown into the mix...[which] can make younger people understand that country was as essential an influence as blues on the original musical blend that came out as rock and roll.” By using country influences to sing about urban/suburban problems to their middle-class audience, the Old 97’s are simultaneously educating their audience on the history of popular music and modernizing the form of a typical country song. The Old 97’s utilize the typical country lamentation song to express their middle-class problems, sometimes ironically. One example of this ironic use of a traditional country lamentation song - the my woman and dog left me type of song - is “Murder (or a Heart Attack)” which at the outset seems to be a song about a lost lover, but upon closer look is really a song about a lost cat. The speaker of the song left the window open and the cat got out, but the chorus reveals “I may be leavin’ myself open / To a murder or a heart attack / but I’m leavin’ the back door open / til you come back, til you come back.” The use of a more typical country (and even rock) song lamenting the loss of a lover is turned on its head here by the lost one being a cat.
Since is a music genre that utilizes the traditions of a mostly white working-class genre (country music) but is performed by mostly white middle-class men for an audience that is, as described by the Americana Music Association, “professional, affluent, and educated,” it also deals in large part with the complexities of white American masculinity. Before examining how deals with masculinity, it is important to define and describe what white American masculinity entails. In Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, Susan Faludi describes the “peculiarly modern American perception that to be a man means to be at the controls and at all times feel yourself in control.” Faludi goes on to assert that this is “the prevailing American image of masculinity. A man is expected to prove himself not by being part of society but by being untouched by it, soaring above it.” This idea of American masculinity as being aloof from society can be seen in figures like the cowboy, the outlaw, the wilderness man, and the stoic postwar father.
However, both men and women have challenged this notion of masculinity; the feminist movement was as much about challenging patriarchy as it was about gaining equal status. In the 1990s, the men’s movement was men attempting to challenge the patriarchy that they had created. But, as Faludi notes, “[f]or men to say they feel boxed in is regarded not as laudable political protest but as childish and indecent whining” because as builders of the box that confines them “can’t [a man] destroy it if he please, if he is a man?” The notion that for men to complain is childish is part of the masculinity crisis. In order to better understand how patriarchy affects masculinity, men need to be able to feel boxed in and to feel the constraints of this patriarchy. Knowing the system that constrains you is one step in the process of being able to change the system.
The specific system that constrains many artists is the music industry, more specifically Nashville. can be seen as a protest against the highly manufactured Nashville sound and, for some artists, against the commodification of music and alternative lifestyles. Some critics misread this rebellion against the Nashville sound as misplaced; these critics seem to think that artists want to change the Nashville sound to the sound. In his chapter, “Old Time Punk” in Old Roots New Routes, Aaron Smithers explains: " performers must construct a paradoxical identity that connects them to country music’s past and yet separates them from that genre’s most popular present formations found on commercial country radio and Country Music Television [CMT]. Establishing roots in punk bridges the temporal gap between what the movement views as the current sacrilegious state of country present and the holy state of country past."

Smithers’ assessment seems to align him with critics who believe that artists want to be accepted by Nashville how they are. However, if artists were getting commercial country radio play and video play on CMT, the fans and the artists themselves would revolt and demand to go back underground. Part of the appeal of is the anti-establishment, Do-It-Yourself edge that is similar to punk rock. Peterson and Beal compare artists and their Nashville country counterparts: “alternative country is down home, unblinking, heart-felt, and a personal authentic expression, Nashville country is a plastic product.... Alternative artists present themselves as they are, warts and all, Nashville artists are contrived and act the squeaky-clean tight-jeans dance-floor cowgirl and –boy part.” In other words, is an authentic roots music and the Nashville sound of the 1990s (and in some ways even today) is just another bubble gum pop music industry - dressed up in tight jeans and a cowboy hat.
Barbara Ching equates the conflict between and Nashville to “a battle of the sexes” in which “Nashville, a capitalist siren, attempts to lure a sincere little Ulysses who just wants to make his own kind of music.” By casting the Nashville sound, exemplified by the homogenous sounds of artists such as Tim McGraw, Alan Jackson, Faith Hill, and Shania Twain, as the feminine, artists then are distinctly and stereotypically masculine. Instead of being the domesticated, and therefore, feminized men, artists perform the rebel masculinity of the outlaw or hobo; the traveling man who needs to leave civilization every now and then in order to strike out on his own. Much like Mark Twain’s Huck Finn who has “to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt [him] and sivilize [him] [sic],” artists suggests a similar resistance to civilization.
This resistance to civilization is seen in the plethora of road songs in In Soundtracks: Popular Music, Identity, and Place, John Connell and Chris Gibson note that “[r]oad songs emphasized the simple pleasures of escape and freedom, restlessness and divorce from dreary conventional lives, escape from commitment and closeness.” This resistance is apparent in the Old 97’s “Let the Train Whistle Blow” when the speaker says “I don’t want no aggravation / when my train leaves the station / If you’re there or not I may not even know.” The speaker is so anxious and ready to leave that he does not care if anyone is there to see him off. He goes on to say, “Tell the gossipers and liars / I will see them in the fire.” Clearly, in this song the speaker is yearning to escape from the confines of society and does not plan on coming back until he is dead.
The other side of life on the road - that of the world-weary musician - can be seen in the Old 97’s “Niteclub,” in which the speaker sings about the tolls of life on the road. “Eighteen-hundred miles from this old nightclub / a girl is turning twenty-two today / How am I supposed to entertain you / My fingertips are worthless when my mind’s so far away.” Here the speaker points out that, as a musician on the road, he misses important events in the lives of those he loves; assuming that the girl in the song is the loved one, the speaker goes on to explain the way life is on the road:

This old nightclub stole my youth
and this old nightclub stole my true love
it follows me around from town to town
...Telephones make strangers out of lovers
Whiskey makes the strangers all look good
Well my angel of the morning is in mourning
My life was misspent don’t let me be misunderstood.

This song reflects on the reality of the musician’s life on the road and how it is not always the best path in life to choose.
The idea of the hard life of the musician on the road is reiterated in “Dressing Room Walls” when the speaker says “the years have gone by now and the years haven’t changed anything / trying like hell to get better but I’m gearing myself for the worst / the punk rock will get you if the government don’t get you first.” Here the speaker is detailing his years on the road that have not lead to great commercial success. The chorus of the song reinforces the idea of the road and the music business being rough. Such difficult nature of the music world is apparent when the speaker says, “I’m gonna die someday staring at these dressing room walls.” While this can be seen as a pessimistic view of the music industry - the speaker will never have the means to retire, but will die performing - it can also be seen as life affirming - the speaker will die performing, which one can assume he loves doing and has a passion for, otherwise, why would he choose suffer so much.

In an attempt to overcome the difficult challenges they face on the road in the music business, artists draw on simulacra and the idea of masculinity in order to create a world that accommodates their needs. The Old 97’s create this world by focusing much of their music on simulating the 1950s country sound and bridging the gap between urban and rural problems; Matthew Ryan, on the other hand, using his music to reflect on the idea of masculinity in the wake of the masculinity crisis of the 1990s. Throughout many of the songs Ryan weaves commentary on the dismal state of society today and expresses the helplessness that many, especially men, feel. “Heartache Weather” speaks of heartache and seems to be more than just love heartache, but a general malaise that nothing can help. The song includes a catalogue of dark images: "There’s no rope / There’s no nail / There’s no psalm / To make us strong enough / There’s no con / There’s no skin / There’s no beauty / To help you through enough."

This catalogue of images set up the sense of hopelessness that the speaker feels. The images of strength, rope, nail, psalm are not enough for the speaker and the con, skin, and beauty aren’t enough superficiality to help the speaker fake his way through his heartache. It is not until the chorus, “It’s heartache weather / Please remember / Things are gonna get worse / Before they get better,” that there is any sense of hope. And here the only sense of hope is that “Things are gonna get worse / Before they get better.” This can be seen as hopeful because the speaker reminds himself that things will get better, eventually.

The glimmer of hope found in “Heartache Weather” leads into “I Hear a Symphony,” a song cataloging the grit of everyday life and the symphony to be heard in the doldrums of it all. Here, Ryan is finding the beauty in the ugliness of the world: “Every time you cough up a noose / I hear a symphony / late at night when the shots are like bells / I hear a symphony.” In the last verse of the song, Ryan juxtaposes good and bad things: “In the sparkle of a young girl’s eye / in the exclusive footage of a suicide / In the ambition of astronauts / in this Eden of tinsel and rot” to emphasize that beauty, a symphony, can be found in both “the sparkle of a young girl’s eye” that most would associate with good and “the exclusive footage of a suicide” that most would associate with bad. The speaker, while commenting on the dark side of society, forces himself to see the beauty in the world. This suggests that Ryan believes that the feeling of malaise that permeates his music and this album, East Autumn Grin, in particular will pass; men will readjust and redefine their masculinity and rediscover their place in society.

Wilco’s song “Misunderstood” deals with the issues of living and succeeding in society. The object of the song is a misunderstood musician who is “short on long term goals,” has “a fortune inside [his] head,” and is a “mama’s boy / positively unemployed.” This person seems to be struggling with his masculinity. The speaker of the song, a fan of the musician, seems to have confidence in the musician’s ability to be successful when he says “there’s a fortune inside your head” but then he turns it around to reflect the reality of the object’s life by saying “all you touch turns to lead / you think you might just crawl back in bed.” This reflects one part of what Faludi calls “the masculinity crisis, men’s loss of economic authority, [which] was most evident in the recessionary winds of the early nineties, as the devastation of male unemployment grew ever fiercer.” The mindset of the object of the song - that of someone who has the mind to be successful but isn’t able to find success - reflects this masculinity crisis.

This crisis stemmed from men (and women) not being able to live up to their scripted societal roles. Faludi explains, “if she [woman] was expected to play the perpetually submissive and pampered housewife, then he [man] was expected to be the perpetually dominant and powerful and women both feel pushed into roles that are about little more than displaying prettiness or prowess in the marketplace.” While this is true, this paradigm will not go away on its own. In her article, “The Significance of Gender Politics in Men’s Accounts of their 'Gender Identity,'” Alison Thomas asserts that “[u]ntil men themselves, both as workers and employers, are prepared to re-evaluate the male role in the family and actively share (rather than simply help with) housework and childcare, it seems there is likely to be no effective progress towards loosening the straitjacket of traditional gender roles.” Thomas’s assertion reflects a more feminist idea of equality of genders and partially the idea of masculinity that the men’s movement asserted in the 1990s. This is also the type of masculine identity that many artists were railing against in the late 1990s and early 2000s; however, some artists have softened their ideas about the role of men more recently after getting married and having children. While there has been a change of heart for some artists, many still rail against this masculine identity and hold true to the old concept of what it means to be a man.

The Old 97’s song “Streets of Where I’m From” wrestles with negotiating this new masculinity when the speaker of the song says “I’ve been down, I’ve been down too far to care / I keep getting in my car, but I’m not going anywhere.” Here the speaker clearly is down on his luck or society, but keeps trying. He goes on to say “I’ve been had, well at least that’s how it looks / and it’s not funny like on TV and it’s not smart like it is in books.” So not only is this a man down on his luck but he’s also been taken advantage of, seemingly by society’s expectations of him as a man. These expectations of masculinity are no longer cut and dry, and the speaker is trying to negotiate this new territory. The solution for this speaker is to hit the road, “[a]nd I wonder where I’ll wind up but I’m headed west I know / Wind my way through Texas and into New Mexico.” Life on the road seems to be the answer to his bad luck which he blames on “the streets where [he is] from [which] are paved with hearts instead of gold.” This is the chorus of the song and sums up the misunderstood man’s plight; no matter what society expects of him, he won’t be able to meet those prospects because “the streets of where [he’s] from are paved with hearts instead of gold” - gold in this case representing societal opportunity. He has not met these prospects and cannot be successful in modern society; instead of a list of accomplishments, which society expects, he has a list of heartaches, which makes him misunderstood by much of society.

The misunderstood man turns to music and a life on the road to solve his problems and to grapple with his identity. This is evidenced in Wilco’s song “Sunken Treasure” when the speaker says, “Music is my savior, and I was maimed by rock and roll /...I was tamed by rock and roll / I got my name from rock and roll.” At the beginning of this song, the speaker sets the scene in suburbia, “[t]here are rows and rows of houses, with windows painted blue / with the light from the TV running parallel to you” and then states that he is “so out of tune with you.” At this point in the song, the instruments are discordant so not only is the line of the song out of tune but the music is also out of tune with the rest of the song. The speaker also describes himself as having “no sunken treasure rumored to be / wrapped inside [his] ribs in a sea black with ink.” These lyrics are ambiguous enough either to mean he has no heart, meaning desire, to be in tune with society, or he has no ability to empathize with a society he doesn’t understand. The speaker does not want to deal with the trappings of middle class society, “[t]he rows and rows of houses…the light from the TV,” so he stays on the outside of society.

Much like this Wilco song, Matthew Ryan’s “Irrelevant” talks of a man who is on the outside of society, a man who has become irrelevant. In this song, the man is irrelevant because his lover has left him, so he no longer wants to be part of society. The speaker begins the song by describing his living conditions:

There’s only one light on in the house
And that’s the light up in the hall
And it’s shining on the back of my head
And I’m concentrating hard
on the cigarette to the ashtray
from the ashtray back to my lips
So I lean up from my easy chair
I rub my three-day beard.

This is a portrait of a man who is not concerned with his appearance or possibly even living a full life. The departure and possible betrayal of his lover is what has led the speaker to feel irrelevant, “every kiss has reeked of betrayal / since my heroine jumped the guardrail / and decided who she wanted to be once more.” Here the speaker places himself in a fairy tale, one with a heroine, although this fairytale is fractured and is more representative of real life since there is no happy ending for the “hero.” The heroine of the speaker’s story has escaped to become “who she wanted to be once more,” leaving the speaker alone to search for who he wants to be. This song harkens back to Faludi’s idea that “if [women were] expected to play the perpetually submissive and pampered housewife, then [men were] expected to be perpetually dominant and powerful breadwinner[s].” However, in this song, the woman has broken free of societal constraints leaving the man with the façade.

These examples of men who feel they are on the outside of society and are misunderstood by society and/or their loved ones reflect the struggle of masculinity that many middle-class men go through. In Be a Man! Males in Modern Society, Peter N. Stearns explains that middle-class men “had the problem of demonstrating that men who shunned demonstrations of physical strength and physical risk were sufficiently masculine.” Through their music, many artists make concrete the struggle many men face in modern society in defining their masculinity as members of the middle-class. By showing the struggles that men face defining their masculinity, dealing with society, and detailing the ups and downs of life on the road as a musician, Wilco, the Old 97’s, and Matthew Ryan typify the sound and how this genre reflects the experiences of the middle-class, white American man.

While not all artists fit into this model of masculinity nor reflect it, many do. The abundance of artists in this genre who come from middle-class urban or suburban roots make this genre an interesting addition to the study of masculinity. These artists reflect, in many cases, the hegemonic masculinity that many gender studies critics are writing against. In fact, there is not much study of white, middle class American men, because for so long (and even now) these men were the “standard” against which everything was measured. This pressure to measure up to the “standard” is one possible cause of the masculinity crisis, and a definite factor in the creation of the music I have discussed. These artists’ concerns with their masculinity can be construed as reflective of the same concerns of the male sector of their audience. Through this exploration of masculinity, Wilco, the Old 97’s, and Matthew Ryan are helping American men reconfigure what masculinity is and what it means to be a man in twenty-first century American society. Through their mix of urban and country music traditions - punk rock, rock and roll, and country and western - these artists are melding these genres’ ideas of masculinity to form their own idea of masculinity.

February 2014

From guest contributor Colleen Thorndike, Kent State University

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