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Norwegian Country Music and the Value of Musical and Scholarly Exchange (Guest Post)

I am pleased to welcome another guest blogger, Stian Vestby of Hedmark University College, whose work certainly reaches into the global part of the CPM mission. — G. Reish

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Having worked at MTSU and the Center for Popular Music as an exchange scholar for nearly two months this spring, it is with great delight and appreciation that I write this guest entry for the CPM Director’s Blog. In my ongoing PhD project, I investigate the stylistic diversity and audience reception of country music in the context of a Norwegian music festival named Norsk Countrytreff (NCT). As the different musics represented at this rural festival share a deep connection to the American South, it made sense for me to study country, bluegrass, rockabilly, honky-tonk, etc. in Tennessee during the course of my doctoral research. The exchange agreement between MTSU and my Norwegian institution, Hedmark University College (HUC), provided a formal framework for my stay; the deep insights and helpful efforts of my faculty sponsor, MTSU historian Dr. Kristine McCusker, and the entire staff at the CPM have contributed greatly to my understanding of country’s many musical forms.

In this essay I briefly describe some historical and contemporary aspects of the Norwegian country scene. In doing so, I hope to shed light on global country music culture, and specifically how this music is articulated and rendered meaningful by a few selected artists and cultural agents.

Hege Øversveen

Singer-songwriter Hege Øversveen. Photo by Glenn Thomas.

In the decades following World War II, American country and Western music quickly became popular in Norway. Stars such as Buck Owens, Bobby Bare, and Loretta Lynn performed live concerts and sold many records across the country. Norwegian solo artists and bands appeared in rural areas creating their own localized forms of Norwegian country and dance band music. Some musicians also formed creative country music collectives in major cities such as Oslo and Bergen. Yet despite the continued, widespread popularity of certain artists, Norwegian country music and fans have had to bear with long-lasting cultural stigmatization similar to what equivalent music communities have faced in the United States. Some of these overlapping stigmata relate to country music’s alleged poor aesthetic and ideological values—including its (at times) conservative orientation and moralistic content—and to its ill treatment and negligence in various media.

As anti-country sentiments have not disappeared entirely, increased omnivorous taste across age groups, genders, and social classes may have contributed to the growing appreciation of country music in Norway in recent years. And if this is the case, the many young emerging talents on the contemporary Norwegian country scene are likely part of that development. Today, new generations of fans and listeners can enjoy national and international country and Americana acts regularly at urban “concept clubs” co-organized by Norsk Americana Forum and Die With Your Boots On, respectively. Several mixed genre festivals also cater to followers of these styles, while mostly rural country and bluegrass festivals–large and small–continue to serve as important arenas for country music expression. In addition, four years ago the Norwegian government officially recognized the country genre by incorporating the NCT festival into the national budget alongside a variety of other already privileged genres (e.g. rock, blues, folk, jazz, and classical). Below I will call attention to some of the artistic diversity in the contemporary Norwegian country music landscape using a few illustrative examples from the lineup at Norsk Countrytreff in 2015.

It is well-documented that traditional, vernacular musics from Europe, including ballads and folk tunes from the British Isles, contributed to the formation of what we today call country music. But there are clues indicating that Scandinavian folk music may also have a place in the hybrid formation of American folk music before it was commercialized as “hillbilly music” in the U.S. during the 1920s. Reportedly, Norwegian spelemenn (fiddlers) brought their traditional dance tunes to the U.S. in the 19th century and played with American old-time musicians. The acclaimed Norwegian folk musician, fiddler, and singer-songwriter Sigrid Moldestad has metaphorically proposed that Scandinavian, British, and American folk musicians “derive from the same lineage of spelemenn” (my translation). At the annual NCT festival, these musical relationships are explored and celebrated by artists and audiences in a special creative collaboration/concert format called “Blågras” and led by Moldestad. In 2015, nine musicians–among them Riley Baugus, Brad Leftwich, and Brittany Haas representing the U.S.–will workshop and perform together as “Blågras” at several venues during the festival weekend in July.[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wTdqGE_Uusc[/youtube]

Among the many other performers at NCT this summer, Lucky Four is a band that identifies itself as bluegrass and Southern gospel. In the song “Hengebjørka,” a cover of the Carter Family’s “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow,” the quartet juxtaposes a characteristic Norwegian western dialect with the standard eastern dialect as the lead singer changes from verse to verse. As in the Carters’ original recording from the 1927 Bristol Sessions, the lyrics relate a story about lost love in Lucky Four’s rendition of this early country classic. The Norwegian party country band Vassendgutane provides another example of country going glocal. Like other groups within the party country style, Vassendgutane employs strong regional accents in their music, and they often blend twangy guitars with rich accordion sounds reminiscent of Scandinavian rural music and dance traditions. All of these features can be heard in the song “Bygdis”, the lyrics of which address the elite/mass and urban/rural divides. [youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3My12oHibs[/youtube]A final example from the 2015 festival line-up is the young singer-songwriter Hege Øversveen, whose music has elements of country, pop, and rock. She stresses the importance of having collaborated with a Nashville-based music producer for her personal musical development and career. Øversveen sings in English, often exhibiting a rough vocal edge. In this live duo version of the song “I Think I’m In Love”, we get a glimpse of this aspiring artist’s novel skills as musical entertainer and storyteller – two important facets of country music performance.[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sd95UWL4Vjo[/youtube]

Music is a contested field imbued with conflict, exclusion, and hardship. Yet, musical encounters and exchanges taking place in various arenas across a global country music culture, such as the ones described above, can be of significant positive value for those who choose to engage in them–artists and audiences alike. Although globalization and hybridization processes are often thought of as having negative effects (e.g., the deterioration of national culture and disintegration of musical authenticity), I believe that the opposite is frequently the case with country music. This genre’s many current forms of expression are parts of a long line of hybrid musical manifestations. Country artists depend on their fans, but, in fact, country itself depends on its inherent, ever-developing global hybridity. My research stay in the U.S. has only served to strengthen this insight, and for that I am grateful.

 

References:

Eimhjellen, E. (2007). Dei tok musikken med seg: Korleis har musikken til utvandrarane frå Noreg utvikla seg i Amerika? Naustdal.

Hubbs, N. (2014). Rednecks, queers, and country music. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Neal, J. R. (2013). Country music: A cultural and stylistic history. New York: Oxford University Press.

Solli, K. (2006). North of Nashville: Country music, national identity, and class in Norway. PhD dissertation. University of Iowa, Department of American Studies, Iowa City, Iowa.

 

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