The Sources of Country Music, Thomas Hart Benton (1975)
Thomas Hart Benton was eighty-four in 1973, when he came out of retirement to paint a mural for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tennessee. His assignment was to describe the regional sources of the musical style known as “country,” and Benton couldn’t resist the opportunity to paint one last celebration of homegrown American traditions. Benton himself was a skilled harmonica player who had been raised on the old-time music of the Missouri Ozarks. It was during his lifetime that the multimillion-dollar country-music industry in Nashville had replaced the community-based music of rural America. As an artist, he had gained a popular following in the 1930s with works that spoke to ordinary people. Along with other Midwestern Regionalists such as Grant Wood, Benton rejected “Parisian aesthetics,” the European influence on American art, and scorned abstract art as “an academic world of empty pattern.” His ambition was to paint meaningful, intelligible subjects—“the living world of active men and women”—that would hold broad, popular appeal. By virtue of its subject and its setting, the Nashville mural was to be a painting, Benton said, “aimed at persons who do not ordinarily visit art museums.”
The Sources of Country Music presents five distinct scenes to survey the music of ordinary Americans. The central subject of a barn dance, with a pair of fiddlers calling out sets to a group of square dancers, describes the dominant music of the frontier. A comparatively calm scene shows three women in their Sunday best with hymnals in their hands, suggesting the importance of church music in Protestant America. In the foreground, two barefoot mountain women sing to the sounds of a lap dulcimer, an old instrument associated with Appalachian ballads. In the opposite corner an armed cowboy, one foot on his saddle, accompanies himself with a guitar. An African American man, apparently a cotton picker in the Deep South, strums a tune on a banjo, an instrument slaves brought with them to the New World. Beyond him, on the other side of the railroad tracks, a group of black women dances on the distant riverbank. Despite the range of regional styles, instruments, and customs, the mural seems to pulsate to a single beat, as if Benton took care to ensure that all the musicians played the same note and sang their varied American songs in tune.
The mural preserves an image of American folkways that were rapidly disappearing. Benton’s characteristically dynamic style expresses the powerful rhythms of music while suggesting the inevitability of change. Many of the robust, nearly life-size figures balance on uneven, shifting ground. The fiddlers look liable to fall into the mysteriously bowed floor, and the log on which the banjo player sits threatens to roll down the steep slope of the red-clay landscape. Even the telephone poles seem to sway in the background. The steam engine, an indication of change, represents the end of an agrarian life and the homogenization of American culture, which necessarily entailed the loss of regional customs.
The mural pays homage to the country music singer and movie star Tex Ritter, who had helped to persuade Benton to accept the Nashville commission but died before it was completed. Benton represents Ritter as the singing cowboy who turns to face the coal-black engine steaming along the horizon. The train itself was modeled on the Cannonball Special, driven and wrecked by Casey Jones, the hero of an American ballad; it also calls to mind “The Wabash Cannonball,” a popular folk song about a mythical train that glides through the country, then rumbles off to heaven. The engine, which may signify the positive as well as the negative aspects of American progress, is the only element of the complex composition that Benton felt he couldn’t get quite right. Unfortunately, we will never know how he wanted the train to look. Benton is said to have died of a massive heart attack while standing before the mural in January 1975, trying to decide whether to research and repaint the train. Whether the story is true or not, his final work was never signed.