Radio Barn Dances




Country music, by way of early “hillbilly” music, achieved its national and international status not through recordings or song publishing, but through its dissemination on the many barn dance programs that came to dot the US soundscape.
From the birth of radio in the 1920s, to its height in the so-called “Golden Age” of the 1930s and 1940s, on through the post-war period, the onset of television, the birth of rock and roll, and the monumental cultural shifts in the second half of the twentieth century, the country music barn dance variety show, in its changing forms, has had a venerated place on the airwaves.

Starting in the mid-1920s, the radio barn dance genre provided many US listeners an appealing entertainment format through which to negotiate rapidly changing social and cultural circumstances. Amid revolutionizing “modern” technologies, this “down-home” representation, marked by traditional values and “old time” country music, proved popular with rural, urban, and newly urban audiences.

The genre thrived as powerful radio stations served swelling regional and national audiences. The airwaves that worked effectively to reduce distance, reconfigure place, and re-imagine communities often carried the rustic and comforting sounds of a barn dance. After World War II, as hundreds of new radio stations began to broadcast from small towns, a new wave of barn dance programs emerged, fashioned after national models like the National Barn Dance and the Grand Ole Opry.

These postwar shows returned the genre to local communities, providing an alternative to the mass-mediated, distant worlds aurally constituted on popular network broadcasts. Just as so many of the long-established programs had aided the creation of regional and national audiences so did these smaller barn dance programs of the 1950s and 60s project and construct a sense of local identification.

For historians, the negotiation by the “listener” of complex national, regional, and local identifications has been a central, contested issue in radio scholarship. Susan Douglas describes the condition:

[Radio’s] technologically produced aurality allowed listeners to reformulate their identities as individuals and as members of a nation by listening in to signs of unity and signs of difference. By the late 1920s “chain broadcasting” was centralizing radio programming in New York and standardizing the broadcast day. . . . Meanwhile, independent stations featured locally produced programs with local talent. Listeners could tune into either or both, and tie in, imaginatively, with shows that sought to capture and represent a “national” culture or those that sought to defend regional and local cultural authority.


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