Professionally, for me, this was a true moment of arrival: sitting in an academic music department classroom in the basement of the College of Fine Arts, surrounded by chalkboards with music staves and fluorescent lights, and watching UNM students and community members struggle—and triumph—as they dove into this musical style which, for so many, is completely “foreign” to their sociomusical worlds, I recall thinking: “Is this really my job?” This experience was further heightened by the fact that this teacher, one of our classical voice teachers in the department, is an incredibly gentle, intuitive, and yet highly effective teacher who makes students feel safe enough that they essentially put their voice (and, in essence, their selves) in her hands.
One of the concerns—and legitimately so—that comes up for many students in the ensemble is that, on-stage or off, they’ll be perceived by their peers and audience members as “slumming it” or taking on a downwardly mobile identity which, in reality, doesn’t’ represent their actual lifestyles. In other words, they were concerned that their performances would be read as mockeries of—rather than homage to—the genre of honky tonk music. This is, of course, also a tried and true part of the politics of authenticity in country music, where those who are perceived to not live the lifestyle they sing about run the risk of being charged with being a “hat act” (Garth Brooks is one such example). In the band, we encourage students to think of the use of twang, and cry breaks, and the “ravaged voice” as a form of regionally and culturally specific performance practice. Thus, students are performing a regional and class-based identity when they are performing these songs.
What this perspective fails to take into account, however, is our own ability to codeswitch not only linguistically, but musically: we know how to code-switch between differing musical and linguistic worlds and do so all the time, although it’s often not consciously articulated as such. It’s also where having the participation of community members in the ensemble who hail from west Virginia, Texas and beyond and who grew up playing this music, and where having the ability to perform our songs in off-campus honky tonks to audiences who know and love this music, are essential antidotes to the tendency to exoticize genres we don’t yet know or aren’t yet culturally comfortable with. Once students see that the songs they’re playing are known and loved by their bandmates and dancers and listeners—in other words, that they’re meaningful to them and thus have a prior social context—the dynamic of the group self-corrects and shifts quite quickly.