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Oklahoma State University

History professor explores race and music in upcoming book

Tue, February 24, 2015
Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South

While discussions of race relations in the United States typically focus on differing experiences among the races, Oklahoma State University assistant professor of history Charles L. Hughes takes a different angle in his upcoming book, “Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South.”   

Oklahoma State University assistant professor of history Charles L. Hughes

Against the backdrop of country and soul music genres in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Hughes challenges conventional wisdom about racial politics through rarely used archives and interviews with session musicians, producers and songwriters of the era.  While the country and soul genres were generally associated with separate racial groups, Hughes found a different story behind the scenes.  A group that worked with Aretha Franklin might also work with Willie Nelson.  

Focusing on music recorded in Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee and Muscle Shoals, Alabama – what Hughes calls the “country-soul triangle” – Hughes explores the seeming rift between country and soul music, and how it symbolized racial politics in the turbulent years of civil rights protests.   

“My favorite music was from this period,” Hughes says, explaining he came at the topic from the perspectives of historian, musician, and fan.  

A research project developed over the last decade, “Country Soul” evolved from an idea Hughes first pursued in graduate school.  Building upon his thesis and dissertation, he “kept falling through the floor,” discovering more music and important wrinkles in a complicated story harboring broad cultural implications.   

Though he has contributed numerous essays and reviews to a variety of publications, “Country Soul” is Hughes’ first book.  He specializes in African American history, with a specific focus on racial politics and popular culture, and earned his Ph.D. in History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2012.  After serving for two years as the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, he joined the OSU Department of History in 2014.  

While he is a relative newcomer to Oklahoma, Hughes found the decision to join the faculty at OSU was an easy one. 

“This is a state school with a land-grant mission that caters to students with a variety of backgrounds and interests,” he says.  “It was apparent there was something special going on here.”

“Country Soul” will be available in March from the University of North Carolina Press.  Kirkus Reviews calls the book, “An essential piece of Southern musical history.”