Snake Oil, Country Music and the Future of the Planet
In 1991, when French super-model and future first-lady of France, Carla Bruni, was falsely accused of having an affair with Donald Trump (by Donald Trump), her response was that she had no romantic interest whatsoever in someone she termed, “the King of Tacky.”[i]
Observations like this were commonplace in news outlets back in the 90s when Trump was manipulating journalists into portraying him as a “playboy”. And indeed, who would care whether he was or not. Right?
But let’s not fool ourselves. Large swaths of Americans spend their waking lives caring very much about such things and, due to the craven nature of for-profit journalism, such things found their way into print and the airwaves ad naseum. It was no secret, then, to anyone even mildly paying attention to the proclivities of headline writers that, long before he rocketed himself into his present gig by manipulating craven journalists into similar contortions, Trump was a sleaze. In fact, he was quite proud of it and, in the under-regulated high-powered business world created for sleazes by every president since Reagan within which he operated, he used his sleaziness to his financial advantage.
Now that he’s our president, we find that he is still a sleaze, and we are shocked? This is just an observation, and I don’t want to make too much of it because, God knows we’ve had some close calls before. Nixon comes to mind, Bush the Younger, Bill Clinton etc. etc... but Trump is the Proof in the Pudding. The Genuine Article, a certified sleaze with verifiable Mafia connections as our president, and so it seems to me we should be able to use this as a Learning Moment for the advancement of our ultimate betterment.
Which of course we’re not doing, dammit! And furthermore, what kind of Kool-Aid has the aforementioned-craven punditocracy been drinking that they must now collectively gnash their perfect teeth and rend their trendy garments in public displays at how horrified they are that such an unimaginable thing as a Banana-Republic-quality crook in our White House coming to pass? And furthermore still: What kind of sleeping pills has America been on all these years to not have seen this train wreck meeting a wrecking ball coming? (Hint: television, but that’s for another blog).
Well, as a folk musician as well as a mere mortal, I like to pretend I know the answers to hefty questions. After all, human pathos and the quirky stories spun off of that amoeba are what folk music is all about, isn’t it?
Reality, though, is something that folk musicians like to ignore as much as anyone else, and so I have to admit that--in reality--folk music doesn’t give you any more insights than, say, herding chickens. But I do think it does give you some hints at a few of those hefty answers’ clues which, I know, is pretty tenuous grounds to opine from on such a subject as fascism (which is the subject I’m talking about). But since any attempt to explain the origins of this mess from any other quarter, from physics to psychotherapy to homeopathy, has been equally nebulous, and since walking on clouds (nebulae) is the essence of music in general and folk music in particular, I insist on making the attempt.
Therefore, drawing on the depth of my decades of experience singing country-western songs with my tongue firmly in cheek (which takes lots of practice, let me tell you!) I’d like to at least suggest a perhaps-more pertinent question that addresses our present fascist moment:
What is it about snake oil salesmen that Americans just can’t seem to resist?
To point: In 1923, a 38-year-old man bought a radio station in Kansas to promote his booming business of transplanting goat testicles into men’s scrotums to cure impotency. KFKB was one of only four radio stations in the whole country at the time and by 1928, when Dr. John R. Brinkley had it ramped up to 5 kilowatts, it was one of the most powerful stations licensed by the newly-created Federal Radio Commission (FRC). Ironically, the FRC was created specifically to referee this new and powerful mass-medium on behalf of the “public interest”. This was because after only a few years of existence these newly discovered public airwaves were being sorely abused by the likes of--you guessed it-- Dr. John R. Brinkley, who was making himself a small fortune by airing “hillbilly music” to attract listeners in order to hawk his goat-gland operations as well as to sell large quantities of such formerly-rare items as autographed pictures of Jesus. Given the power of these newly-discovered airwaves, maybe this was inevitable, and don’t get me wrong. It really was miraculous how many autographed pictures of Jesus turned up after commercial radio appeared. But our ever-perceptive Congress duly-perceived that something, even if only a little something, needed to be done, and so they did it, and in so doing they rocketed the goat-gland “doctor” into radio and country music history as a pioneer of both. Not bad for a man who, far from being a real doctor, started his career as an actual snake oil-salesman back before synthetic snake oil was invented. “Dr.” Brinkley was the Real Deal, the Genuine Article and, as with “President” Trump, he was no ordinary man.
Briefly: Brinkley grew up poor in North Carolina where his father, a Confederate Army medic who parlayed that bloody experience into becoming a “country doctor” back home, started out his own working life at 16 with Western Union as a telegrapher. Honest enough work, and it apparently got him by, but he figured himself destined for greater things than tapping out Morse Code over thin and fickle wires. He wanted to be a doctor, and as soon as he came of age, he and his young wife went on the road posing as Quaker doctors, travelling the rural circuit giving medicine shows where they hawked virility tonics and other “patent medicines”.
After a while they settled in Chicago where Brinkley attended Bennett Medical College, an unaccredited school specializing in “eclectic medicine”. After some ups and downs he eventually finished his “studies” which amounted to his purchasing a degree from the Kansas City Eclectic Medical University, a diploma mill. After that, he pulled a stint in North Carolina where he and a partner opened up a storefront clinic selling shots filled with colored water they claimed was “electric medicine from Germany” and then there was a quick exit from that town and its creditors. But his “eclectic” medical degree allowed him to practice medicine in eight states, and Brinkley finally answered an ad to take over the office of a doctor in Milford, Kansas, which is where he set up his goat-gland “treatment” clinic. After a short series of serendipitous publicity coups, including the birth of a child who, if you followed the thread of the con to its natural conclusion was part goat, business blossomed and more opportunities availed. Harry Chandler, owner of the Los Angeles Times, became a “believer” and “reported” on him, which gave Brinkley the free publicity he needed to expand his business to movie stars (Sound familiar? In modern Trumpian terms, think CBS, Ted Nugent and Clint Eastwood). He would have moved his “clinic” to L.A. except that California was one of the states that didn’t recognize “eclectic” medical degrees.
What Brinkley had done, and what the “eclectic medical schools” had no doubt taught him, was to tap into the ancient, bottomless—and huge--demand for aphrodisiacs. Brinkley, who apparently had an intuitive understanding of capitalism (i.e., you don’t need to be honest to be successful, you just need a good business model and a good line) hired an advertising agent, began a direct mail blitz and promoted his soundbite. “Be the ram that am with every lamb.” And Voila! Lessons learned about selling snake oil in America. First: have a good business model and second: speak American, the latter being far more important than the first and has been used by every one of a long, long line of successful charlatans in this country who followed him. Don’t over-worry about telling the truth, the Golden Rule goes, but whatever you do say, say it in American.
And lo! Business boomed some more, and by the time commercial radio came along, Brinkley was well off enough to buy a station, and through it he quickly proved that by applying the Golden Rule of Piracy (er…I mean Capitalism) to this now-limitless audience, you could reap spangly success, which is what he did. People came from all over the country to rejuvenate themselves, and, as was inevitable in the course of such things, more than a few of them started dying. No one knows how many people actually paid the ultimate price for horniness, but Brinkley officially signed several dozen death certificates for people who showed up healthy at his clinic and then headed south. A chain of events followed: The American Medical Association got wise and started hounding him, the FRC was invented by Congress (in 1928, in no small part to further hound Brinkley), and eventually he lost his license. His response was to sue the FRC and run for Governor of Kansas, which race he lost by a mere hair. He lost his lawsuit, too, and in doing so established one of the early landmark cases in broadcast law. The 1931 decision, KFKB Broadcasting Assoc. vs FRC, answered fundamental questions concerning how far the newly-minted FRC could go in denying station licenses by determining what programming is or is not in the public interest. It defined our newly-discovered airwaves as being Public Domain, to be regulated by the FRC (later the FCC) for the public good. That meant (and, notwithstanding the punditocracy who tells you differently, still means) that you can’t legally use your expensive bandwidths to sell such things as goat-testicle operations, autographed pictures of Jesus or almost any of the various snake oils that have been the cornerstone of FoxNews and Clearchannel these last three decades since Reagan flushed the core of that decision, the Fairness Doctrine, down the toilet (again, another blog).
So Brinkley lost his license but remember: Brinkley, like Trump, was no ordinary man. He was a visionary, could see the future in fact, and like so many mountebanks who followed in his footsteps he also headed south, physically, to Mexico. The reason for this was that when the United States divided up North America’s bandwidths, it gave none of them to Mexico where the “public interest” apparently did not apply in the minds of the dividers. Mexico got righteously pissed-off at its ever-imperious northern neighbor (an old, old story) and were glad to grant Brinkley a fifty-thousand-watt radio license that could step all over America’s radio stations. Brinkley's XERA AM became the first of what would be a plethora of X-series radio stations, the so-called “border blasters”. Brinkley set up XERA in Villa Acuna, Coahuila, just south of border from Del Rio, Texas, where he in turn built his new, expanded “clinic” and dubbed XERA “the sunshine station between the nations.” Thus on the border, Brinkley re-applied his possibly-most-important rule of American Snakeoilsmanship once again, and once again Americans flocked, business boomed.
As Brinkley well knew, fifty-thousand watts was more than enough to reach Kansas, so he ran for governor there again, using the telephone to call in broadcasts to the transmitter. When Congress declared this assault on the public interest illegal (specifically via the Brinkley Act) he pioneered the first pre-recording technology in order to circumvent his namesake law. He lost his second bid for governor, but XERA quickly ramped up to 150,000 watts, and then to a million, making it the most powerful station on the planet and, almost incidentally, more powerful than the Governor of Kansas. It could be heard as far away as Canada and along the border towns it could be tuned in over barbed wire fences and dental devices. Healthy? No. American? Yes.
So that’s how Brinkley became a pioneer in radio broadcasting, institutionalizing the form of early-20th century tonic-hawking that has now, unfortunately, become unquestioned staples to us, and this is a big thing to thank a snake oil salesman for. But maybe the biggest thing we can thank Brinkley for is pioneering the paradigm he established for radio entertainment, the “hillbilly music” medium through which he sold his goat gonads and Jesus paraphernalia.
The genesis of modern, commercial country music is usually traced back to the Bristol, Tennessee sessions, which, in a general way, is true. The Victor Talking Machine Company, under the direction of Ralph Peer (talent scout, record producer and pioneer in field recordings) recruited a few talented locals steeped in the regional Appalachian music, recorded them at a warehouse in Bristol and then sold the recordings on the burgeoning “hillbilly” record market that Peer was also helping to establish. Jimmie Rogers and the Carter Family showed up at these sessions, Peer recorded them and those recordings in turn established the commercial standard that still reverberates deeply throughout the industry today, in no small part because of XERA AM.
Jimmie Rogers had died of tuberculosis by the time Brinkley cranked up XERA in the mid-30s, but by the late 30s the Carter Family was a live staple on the air, along with many other up-and-coming country acts like Red Foley, Patsy Montana and Gene Autry. Music historian, Bill C. Malone has written that “the border stations popularized hillbilly music throughout the United States and laid the basis for country music's great popularity in the late '40s and early '50s," [ii] which is about right. Waylon Jennings, who grew up in Littlefield, Texas, remembers his father pulling the family truck up next to the house and running battery cables to the radio so he could listen to the Carter Family. Johnny Cash cites the border stations as having a major influence on his music as well as being where he first heard his future wife--June Carter, then 10 years old—sing. Brinkley’s influence on modern American culture—and snakeoilsalesmanship—can’t be overestimated.
The Carters came by their material honestly and organically, through the folk-process of listening to other people play the old, old songs and tunes and then copying it, and copying it well. Their material remains among the gems of the public domain and I am thankful they were preserved. But something else besides cultural preservation was going on in Peer’s mind and, later, in Brinkley’s. The music of the ages became a product, a copyrighted one, to be bought and sold, and to be used to sell other “products” such as goat-gonad operations and pictures of Jesus, which is exactly what Brinkley used early commercial country music for and, as an industry, it has never fully recovered.
I’ve had conversations with now-elderly people who gravitated toward 50s-era rock ‘n roll because they couldn’t stand country music. “It’s so commercial!” they would say in various ways, and I would wonder about that, because I always use the music in its truncated form, as songs, and I dearly love them. The best of them speak to a history most of us have forgotten. But I’ll just make a leap here and leave you to your own wondering (or damning):
Have you ever wondered how we got to the state of affairs where someone could get in front of a T.V. camera and claim with a straight face that Obama was a Kenyan? Or that Sandy Hook didn’t happen? Or that military-style weapons with mega-round clips should be sold in supermarkets? Or that a sleazy real-estate mogul who lies about his sex life in front of millions would make a good president?
Well, they’re just following in the footsteps of Dr. John R. Brinkley, early pioneer of radio, and, sad to say, "politicians" like the current Donald Trump. When you add in the evolution of country music, it’s plain that the problem goes right to the core of our being. We let the bastards get away with it with our own culture! And now the con virtually IS our own culture! What to do?
How about, for a start, speaking American? It’s got (that’s right—not “it has”) a proven history of spangly success, much more so than neoliberal position papers or intellectual talking points about animal rights. Follow the basic rule that any credible artist in any medium follows, even con artists. Consider your audience, and then speak to it. You don’t have to be a snake oil salesman and God knows: it’s not rocket science and it ain’t cheatin’.
And I ain’t lyin’.
[i]Johnson, David Cay; ‘The Making of Donald Trump’, Melville House 2017, p. 143