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IU doctoral student in ethnomusicology will teach fall course on country music and its real-life implications in religion, politics and war

May 30, 2013

The soundtrack to Nathan Gibson’s childhood in St. Louis was provided by his opera-singer dad, who frequently practiced around the house.

In his teen years, Gibson gravitated to angsty alternative music. (“I was a big Nirvana fan and had a silk banner of them over my bed until Kurt Cobain shot himself and my mom made me take it down,” said Gibson, an IU grad student in ethnomusicology.)

nate gibson

Nathan Gibson

Now a country singer and guitar picker living in Helsinki, Finland, Gibson will move back to Bloomington late this summer to teach a new fall course on country music.

“Country Music and the World,” offered through IU’s Global Village Living-Learning Center, draws from the disciplines of ethnomusicology, folklore, history, musicology, performance studies and sociology. Students will analyze what “country” means to the music base’s target audience and will examine the broadly defined genre to better understand how the music reflects and impacts significant issues such as religion, politics and war.

Gibson heard lots of country music when he was growing up, especially during the 11 years he spent living in Kansas. He wasn’t drawn to the genre until he entered Emerson College as a writing major. His first assignment: to write 20 pages on a topic he knew nothing about.

“I chose rockabilly music because I had been to a rockabilly show the previous night,” he said. Researching the paper led him to meet local musicians in the Boston scene as well as international music legends; soon, Gibson began playing guitar and writing his own songs.

His senior Bachelor of Fine Arts thesis was on country music songwriting, a topic largely inspired by the late Rex Trailer, a professor at Emerson who was a TV personality in the '50s and '60s and also was inducted in the Massachusetts Country Music Hall of Fame.

“He introduced me to a wide variety of songwriting styles within the country music genre,” Gibson said. “It was an amazing experience, and I’ve been hooked on country music ever since.”

Gibson recently celebrated the release of a new CD, “The Starday Sessions” (Goofin' Records), a tribute to the largest independent country music record label of the 1950s and '60s. The CD is being released in conjunction with the paperback version of his award-winning book, “The Starday Story: The House That Country Music Built” (University Press of Mississippi). He chats with Inside IU Bloomington about the path from his musical career to Helsinki, plus details about the new country music course. Gibson will complete a doctoral degree with IU after finishing and defending his dissertation.

Q: What was the first album you ever bought/live show you ever saw? When did you start performing?

A: The first country music album I ever bought was Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits collection on cassette when I was about 10 years old. I was immensely disappointed to find out that the "Sweet Things" I was actually looking for was by the Eurythmics. Fortunately, a kind woman in my church bought the tape from me and I was able to return to the record store and purchase the correct album. Looking back on it, I wish I’d kept the Patsy Cline tape!

Q: How did you choose IU’s ethnomusicology program for your graduate studies?

A: Shortly after graduating from Emerson College with a writing degree (technically a BFA in writing, literature and publishing) I began the Starday Records book project. I loved the process -- meeting, interviewing and even making music with many of my musical heroes, and the book is one of my proudest accomplishments. As I began thinking about my next project, I wanted to focus not only on music history, but to also focus on why it is important. Around 2007 or 2008 I discovered the discipline of ethnomusicology and met several scholars who were researching not just music itself, but the people who made the music and the significance music made in their lives. Again, I was hooked and I was accepted into IU’s ethnomusicology program in 2009.

Q: What led you to Helsinki, and what have you been doing there?

A: Quite a few things actually, but while at IU, I was told that I had to pick a second language in order to complete the Ph.D. degree. A kind advisor suggested to me that if I picked one of the more obscure languages, I might have a better chance of getting funding. Learning Finnish was really quite random, though I already had several friends living in Finland at the time. During a summer language program at Vaasa University the following year, I was quite surprised to discover that Finland also happens to boast one of the largest roots music scenes in the world. I am presently researching the American roots music scene here in Finland, lecturing about ethnomusicology at several universities, playing music with different bands and occasionally editing Angry Birds books.

Q: Which professors have had the greatest impact on you?

A: I’ve been very fortunate to come across many great professors here at IU. I couldn’t possibly name them all, but I have taken very inspiring courses on performance studies and music from both Susan Seizer and Sue Tuohy. David McDonald’s fieldwork course was also eye-opening and helped me to re-think how best to conduct and justify my own music research. Ethnomusicology courses taught by Portia Maultsby and Mellonee Burnim introduced me to many different ways of thinking about music and culture and were very thought-provoking.

I have also been very fortunate in that IU was the first university in the U.S. to have a Finnish program, and it is still going strong. Tapio Hokkanen, Mikko Taurama and Toivo Raun have all led very inspiring courses in Finnish, Finnish culture and Finnish history. And while I have not taken courses with these professors, I am forever grateful for the continued advice and support I have received from Alan Burdette, Lynn Hooker, Jeff Holdeman and Henry Glassie.

Q: What sequence of events led to the "Country Music and the World" class?

A: I have been researching and writing about country music for about 12 years, but as I’ve gone through the ethnomusicology program at IU, lived abroad and conversed with country music scholars at the International Country Music Conference each year, I’ve come to realize that people interpret and experience music very differently in different parts of the world. I think that applies to country and roots music as well. The term "country" has come to mean many different things, and I wanted to put together a course that explores these variations in meaning, but also how those varied interpretations have real-life implications in religion, politics and war.

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