Research explores struggles between ‘Sacred’ and ‘Profane’ in country music

Dr. Randal Williams

COOKEVILLE – The struggle between good and evil has inspired some of the most well-known country music classics of all time. While Randal Williams’ fascination with these topics inspired his recent Ph.D. work, he has never been one to let struggles or limitations stand in his way.

He completed his Ph.D. at Tennessee Technological University this past May at the age of 63. It is the fourth degree that he has earned, even though he fights an ongoing battle with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“I’ve never been one to believe in limitations,” he said. “If you want to do something, do it.”

He recalls a newspaper column he read years ago that drove home his desire to do what he loves, despite the struggles. In it, a man had written in to the paper, asking advice about starting a new career late in life. This man had always wanted to be a doctor; however, life circumstances had prevented it. Now that he had the opportunity, he worried he was too old.

“This man wrote in and said, ‘By the time I finish medical school, I’d be 75 years old. What should I do?’” Williams recalled. “And this woman replied with, ‘Well, how old would you be then if you didn’t go to medical school? The same age.’ I thought that was so profound.”

Williams is in the process of expanding his recently finished dissertation into a book proposal. The topic focuses on the religious themes prevalent in country music between 1921 and 1957, especially the struggle between doing good or doing evil.

For example, musician Frank Hutchinson wrote a song titled “Hell Bound Train,” where he talks about the devil running a train filled with things like “a boiler loaded with whiskey and beer.” Hutchinson’s song proclaims his belief that “Jesus saves,” however the musician later died of an alcohol-related liver disease.

“It’s the tension between the sacred and the profane,” Williams said. “This idea was especially important to early country music and its evangelical Christian foundation. It’s a conflict that still guides southerners today.” 

Williams also studied the quest for early country music singers to appear authentic. Before television and movies, it did not matter much how a musician dressed when singing over the radio waves. Once the public started watching westerns, they started forming ideas of how a real country music singer should dress. At some of the first performances of the Grand Ole Opry, the performers dressed in suits. That was soon scrapped in favor of what people thought was a more authentic country look.

As another part of his research, he went through the lyrics of approximately 200 songs from Uncle Dave Macon, The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams to look for recurring themes such as redemption, salvation and longing. He constructed charts and graphs detailing how often these ideas and key words appeared in the songs.

“This is the first in-depth study of this type of subject,” said Williams’ mentor, James Akenson, Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Tech.

During Williams’ two summers of independent studies, his mentor assigned various smaller papers on individual topics. These made up the building blocks of what eventually would become his dissertation, “The Dichotomy of the Sacred and the Profane in Early Country Music” – and what he hopes will become a published book in the near future.

“I’ve had an enormous amount of support from the people at Tech,” Williams said. “Nobody gets a Ph.D. all by themselves. For a long time, I thought I knew pretty much everything, but when I found out that in the overall scheme of things I didn’t know very much, that’s when I really started to learn.”

According to Akenson, one advantage of the Tech Ph.D. program is its ability to be flexible with the student’s interests.

“It’s not everywhere you can come in as an education major and say ‘I want to do my dissertation on country music,’” said Akenson. “But we worked with what he wanted to do, and the result has been a dissertation that is elegant, powerful and readable.”

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