Conversations: Maddy Underwood | Varyer

Conversations: Maddy Underwood

A discussion on anonymity, authenticity, and finding humanity in the mundane

The following is an excerpt from a conversation with Max Kepley.

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MK How did the idea for Country Classics Vol 1. come about? Have you always been interested in the iconography of country music?

MU Well, I grew up in Nashville, so a lot of my interest in country iconography has been by osmosis. My high school was actually on Broadway, so I would see honky tonk signs and cowboy regalia every day.

A few years ago, I interned at Hatch Show Print, the letterpress and design studio, which shares a building with the Country Music Hall of Fame. Any time we wanted to use the image of a country artist, we had to obscure their face for copyright reasons. It was a challenge to make that look intentional, so I thought why not make a whole zine around that idea?

Instead of removing faces, though, I sourced some images from a pack of country music trading cards and played around with other parts of their identities.

MK Like Alan Jackson’s cowboy hat.

MU Exactly! If you Google “Alan Jackson,” every single photo is of him in a cowboy hat, whether he’s on stage or at home posing for a Christmas card. Props like that have become so central to the image of certain stars that I began to wonder where the brand ends and the person begins.

MK It’s fascinating, and you take that idea even further in Vol. 2. It looks like you placed advertisements over the silhouettes of country stars like Hank Williams Jr. and Patsy Montana.

MU I did! In Volume 2, I dove deeper into the relationship between country and commerce. If you walk through the Country Music Hall of Fame, you can quite literally see the progression of the genre from “family tradition” to commercial enterprise. The exhibition begins with the Carter family and Hank Williams and ends with the names we hear on the radio today, some of whom found the spotlight through reality TV competitions.

Of course, “golden era” country music was still intertwined with commerce, but it’s on another level today.

MK Totally. I mean, one of the biggest songs on country radio last year was about Applebee’s.

MU [Laughs] Right. I can hear the hook in my head right now.

MK There’s a reason it was a hit!

MU It really goes to show how much country music has changed, both culturally and musically. There’s a lot of dialogue about “real” country, and I’m sure a lot of people feel that song—and songs like it—tarnish the genre.

MK Or they say it’s just pop music with a country palette.

MU For sure. Regardless, it’s interesting how a genre with its roots in small-scale, down-homeness has become so commodified. Even these legacy artists who are beacons of authenticity have become part of the story that Nashville sells to the rest of the country.

MK The story that brings in the bachelorettes.

MU Right. For example, you rarely see native Nashvillians wearing cowboy boots, but it’s the easiest way to spot a tourist.

MK That’s a great point. You touch on this dynamic on pages 14 and 15 in Vol. 2. On the left-hand page, Hank Williams Jr., covered in vibrant advertisements, smirks at the two people across the fold dressed in generic western wear.

MU Those two silhouettes are actually from a costume catalog! There’s a lot of cowboy-in-clothing-only energy in Nashville’s tourist zones, and I wanted to nod to that reality using Hank and the generic couple. A lot of times, the Gulch and Lower Broadway bear more resemblance to a costume party than anything else.

MK And how hypocritical that the government encourages people to come play dress up while it passes anti-drag legislation.

MU Definitely. Part of the irony is that cowboys are symbols of independence, free-spiritedness, and individuality; people who are unshackled by the constraints of society. And what’s a drag performer if not that?

MK Another great point! On a different note, I imagine people who grew up in Nashville have a complex relationship with country music. What are your first memories of country?

MU My first memory is probably the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. I remember my dad would play that CD all the time. My second memory is also from my dad’s CD collection: Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. I didn’t realize Cash wasn’t actually a murderer until I did my research for the Vault Package I designed at Third Man Records.

MK It sounds like your dad was instrumental in introducing you to country music.

MU For sure. He’s from Nashville, too, so I got a lot of my respect for the “titans” of country from him. In high school, it was acceptable to listen to people like Emmylou, Dolly, and Patsy Cline, but not so much the radio stuff, which, at the time, was pretty bro country. You know, Florida Georgia Line and stuff. But now that I’m older, I do love a lot of that radio music.

MK What do you like most about country music today?

MU Probably how great it is at finding humanity in mundane moments. One current example is Megan Moroney’s song “Hair Salon.” It’s about a woman who’s heartbroken when she overhears the salon gossip that her first love bought a ring for someone else.

Another example is Maren Morris’ song “Circles Around This Town.” That one’s about a young songwriter trying to “find something with meaning, something worth singing about” while daydreaming in the driver’s seat.

So much life happens in these in-between moments, and I don’t feel like a lot of pop music captures the everyday in quite the same way.