American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations

Mining the Past: Performing Authenticity in the Country Music Biopic

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies/English

First Advisor

Erin Labbie

Second Advisor

Kevin Quinn (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Vivian Patraka (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Becca Cragin (Committee Member)


Both country music and the biographical film are genres that are evaluated by strict (yet constantly changing) standards of authenticity. However, "authenticity" means different things when applied to both genres; in country music, it refers to the artist's respect for tradition and ability to relate to their audience, while in the biographical film, the term typically denotes factual accuracy and the filmmaker's ability to emphasize the "correct" aspects of the subject's life. This dissertation argues that when a biographical film about a country musician is made, it must negotiate standards of authenticity applicable to both country music and the biographical film. Further, it posits that when the subject of the film is female, the standard for living an "authentic" life and having an "authentic" career changes drastically and, for the artist, is a constant negotiation. Via analyses of four films chronicling the lives of female country musicians, this dissertation examines the ways in which the films (and their heroines) negotiate genre- and medium-specific standards of authenticity.

Using the 1980 film Coal Miner's Daughter as a case study, Chapter I argues that country biopics must successfully negotiate authenticity relative to four models: the country model; the narrative model; the emphasis model; and the "time and space" model. Chapter II, in turn, argues that Sweet Dreams failed to achieve the acclaim of Coal Miner's Daughter largely because the subject's death made it impossible to authenticate the film's emphasis. Chapter III contends that Walk the Line actress Reese Witherspoon was considered authentic due to her ability to negotiate, first, June Carter's struggle between "home" and "the road," and, second, her own star persona with that of the character's. Finally, Chapter IV uses the documentary Shut Up and Sing to examine how standards of authenticity change over time, as well as how authenticity is negotiated in a different film genre.

Ultimately, this project seeks to contribute to the fields of film studies, country music studies, and women's studies, providing an analysis of authenticity in genres in which women's roles have been largely overlooked by scholars.