Alumni Voices: Jason Mellard, History Lecturer at Texas State University

We’re back this week with a feature on an alumnus of the American Studies Ph.D. program. Jason Mellard currently teaches history at Texas State University and recently (as in, this month!) published his first book, Progressive Country: How the 1970s Transformed the Texan in Popular Culture with the University of Texas Press. You can nab a copy here. Do it! (And, if you’re in the Austin area, Threadgill’s South will be hosting a book release party this Wednesday, October 30, at 6:00pm.)


How is the work that you’re doing right now informed by the work that you did as a student in American Studies at UT?

I work with the Center for Texas Music History at Texas State University in San Marcos. Under Director Gary Hartman, we publish the annual Journal of Texas Music History, produce the short This Week in Texas Music History radio segments for KUTX, advise on the Dickson Series in Texas Music with Texas A & M University Press, and teach popular music courses in the Department of History and Honors College at Texas State.

The interdisciplinary habit of mind fits the Center’s broad audience quite well. We speak to musicologists, historians, record collectors, industry types, artists, and fans, all of whom have strong, but often divergent, affective investments in Texas Music. This requires the ability to pivot, to see the relevance of popular music history from each of their vantage points.  The conversations we seek to foster beyond the academy also involve a populist sentiment I feel to be deep in the American Studies vein. Janet Davis, Elizabeth Engelhardt, and Randy Lewis, among others, have modeled this sensibility in the department, one that dates back to our UT forebears in Henry Nash Smith, J. Frank Dobie, and Américo Paredes.

In teaching, I credit the wide latitude the department offered in allowing us to design and teach our own courses. In the spring I have the opportunity to return to the first class I ever offered at UT, “The 1970s in America: Revolution, Malaise, Reaction, and Sleaze.” I feel lucky that AMS gave me free reign to present students with the disorienting smorgasbord of disco, Patty Hearst, AIM, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull. And, it is likely that I never would have been in a position to teach it had not the department given the same freedom, years before, to Joel Dinerstein in developing his legendary “The History of Being Cool in America.” It was there I first learned of American Studies as a UT undergrad, and I continually endeavor to develop that same combination of curiosity, wonder, and critical acumen that UT-AMS faculty and grad students offer in the classroom, semester after semester.

Do you have any words of wisdom or advice for students in our department about how to get the most out of their time here?

Say “yes.” This is a tricky piece of advice, as I am only now reaching a place where I tell people to learn to say “no.” In grad school, though, I found it served me best to stay hungry. My dissertation and book project evolved from answering an Austin Chronicle open call to aid Threadgill’s proprietor Eddie Wilson in researching material for his memoirs. Saying yes also earned me a writing gig with UT AMS alum Farbrizio Salmoni’s magazine American West: La Rivista Italiana di Western Lifestyle, where I covered rodeo and Texas Music for a fervent Italian audience. Also know that there is a network of alumni locally, nationally, and internationally that wish for your success and the success of the department as a whole. Take advantage of these contacts to learn of the various possible career paths out of the graduate experience.

And, have a life outside of the university. In addition to cultivating the Italian rodeo circuit, I worked at a shoe store that sprung out of the Emo’s orbit and at Toy Joy’s short-lived vegan bakery. American Studies folks tend to be drawn to these opportunities of their own accord, but I just want to ratify the impulse. Do something that engages your physical and social intelligence to get you out of your head now and again.

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Stories from Summer Vacation: Kirsten Ronald’s Summer of Dance

Here’s a dispatch from Ph.D. student Kirsten Ronald, who discusses her summer of teaching dance lessons.

2LF Kevin and Kirsten

Hello friends!  I passed my oral exams in April, so this summer I’m doing all those fun post-orals things: putting together a dissertation committee, working on my prospectus, and investigating the brave new world of grant writing.  And yes, for those of you who know about my penchant for rubrics, I am already making flowcharts and schedules galore to help keep myself on track.  I’ve even got a timeclock called Toggl, so I can punch in and out of work.  Some things are just too much fun to resist.

But after so many months of sitting still and not talking to anyone while studying for orals, man, I’ve just got to dance.  I learned how to two-step back when I first moved to Austin, and there’s still nothing I like to do better on a hot Texas summer night.  For all its aspirations to be a global city and the live music capital of the world, Austin is still very much in Texas, which means that in addition to being home to some of the best barbecue in the state, it also has an awesome (and growing) old school country and honkytonk scene.  I’m not talking the watered-down twang of pop country here – Austin’s country music is hot, dirty, and downright swampy, with far more boozy lovin’ and leavin’ than will ever make it onto KUT.  The dance is alive and evolving, too, a hot and sweaty mashup of traditional moves with East Coast swing, Lindy Hop, West Coast, and jive.  It’s Texas two-step with a cosmopolitan twist, and the chance to create something new and beautiful every single time you go out on the dance floor makes it wildly addictive.

Last summer, I started teaching two-step lessons at a local honkytonk called The White Horse, and since then my partner and I have formed a little dance company called Two Left Foots that teaches free beginning and intermediate lessons to 50 or 60 students a week.  We’re a small, new addition to a very large, very old and very well-established scene that is growing like everything else in Austin.  It’s a ton of fun with a lot of wonderful, warm, accepting people, it’s great exercise, and it’s a great way to be a living part of Austin and Texas history.  So come on out, y’all.  And don’t forget to bring your boots!