Country music is the music of America. A genre that is completely unique to our country, especially the southern and western regions, it helps define the American culture. Country music is music that people can relate to. Songs of love and loss, pain and hardships, good times and bad, and the life of the average person, are the core of this class of music.
Country music is not popular among all Americans because of the stereotype of the twangy, wailing songs of cheating and drinking. Although there are many such songs, there is much more to country music than that. Several sub-genres developed simultaneously in the early 1900’s and several more have developed over the years.
The music that dates back to the folk songs of British colonists is still with us today, although it has undergone a number of drastic changes. From the first hillbillies who began to record in the early twenties, to the country superstars of today, the style and sound of country music has developed in the last century. This would not have been possible without the influence and talent of the defining artists who contributed to this development such as Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and Willie Nelson, to name a few.
The roots of country music can be found in the Anglo-Celtic folk songs brought to the New World by immigrants from Britain, Ireland, and Scotland. These immigrants brought traditional songs that had been passed down orally for generations and continued that tradition in the new world.
The people who lived in the Appalachian Mountains were usually isolated from outside culture and these traditional English ballads were preserved here. Music and singing were an important part of their humble life. These mountain people gave a distinctly American flavor to these traditional ballads by changing lyrics to fit their own situations. They removed the vulgarity that was common in these songs. Songs depicting graphic violence were common however, often with a moral lesson attached to the end of the song (Kallen 10-11).
In the early years of mountain music, people would often sing alone, or with the accompaniment of a fiddle, and for their own enjoyment. The fiddle was a popular instrument because it was easy to make and very portable. Also popular were banjos, a stringed instrument of African origins. Guitars were more expensive and rarely used, until the Sears-Roebuck catalogs made them more available (Country Music Planet’s History of Country Music).
In the early 1900s, southern performers began to play publicly, traveling in medicine shows, or working as traveling minstrels. At this time, sheet music (the equivalent to modern CDs) of “hillbilly” songs began to sell in large quantities. With the invention of the phonograph, the commercialization of country music began. Hillbilly singers began creating records with fair success. By the end of the 1920’s “hillbilly” music had been firmly established with two main varieties; “mountain”, which originated in the Appalachian mountains, and “country”, which stressed individual singers and non traditional instruments, and showed influences from popular and negro music (Malone 62-63).
In August 1927 Victor records signed on the two most successful and most influential acts of the time, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. The Carter Family, who exemplified the “mountain” style, consisted of A.P., Sara, and Maybelle, and was the first commercially successful country group. They employed vocal harmonies in addition to stringed instruments and had a unique guitar style. Their influence on country music is astounding, and covers of their songs are still being produced today.
Jimmie Rodgers is considered the father of “country” music. Rodgers worked on the railroad until his fight with Tuberculosis forced him to quit and take on a less strenuous job as a singer. Known as “The Singing Brakeman” his unique blue yodel style combined Negro blues sound with traditional yodeling. He set country music on the path it was to take, focusing on the individual singer and losing much of its southeastern attributes. Jimmie Rodgers toured extensively until he died from his T.B. in 1933 (Malone 79).
With its introduction in the 1920s, radio had an enormous effect on the popularity of country music. During the depression years of the 1930s, people who could not afford to buy records could listen to music for free on the radio. Early radio programs included local performers who performed live, and live broadcasts of barn dances where musicians could try to make a name for themselves. Initially, the biggest of these shows was the National Barn Dance out of WLS Chicago.
The Grand Ole’ Opry began as WSM’s Barn Dance and was aired out of Nashville and was soon the largest and most famous of such programs. It got its name when the founder and announcer George Hay said at the beginning of a program, “for the past hour we’ve been listening to …Grand Opera, but from now on we will present ‘The Grand Ole Opry.'” (Country Music Planet’s History of Country Music)
At first the Opry featured local bands but by the 1940s it became famous for its featured vocalists. The first big star of the Opry was banjo player Uncle Dave Macon. In 1938 Roy Acuff and his band the Smoky Mountain Boys joined the Opry. Acuff’s fame soon exceeded Macon’s and rivaled that of even Frank Sinatra (Roughstock’s History of Country Music). Throughout the years, most of the greatest country acts were introduced on the Opry. For new country artists, to appear on the Opry meant success.
Now that country music was firmly established as a genre, several sub-styles began to develop at the same time. One of these styles developed in the mountains and blue grass meadows of Kentucky and Virginia, hence the name, Bluegrass. This is a style of mountain music with a driving beat that requires extraordinary skill to perform (A Quick Guide to Country). It is characterized by high-pitched harmonies and improvised stringed solos.
The one man responsible for bluegrass is Bill Monroe. In the early thirties Bill and his two brothers performed on the National Barn Dance on WLS Chicago. In 1938 the brothers split up and Bill founded his own band. He began performing on the Opry in 1939 and formed the Blue Grass Boys with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Scruggs’ unique banjo style put the final touches on this new sound. Flatt and Scruggs left Monroe and formed the Foggy Mountain Boys in 1948.
Bluegrass music has developed separately from the rest of country and has changed little since it’s beginning. Other Bluegrass bands over the years include the Stanley Brothers, Ricky Skaggs, and Union Station.
Another style of country developed in the thirties and forties thanks to cowboy films and the dime novel. In the thirties, people were fascinated by the adventure and romanticism of the cowboy. Hollywood cashed in on this popular concept and began making movies featuring the singing cowboy. The first to gain national attention was Gene Autry, who starred in numerous movies. Another Hollywood singing cowboy who would compete with Autry was Roy Rogers. Originally a member of the Sons of the Pioneers, an important group fundamental in the formation of cowboy music, he left to pursue a movie career (Roughstock’s History of Country Music).
Autry, Rogers, and the Sons of the Pioneers helped put the “western” in country and western music. Real “cowboys” from the southwest region also began recording during this time. These men sang of the hard times and rough life that they lived (Kallen). Soon hillbilly bands began to change to a more western style and groups that had no contact at all with the west began singing songs with western themes. Western music developed completely unattached from the actual west (Malone 160).
Another very popular style known as western swing also sprung up in the southwest during the thirties. Western swing was essentially big band dance music, with a mix of blues, jazz, and western sounds. The two men primarily responsible for this style were Bob Wills and Milton Brown. Wills, Brown, and others formed the Light Crust Doughboys in 1931 and began to develop their swing sound. In 1933, Brown and Wills split up to form their own bands, Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, respectively. Brown died in 1936, but Wills lived on and became a huge influence on country music as we know it today. The swing sound suffered during WWII but was rejuvenated in the fifties. Instrumentally, western swing added the Hawaiian steel guitar and drums to country band (Kallen 52-54).
In the fifties country music began to create the sound for which it is most famous and that has had the most influence on country music even today, Honky-tonk. A blend of Jimmie Rodgers’ singing and the steel guitars of western swing became popular in the southwestern bars where it got its name. Honky-tonks were rough bars in Texas and Oklahoma where cowboys, farmers, and oil field workers came to drink and have a good time. These people wanted to hear songs that they could relate to from the live bands and jukeboxes, a new invention that could be found there (Kallen 36-37). To overcome the noise in these rowdy bars, new instruments such as electric bass and guitar, and also drums were introduced to country (Malone 163). Pivotal artists such as Ernest Tubb, who sang “Walking the Floor over You”, and Lefty Frizell, made famous by “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time”, often lived the hard lives they sang about. This was especially true for one of country’s most influential singers, Hank Williams.
Hank began both singing and drinking at an early age. He joined the Opry in 1949, but was later kicked off for drunkenness. His hit songs like “Lovesick Blues”, “Tear in My Beer”, and “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, were inspired by his alcoholism and marital problems. He suffered from spina bifida occulta, but doctors attributed his bodily pains and loss of bladder control to his drinking, and gave him large amount of painkillers. “He knew something was wrong with his body, but the drugs shut out the pain (Flippo 199).” Hank Williams died on New Year’s Day, 1953 from a drug and alchohol overdose making him the most legendary artist in the history of country music. Over 20,000 people attended his funeral and his records continued to top the charts after his death.
Thanks to a new musical phenomenon, Rock and Roll, country began to lose its popularity in the late fifties and early sixties. Blue grass and honky-tonk were no longer popular styles. In 1958 the Country Music Association (CMA) was formed to protect the financial interests of country music. The CMA created more country radio stations and pushed for a change in the style of country away from the rough sounds of honky-tonk to softer, smoother songs, heavily influenced by pop. The twangy steel guitar and the fiddle were removed and replaced with orchestras, pianos, and background vocals. During this time songs were usually written by a professional songwriter, picked out specifically by a producer, and sung by a vocalist with a sweet, clean voice. Because by this time Nashville had become the center of the country music industry, this manufactured style was deemed as the Nashville Sound or country pop (Kallen 72-74).
Nashville produced many such country crooners during the fifties and sixties. Some of the more famous include Jim Reeves, Eddy Arnold, and Conway Twitty. There were also several women singers during this time, including Patsy Cline with hits like “Crazy” and “I Fall to Pieces”, and Loretta Lynn. Record executives had the most power in Nashville and decided artists’ fate. One such executive was Chet Atkins, who was very successful during this time.
By 1970, the Nashville Sound had begun to become tiresome and many artists wanted to return to more traditional country. Artists were becoming tired of being told what music to play and how to play it. They wanted to choose their own songs and to use their own bands while recording. These radical new artists were dubbed “outlaws”.
The two singers who are the most synonymous with the outlaw movement are Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. Both artists came to Nashville in the sixties and had moderate success, Willie as a songwriter, and Waylon as a recording artist, but both were frustrated with not having control over their music. After Willie’s Tennessee home burned down, he moved back to his native Texas. He began playing gigs for younger, half hippie, half cowboy audiences who loved his music. He called up Waylon to inform him of this new opportunity (Allen 38).
Waylon and Willie began to produce their own music. Albums like Willie’s “Red Headed Stranger” and Waylon’s “Lonesome, On’ry, and Mean” shocked Nashville with their popularity. A collaboration album of Waylon, Willie, Thompall Glaser, and Jessi Colter entitled “Wanted: The Outlaws” was the first country album to ever sell platinum (Allen 37-53).
This outlaw style brought back honky-tonk and western swing and mixed it with blues and rock for a unique, edgy sound. Outlaw country dominated the seventies. Other artists during this time included Merle Haggard, a true outlaw who was one of the founders of the “Bakersfield sound”, Johnny Cash, Billie Joe Shaver, Johnny Paycheck, and David Allen Coe.
The outlaw era ended at the end of the seventies, and giants like Willie, Waylon, and Cash faded into the background. Country again took a turn towards producing smooth songs that appealed to listeners of pop during the early eighties. In part because of the John Travolta movie “Urban Cowboy”, which gave this movement its name, country music became more popular in cities. Most of the music made during this time is considered by experts today as some of the worst in country music history (Roughstock’s History of Country Music).
Not all country during this time was bad as some artists tried to stick with traditional sounds. John Conlee and Reba McEntire are some examples. The group Alabama is another. Thanks to an original style that has traditional sounds, and songs like “Mountain Music” and “Roll On”, Alabama was a huge success in the eighties and nineties and became one of the top selling groups in all of music history (Kallen 90).
Beginning in the late eighties and nineties, a generation of “new traditionalists” began to reinstall the traditional sounds of country. Artists such as George Strait, Randy Travis, and Alan Jackson are to thank for this. Garth Brooks signed a record deal in 1989 and was the king of country during the nineties. He has sold millions of albums to become the best selling artist ever.
Many new artists are changing the face of country music. Modern country consists of rich voices singing over drums and guitar, both electric and acoustical. Fiddles and steel guitar can also be found once more in country. The many new artists of this century are creating music that blends all the styles of country music up to this point along with rock, pop, and other influences. While some may question the traditionalism of today’s country, the genre is more popular than it has ever been.
Modern country music has come a long way from its humble beginnings in the rural Appalachian Mountains. It has undergone many changes due to the trends of the day and the outside influences of other music genres, nearly losing its identity. However, many of the attributes of early country still exist today.
Since it now has more listeners than ever before, this uniquely American music will continue to be an important part of our culture. As long as today’s artists keep these origins in mind, the future of country music, in my opinion, is very bright.
Allen, Bob. “Waylon and Willie.” New York, NY: Quick Fox, 1979.
“A Quick Guide to Country.” 28 Mar. 2006.
“Country Music Planet’s History of Country Music.” 29 Mar. 2009.
Flippo, Chet. “Your Cheatin’ Heart: A Biography of Hank Williams.” Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1981.
Kallen, Stuart A. “The History of Country Music.” San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 2003.
Malone, Bill C. “Country Music U.S.A., A Fifty Year History.” Austin, TX: University of Texas Printing Division, 1968.
“Roughstock’s History of Country Music.” 28 Mar. 2009.