For the third installment of our Genres series we take a look at maybe the most maligned but also one of the most popular musical forms of the 20th century.
And yet whilst country music inspires all kinds of negative reactions in people if you’re willing to dig back through it’s history you’ll realise that if you find the right country it’s actually pretty darn great. As with our Blues and Jazz posts this is not intended to be a definitive history, something which would require a pretty hefty book, but rather a wilfully cherry-picked selection of the best, with a loose chronology of the most important artists and moments in the history of a music that represents an indelible side of the American way of life.
What is Country Music?
The beginnings of country music are complex, but most historians agree that it’s roots are in the folk music that came out of the southern Appalachian mountains in the first decades of the 20th century, alongside what was known as ‘Western music’ which had it’s roots in English, Scottish and Irish folk ballads but which came to represent cowboy life in the western states of the USA. Instruments common to both were guitars, fiddles, banjos, mandolins, and harmonicas. In the 1920’s, when recorded music was establishing itself, a scene developed around Atlanta and many of the first country recording stars were borne, most notably Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, acts who would set the template for much that came after them.
Country music was developing contemporaneously alongside the blues and uses similar scales and moods, often expressing tales of hardship and heartbreak. Like the blues, it also became a popular form of entertainment, and started to enter mainstream culture in America through appearances in films and things like the Grand Ole Opry, a radio concert staged in Nashville, Tennessee which beamed the biggest country performers in to American homes from 1925 onwards, and still broadcasts today having become a bastion of the music. Nashville itself has long since been considered the home of country music and millions of tourists have visited it over the years for that reason alone.
As it grew through the following decades country became an umbrella term for everything from old time western ‘hillbilly’ music to jazz-influenced western swing, the rockabilly sound of the 50’s, the sad, lonesome howl of singers like Hank Williams, stripped down country-folk music, outlaw country sounds and more commercial slickly produced styles, plus the blend of country and rock right through to modern country-pop sounds. So broad has the genre term become that even Taylor Swift has been classed as country, although the difference between her and a true country queen like Dolly Parton is deep and wide, and a sign of just how difficult it is to talk about country music as some kind of unified entity (not that we are going to let that stop us, of course…). Indeed, everything I’ve just mentioned barely scratches the surface.
When all is said and done, country music is white America’s greatest contribution to 20th century music, a massive sprawling body of work that is an indelible part of American musical culture on par with jazz and blues in terms of it’s cultural significance, and most certainly in terms of sales figures.
In the Eastern part of the United States there is a cultural region, the Appalachian region, covering part of Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky and Georgia. Mainly formed by Scottish and Irish settlers and some Germans and Welsh immigrants, and then there are also the African Americans which have been there for longer, mainly the Cherokee tribe. They represent a group of their own within the United States, and the culture and people in this region have been studied and been victims of stereotypes for a long time. This distinct culture gave birth to a type of music, Appalachian music, which comes from the ballad tradition and fiddle music, and it also has been influenced by blues music, which brought with it the banjo.
Bluegrass is a type of music inspired by Appalachian music. Following with the traditions of English and Scottish ballads and accompanied by fiddles. There are classic Appalachian bluegrass ballads and also dance bluegrass classics like the Cumberland Gap. Bluegrass is all about improvisation, accompaniments and tempos. It is traditionally performed on stringed, acoustic instruments. It is also played while accompanying buck dancing.
There is Traditional Bluegrass (Acoustic instruments, folk songs, and simple chord progressions). Progressive Bluegrass (they introduce the use of electric instruments and import songs from other genres) like this awesome cover of Rocket Man.
And the third one is Bluegrass Gospel.
Honky Tonk and western swing.
In the 1940’s and 50’s a generation of country artists came along who in many ways even now define the country sound. Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells (the first major female solo artist of the genre), Webb Pierce, Lefty Frizzell, Floyd Tillman, George Jones and Bob Wills all became major artists during this era singing a brand of music which drew on the blues and Mexican Ranchera as much as it did white influences.
Of all the singers to come from this era one man – Hank Williams – would rise above the rest to become country’s biggest star. Williams songs like Cold, Cold Heart, Move It On Over, Jambalaya (On The Bayou) and I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry are just a few of the many that have become standards of the genre and giants of the American songbook. Not only that but Williams’ life has become the stuff of legend, his tempestuous relationships with women, chronic alcoholism and death at the age of just 32 all adding to the undeniable sense of tragedy contained within many of his songs. If country is the white man’s blues then Williams was the living proof.
Rockabilly and the Man In Black.
Whilst the rockabilly (the word is a portmenteau of rock and hillbilly) movement was itself quite short lived it’s influence on both country and rock n’ roll was deep and long-lasting. As rock and roll exploded in the 50’s rockabilly sprang up as a meeting point between the two styles, combining country twang with an uptempo proto-rock n’ roll thump. Early rock ‘n rollers like Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley were big country fans and their music clearly displayed it’s influence. Prominent purveyors of the rockabilly sound include the Burnette brothers, Johnny and Dorsey, Bill Haley (prior to Rock Around The Clock) and Bill Flagg who is sometimes thought of as the one who coined the term ‘rockabilly’ when describing his own sound.
On the other side of the coin along came Johnny Cash, a man who had a country sound which clearly displayed a rock ‘n roll influence, particularly in Cash’s demeanour. Dressed from head to toe in black, and posessed of a rich inimitable baritone drawl it’s fair to say Cash was something of a rock star before the term was even coined. Songs like I Walk The Line, Ring Of Fire, Folsom Prison Blues, and Orange Blossom Special seemed to be coming from heaven and hell at the same time, and the profundity of Cash’s delivery coupled with his band’s stripped down electric sound meant that his influence reached way outside the world of country. As a figure in the history of American music Cash has few equals, and his late career resurgance under the guidance of producer Rick Rubin ensured that the Cash legacy will live on for many, many years to come. When he died Bob Dylan, a friend and huge fan, said of him that “he was like the North Star, you could set your compass by him” which sums up his standing in the music world perfectly.
In the late 1960s and 70´s, country music blended with rock music and Country Rock was born. Artists blended country´s lyrics, themes and styles. Perhaps what comes to mind is The Eagles and Lynda Ronstadt and The Doobie Brothers, and yes, they are the some most representative figures of the sub-genre, but it actually started with Bob Dylan and The Byrds since then many performers have explored country rock, some with a greater rock vibe and some, with a more country vibe, like Gram Parsons, who came out of The Byrds to form the Flying Burrito Brothers and record solo material which has come to define that musical territory somewhere between country and the Rolling Stones.
Country Folk and Outlaw Country
In the late 60’s and through the 70’s a new breed of country singer/songwriter came along with long hair, ripped jeans, and a rebel spirit. Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, David Allen Coe, Guy Clark, and Townes Van Zandt all wrote songs that were poetic, dark-edged, and influenced as much by Bob Dylan as they were Hank Williams. Johnny Cash was still going strong, and Merle Haggard, who had been inspired to become a singer after seeing Cash at one of his famous prison concerts also made a name for himself around this time, although Haggard’s strongly right-wing worldview set him at odds with many of his conteporaries. Of all these artists Van Zandt was maybe the least well known at the time but in turn has probably left the most profound legacy, and his reputation as a ‘songwriter’s songwriter’ and an artist on a par with Dylan and Cash continues to grow and grow. This era of country music is beautifully encapsulated in the film Heartworn Highways, a must see for all who might be interested.
Women in Country
The role of women in county music has evolved during the years. Thankfully there is a larger market and space for women in country, and songs are no longer all about outlaws and shootouts. However, there is still a terrible unbalance in the rate of male and female artists, and there have even been headlines like “country´s war on women” and articles about it. Of course, there are some women in country with amazing voices, personalities and character, who have won over audiences and have even crossed over to mainstream. Some of the most famous women in country are:
Mother Maybelle Carter member of Country´s first family (The Carter Family). Maybelle Addington was born in Virginia on May 10th, 1909. On March 13, 1926 she married Ezra J. Carter. They had three daughters, Helen, Valerie June and Anita. Her brother in law, A.P. Carter formed the Carter Family and they became one of the first commercially successful country music groups. She played the guitar, banjo and autoharp. She is credited with creating the Carter scratch, she would use her thumb to play melody on the bass her index to play the rhythm.
Kitty Wells Ellen Muriel Deason (August 30, 1919 – July 16, 2012), was born in Tennessee and was a country singer who is mostly remembered for being the first woman who had a top US country hit which made her the first female country star. She married Johnnie Wright (also a musician and member of the duo Johnnie and Jack.). They also formed the band Tennessee Mountain Boys. Even after having the number one and being the first woman to have a country album released, some of her songs were considered controversial but she was seeing as a good mother and wife. She inspired other artists like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton.
Patsy Cline she was born in Virginia as Virginia Patterson Hensley on September 8, 1932. She grew up with her mother and two sisters and brother. She started singer at a radio station and then started singing at nightclubs, working her way up to the Grand Ole Opry. She was signed to Five Star Records in 1955. She was one of the first country singers to have a crossover pop hit. She was later signed to Decca and had her first No. 1 song with the one we linked to her name here. She sold as many records and concert tickets as her male country singers and really helped break down barriers for women in country music. She died in a plane crash in 1963.
Loretta Lynn (Loretta Webb) was born on April 14, 1932 in Kentucky. She was married by the age of 13 (!!!!) to Oliver “Mooney” Lynn at the age of 13, at 17 she had 4 children and was a grandmother at 29. She taught herself how to play the guitar and used to sing at church. She was discovered on a television talent contest and singed to Zero Records, released her first album, then went to Nashville and was signed to Decca. From 1955 to 1970 she had 13 top 10 hits, four of them were No. 1 songs. In the 70[s she started a professional partnership with Conway Twitty and also had 5 consecutive No. 1 songs. She was the first woman in country music to have fifty Top 10 hits. She recorded albums with Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette in the 1990s to critical acclaim but not commercial success. In 2004 she released an album produced by Jack White. She still tours today.
Dolly Parton was born Dolly Rebecca Parton on January 19, 1946 in Sevierville, Tennessee, the fourth of 12 children. She grew up dirt poor, and performed from an early age on local radio and television shows. When she was a teenager, she met Johnny Cash at the Grand Ole Opry, and he encouraged her to follow her dreams. The day after graduating from high school, she packed up her things and moved to Nashville. She was asked to joined the Porter Wagon Show (television) and with time wn the audience over. Then she was signed to RCA and got to the top 10 with her first single “The Last Thing on My Mind”. She is now a country music living legend.
There are a lot of talented women in country, there is EmmyLou Harris, Reba Macentire, Faith Hill, Martina McBride, Miranda Lambert, Alison Krauss, Trisha Yearwood, Wynnona Judd, Bonnie Rate and the list goes on. Women have certainly have their part in the evolution of the genre, as we said before, there is always more space for female talent, but even so, the girls have earned a spot in country.
Country Music Today
So what´s the state of country music today? Like everything it is under constant movement. There are the fans who would like it to stand still and never change, the companies and suits who just want to sing pretty people singing about drinking bear and heartbreak (as evidenced by the charts). From the 1980’s onwards though there sprang up what became known as the neo-traditionalist movement, with artists such as Patty Loveless, Randy Travis, Ricky Skaggs, Alan Wilson, and The Judds veering towards a sound that was at once contemporary whilst drawing from and paying homage to the rich history that the music had now developed. This continued into the 90’s and beyond with acts like Mary Chapin Carpenter, Dixie Chicks, Mindy McReady, Gillian Welch, and Alison Krauss all showing that the naked honesty of country music and it’s more folky roots can find a new young audience whilst also keeping the traditionalists happy. Alt-country also sprang up taking the music off in to indie territory and acts like Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams, and Drive-By Truckers have shown that a country sensibility can happily crossover with the alternative rock scene.
And of course, there are the likes of Billy Ray Cyrus, Garth Brooks and Toby Keith. We don’t live in a perfect world though…
Today country is still one of the biggest selling styles of music in America nd the world beyond, and whilst it continues to draw instinctive howls of derision from those only familiar with the slick twang of it’s more commercial end for those willing to dig a little deeper it offers a rich, varied, and hugely satisfying world to explore and enjoy. If you’ve never dug deep then we hope this article goes some way towards introducing you the the better side of country.