Roots of Country
music is rooted in the folk traditions of the British
Isles. In the new world, those roots became entangled
with the ethnic musics of other immigrants and African
slaves. Many gospel hymns were also popularized in the
nineteenth century South, while tent shows and blackface
minstrelsy introduced folk-sounding tunes written by northern
professionals. Played on fiddles or homemade banjos, all
this music would one day sound as if born in the southern
Country Industry Takes Shape
in the 1920s, the first country records and radio programs
brought the music out of the rural heartland and into
homes across America. Radio shows made national stars
of many performers. The early records, covering a broad
range of musical styles, told of train wrecks and shipwrecks,
and of nostalgia for "The Little Old Log Cabin in
the 1930s, as America struggled with the twin horrors
of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, the dream of
the Wild West and the freedom it symbolized provided escape.
Western imagery dominated country music, and as World
War II approached, the singing cowboy appeared to stand
for all that was fair and just.
Dawn of Country Radio
musicians first performed on radio in 1922. The following
year, station WBAP in Fort Worth, Texas, debuted what's
believed to have been the first country music radio "barn
dance"-an ensemble variety show that had the feel
of a family gathering and was aimed at rural audiences.
Eager to exploit radio's advertising power, stations in
Chicago (WLS), Nashville (WSM), and elsewhere soon followed
suit. The early radio barn dances provided a living for
country entertainers throughout the nation while becoming
a vital part of listeners' lives. As a distant fan of
WLW-Cincinnati's Monday Night in Renfro Valley put it,
"You make . . . your folks of Renfro Valley so real
to us that we may be coming to Kentucky just to get back
to happiness and contentment."
widen the troubled market for records during the early
1920s, the industry began seeking talent in country, blues,
ethnic, and other folk-based idioms. The major companies
in the North recorded southern fiddlers and stringbands
prolifically, though the company chiefs couldn't always
fathom the "hillbilly" music they were promoting.
One famous executive, Ralph Peer, described as "pluperfect
awful" a 1923 Fiddlin' John Carson recording that
turned out to be his company's first country hit. Carson
and others proved that country music could sell, and by
1930, two of the most influential country acts of all
time, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, had become
music in the 1920s and 1930s allowed for much innovation
and stylistic diversity. While the principal sound remained
that of the raw, fiddle-driven stringband, brilliant musicians
such as fiddler Clayton McMichen found room within that
sound for all manner of personal expression. As microphone
technology improved, the harmony of country's brother
duets became a force on radio and records, while in the
Southwest, a cadre of visionary fiddle-band veterans drew
inspiration from jazz and blues, and invented western
country performers bridled at the word "hillbilly,"
considering it loaded with negative cultural stereotypes.
By contrast, "cowboy" implied romance, bravery,
and the self-sufficiency of life on the open range. By
the mid-1930s, western fringe and cowboy hats had become
part of many singers' wardrobes-including pop stars'-especially
after Gene Autry and other Hollywood singing cowboys began
to tackle the world's ills in their fantasy version of
the West. As Autry wrote of one of his typical movies,
"While my solutions were a little less complex than
those offered by FDR . . . I played a kind of New Deal
cowboy who never hesitated to tackle many of the same
War Years and Beyond
societal disruption brought on by World War II had a profound
impact on country music. Rural southerners enlisted in
droves or migrated to the cities to work in the defense
industry. They played their music in the barracks and
debated the relative merits of Roy Acuff and Frank Sinatra.
Hillbilly bands employed by the U.S. military's Special
Services Division gave many soldiers their first glimpses
of professional country entertainment, while western swing
captivated thousands of factory workers at weekly dances
in Los Angeles.
the 1950s, this heightened exposure had helped turn country
into big business. Much of that business focused on Nashville,
home of radio station WSM's increasingly powerful Grand
Ole Opry. But "hillbilly fever" also spread
to Hollywood and other commercial centers throughout the
United States. The music continued to develop as well,
with honky-tonk, bluegrass, and other substyles filling
Takes the Lead
called the WSM Barn Dance when it debuted in 1925, the
Grand Ole Opry in its early years was merely one among
several nationally famous barn dance programs. That began
to change in 1939, when the NBC radio network picked up
a half-hour Opry segment sponsored by R. J. Reynolds,
makers of Prince Albert Smoking Tobacco, and hosted by
the Opry's Roy Acuff. The NBC broadcasts raised the Opry's
profile, and in 1946, Collier's magazine reported that
the weekly show was "seating 4,000 or more people
at every performance, some of them from distant states."
Opry's success led to the first substantial wave of recording
activity in Nashville. By then, Acuff and Fred Rose had
also established the city's first country music publishing
firm. Their star writer and singer was the great Hank
the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and the lure of defense
industry jobs, California's war-era population swelled
with working-class southerners who had moved out west.
Nightclubs and dance halls throughout the Golden State
catered to displaced country fans. Their numbers made
the West Coast fertile territory for hillbilly singers
and musicians, such as Merle Travis and the group Maddox
Brothers & Rose, many of whom found additional work
in the film industry, on radio, and in recording studios
in Los Angeles and elsewhere. The top country stars made
top money, and the band led by western swing hero Bob
Wills reportedly "outgrossed even Tommy Dorsey and
Benny Goodman's outfits" during one set of Oakland
New Sounds on the Jukebox
in the 1930s, a generation of singers trained in tough
roadside nightspots forged an amplified steel-and-fiddle
style known as honky-tonk. Geared toward the young people
who left their "home out on the rural route,"
as honky-tonk performer Hank Williams sang, honky-tonk
dealt with loss and spiritual dislocation but also celebrated
steppin' out on a Saturday night.
emerged during the same period, from the pioneering vision
of Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and other virtuoso
stringband instrumentalists. Proudly conservative yet
musically adventurous, bluegrass combined the keening
austerity of Appalachia with the exuberance of hot jazz.
from country's southern soil, the rock & roll outburst
of the mid-1950s severely damaged the country industry.
The vibrant sounds of Elvis Presley and his rockabilly
companions had extraordinary youth appeal and cut into
country record sales, gate receipts, and radio airplay.
As Opry veteran Faron Young put it, the business reached
a point where "a hillbilly couldn't get a job."
overcome the crisis, the Nashville industry banded together
to produce and promote a pop-oriented blend of country
that came to be known as the Nashville Sound. At the same
time, a number of artists in Nashville and Bakersfield,
California, extended country's stylistic range with new
"hard country" styles so electrifying that they
rivaled the excitement of rock & roll itself.
in both country tradition and the Beale Street blues,
the city of Memphis proved to be the ideal setting for
what many describe as the birth of rock & roll. Memphis
teenager Elvis Presley absorbed the sounds of both Beale
Street and the Grand Ole Opry, and fused them into a unique
style that changed popular music-including country-forever.
As singer Bob Luman once said, describing his reaction
to seeing young Presley perform live in Texas, "That's
the last time I tried to sing like Webb Pierce or Lefty
Frizzell." Others felt the same way, and soon a generation
of rockabillies, as they were called, were heating the
airwaves with a wild blend of hillbilly music and rock
& roll attitude.
country's youth market and radio clout disappearing, Nashville
began mixing pop music elements into country productions
to attract the adult audience. In the studios, fiddles
and steel guitars gave way to string sections and backing
vocalists, as exemplified in the recordings of Jim Reeves
and Patsy Cline, for instance. The top producers relied
on a small group of studio musicians-the "A-Team"-whose
quick adaptability and creative input made them vital
to the hit-making process. Behind the scenes, the newly
formed Country Music Association promoted the music, and
the media began to notice the nationwide popularity of
a phenomenon they called the Nashville Sound. In 1960,
Time magazine reported that Nashville had "nosed
out Hollywood as the nation's second biggest (after New
York) record-producing center."
Return of Hard Country
everyone believed rock & roll had killed the appeal
of straight-up hillbilly music. Many performers seized
the moment to enliven their fiddle-and-steel country sounds
with inventive rhythm and harmony. Among them, Ray Price
juiced his honky-tonk with a propulsive "shuffle"
beat, while in Bakersfield, California, Buck Owens fashioned
a hot country sound that borrowed from Elvis and other
rockers-instead of reacting against them. "In the
honky-tonks I used to sing all the Little Richard songs,
like 'Tutti Frutti,' " Owens said. "They were
conducive to excitement." By the mid-1960s, hard
country was firmly established as a counterpoint to the
smoother Nashville Sound, though in practice, many country
recordings took elements from both."
Arenas, and the Age of Celebrity
social and political turmoil of the 1960s reverberated
to every level of popular culture-including country music.
Many performers responded by reaffirming their faith in
country's heartland values and musical traditions. Others
rebelled against the powers-that-be and connected with
kindred spirits from other genres. Country's identity
was challenged then, and has been challenged ever since.
As its popularity grew, the lines separating country from
rock and other genres became more blurred, a trend accelerated
by video, Web sites, and the technological thunder of
country has continued to be sung by those unaffected by
the glitz of modern entertainment. Whether playing state
fairs, nightclubs, or bluegrass festivals, the road remains
their element, binding them to music that, for all its
changes, remains country to the core.
Music Meets the Mass Market
America contended with the upheaval of the civil rights
movement and the Vietnam War era, a number of performers
from traditional country backgrounds met the changing
times and culture head on. Some, like Roger Miller, brought
an air of hipster elan to their music. Others revolted
against what they considered to be the hidebound methods
and attitudes of Music Row, earning for their efforts
the title of Outlaws. Still others-Dolly Parton in particular-vaulted
from country stardom to the ranks of global celebrity,
becoming larger-than-life personalities trailed by the
tabloid press. Whatever their approach, they all followed
their own rules and attracted new fans to country music.
Back to the Country
many country artists were reaching out to a non-country
audience, performers with backgrounds in other genres
were introducing hillbilly sounds into their own music.
Such unique talents as Bob Dylan and Ray Charles recorded
country-oriented albums, thereby validating the music
of Hank Williams for untold numbers of new fans. "After
all, the Grand Ole Opry had been performing inside my
head since I was a kid in the country," Charles explained.
the early 1970s, the music scenes in southern California
and Austin, Texas, had made country-rock a staple of FM
radio, led by such influential artists as Gram Parsons
and the Eagles.
Rise of Southern Rock
intermingling of blues and country music in the South,
a tradition dating back through Elvis Presley to Jimmie
Rodgers and before, surged anew in the 1970s with the
arrival of southern rock. Deeply rooted in the tastes
and attitudes of southern youth, the music of the Allman
Brothers and their followers echoed both the dissatisfactions
and the defiant pride of the region's baby-boom generation.
To many of the country stars who would emerge in the 1990s,
the desolate strains of "Tuesday's Gone" echoed
a longing as familiar and ancient as that of Hank Williams's
Old Ways Prevail
the Outlaw movement and southern rock represented country's
tendency to reinvent itself with the times, performers
such as George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, and
Tammy Wynette embodied the continuing vitality of country's
essential, unchanging spirit. They established their music
and public personas within a seemingly ageless
culture of hard times and old ways. So strong was the
force of their elemental country music that each of them
attained some of their greatest fame during the tumult
of the 1960s and 1970s. "I love country music, and
it's my life," Jones said, and he could have been
speaking for many. "It's the only thing I ever cared
for, and it's the only thing I ever will care for."
1980 movie Urban Cowboy spotlighted a country dance club
scene then flourishing at nightspots such as Gilley's
in Pasadena, Texas. The movie and media attention temporarily
boosted country sales, but as the fad waned, the so-called
Urban Cowboy era came to stand for a soulless attempt
to mass-market a watered-down version of the music. Yet
even during that era, a generation of singers and musicians
that included Ricky Skaggs, George Strait, and Dwight
Yoakam, among others, had begun to re-energize the country
airwaves. Drawing inspiration from the sounds and styles
of their country forebears, these "New Traditionalists"
and "cowpunks," as the media called them, proved
the undiminished appeal of straight-ahead country.
in the Age of Plenty
September 1991, Garth Brooks's Ropin' the Wind debuted
at #1 on Billboard magazine's chart of the best-selling
albums in the nation, spanning all genres. Brooks's achievement
astonished the media and music industry, calling attention
to an unprecedented escalation in country's mass popularity.
Theories abounded as to the cause of this, with pundits
suggesting everything from improved studio technology
to a nationwide political shift in favor of country's
perceived conservative values. Whatever the cause, country
grew into the #1 radio format, and introduced so many
new stars to the airwaves that the term "hat act"
emerged as a not-always-sympathetic descriptive phrase.
The boom leveled off in the mid-1990s, but by then, a
diverse array of performers had established solid careers.
stage of country's long history has left an imprint on
the music. Today, country is many sounds and many styles,
some as old as fiddle and bow, others as new as tomorrow's
technology. A fan can hear it in the loudest venues or
the quietest hollows, through the scream of electricity
or the trill of acoustic steel strings. It's sung by superstars
and rising stars and never-want-to-be stars. The young
renew its vitality, while veteran colleagues re-teach
its truths. Country music changes daily, but it always
remains, as Willie Nelson said, a place where "people
tell their life stories."