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What is a country song? And when and how did this music get its start?
The answer to the history of country music can seem a little confusing. That’s because so many unexpected strains came into influence.
Its most clear cut older relation, we think, is to hillbilly music, the form of folk music of the Appalachians and Southern states. But it got mixed together with strains of Western tunes, as well.
A defining attribute is its identification as having rural roots, as opposed to city style.
We recently wrote an article on the Roaring Twenties. While doing that we were startled to realize that country music also got its start early in that decade. If you look at our post, you’ll see what we mean, why we did not see the connection right away.
The idea of the Roaring Twenties is really quite city-oriented and flapper-inclined. Not rural and twangy at all! Goes to show you how much, including very different trends, can happen in the same patch of time.
The background story of this music
The origins of this type of entertainment are really interesting. It did not really take shape as a distinct type until the 1940s. We were really surprised to find that out, that it was so recent.
Eck Robertson of Appalachia origin made the first record with the Victor Talking Machine Company. Fiddler Eck was born in 1887. He partnered with the older Henry Gilliland in several duets beginning in 1922.
We are sure you know “Turkey in the Straw”. Another early piece, “Sallie Gooden” is considered a classic.
At the time, his work did not become widely known. That distinction came with recordings by Jimmie Rodgers. the “Father of Country Music”.
Jimmie, born in 1987, has a colorful story, having run away as a young teenager to join traveling shows and working on the railroad.
Actually, he was a phenomenal yodeler! His “Blue Yodel” in 1927 brought him fame and fortune.
It was hillbilly into the 1930s
Hillbilly continued to be a term used synonymously for years, reflecting largely its origin in the Appalachian countryside. The early music is today sometimes referred to as old-time music instead. It’s also some of what has come to be called roots music, our early great prototypical sounds.
This is really good!
It’s really not so different from bluegrass. Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys of North Carolina derived some of their influence from the traditions of Scottish balladeers as well as African American blues, which was also growing up beside it. Each genre exhibits some historical and modern differences.
Country music growing up
The later famous Carter Family from Virginia came on the scene in the years of Jimmie Rodgers too. Including the patriarch A.P., his wife Sara, and others (especially Maybelle) they were the first group to record this genre, and that came about in 1927 also with the Victor company.
Their old songs have long been out of the mainstream. But you may have heard them some time. We are sure you know “Keep on the Sunny Side” and, of course, “Wabash Cannonball”.
(In this example, Sara Carter is singing with Maybelle, who is obviously a maven, on guitar.)
The Carters continued for years, through several generations and iterations, and also influenced the development of other musical forms over the years.
Prominently, these include folk music greats such as Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. They were major influencers in multiple genres during much of the midcentury.
In fact, Bob Dylan changed-up one of their early efforts into his acclaimed “The Times They Are A Changin’ ” of 1963.
On the radio: “The show that made country music famous”
Radio spread it, like all kinds of ballads and songs from its beginning in the 1920s. The Grand Ole Opry is renowned since it originated in Nashville, Tennessee in 1925.
You probably were too young, if at all, to have experienced it at its heyday, but your grandparents loved it every Saturday night. Certainly, it helped make Nashville into the “country music capital” that is its fame. in the ’70s it moved to the Grand Ole Opry House.
The forgotten king
Hank Acuff, the “King of Country Music”, was born in Tennessee in 1903. Before his debut in the 1930s, the sound was primarily instrumental and a band format. He changed that prejudice into the singer as the leader.
This song is from O, My Darling Clementine, 1943. It’s a wartime song that expresses sentiments of the time.
(Video quality is not optimal, we know. We put it here anyway, because it’s good.)
His group, for which he also fiddled, was the Smoky Mountain Boys. He promoted the Grand Ole Opry into the second half-century and many musical stars along the way, including Hank Williams.
The Hollywood singing cowboys
Roy Acuff could be thought of as one of the early Hollywood cowboys, but he played primarily in B-movies and his earlier songs were more memorable.
It would be another Roy, that is Rogers to bring these guys to prominence in the 1930s and 1940s. Also, and even first, Gene Autry. They were the singing cowboys, who romanticized the West.
Western music is mostly about the cowboy and open ranges. It first came to prominence in the early 20th century, following the opening of the Western U.S. in the previous century.
You recall the “country and western” moniker to the early genres.
It actually is about anything west of the Appalachian Mountains: mountain men, outlaws, the land.
We don’t know as much about the first tunes since there were few recordings. Jack Thorp collected numerous lyrics in his 1908 book, Songs of the Cowboys.
Git Along Little Dogies lyrics
You will find “Git Along Little Dogies” in Jack Thorp’s anthology.
As I was a-walkin’ one mornin’ for pleasure
I spied a cowpuncher all ridin’ alone
His hat was throwed back and his spurs were a-jinglin’
And as he approached he was singin’ this song
Whoopee ti yi yo, git along little dogies
It’s your misfortune and none of my own
Whoopie ti yi yo, git along little dogies
You know that Wyomin’ will be your new home
It’s early in the spring that we round up the dogies
We mark ’em and brand them and bob off their tails
Round up the horses load up the chuck wagon
Then throw the dogies out on the north trail
Whoopee ti yi yo, git along little dogiesTraditional cowboy ballad
It’s your misfortune and none of my own
Whoopie ti yi yo, git along little dogies
You know that Wyomin’ will be your new home
Otto Gray, who was born in South Dakota in 1884 and worked as a cowboy, later playing in Wild West extravaganzas. He came to lead the Western band called the Oklahoma Cowboys. They were pioneering performers in vaudeville and on the radio in the ’20s and ’30s.
We love the description that has been attributed to Otto, that this kind of music held to three rhythms and these matched the walk, trot, and lope of the western cow pony!
Nashville becomes the center of the country universe
Thank you, Hank Williams, for helping to make the Nashville sound so popular in the early 1950s.
You thought you did not like this style? Just listen to this song, and you will like it. (Get tissues.)
Hank has been widely recognized for his extensive influence on the genre and following artists ever since. Extremely, unfortunately, he was an alcoholic who died young (age 29 years, in 1953).
For his craftsmanship as a songwriter who expressed universal feelings with poignant simplicity and played a pivotal role in transforming what we know into a major musical and cultural force in American life.Pulitzer Prize, posthumous citation for Hank Williams, 2010
Country rock in the Central Valley of California
At the same time, way out west in Bakersfield, California a pretty different trend developed. Some folks out there were feeling that the Nashville sounds were becoming a little slick and the bands too big and orchestrated.
So was born, or fused (today’s word might be better suited to the actual happenings) in the midcentury, rock and roll country: the Bakersfield Sound. Sort of a Western rockabilly.
Merle Haggard was among the most remembered of this group. He had a number of hits, having risen to fame after a checkered early life. Born during the Great Depression, he was imprisoned a number of times as a young man because of thefts and similar behaviors. (He was pardoned later.) After all that, he went on to a steady career of song playing and writing.
A famous piece was “Okie From Muskogee” in 1969 that he recorded with his band, The Strangers. It was, as you know, a major time of protest folk music, but this was very much not that anti-war sound.
It recalled the life and people of Middle America. Clearly, there was an audience that appreciated it at the time.
The Outlaws Nelson and Jennings
By the 1970s the other-than-Nashville movement was carried on in the South. You’ll recognize the best known of the Texas-based outlaw movement:
- Waylon Jennings
- Willie Nelson
- Kris Kristofferson
- Johnny Cash
- Merle Haggard
- and more
All of these artists had something terrific to offer, but we especially appreciate Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”.
He did have a smattering of jail events himself, but relatively minor, if it is okay to say that. Nothing like what he describes in the particular song, which is highly fictional.
He first performed it in 1955.
However, it was his much later live rendition at the prison itself in 1968, that captured everyone’s imagination (and a Grammy, too).
Folsom Prison Blues lyrics
I hear the train a comin’, it’s rolling ’round the bend
And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when
I’m stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin’ on
But that train keeps a rollin’ on down to San Antone
When I was just a baby my mama told me, “Son
Always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns”
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die
When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry
I bet there’s rich folks eating in a fancy dining car
They’re probably drinkin’ coffee and smoking big cigars
Well I know I had it coming, I know I can’t be free
But those people keep a-movin’
And that’s what tortures me
Johnny Cash, 1952
Well if they freed me from this prison
If that railroad train was mine
I bet I’d move it on a little farther down the line
Far from Folsom prison, that’s where I want to stay
And I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away
There was a blues influence, among others, a rock edge, and a stripped-down sound. The guys were a little messy.
The Highwaymen were Nelson, Jennings, Kristofferson, and Cash.
Still at the top after all those years.
Mainstream music into the 1980s
Since the ’80s, classical, or big scene approach has continued to be “in”. So many features, we’d have to go on and on: Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, the groups Alabama and The Oak Ridge Boys.
We like the emergence of the great female leads and duos.
The Judds (mother Naomi and daughter Wynona) owned the decade, you might say. (Though the others did, too.)
Pop goes the country
People speak about the genre as though it’s pretty pure. It’s not. (Wait, don’t run me out of town!) It’s really been since the 1980s that the most popular kind has been … wait for it … country pop.
The trend toward the influence of pop was evident back in the early 1940s. A major singer who encouraged this was Eddy Arnold.
In order to go mainstream, you gotta “fuse” with pop. We still don’t really know what pop is, but that’s okay. It’s what you are listening to most of the time. Also, these songs can be found on two charts most of the time: Billboard’s Top 40 as well as crossing over to the country chart.
Some folks feel country-pop has been dominated by female recording artists, and that may be so, especially when recognized early (the 1960s). For instance, look at Patsy Cline, and also Lynn Anderson and Crystal Gayle.
Our personal fav is Glen Campbell and his unique masterpiece, the 1968 “Wichita Lineman”.
Probably the epitome of success in this crossover genre was reached by Kenny Rogers, who started in rock. His 1977 “Lucille” was immensely received and followed by many others: “Coward of the County”, “The Gambler” …
They say all good things must come to an end. But that hasn’t happened yet. Although traditional ballads came back into being the most popular during the last few decades, we still (or again) hear those crossovers a good deal of the time. Popular artists such as Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift show no signs of diminished success currently.
Country singers go modern
The 1990s bore the consequences of all those earlier influences reiterating or maturing.
Garth Brooks worked the rock edge into his otherwise traditionally oriented work. Turning the century, no one took in rock as well as pop compared with Shania Twain.
Notably, the influence of country into the other musical forms resulted in greater popularity.
We would be inclined to call it country +. But you may also just call it country.
What are the instruments you’ll hear?
Banjos, fiddles, and harmonicas predominated in the music of the black slave community before the Civil War.
When we initially think of old-style ballades, we always think of the fiddle. But what is that? As a physical piece, it is the same thing as a violin! It is its use in the form that makes it something else.
You may hear a harmonica. Benjamin Franklin invented it (1761). An interesting footnote to this instrumental lore is to mention the “Harmonica Wizard” DeFord Bailey. He was the first recording artist with the Grand Ole Opry, an amazing status, especially because he was African American, almost unheard of in the early commercial sphere.
His famous composition, “Pan American Blues” (1927) in which he imitated a train whistle passing, is well-remembered.
But we think the instrumental recording he made of “John Henry”, that fascinating figure of American folklore, is more full-fledged and scrumptious.
The banjo, a delightful and distinctive instrument connects us to the early years of black people in America. It continues to link us also to bluegrass, which has persisted as a distinctive style to this day.
The dobro is what gave the twang in country. The Dopyera brothers invented it in the 1920s.
You play it face up. It is a “resonator guitar”, a type of acoustic instrument that sounds a bit like a banjo. The steel guitar is a later development.
As you see, it is still played wonderfully by today’s instrumental experts.
Here is Emily Robison, of Dixie Chicks fame, playing at Antone’s, SXSW, Austin, Texas in 2010.
The songs and artists are quite patriotic, too
Not a long time ago we wrote an article on this blog about popular American patriotic songs.
Do you see just how many of those patriotic pieces of music are of the genre, or influenced by same? Quite a few. High among them we have (both major award winners):
- “Ragged Old Flag”, with Johnny Cash
- “God Bless The USA”, with Lee Greenwood
It actually may have been what upped our enthusiasm to look further into these songs and their history, after all.
And, to review, these musicians crossed over quite a lot themselves. Johnny Cash sang in rock and roll and gospel prominently. Lee was noted for pop and adult contemporary. They came by the tendency honestly.
The most modern music question, again: We like it, but is it country?
We did not realize it at first, how many strains and influences abound in this type of music. The questions still come up today: what are the borders of what you can call these songs. Is country-crossover ok? Can we accept country-hip hop?!
Recently that came up, in today’s viral sense, relating to the song, “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X (real name Montero Lamar Hill), who is an African American rapper from Atlanta.
The formal country chart (Billboard’s Hot Country Songs) was rejecting this effort as not belonging to the genre. Then in stepped Billy Ray Cyrus, a bona fide, to create a joint rendition and music video. His involvement and country-friendly alterations brought along the “real” related community.
Note that the tune did, at the same time, come top of the hip-hop songs scale too.
We newly learned a name for this oldish phenomenon: cultural synthesis.
When we started to write this blog post, we did not think of it specifically having a strong racial connection in American’s past story. However, we found out it does.
It looks like the history and experience of these songs is coming full circle. From the nineteenth-century slave origins through the 1920s hillbilly contribution to our dated rap junction, it has shown that African Americans have actually strongly contributed to a sound that we don’t naturally associate with a black heritage. So it is.
Country music, actually, has grown up and been a part of and been altered by and changed all Americans.
Trivia Q & A
What early country music star was the subject of Clint Eastwood’s 1982 movie, Honkytonk Man?
June Carter, member of the original Carter Family, married which stellar country legend?
Before you go
Those early phonograph recordings are precious, well before vinyl came into being. Read more about the beginning of the gramophone in another post.
Read on about the roots of country and other American songs.