Learning About The US: How Country Music Came to Be

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Country: The Most Popular Music Style On American Radio

In the interests of honesty, clarity and journalistic ethics, I must begin this article with a confession. I don’t like country music – unless the country we’re talking about is Jamaica.

There are a handful of country acts over the last century that I can stand (Johnny Cash for one), but by and large, when country music comes on the radio, I change stations.

This is a direct result of growing up in Colorado where country is a big deal. Driving every summer from my parents house in Denver to where my grandparents lived in North Dakota was two days each way being subjected to either country music stations or preachers on the radio.

In elementary school from grades 3 to 6, we had gym class everyday which was great, but in the winter on Monday’s that meant square dancing. I have do-si-doed, swung my partner, and promenaded all around (when I got to hold Ginger Cooke’s hand in sixth grade, it was almost tolerable). Meanwhile the gym teacher (Mr. Duggan who had a dreadful toupee) had fiddle and banjo music playing. Country music to me means pickup trucks with gun racks, fixing barbed wire fences and the general tedium of rural life.

There is a joke that says if you play a Country song backwards, the guy’s wife comes back to him, the dog comes back to life, his truck starts, the fridge is full of beer, and he gets his job back. In my limited experience, that is all too true.

However, a huge number of Americans and non-Americans disagree with me. In fact, it is the most popular style of music on American radio. BBC 2 has the Bob Harris Country Music show. One of Country’s current stars, the charming Keith Urban (an ironic surname to be sure), is usually described as a New Zealand born Australian Country singer who has been a judge on “American Idol” for some time now. The great blues artist BB King was a fan of Country saying of the steel guitar that wails so frequently in Country, “Ain’t nothin’ in the world prettier than that.”

In the movie “The Blues Brothers,” a barmaid proudly announced that her place had both kinds of music, “country” and “western.” A lot of people feel that way.

The Roots of Country Music

fiddlin john carson_001
George Carson-Image Source: Georgia Encyclopedia

So, how the heck did Country, or Country and Western as some still call it, come to be?

The roots of the music go back a good 300 years, to the arrival in Appalachia of the Scots and Irish who brought their style of violin playing (fiddling), who were followed by the Germans with their dulcimers, along with the mandolin the Italians brought, the Spanish guitar and the African banjo.

In the early decades of colonization, “the folk dances (Scottish reels, Irish jigs, and square dances – the poor man’s version of the French ‘cotillion’ and ‘quadrille’) and the British ballad got transplanted into the new world and got contaminated by the religious hymns of church and camp meetings.”

For a long time, the label “folk” music was apt for what these people played on their instruments from various Old World cultures. Some have labeled it “American Roots Music.” Basically, these were songs and melodies that people would sing at work, in church, or at a dance.

Country music is usually dated from June 1923 when Georgian John Carson, a fiddler, recorded a couple of “hillbilly” songs in Atlanta. However, Eck Robertson, another fiddler from Texas, had recorded some “old-time” music in 1922.

Prior to that, the basic ingredients of the genre were simmering away. “In 1910 ethnomusicologist John Lomax published ‘Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads’ (that followed by two years the first known collection of cowboy songs), and in 1916 Cecil Sharp began publishing hundreds of folk songs from the Appalachian mountains (or, better, the Cumberland Mountains, at the border between Kentucky and Tennessee), two events that sparked interest for the white musical heritage.”

Radio Spreads The Sounds

Uncle Dave Macon - sized - tone (1)
Image Source: O temporal, O mores

Thus, in the 1920s, we had the Appalachian mountain music and Texan cowboy tunes – country and western respectively. The 1920s also were the birth of radio. In 1922, WSM Radio, based in Georgia, started broadcasting folk tunes, and shortly thereafter, WBAP in Fort Worth, Texas, launched a “barn dance” show.

Like everything else in America back then, race mattered in radio and in music. “The recording industry started dividing popular music into two categories: race music (that was only black) and hillbilly music (that was only white). The term ‘hillbilly’ was actually introduced by ‘Uncle’ Dave Macon’s Hill Billie Blues (1924). In 1924, Chicago’s radio station WLS (originally ‘World’s Largest Store’) began broadcasting a barn dance that could be heard throughout the Midwest.”

At the same time, radio was making jazz popular as well. As PBS reported, “Jazz was different because it broke the rules — musical and social. It featured improvisation over traditional structure, performer over composer, and black American experience over conventional white sensibilities. Undercurrents of racism bore strongly upon the opposition to jazz, which was seen as barbaric and immoral.”

“Before jazz emerged, many music educators — worried that jazz would destroy young people’s interest in classical music–tried to convince the public that European classical music was the only ‘good music.’ ‘One day I was in a practice room supposedly practicing classical music, but I was playing some jazz and, I guess my professor heard me because he opened the door and looked in and said, ‘stop playing that trash,’ remembers jazz musician Marian McPartland in The Devil’s Music .”

This kind of thing scared a lot of powerful white people, folks like Henry Ford. He “put more money into promoting country music in the 1920s than anyone else. Ford was frightened by what he saw as the urban decadence of couples jazz dancing. In response he organized fiddling contests and promoted square dances across the country to encourage what he saw as the older, more wholesome forms of entertainment.”

The Talkies: Cowboys Start Singing

Image Source: County Sales

Then, came the talkies – movies with sound. This first of these was called “The Jazz Singer” with Al Jolson appearing in blackface. Cowboy movies were already big, even before talkies – William S. Hart and Tom Mix had been big stars for years in westerns when audiences first heard Jolson sing. Music fascinated movie going audiences – music showed off the new technology better than anything. It was only natural that cowboys would start singing – Ken Maynard, Bob Steel, Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers, to name but a few. John Wayne even appeared as a singing cowboy as “Singin’ Sandy Saunders’ in Riders of Destiny from 1933.

Now, if you are going to have a singing cowboy, he isn’t going to sing opera – he’s going to sing cowboy songs. Back in those days, going to the movies meant a real program of entertainment. There was a newsreel (no CNN back then), a cartoon or two (Mickey Mouse first appeared in “Steamboat Willie” in 1928), a serial (Buck Rogers for the Sci-Fi gang or a western like Buck Jones) and then the feature. That serial was the bread and butter of the singing cowboy, and kids from Boston to San Diego were exposed to them every Saturday.

By 1930 or thereabouts, the recording industry featured hillbilly singers who had never been in the hill country. “Very few of these singers were of country origins: Vernon Dalhart, Carson Robison and Bob Miller were New York singers who became famous singing hillbilly songs (and sometimes composing them, as in the case of Robison and Miller).” I wonder how many elocution lessons they needed to say “y’all” instead of “youse.”

Country Instruments

Image Source: Hometown Country

At this point, we need to talk about the instruments that had come together to create this kind of music in some detail. In a perverse racial switch, the guitar of European origina had become associated with the blues and black musicians and the African banjo was the preferred strumming instrument in white music. That’s why you have blues guitar music, but I can’t find a case of banjo blues anywhere. Nor did the blackface minstrel shows have a guitar on stage during the vaudeville.

The accordion is a strange instrument to have joined this bunch, but the Germans and Czechs who settled in Texas brought their accordions with them. When they danced in those communities, they did polka, the waltz and the schottische accompanied by the accordion. The influence of the accordion in that part of the world extends beyond the cowboy songs we’re talking about here. Mexican Norteno relies heavily on accordions to this day.

Next, there is the steel guitar that makes the weeping sound B.B. King loved so much. It comes from Hawaii. Yes, Hawaii as in the islands in the Pacific thousands of miles from the hillbilly music of Appalachia. Called the Kika Kila in the Hawaiian language, “it was originally a 6-string wooden guitar built to be a Spanish guitar, but converted to a steel guitar by inserting a metal converter nut (adapter nut) (extension nut) over the nut at the headstock to raise the strings about a half inch off the fretboard.” The guitar got to Hawaii by way of Portuguese sailors. The steel guitar came back from Hawaii along with the pineapples and sugar cane sent to the Mainland. Once in California, it traveled east as musicians moved around.

Finally, there is the human voice as an instrument. Singing takes a few different forms around the world. Straight tones prevailed in Europe in the Middle Ages, vibrato come into fashion, throat singing from Tuva is polytonal, and in Country music, there is some yodeling, which originated in the Alps in Europe.

In fact, the Roman Emperor Julian complained about it in the fourth century (I feel his pain). “In the 1920s, Jimmy Rodgers, the ‘Father of Country Music,’ began to graft yodeling into the blues and country music. He influenced the likes of Hank Snow, Merle Haggard, and Gene Autry, among others. He was also responsible for infusing yodeling into jazz, after he teamed up with Louis Armstrong on “Blue Yodel #9.”

Around the same time, Patsy Montana was growing famous as a solo country star with her big hit, “I Wanna Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” which included upbeat yodeling. It caught on quickly among country singers.”

The C&W Music Label

 Vietnam-Image Source: NPR

It was in the 1930s that the recording industry started calling this genre Country and Western because hillbilly as a word was felt to be derogatory. Insulting your customers is always bad business.

Before the Great Depression that started in 1929, the lyrical content of this music centered on “practical issues such as real-world experiences (ranching, logging, mining, railroads) and real-world tragedies (bank robberies, natural disasters, murders, train accidents).”

The economic collapse that ran throughout the 1930s just gave everyone more to sing about, mostly sad things like the bank taking the farm and crops failing. Country music’s mournful side has a long pedigree.

With the 1940s, Country music became a recognized commercial art.. At that time, country boys and city-slickers were all wearing Uncle Sam’s uniform and as the troops moved, so did musical influences. Billboard magazine introduced a column on Country in 1942, and it produced the first Country music chart in 1944.

The United Services Organization (a volunteer groups that tries to keep up the morale of the troops wherever they are – and a better bunch you’ll never meet) brought entertainers to the front lines, and Country music was part of the show. And thanks to the USO, Country singers have performed in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan as well as in the European and Asian theaters of WWII.

Nashville, The US Capital Of Country Music

Image Source: Inandaround

If Country music has a capital city, it’s Nashville, Tennessee. Nashville, the state capital, is located more or less in the center of the state, and as the capital, it has been a business hub for decades. Located on the Cumberland River, which feeds into the Ohio, it’s now known as “Music City.” Two factors other than its strategic and political position account for that.

First off, in 1925 Nashville got a station with national stature and ambitions. WSM was launched and owned by the National Life & Accident Insurance Co., and their mutually reinforced growth over the next fifty-plus years would create the conditions that made a music industry possible. Almost immediately, National Life sparked imitation at its competitor company Life & Casualty, which launched WLAC in 1926.

Both stations earned full-power, clear-channel status from the federal government, assuring that Nashville music could be heard nearly across the entire U.S. over two powerhouse radio signals. It also meant that if you were a singer, picker, piano player or gospel group, there were two big outlets in Nashville that might put you on the air and maybe even pay you. Thus did the city become a magnet for talent.”

One of the main shows WSM broadcast was the Grand Ole Opry, which started as the WSM Barn Dance. The venues for the live broadcast (yes, everything in those days was done live on the air) were soon too small for the numerous fans. Finally in 1943, the Opry move to the Ryman Auditorium, where is has resided ever since.

The other factor was the establishment of recording studios there. The first was constructed by WSM’s music director Owen Bradley – his famous Quoset Hut studio in 1958. There was radio support, there were artists in the city, and there was a place for them to cut records. Soon, Nashville was third behind New York and Los Angeles as a recording center.

It is no accident that one of America’s most watched night time dramas is called “Nashville.” Power, money, fame and glamour reside there.

After World War II, Country Music Evolved

Image Source: Mule Army

Country music by the 1950s was pretty well established as an American art form. And like musicians all over, those who play country are always looking for a new twist on their style, a new sound. In the 1950s, Honky Tonk emerged – a dance hall sound that was played loud with a hard-to-miss beat. Traditionalists didn’t like it because it didn’t have the rustic core of early country and that beat . . . .well enough about that Key Players: Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Thompson

In the 1960s, “Countrypolitan” was a fad “to broaden country music’s audience with a more mainstream sound, employing strings and horn sections and excluding traditional instruments such as fiddle and banjo.” Traditionalists hated it for the strings and horns. Key players: Patsy Cline, Eddy Arnold, Glen Campbell, Barbara Mandrell.

Outlaw Country is the moniker given to the inevitable reaction to the smooth Countrypolitan that came of age in the 1970s. Outlaw Country dialed back the instrumentation, and there was more grit than polish to it. Although the traditionalists should have liked this back-to-the-roots movement, they felt it was just too close to rock and roll. Key Players: Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard

Around the same time, there was something called Southern Rock, and it was clearly over the line as far as traditionalists were concerned. But it played an interesting role in the development of Country audiences. Bands like the Allman Brothers and Lynerd Skynerd were rock with heavy country overtones, and a great many rock fans found themselves listening to country.

Pop Country was the 1980s settlement between the Countrypolitan and Outlaw Country movements, sort of a halfway house between the two. There was a bit of cross-over onto the pop charts, and that was why many wondered if Country had sold out. Key Players: Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Crystal Gayle, Barbara Mandrell.

At about the same time, Neo-Traditional Country got going. It was “vintage instrumentation, classic country arrangements, and twangy singing, inspired by the honky-tonk and traditional styles of yore, combined with modern production techniques.” Imagine the guys in the 1920s with a 1980s recording studio. Key Players: George Strait, Randy Travis , Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, John Anderson

By the 1990s, Country had become as diverse as any genre of music, and some artists made is as big as big can be. Some have called the 1990s the decade of Arena or Stadium Country. “A mixture of honky-tonk and folky songwriting with a healthy dose of the theatrics of ’70s arena rock and big choruses, just crying out to be sung at top volume.” Key Players: Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, Dixie Chicks

Country Music In the 21st Century

Image Source: Digital Journal

Country music has come a long way in just under 100 years. From a sound stuck in the hills of Appalachia and out in the middle of Texas, it now is a worldwide art form. Taylor Swift, Rascal Flatts, Carrie Underwood and Blake Shelton are world-renown artists. Its appeal now transcends its roots. Kix Brooks, who during the 1990s and early 2000s sold 27 million albums as part of the country duo Brooks & Dunn, said it best. “I don’t think country music is hick music anymore,” Mr. Brooks said. “It’s not hay bales and cornfields.”

To me it always will be, but then, I prefer Arctic Monkeys.

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