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Country Music: Introduction

An overview of country music resources in the music library and on the web


Museum of Country Music, Nashville
Image by flickr user, pepsiline, Creative Commons License

Despite its status as one of the most popular and commercially successful  music genres in the world today, country music remains closely associated with the rural American South from which it sprung. Such regional affiliation, however, obscures the complex hybridity that has characterized the music from the first. Without question, country music's early repertoire drew heavily on the folksongs, ballads, dances, and instrumental works brought to North America by British and Irish immigrants (who were also the primary influence on the fiddle styles that epitomized country music in its early years). However, country music has also absorbed songs, styles, and instrumentation from a host of other sources, including African-American (not only have the blues influenced country music song structures and performance styles, but the banjo was an African import), Mexican (many country songs have emulated the corrido song format, Mexican vocal harmonies have entered the country repertoire through the work of the early singing cowboys, and mariachi horns have appeared to winning effect on a number of country recordings), and even Italian (whence the mandolin) influences.

Marketed in its early days under the label "hillbilly music," what we know today as country music was born when the folk music of southern whites merged with the commercial mass media of radio and the phonograph industry. Historians believe that the first country music recordings were the handful of selections cut by fiddlers Eck Robertson and Henry Gilliland for Victor records in June 1922. Like these historic sides, much of the music of country's early commercial era emphasized instrumentation over singing; string bands (musical aggregations featuring fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin, and autoharp in various permutations), often with colorful names like the Skillet Lickers, the Fruit Jar Drinkers, and Chenoweth's Cornfield Symphony Orchestra, were the order of the day. However, the commercial potential of vocal music in the hillbilly field was demonstrated by the success of Vernon Dalhart's 1924 double-sided Victor single "The Wreck on the Southern Old 97," backed with "The Prisoner's Song." While this platter is widely recognized as the first country recording to sell in excess of one million copies, purists might protest that Dalhart, an urban, conservatory-trained singer with a light opera background, hardly typifies the early commercial hillbilly entertainer.

Stronger claims to hillbilly authenticity could be made by two of the most important acts of country's early commercial era: the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. (Ironically, both the Carters and Rodgers made their first records at the same historic August 1927 sessions in Bristol, Tennessee engineered by legendary talent scout and record producer Ralph Peer.) The Carter Family, comprised of Alvin Pleasant (A.P.) Carter, his wife Sara Carter, and his sister-in-law Maybelle Carter, recorded both original compositions and traditional songs, the latter collected by A.P. over the course of numerous period song hunting trips throughout the rural south. Their hundreds of recordings, which include such country standards as "The Wabash Cannonball" and "Can the Circle Be Unbroken," and which deal with rural and small-town America that was slowly disappearing, emphasized domesticity, motherhood, and traditional moral values and bequeathed a repertoire that has been revisited by subsequent generations of country, bluegrass, folk, and gospel artists. Moreover, both the Carters' distinctive vocal harmonies (led by Sara's strong soprano voice) and instrumental sound (organized around Maybelle's innovative "Carter Scratch" guitar technique that combined elements of lead and rhythm playing) have had a lasting influence.

While the Carter Family's music emphasized tradition, the music of Jimmie Rodgers, often dubbed "the Father of Country Music," was more modern in orientation, featuring a higher percentage of original compositions than the Carters. His work reflects the influence not only of the traditional folk music of rural southern whites, but also the contemporaneous urban sounds of African-American jazz and pop. While stylistically Rodgers is perhaps best remembered for the distinctive "blue yodel" that embellished so many of his records -- including his first and biggest hit, the 1927 recording "Blue Yodel," popularly known as "T for Texas" -- and that was much-imitated by artists seeking to emulate his success, thematically Rodgers's repertory of 111 recorded songs covered the spectrum from railroad songs (Rodgers himself had worked in railroading, earning him the designation "the Singing Brakeman") to cowboy songs, hobo songs, risque songs, romantic songs, and even one gospel tune. In keeping with the catholic nature of his subject matter, Rodgers' persona was that of a worldly rounder, fond of women, drink, and reckless living -- a public image that would be reprised by subsequent generations of country artists. Rodgers' influence over the genre is impressive, even more so when one recollects that he died of tuberculosis in 1933, just 35 years old.

Although the music industry as a whole suffered during the years of the Great Depression, hillbilly music continued to grow in popularity, due largely to its dissemination via free radio broadcasts. Two of the more popular hillbilly radio shows of the era were the National Barn Dance, broadcast out of Chicago by WLS, and Nashville's WSM Barn Dance. The National Barn Dance helped launch the career of Gene Autry, one of the earliest and most popular singing cowboys. (Autry's iconic success, and the popularity of the singing cowboy generally, was subsequently secured when Autry began acting in sound films in 1934. The musical B-Western genre would also give rise to such singing cowboy luminaries as Roy Rogers and Tex Ritter and did much to promote country music's recurrent interest in the cowboy image and the romantic concept of the West.) The WSM Barn Dance, re-christened "the Grand Ole Opry" in 1927, began broadcasting from Nashville's legendary Ryman Auditorium (sometimes dubbed "the Mother Church of Country Music") in 1943 and was instrumental in the promoting the success of many country artists, including Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe. Acuff, sometimes called the "King of Country Music," achieved fame on the strength of his clear, powerful, plaintive vocals that exuded sincerity and, with his band the Smoky Mountain Boys, had hits with such songs as "Wabash Cannonball" and "Great Speckled Bird." Acuff was also an important figure in the business of country music, joining with songwriter Fred Rose in 1942 to form Acuff-Rose Music, a highly successful music publishing company. With his band the "Blue Grass Boys" (named after his home state of Kentucky), Bill Monroe pioneered the genre of bluegrass music by taking the string band tradition and innovating it with breakneck tempos, sophisticated vocal harmonies, and virtuosic musicianship demonstrated during jazz-like instrumental solo breaks.

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This guide was created by Dan Manco, graduate of BGSU's Popular Culture program.