History of Country
Country music is a blend of popular musical forms originally found in the Southern United States and the Appalachian Mountains. It has roots in traditional folk music, Celtic music, gospel music, and old-time music and evolved rapidly in the 1920s. The term country music began to be used in the 1940s when the earlier term hillbilly music was deemed to be degrading, and the term was widely embraced in the 1970s, while country and Western has declined in use since that time, except in the United Kingdom and Ireland, where it is still commonly used in the United States.
In the Southwestern United States a different mix of ethnic groups created the music that became the Western music of the term country and Western.
Country music has produced two of the top selling solo artists of all time. Elvis Presley, who was known early on as “The Hillbilly Cat” and was a regular on the radio program Louisiana Hayride, went on to become a defining figure in the emerging genre of rock 'n roll. Contemporary musician Garth Brooks, with 128 million albums sold, is the top-selling solo artist in U.S. history. While album sales of most musical genres have declined, country music experienced one of its best years in 2006, when, during the first six months of the year, U.S. sales of country albums increased by 17.7 percent to 36 million. Moreover, country music listening nationwide has remained steady for almost a decade, reaching 77.3 million adults every week according to the radio-ratings agency Arbitron Inc.
Immigrants to the Southern Appalachian Mountains of North America brought the music and instruments of the Old World along with them for nearly 300 years. The Irish fiddle, the German derived dulcimer, the Italian mandolin, the Spanish guitar, and the African banjo were the most common musical instruments. The interactions among musicians from different ethnic groups produced music unique to this region of North America. Appalachian string bands of the early twentieth century primarily consisted of the fiddle, guitar, and banjo. This early country music along with early recorded country music is often referred to as Old-time music.
Throughout the nineteenth century, several immigrant groups from Europe, most notably from Ireland, The United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, and Italy moved to Texas. These groups interacted with the Spanish, Mexican, Native American, and U.S. communities that were already established in Texas. As a result of this cohabitation and extended contact, Texas has developed unique cultural traits that are rooted in the culture of all of its founding communities. The settlers from the areas now known as Germany and the Czech Republic established large dance halls in Texas where farmers and townspeople from neighboring communities could gather, dance, and spend a night enjoying each other’s company. The music at these halls, brought from Europe, included the waltz and the polka, played on an accordion, an instrument invented in Italy, which was loud enough to fill the entire dance hall.
The first commercial recording of what can be considered country music was "Sallie Gooden" by fiddlist A.C. (Eck) Robertson in 1922 for Victor Records. Columbia Records began issuing records with "hillbilly" music as early as 1924. A year earlier on June 14, 1923 Fiddlin' John Carson recorded "Little Log Cabin in the Lane" for Okeh Records. Vernon Dalhart was the first country singer to have a nationwide hit in May of 1924 with "Wreck of the Old '97". The flip side of this record was "The Prisoner's Song", which also became very popular. Many "hillbilly" musicians recorded blues songs throughout the decade. Other important early recording artists were Riley Puckett, Don Richardson, Fiddlin' John Carson, Al Hopkins, Ernest V. Stoneman, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers and The Skillet Lickers. The steel guitar entered country music as early as 1922, when Jimmie Tarlton met famed Hawaiian guitarist Frank Ferera on the West Coast.
Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family are widely considered to be important early country musicians. Their songs were first captured at a historic recording session in Bristol on August 1, 1927, where Ralph Peer was the talent scout and sound recordist. Rodgers fused hillbilly country, gospel, jazz, blues, pop, cowboy, and folk; and many of his best songs were his compositions, including “Blue Yodel” , which sold over a million records and established Rodgers as the premier singer of early country music. Beginning in 1927, and for the next 17 years the Carters recorded some 300 old-time ballads, traditional tunes, country songs, and Gospel hymns, all representative of America's southeastern folklore and heritage.
One effect of the Great Depression was to reduce the number of records that could be sold. Radio, and broadcasting, became a popular source of entertainment, and "barn dance" shows featuring country music were started all over the South, as far north as Chicago, and as far west as California. One of the most important of these shows was the Grand Ole Opry from 650 WSM in Nashville, TN. Some of the early stars on the Opry were Uncle Dave Macon, Roy Acuff, and African American harmonica player DeFord Bailey. WSM's 50,000 watt signal (1934) could often be heard across the country.
During the 1930s and 1940s Cowboy songs, or "Western music", which had been recorded since the 1920s, were popularized by films made in Hollywood. Some of the popular singing cowboys from the era were Gene Autry, the Sons of the Pioneers, and Roy Rogers.
Another "country" musician from the Lower Great Plains who had become very popular as the leader of a “hot string band”, and who also appeared in Hollywood Westerns, was Bob Wills. His mix of "country" and jazz, which started out as dance hall music, would become known as Western Swing. Spade Cooley and Tex Williams also had very popular bands and appeared in films. At the height of its popularity, Western Swing rivaled the popularity of other big band jazz.
Country musicians began recording boogie in 1939, shortly after it had been played at Carnegie Hall, when Johnny Barfield recorded "Boogie Woogie". The trickle of what was initially called Hillbilly Boogie, or Okie Boogie (later to be renamed Country Boogie), became a flood beginning around late 1945. One notable country boogie from this period was the Delmore Brothers' "Freight Train Boogie", considered to be part of the combined evolution of country music and blues towards rockabilly. In 1948 Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith achieved Top 10 US country chart success with his MGM Records recordings of "Guitar Boogie" and "Banjo Boogie", with the former crossing over to the US pop charts. Other country boogie artists include Merrill Moore, and Tennessee Ernie Ford. The Hillbilly Boogie period lasted into the 1950s, and remains as one of many sub-genres of country into the twenty first century.
By the end of World War II "mountaineer" string band music known as Bluegrass had emerged when Bill Monroe joined with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, led by Roy Acuff at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. Gospel music, too, remained a popular component of country music.
Another type of stripped down and raw music with a variety of moods and a basic ensemble of guitar, bass, dobro or steel guitar (and later) drums became popular, especially among poor white southerners. It became known as Honky Tonk and had its roots in Texas. This music has been described as "a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, a little bit of black and a little bit of white...just loud enough to keep you from thinking too much and to go right on ordering the whiskey". East Texan Al Dexter had a hit with "Honky Tonk Blues", and seven years later "Pistol Packin' Mama". These "honky tonk" songs associated barrooms, were performed by the likes of Ernest Tubb, Ted Daffin, Floyd Tillman, and the Maddox Brothers and Rose, and Hank Williams, would later be called "traditional" country.
In this post World War II period "country" music was called "folk" in the trades, and "hillbilly" within the industry. In 1944 Billboard replace the term "hillbilly" with "folk songs and blues", and switched to "country" or "country and western" in 1949.
Many musicians performed and recorded songs in any number of styles. Moon Mullican played Western Swing, but also recorded songs that can be called rockabilly. Bill Haley sang cowboy songs, and was at one time a cowboy yodeler. Haley became most famous as an early player of rock n roll. Lefty Frizzell played in honky tonks adapting Jimmie Rodgers-stylings to this environment, thus creating a sound that was very much his own. Between 1947 and 1949, country crooner Eddy Arnold placed a total of 8 songs in the top 10.
Beginning in the mid 1950s, and reaching its peak during the early 1960s, the "Nashville Sound" turned country music into a multimillion-dollar industry centered on Nashville, Tennessee. Under the direction of producers such as Chet Atkins, Owen Bradley, and later Billy Sherrill, the "Nashville sound" brought country music to a diverse audience and helped revive country as it emerged from a commercially fallow period. This sound was notable for borrowing from 1950s pop stylings: a prominent and "smooth" vocal, backed by a string section and vocal chorus. Instrumental soloing was de-emphasized in favor of trademark "licks". Leading artists in this genre included Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, and later Tammy Wynette and Charlie Rich. The "slip note" piano style of session musician Floyd Cramer was an important component of this style.
1956 could be called the year of rockabilly in country music. The number 2, 3, and 4 songs on Billboard's charts for that year are: Elvis Presley "Heartbreak Hotel", Johnny Cash "I Walk the Line", and Carl Perkins "Blue Suede Shoes". Cash and Presley would place songs in the top 5 in 1958 with #3 "Guess Things Happen That Way/Come In, Stranger" by Cash, and #5 by Presley "Don't/I Beg Of You". Presley acknowledged the influence of rhythm and blues artists and his style, "The colored folk been singin' and playin' it just the way I'm doin' it now, man for more years than I know." But he also said, "My stuff is just hopped-up country."
What is now most commonly referred to as Rockabilly was most popular with country music fans in the 1950s, and was recorded and performed by country musicians. Within a few years many rockabilly musicians returned to a more mainstream style, or had defined their own unique style.
Country music gained widespread television exposure through the Ozark Jubilee, a live ABC-TV (and radio) network program broadcast from 1955–1960 from Springfield, Missouri. The program showcased a Who's Who of country music, including many rockabilly artists. By the end of the decade, backlash as well as traditional artists such as Ray Price, Marty Robbins, and Johnny Horton began to shift the industry away from the Rock n' Roll influences of the mid-50's.
Located 112 miles (180 km) north north west of Los Angeles, Bakersfield, California gave rise to one of the next genres of country music. This sound grew out of hardcore honky tonk with elements of Western swing, and was influenced by one time West Coast residents Bob Wills and Lefty Frizzell. By 1966 it was known as the Bakersfield Sound. The Bakersfield Sound relied on electric instruments and amplification, in particular the Telecaster electric guitar, more than other sub-genres of country of the era, and can be described as having a sharp, hard, driving, no-frills, edgy flavor. Leading practitioners of this style were Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Tommy Collins, and Wynn Stewart, each of whom had his own style.
Drums were scorned by early country musicians as being "too loud" and "not pure", but by 1935 Western Swing big band leader Bob Wills had added drums to the Texas Playboys. In the mid 1940s, The Grand Ole Opry did not want the Playboys’ drummer to appear on stage. Although drums were commonly used by rockabilly groups by 1955, the 'less-conservative-than-the-Grand Ole Opry', Louisiana Hayride kept their infrequently-used drummer back stage as late as 1956. By the early 1960s, however, it was rare that a country band didn't have a drummer.
Bob Wills was one of the first country musicians known to have added an electric guitar to his band, in 1938.. A decade later (1948) Arthur Smith achieved Top 10 US country chart success with his MGM Records recording of "Guitar Boogie", which crossed over to the US pop chart, introducing many people to the potential of the electric guitar. For several decades Nashville session players preferred the warm tones of the Gibson and Gretsch archtop electrics, but a "hot" Fender style, utilizing guitars which became available beginning in the early 1950s, eventually prevailed as the signature guitar sound of country.
In 1962 Ray Charles surprised the pop world by turning his attention to country & western music, topping the charts and rating # 3 for the year on BillBoard’s pop chart with the "I Can't Stop Loving You" single, and recording the hugely popular album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.
Derived from the traditional and honky tonk sounds of the late 50's and 60's, including Ray Price (whose band, the"Cherokee Cowboys", included Willie Nelson and Roger Miller) and mixed with the anger of an alienated subculture of the nation during the period, outlaw country revolutionized the genre of Country music.
"After I left Nashville (the early 70s), I wanted to relax and play the music that I wanted to play, and just stay around Texas, maybe Oklahoma. Waylon and I had that outlaw image going, and when it caught on at colleges and we started selling records, we were O. K.. The whole outlaw thing, it had nothing to do with the music, it was something that got written in an article, and the young people said, 'Well, that's pretty cool.' And started listening." (Willie Nelson)
The term "Outlaw Country" is traditionally associated with David Allan Coe, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, and Billy Joe Shaver, and was encapsulated in the 1976 record Wanted! The Outlaws.
The late 1960s in American music produced a unique blend as a result of traditionalist backlash within separate genres. In the aftermath of the British Invasion, many desired a return to the "old values" of Rock n' Roll. At the same time there was a lack of enthusiasm in the Country sector for Nashville-produced music. What resulted was a crossbred genre known as Country rock.
Early innovators in this new style of music in the 60s and 70s included Rock n' Roll icon band The Byrds (beginning while Gram Parsons was a member) and its spin-off The Flying Burrito Brothers, guitarist Clarence White, Michael Nesmith & The First National Band, Commander Cody, Allman Brothers, The Marshall Tucker Band, Poco, Buffalo Springfield, and The Eagles among many. Even The Rolling Stones got into the act with songs like "Honky Tonk Women" which resulted in many others recording country rock type songs including Neil Young and the Grateful Dead.
Subsequent to the initial blending of the two polar opposite genres, other offspring soon resulted, including Southern rock, Heartland Rock and in more recent years Alternative country. In the decades that followed, artists such as Juice Newton, Alabama, Hank Williams, Jr., Keith Urban, Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Garth Brooks, Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, Dolly Parton, Rosanne Cash and Linda Ronstadt moved country further towards rock influence.
Australian Country music developed not as Nashville did. Focusing its feel on lyrics, Australian Country Music developed it own unique style, mirrored by such artists as Lee Kernaghan, Slim Dusty, Keith Urban and Adam Brand.
Country Pop or soft pop, with roots in both the country-politan sound and in soft rock, is a sub-genre of country music that first emerged in the 1970s. Although the term first referred to country music songs and artists that crossed over to top 40 radio, country pop acts are now more likely to cross over to adult contemporary. Country pop found its first widespread acceptance during the 1970s. It started with Pop music singers, like The Bellamy Brothers, Glen Campbell, John Denver, The Eagles, Olivia Newton-John, Marie Osmond, B.J. Thomas and Anne Murray having hits on the Country charts. Campbell's "Rhinestone Cowboy" was among one of the biggest crossover hits in Country music history. These Pop-oriented singers thought that they could gain higher record sales and a larger audience if they crossed over into the Country world.
In 1974 Olivia Newton-John, an Australian pop singer, won the "Best Female Country Vocal Performance" as well as the Country Music Association's most coveted award for females, "Female Vocalist of the Year". In the same year, a group of artists, troubled by this trend, formed the short-lived Association of Country Entertainers. The debate raged into 1975, and reached its apex at that year's Country Music Association Awards when reigning Entertainer of the Year, Charlie Rich (who himself had a series of crossover hits), presented the award to his successor, John Denver. As he read Denver's name, Rich set fire to the envelope with a cigarette lighter. The action was taken as a protest against the increasing pop style in country music.
In 1980 a style of "neo-country disco music" was popularized by the film Urban Cowboy, which also included more traditional songs such as "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" by the Charlie Daniels Band. Sales in record stores rocketed to $250 million in 1981; by 1984, 900 radio stations began programming country or neo-country pop full time. As with most sudden trends, however, by 1984 sales had dropped below 1979 figures.
It was during these few years that "country artists" saw their records perform well on the pop charts. Willie Nelson and Juice Newton each had two songs in the Billboard Top 5 in the early eighties: Nelson charted "Always On My Mind" (#5, 1982) and "To All The Girls I've Loved Before" (#5, 1984), and Newton achieved success with "Queen of Hearts" (#2, 1981) and "Angel of the Morning" (#4, 1981). Four country songs topped the Billboard Hot 100 in the 1980s: "Lady" by Kenny Rogers, which was the #3 song for the entire year in 1981, "9 to 5" by Dolly Parton, "I Love a Rainy Night" by Eddie Rabbitt (these two back to back at the Top in 1981), and "Islands in the Stream", a duet by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers in 1983, a pop-country crossover hit written by Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb, of the Bee Gees. Newton's "Queen of Hearts" almost reached #1, but was kept out of the spot by the pop ballad juggernaut "Endless Love" by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie.
Meanwhile, several rock and pop stars have ventured a little into country music. In 2000, Richard Marx made a brief cross-over with his Days In Avalon album, which features five country songs and several singers and musicians. Alison Krauss sang background vocals to Marx's single Straight From My Heart. Also, Bon Jovi had a hit single, Who Says You Can't Go Home, with Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland. Other rock stars who featured a county song on their albums were Don Henley and Poison.
In the mid 1990s country western music was influenced by the popularity of line dancing. This influence was so great that Chet Atkins was quoted as saying "The music has gotten pretty bad, I think. It's all that damn line dancing." By the end of the decade, however, at least one line dance choreographer complained that good country line dance music was no longer being released.
There are at least four U.S. cable networks at least partly devoted to the genre: CMT (owned by Viacom), CMT Pure Country (also owned by Viacom), Rural Free Delivery TV (owned by Rural Media Group) and GAC (owned by The E. W. Scripps Company). The original American country music video cable channel was TNN (The Nashville Network). The channel was launched in the early 1980s. In 2000, the channel was renamed and reformatted to TNN (The National Network), which was a general-interest network to compete with USA Network, TNT, and Superstations, such as TBS and WGN. Subsequently, The National Network became Spike TV, the first network for men.
Outside of the US, Canada has the largest country music fan and artist base. Canadian country music originated in Atlantic Canada in the form of Celtic folk music popular amongst Irish and Scottish immigrants to Canada's Maritime Provinces. Despite this however, many traditional country artists are present in Eastern and Western Canada and make common use of fiddle and pedal steel guitar styles. Some notable Canadian country artists include: Shania Twain, Adam Gregory, Blue Rodeo, Hank Snow, Paul Brandt, Lisa Brokop, Wilf Carter, Michelle Wright, The Wilkinsons, Emerson Drive, Stompin' Tom Connors, The Road Hammers, Corb Lund, Charlie Major, Doc Walker, George Canyon, Carolyn Dawn Johnson, Brad Johner, Jessie Farrell, Jason Blaine, Crystal Shawanda, Johnny Reid, Aaron Pritchett, Tara Oram and Anne Murray.
Country music in Australia has always been popular, especially given the rural nature of the country. Starting in the 1800s with bush balladeers writing songs of their tales of the bush, as well as songs of protest against the tyranny of the government. In the 1940s the legendary Slim Dusty embarked on a country music career that spanned over fifty years and over 100 albums. Smoky Dawson was also a country music pioneer in Australia, modeling himself very much in the traditional cowboy style, even starring in his own comic books and radio serials. In more recent years, names like Keith Urban, Sherrie Austin, Lee Kernaghan, Adam Harvey, Brendon Walmsley, Tania Kernaghan, Beccy Cole, Adam Brand, The Fictitious Smurf, Gina Jeffreys, Dan Brodie & the Broken Arrows, James Blundell, Graeme Conners, Troy Cassar Daley, Captain Flange and Kasey Chambers have been keeping the tradition of country music alive, whilst also paving the way for new names in the industry, including Catherine Britt, The McClymonts, Jonah's Road, Jenny Queen, Morgan Evans, Aleyce Simmonds, Jedd Hughes, Amber Lawrence, Luke O'Shea & Medicine Wheel, Sinead Burgess, Matt Scullion, Shea Fisher, The Flood, Kristy Cox, Travis Collins, Carter & Carter, Talia Whitman and "Captain Goodtimes" Steve Forde.
Country HQ showcases new talent on the rise in the country music scene down-under. Grabine State Park in New South Wales promotes Australian country music through the Grabine Music Muster Festival. Australia has one leading 24 hour music channel dedicated to Non-Stop country music in Australia. CMC (the Country Music Channel) can be viewed on Foxtel and Austar and features once a year the Golden Guitar Awards, CMAs and CCMAs alongside International shows such as The Wilkinsons, The Road Hammers, Country Music Across America, Rollin' With, and Tuckerville.
Tom Roland, from the Country Music Association International, explains Country Music’s global popularity: “In this respect, at least, Country Music listeners around the globe have something in common with those in the United States. In Germany, for instance, Rohrbach identifies three general groups that gravitate to the genre: people intrigued with the American cowboy icon, middle-aged fans who seek an alternative to harder rock music and younger listeners drawn to the pop-influenced sound that underscores many current Country hits.”
One of the first Americans to perform country music abroad was George Hamilton IV. He was the first country musician to perform in the Soviet Union; he also toured in Australia and the Middle East. He was deemed the "International Ambassador of Country Music" for his contributions to the globalization of country music. Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Keith Urban, and Dwight Yoakam have also made numerous international tours.
The Country Music Association undertakes various initiatives to promote country music internationally.
In South America, on the last weekend of September, the yearly "San Pedro Country Music Festival" takes places in the town of San Pedro, Argentina. The festival features bands from different places of Argentina, as well as international artist from Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Peru and the United States.
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