COUNTRY MUSIC

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COUNTRY MUSIC

What is country music?

Is it a blend of other musical genres?

To like and/or enjoy country music must one live in the “country”?

Country music is primarily a fusion of African American blues and spirituals with Appalachian Folk Music, adapted for pop audiences and popularized beginning in the 1920s. The origins of country are in rural Southern folk music, which was primarily Irish and British, with African and continental European music styles. Anglo-Celtic tunes, dance music, and balladry were the earliest predecessors of modern country, then known as hillbilly music. Early hillbilly also borrowed elements of the blues and drew upon more aspects of 19th-century pop songs as hillbilly music evolved into a commercial genre eventually known as country and western and then simply country. The earliest country instrumentation revolved around the European-derived fiddle and the African-derived banjo, with guitar added later.

The roots of commercial country music are generally traced to 1927, when music talent scout Ralph Peer recorded Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family. Popular success was very limited, though a small demand spurred some commercial recording. After World War II, there was increased interest in specialty styles like country music, producing a few major pop stars. The most influential country musician of the era was Hank Williams, a bluesy country singer from Alabama. He remains renowned as one of country music’s greatest songwriters and performers, viewed as a “folk poet” with a “honky-tonk swagger” and “working-class sympathies”. Throughout the decade the roughness of honky tonk gradually eroded as the Nashville sound grew more pop-oriented. Producers like Chet Akins created the Nashville sound by stripping the hillbilly elements of the instrumentation and using smooth instrumentation and advanced production techniques. Eventually, most records from Nashville were in this style, which began to incorporate strings and vocal choirs.

Immigrants to the Southern Appalachian Mountains of North America brought the music and instruments of Europe along with them for nearly 300 years. Country music was “introduced to the world as a Southern phenomenon.” The first generation emerged in the early 1920s, with Atlanta’s musical scene playing a major role in launching country’s earliest recording artists. Okeh Records began issuing hillbilly music records by Fiddlin’ John Carson as early as 1923, followed by Columbia Records (Samantha Bumgarner) in 1924, and RCA Victor Records in 1927 (the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers). Many “hillbilly” musicians, such as Cliff Carlisle, recorded blues songs throughout the 1920s.

During the second generation (1930s–1940s), radio 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. The most important was the Grand Ole Opry, aired starting in 1925 by WSM in Nashville and continuing to the present day.  During the 1930s and 1940s, cowboy songs, or Western music, which had been recorded since the 1920s, were popularized by films made in Hollywood. Bob Wills was 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. His mix of country and jazz, which started out as dance hall music, would become known as Western swing. Wills was one of the first country musicians known to have added an electric guitar to his band, in 1938. Country musicians began recording boogie in 1939, shortly after it had been played at Carnegie Hall, when Johnny Barfield recorded “Boogie Woogie”.

The third generation (1950s-1960s) started at the end of World War II with “mountaineer” string band music known as blue grass, which emerged when Bill Monroe, along with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs (they went on to do the theme song and music for the television show The Beverly Hillbillies) were introduced by Roy Acuff at the Grand Ole Opry. Gospel music 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 whites in Texas and Oklahoma. It became known as honky tonk, and had its roots in Western swing and the ranchera music of Mexico and the Border States. By the early 1950s a blend of Western swing, country boogie, and honky tonk was played by most country bands. Rockabilly was most popular with country fans in the 1950s, and 1956 could be called the year of rockabilly in country music. 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 in Nashville, Tennessee. 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.

Fourth generation (1970s–1980s) music included outlaw country and country pop or soft pop, with roots in the countrypolitan sound, folk music, and soft rock. Between 1972 and 1975 singer/guitarist John Denver released a series of hugely successful songs blending country and folk-rock musical styles. During the early 1980s country artists continued to see their records perform well on the pop charts. In 1980 a style of “neo-country disco music” was popularized. During the mid-1980s a group of new artists began to emerge who rejected the more polished country-pop sound that had been prominent on radio and the charts in favor of more traditional “back-to-basics” production.

By the early part of the 1960s, however, the Nashville sound had become perceived as too watered-down by many more traditionalist performers and fans, resulting in a number of local scenes like the Lubbock sound and the Bakersfield sound. A few performers retained popularity, however, such as the long-standing cultural icon Johnny Cash. The Bakersfield sound began in the mid to late 1950s when performers like Wynn Stewart and Buck Owens began using elements of Western Swing and rock, such as the Breakbeat, in their music. In the ’60s performers like Merle Haggard popularized the sound. In the early 1970s, Haggard was also part of outlaw country, alongside singer-songwriters such as Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. Outlaw country was rock-oriented and lyrically focused on the criminal antics of the performers, in contrast to the clean-cut country singers of the Nashville sound. By the middle of the 1980s, the country music charts were dominated by pop singers, alongside a nascent revival of honky-tonk-style country with the rise of performers like Dwight Yoakum. The 1980s also saw the development of alternative country performers like Uncle Tupelo, who were opposed to the more pop-oriented style of mainstream country.

During the fifth generation (1990s), country music became a worldwide phenomenon thanks to Garth Brooks. The Dixie Chicks became one of the most popular country bands in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The sixth generation (2000s–present) is exemplified by country singer Carrie Underwood. The influence of rock music in country has become more overt during the late 2000s and early 2010s. Attempts to combine punk and country were pioneered by Jason and the Scorchers, and in the 1980s Southern Californian cow punk scene with bands like the Long Ryders.   Hip-hop also made its mark on country music with the emergence of country rap.   Most of the best-selling country songs of this era however were in the country pop genre, such as those by Lady Antebellum, Florida Georgia Line and Taylor Swift.

 Kathy Kiefer

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