A Brief History of Country Music

Country music has its roots back in the 1900s when it gained widespread popularity amongst the working-class Americans in the southern states, particularly eastern Tennessee and southwest Virginia.

Country music originated from the combination of English ballads with Irish and Celtic fiddle songs, with a touch of European influences from the old continent’s immigrants.

What Defines Country Music?

Just like any other music genre, country music can be defined by certain characteristics that give it its unique sounds and style. They include:

  • Harmonies. Unlike other music genres, country music doesn’t heavily rely on non-diatonic chords. Instead, this style of music utilizes traditional chord progressions. The chords are major, meaning that they contain the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of the major scale.
  • Duets. Country music artists like to work on duet pieces with fellow artists. It’s also not uncommon to find entire families performing together in the same band.
  • Instruments. Country music is all about string instruments. These include pedal steel, lap steel, bass, guitar, fiddle, and banjo.
  • Twangy vocals. Country artists often sing with a twang in their voice to separate country music from other music genres. Even Canadian Country music artists started to use twangy vocals, too.
  • “Narration” style lyrics. Country music heavily relies on storytelling. Country music artists often share stories about work, heartache, pride, and love. Some songs are full-blown ballads that narrate a story from its beginning to its end.

How Did Country Music Get Its Name?

Country music was named like that because it originated in the countryside, particularly in the rural areas of Tennessee and Virginia in the United States. 

Rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, and other music genres dominated the city, which led musicians to coin the term “country music” as a reference to where this style of music emerged and is most played. 

What Was the First Country Song?

Many agree that Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “Little Log Cabin in the Lane” was the first-ever commercially released country song. The song featured both vocals and lyrics, and it was recorded for Okeh Records in 1923.

However, the first commercial recording that can be classified as country music was Fiddler A.C. (Eck) Robertson’s Sallie Gooden, recorded for Victor Records in 1922. The first country song to have massive national success was Vernon Dalhart’s “Wreck Of The Old ’97”, released in May 1924.

Timeline of Country Music

Since its inception in the 1920s, country music has evolved over the years, with the emergence of various artists, bands, and subgenres of country music influenced by cultural and musical changes.

The 1920s: The Origins of Country Music (First Generation)

Scholars widely believe that country music first originated in eastern Tennessee in the 1920s. During that period, Atlanta’s music scene was exploding with music by former Appalachian people that immigrated in search of job opportunities in the cotton mills. Johnson City, Knoxville, and Bristol were all jam-packed with studios that hosted the first country music recordings by mountaineer artists in the Great Smoky Mountains.

The emergence of country music paved the way for promoters to start producing country music on a commercial level, particularly after a promoter made a partnership with Fiddlin’ John Carson. Carson is credited for recording the first-ever commercially-released country music piece, which helped the foundation of country music as a new music genre in the United States.

In the same decade, small radio stations dedicated portions of their airtime to broadcast country music pieces, particularly in Midwestern and Southern U.S cities. Scholars credit these broadcasts for having a direct influence on the growth of the country music scene.

Programs such as the “Grand Ole Opry” in Nashville and “National Barn Dance” in Chicago in 1924-1925 were quite popular across the whole country. Such programs saw the rise of talented country music artists like Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, whose music style greatly influenced the later generations of country music bands and musicians.

The recordings from these programs often encompassed country dance tunes and ballads. The vocals were sung in high close harmony or by a single voice. The guitar and fiddle were used as lead instruments, along with other instruments such as the mandolin, harmonica, banjo, and Appalachian dulcimer.

The 1930s-1940s: Second Generation

In the early 1930s, Gene Autry led a trend as a singing cowboy movie star. He recorded western music with an adventitious vibe by using the right lyrics along with country music instrumentation.

Later on, another style of country music popped up around the states of Texas and Oklahoma. White and black Americans lived together in these states, causing their music styles to intermix. Black orchestras performed swing jazz, which was exposed to the music produced by rural whites. 

This led to the birth of a brand new style of country music, whose pioneer was Bob Wills. This new Western Swing style of country music often featured a bold dance rhythm, along with steel and amplified guitars.

In the 1940s, another country music variant was spreading. Known as “honky-tonk”, this sub-genre was characterized by bitter lyrics and a combination of fiddle and steel guitars. Some of the artists that adopted this were Hank Wiliams, Ernest Tubb, and Buffalo Johnson.

Over the years, the instruments and rhythms used in country music changed progressively, but that hasn’t stopped artists from going all-classic. After 1945, particularly when World War II was over, mountaineer string band music started to take over. It was later known as “Bluegrass”.

Bill Monroe, along with his string band “The Blue Grass Boys,” went on to revive the older country music traditions by adopting high harmony singing and using the fiddle as the lead instrument. Their performances at the Grand Ole Opry were widely-acclaimed, and later on, Monroe earned the “Father of Bluegrass” nickname for his contribution to this style of music.

Earl Scruggs, one of the band’s members, was credited for coming up with a whole new picking style that can be done with 3 fingers. This new style was the main contributor to the fiddle regaining its position as the lead instrument. At that time, country music was given new terms such as ‘hillbilly’ and ‘folk’.

The 1950s-1960s: Third Generation

In the 1950s, many artists played a mix of country boogie, honky tonk, and western swing. “El Paso” by Marty Robbins is a perfect example of this style of country music. The Tejano rhythms that originated at the U.S-Mexican borders had a great influence on this “fusion” country genre. 

The 1950s period witnessed major political changes that had a direct impact on the music industry. Rock ‘n’ roll was gaining widespread popularity and it had influences on country music, intimidating country artists into borrowing elements from the genre. 

Another significant change in the country music industry in the 50s was the Nashville Sound movement. This movement called for the fusion of swing and jazz with storytelling. 

In the mid-1950s, the Bakersfield Sound came to life near Bakersfield, California. It was noticeable in the honky-tonk bars used in music pieces originating from that region. The Bakersfield Sound is considered grittier than the Nashville Sound, borrowing elements of rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll. Other distinguishing factors included loud drums and amp-up guitars.

Webb Pierce and Buck Owens were among the artists that adopted the Bakersfield Sound in their releases.

The 1970s-1980s: Fourth Generation

The 1970s saw several emerging bands and artists describing themselves as “outlaws”, which led to the foundation of the “country outlaw movement.” This style of country music originated from blues music, combining elements of rockabilly, honky tonk, and rock ‘n’ roll.

The earlier works of Elvis Persley, Bob Wills, and Hank Williams greatly influenced the outlaw movement. And because the 1960s saw dramatic changes in the music industry, recording artists refused to conform to what society required their youth to do and say. Artists wrote their own songs, freely expressing their thoughts. This was the seed that later grew to be the outlaw movement.

The same decade witnessed the development of country-pop. The term was originally used to refer to country songs and artists that had a top 40 radio hit, but it later evolved into a dedicated subgenre.

This style of music fused elements of pop, rock, and country, leading scholars to compare the development of country-pop to the Nashville sound of the 1950s and Countrypolitan. John Denver, Glen Campbell, and Linda Ronstadt were among the artists that led the country-pop scene with hit songs on the top charts. 

The 1970s also saw the rise of country rock, a fusion genre that combined elements from rock and country music. It preserved the traditions of classic country music and combined them with rock ‘n’ roll instrumentation and style. Gram Parsons’ works in the early 1970s have led him to be the “Father of Country-Rock.”

In 1979, “Urban Cowboy” was released, a movie starring John Travolta. This work of art initiated a movement that emphasized easy-listening crossover success in country music. A good number of country artists, including Mickey Gilley, and Johnny Lee, supported the movement with their music.

It’s widely believed that country music that emerged during that period didn’t leave behind a solid legacy. Nevertheless, some artists managed to continue their success after releasing a few “disco-style” country music pieces. The most notable ones are Steve Wariner and Alabama.

The 1990s: Fifth Generation

The 1990s was when country music finally played on more mainstream radio stations, thanks to the expansion of FM Radio technology. Until the early 1990s, country music was only broadcasted on AM Radio stations in rural areas.

The 1990s was also the decade when country music earned worldwide success. Garth Brooks, one of the most successful musicians of all time, broke attendance and sales records for country music.

The same period witnessed the rise of female country music artists and bands, such as The Dixie Chicks, Pam Tillis, Lorrie Morgan, and Deana Carter. The Dixie Chicks, in particular, were among the most popular country music groups in the late 20th century and early 21st century. Their debut album, “Wide Open Spaces,” became certified 12x platinum.

Influenced by the early works of country, country rock, and punk rock music, alternative country music started appearing in the music scene in the 1990s. This style of music was vastly different from what country music was like during that time. 

Uncle Tupelo’s 1990 debut album “No Depression” is often regarded as the first-ever alternative country album. By 1991, the album had already sold 15,000 units, a significant number when it comes to independent record labels.

The 2000s: Sixth Generation

Country music from the early 2000s to date has been influenced by rock, pop, and rhythms and blues.

The political division of the United States is reflected quite well in country music. Half of the artists stuck to a more conservative style of country music that rejected the rights of minorities, gun control, and other sensitive topics. In contrast, the other half led a progressive liberal values movement that mixed old-school country music with a working-class style of folk music. 

In the last decade, contemporary pop-country artists dominated the country music scene. Examples include the works of Chris Young, Miley Cyrus, Noah Cyrus, Taylor Swift, and Carrie Underwood. Many of these musicians often touched on controversial topics in their songs, like racism, feminism, and human rights. 

In addition, more and more pop and R&B artists showed interest in country music. These include Pink, Beyoncé, and Justin Timberlake.

Summary

Those were the highlights of the history of country music. The genre has been there for over 100 years, and it’s still going strong today, despite being different from what it used to be in the 1920s and the 1930s.
The Ryman Auditorium, which was home to the Grand Ole Opry, is now a touristic landmark, proudly showcasing America’s fascinating country music legacy.

Taylor Swift Featured Image by: minds-eye, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Common

Brian Clark is a multi-instrumentalist and music producer. He is passionate about practically all areas of music and he particularly enjoys writing about the music industry.

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