A brief history of Country Music

by Piero Scaruffi
A chapter of my History of Popular Music

To purchase the book

(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Popular Music")

Country Music

Southern States: Hillbilly Music

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, although the world had to wait until 1922 before someone, Texan fiddler Eck Robertson, cut the first record of "old-time music". These collections created the myth of the Appalachians as remote sanctuaries of simple, noble life, whose inhabitants, the "mountaneers", isolated from the evils of the world embodied the true American spirit. Many of those regions were not settled until 1835, and then they were settled by very poor immigrants, thus creating a landscape of rather backwards communities, still attached to their traditions but also preoccupied with the daily struggle for survival.

In 1922, a radio station based in Georgia (WSM) was the first to broadcast folk songs to its audience. A little later, a radio station from Fort Worth, in Texas (WBAP), launched the first "barn dance" show. In june 1923, 55-year old Georgia's fiddler John Carson recorded (in Atlanta) two "hillbilly" (i.e., southern rural) songs, an event that is often considered the official founding of "country" music (although Texas fiddler Eck Roberton had already recorded the year before). 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.

With When The Work's All Done This Fall (1925), Texas-bred Carl Sprague became the first major musician to record cowboy songs (the first "singing cowboy" of country music). And, finally, in 1925, Nashville's first radio station (WSM) began broadcasting a barn dance that would eventually change name to "Grand Ole Opry". Country music was steaming ahead. Labels flocked to the South to record singing cowboys, and singing cowboys were exhibited in the big cities of the North.

Among the most literate songwriters were Texas-born Goebel Reeves, who penned The Drifter (1929), Blue Undertaker's Blues (1930), Hobo's Lullaby (1934) and The Cowboy's Prayer (1934), i.e. a mixture of hobo and cowboy songs, and Tennessee-born Harry McClintock, the author of the hobo ballads Big Rock Candy Mountain (1928) and Hallelujah Bum Again (1926).

Country music was a federation of styles, rather than a monolithic style. Its origins were lost in the early decades of colonization, when 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. The musical styles were reminiscent of their British ancestors. The lyrics, on the other hand, were completely different. The Americans disliked the subject of love, to which they preferred pratical issues such as real-world experiences (ranching, logging, mining, railroads) and real-world tragedies (bank robberies, natural disasters, murders, train accidents).

The instrumentation included the banjo, introduced by the African slaves via the minstrel shows, the Scottish "fiddle" (the poor man's violin, simplified so that the fiddler could also sing) and the Spanish guitar (an instrument that became popular in the South only around 1910). Ironically, as more and more blacks abandoned the banjo and adopted the guitar, the banjo ended up being identified with white music, while the guitar ended up being identified as black music. For example, Hobart Smith learned to play from black bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson, but went on to play the banjo while Jefferson played the guitar.

The role of these instruments was more rhythmic than melodic, because most performances were solo, without percussion. Some regions added their own specialties (such as the accordion in Louisiana), but mostly white music was based on stringed instruments. When not performed solo, it was performed by string bands, particularly after the 1920s, when the first recordings allowed musicians to actually make a living out of their "old-time music". The string bands of the 1920s included Charlie Poole's North Carolina Ramblers, that augmented the repertory of old-time music with songs from minstrel and vaudeville shows, Ernest Stoneman's Dixie Mountaineers, and finally (but the real trend-setters for string bands) the hillbilly supergroup Skillet Lickers, formed in 1926 and featuring Riley Puckett on guitar, Gideon Tanner and Clayton McMichen on fiddles (and all of them on vocals), the first ones to record Red River Valley (1927).

The "hillbilly" format (led by the guitar and a bit more "cosmopolitan") was more popular in the plains, while the "mountain" format of the Appalachians (dominated by fiddle and banjo) remained relatively sheltered from urban and African-American influences.

Solo artists, or "ramblers", became popular after World War I, but often had to move to New York to make recordings. Some of them specialized in "event" songs, songs that chronicled contemporary events, such as Henry Whitter's The Wreck Of The Old 97 (1923), that may have been the first "railroad song" (but actually used the melody of the traditional The Ship That Never Returned), later recorded by New York's singer Vernon Dalhart (1924) for the national audience (perhaps the first hit of country music), Andrew Jenkins' Death Of Floyd Collins, also first recorded by Dalhart (1926), about a mining accident, and Bob Miller's Eleven Cent Cotton and Forty Cent Meat (1928), Dry Votin' (1929), and especially Twentyone Years (1930), perhaps the first "prison song". Miller was, by far, the most prolific, writing thousands of hillbilly songs.

Hillbilly musicians also dealt with the opposite genre, the novelty song: Wendell Hall's ukulele novelty It Ain't Gonna Rain No Mo (1923), Carson Robison's whistling novelty Nola (1926), Frank Luther's comic sketch Barnacle Bill The Sailor (1928).

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).

The real country musicians had been known mainly for their instrumental bravura. A national fiddle contest had been organized in Georgia already in 1917 (by the Old Time Fiddlers Organization). Two musicians important in the transition from the quiet and linear "mountain" style and the fast and syncopated "bluegrass" style were banjoists Charlie Poole of the North Carolina Ramblers (Don't Let Your Deal Go Down, 1925; White House Blues, 1926, better known as Cannonball Blues), and "Uncle" Dave Macon, the main "collector" of old-time music and one of the best-sold artists during the Roaring Twenties (Keep My Skillet Good And Greasy, 1924; Chewing Gum, 1924; Sail Away Ladies, 1927). If these two already used the banjo as much more than a mere rhythmic device, Dock Boggs was perhaps the first white banjoist to play the instrument like a blues guitar (in 1927 he recorded six plantation blues numbers and Sugar Baby, that was rockabilly ante-litteram). Sam McGee was one of the first to play the guitar like a bluesman, starting with Railroad Blues (1928). Georgia's blind guitarist Riley Puckett, the author of My Carolina Home (1927), played a key role in transforming the guitar from percussion instrument to accompanying instrument.

Un until the late 1920s, hillbilly artists were considered comedians as much as musicians. Many of them had a repertory of both songs and skits. The Skillet Lickers were probably instrumental in creating the charisma of the country musician, as opposed to the image of the hillbilly clown.

The Hawaian steel guitar, invented by Joseph Kekuku around 1885 in Honolulu, was a late addition to the line-up of string bands. The incidental music to Richard Walton Tully's play Bird of Paradise (1912) popularized the ukulele and the steel guitar in the USA, as did the Hawaiian pavillion at the "Panama Pacific Exhibition" of San Francisco in 1915. On The Beach At Waikiki (1915), composed by Henry Kailimai and Sonny Cunha, started a nation-wide craze. In 1916 all the record labels started selling records of Hawaiian music, including Sonny Cunha's Everybody Hula (1916), Richard Whiting's Along the Way to Waikiki (1917), Hawaiian Butterfly (1917), composed by Billy Baskette and Joseph Santly, and Walter Blaufuss' My Isle of Golden Dreams (1919). Hawaiian steel-guitar virtuoso Frank Ferera toured internationally. He had debuted on record with Stephen Foster's My Old Kentucky Home (1915). The craze subsided in the 1920s, but the steel guitar (first recorded by a hillbilly musician in 1927) would become more and more popular in the repertory of country music.

The first stars of the hillbilly genre were the members of the Virginia-based Carter Family, basically a vocal trio (Sara on lead vocals and autohapr, Alvin on bass vocals, and Maybelle on alto vocals and on guitar) that started out in 1926 and first recorded in 1927. Unlike their peers, who emphasized the instrumental sound, the Carter Family focused on songs. Collectively, they wrote over 300 songs, including classics such as Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone (1928), Keep On The Sunny Side (1928), a cover of Theodore Morse's 1906 song, Foggy Mountain Top (1929), My Clinch Mountain Home (1929), Worried Man Blues (1930), Can The Circle Be Unbroken (1935), No Depression (1936), and especially Wildwood Flower (1928), a traditional first published in 1860 that Maybelle turned into a guitar masterwork. Their vocal style was the quintessence of the "close-harmony" style of country music. Later, Maybelle (who plucked the melody on the bass strings) formed her own quartet with her three daughters (among whom June wrote Ring Of Fire and Helen wrote Poor Old Heartsick Me).

In 1924 with his first recording, Rock All Our Babies To Sleep, blind Georgia's guitarist Riley Puckett (already a radio star) introduced the "yodeling" style of singing (originally from the Swiss and Austrian Alps) into country music, the style adopted in 1927 by the first star of country music, Mississippi's Jimmie Rodgers, who wed it to the Hawaian slide guitar and, de facto, invented the white equivalent of the blues with T For Texas (1927), Waiting For A Train (1928), In The Jailhouse Now (1928), Mule Skinner Blues (1930). Ironically (but also tellingly), Jimmie Rodgers became the first star of this very white phenomenon by being the most influenced by the very black music of the blues. The year he died (1933) was a watershed year for country music.

Rodgers was influential in creating the myth of the Far West, which had already been fueled by the cowboy songs of Carl Sprague and Goebel Reeves. Thus "country" music became "country & western" music. Originally, country music was mainly from the Southeastern states (Virginia, Tennesse, Kentucky and neighboring states). But now the audience was becoming fascinated with the Southwestern states (Texas and neihboring states). The romantic allure of the mountain dweller was slowly being replaced by the romantic allure of the roaming cowboy.

Another country musician who, like Rodgers, harked back to the blues, was Louisiana's singer-songwriter Jimmie Davis whose songbook was no less impressive: Pistol Packin' Papa (1929), Organ Grinder's Blues (1929), Pussy Blues (1929), Nobody's Darling But Mine (1935), It Makes No Difference Now (1938), You Are My Sunshine (1939).

In the meantime, two new styles were emerging: honky-tonk and western-swing. And two instruments debuted in those years that would become the staple of rock bands: Adolph Rickenbacker invented (1931) the electric guitar and Laurens Hammond invented (1933) the Hammond organ. The steel guitar was electrified shortly afterwards, and enthusiastically embraced by country musicians (another sign that the trend was away from the mountain purists).

It was Texas singer-songwriter Gene Autry's Silver Hairde Daddy Of Mine (1931) a big hit that launched the "honky-tonk" style of country music. Debuting in the film Tumbling Tumbleweeds (1935), Autry (who in real life was not a cowboy at all) was also the first of the "singing cowboys" of Hollywood (before Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, Johnny Bond, Jimmy Wakely) that contributed to move country music (originally an eastern phenomenon) to the "far west", at least in the popular imagination. He also recorded Mother Jones (1931), a labor song, besides a long list of western-flavored songs, such as Mexicali Rose (1936). Roy Rogers and songwriters Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer formed the genre's supergroup, the Sons Of Pioneers, who composed some of the genre's classics, starting with Bob Nolan's Tumblin' Tumbleweeds (1927).

Clyde "Red" Foley was the star of Chicago, popularizing country music in the big city with Old Shep (1935) and Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy (1950).

By now "hillbilly" was no longer a positive attribute, but rather a derogatory one, and thus "country & western" came to connote all white southern music. The performers wore country attires and mimicked the slang of cowboys. The fascination with the West spread to the big cities of the North thanks to fake hillbilly songs written by professional Tin Pan Alley songwriters, such as Bill Hill's The Last Roundup (1933), actually a catchy tune in the Broadway style, but nonetheless influential in creating the vogue of the Far West. This enabled Tex Ritter, who had never been cowboy but simply a rodeo attraction, to become a star in New York, thanks to his Texan accent, and then (1936) in Hollywood (Rock'n'Rye Rag, 1948).

Both honky-tonk and western-swing were, de facto, by-products of the shift of country music towards the western states (i.e. Texas).

In 1932 vocalist Milton Brown and fiddler Bob Wills cut the first records of a kind of country music influenced by jazz that was later dubbed "western swing" (by Foreman Phillips in 1944). Basically, the country & western music of rural towns merged with the swing of the big bands of urban jazz. The two pioneers then split. Brown's combo, the Musical Brownies, featuring fiddler Cecil Brower (who introduced Joe Venuti's style to country music), jazz pianist Fred Calhoun, Bob Dunn on one of the first amplified steel guitars and a rhythm section influenced by ragtime, ruled in Texas, while Wills' Texas Playboys, based in Oklahoma and featuring a country string section and a jazz horn section, and now fronted by Tommy Duncan, debuted on record in 1935 (with Osage Stomp, reminiscent of Will Shade's Memphis Jug Band) and went on to produce Steel Guitar Rag (1936), New San Antonio Rose (1940), their greatest hit, recorded with an 18-piece band, perhaps the first nation-wide hits of country music. Time Changes Everything (1940), Smoke on the Water (1944), New Spanish Two Step (1946).

From 1936 Chicago's fiddler and accordionist Frank "Pee Wee" King, who wrote Bonaparte's Retreat, Tennessee Waltz and Slow Poke (1950), led the most popular of the western swing bands, the Golden West Cowboys.

After the war, Spade Cooley (in Los Angeles) introduced a variant of western swing that de-emphasized the brass and reeds while returning to the more traditional sound of pop orchestras.

Western Swing marked the transition from the archaic string-bands to the dancehall orchestras. These bands were responsible for the introduction into country music of instruments such as drums, horns and electric guitar.

Texas singer Al Dexter had hits in both the honky-tonk style, such as Honky Tonk Blues (1934), and the western-swing style, such as Pistol Packin' Mama (1942), boasting a revolutionary arrangement of accordion, trumpet and steel guitar. San Diego's pianist Merrill Moore did the same after World War II, achieving a synthesis in songs such as House Of Blue Lights (1953) that heralded rock'n'roll.

The other major genre to surface during the 1930s was bluegrass music, but this one originated in the traditional southeastern areas ("bluegrass country" being the nickname of Kentucky). Several vocalist-instrumentalist couples had appeared (particularly brothers) that played a more spirited music devoted to domestic themes.

Alabama's guitar-based Delmore Brothers (Alton was the main composer and lead vocalist) were instrumental in popularizing the "brothers style" thanks to their tenure with the "Grand Ole Opry" between 1932 and 1938. They were also important for bridging the world of white music and the world of black music. Their songs were bluesy, and they often interpreted gospel songs. Their greatest hits were in fact blues numbers, from Brown's Ferry Blues (1933) to Blues Stay Away from Me (1949). In 1944 they added the bluesy harmonica of Wayne Raney, and in 1946 they added electric guitar and drums. That is when they recorded their series of breathless boogies, one step away from rock'n'roll: Hillbilly Boogie (1945), Freight Train Boogie (1946), Mobile Boogie (1948), Pan American Boogie (1950). Other famous numbers were Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar, Midnight Special, Beautiful Brown Eyes (1951).

Another "brother act" was that of the Blue Sky Boys, formed by Bill and Earl Bolick (respectively, mandolin and guitar), perhaps the most faithful to the "mountain" tradition in their versions of Sunny Side Of Life (1935), Down On The Banks of the Ohio (1936), Story of the Knoxville Girl (1937), Are You From Dixie (1939), Turn Your Radio On (1940).

The bluegrass style, that originated in the 1920s from both Kentucky and Bristol, on the Virginia-Tennessee border, was a by-product of the "brother style", except that it was fast, virtuoso and sometimes instrumental-only "mountain music" (the country equivalent of the dixieland in jazz). It derived from the string bands of the 1920s, with a banjo, fiddle, and mandolin leading the melody, backed by guitar and string bass. The notable addition to the arsenal of the string bands was the Italian mandolin, that became popular in the South with bluegrass music. The vocals were not as important as in the "brothers style", although often featured a high-pitched tenor voice. Bluegrass music relied a mixture of techniques: mountain music's three-finger banjo picking, country & western's fiddle, the rhythmic guitar of the ramblers, the tenor-driven choir of religious hymns with bass-register counterpoint.

Kentucky-based mandolinist Bill Monroe, who had started a duo in 1934 with his guitarist brother Charlie, popularized the "bluegrass" style with Kentucky Waltz (1945), Blue Moon Of Kentucky (1945) and Footprints in the Snow (1945), performed by his new band, the Blue Grass Boys, that eventually came to include virtuoso musicians such as Earl Scruggs on banjo, Chubby Wise on fiddle, Howard Watts on bass, and Lester Flatt on guitar, which were in turn replaced in the Sixties by a new generation of virtuosi (fiddler Richard Greene, guitarist Peter Rowan, banjoist Bill Keith). Monroe's spectacular mandolin style was documented on instrumental pieces such as Rawhide (1951) and Roanoke (1954). At the peak, Monroe's band was so focused on improvisation and technical skills that it sounded like a jazz group performing country music.

Flatt and Scruggs formed their own act in 1948, that, thanks to pieces such as Foggy Mountain Breakdown (1949), Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms (1950), Pike County Breakdown (1952), Flint Hill Special (1952), and eventually the hit The Ballad of Jed Clampett (1962), competed with both Bill Monroe. Flatt and Scruggs were also instrumental in introducing the dobro guitar (since 1955, played by Buck Graves), a variant of the Hawaian steel guitar, into country music.

Bluegrass acts of the 1950s included the Osborne Brothers (Sonny on banjo and Bobbie on mandolin), perhaps the most innovative of the new generation, as displayed in Ruby (1956); and the Stanley Brothers (Carter being the lead vocalist), much more focused on the vocal harmonies than on the instrumental counterpoint and solos, from the "high lonesome" style of A Vision of Mother to love songs such as How Mountain Girls Can Love (1959) to religious themes such as Gathering Flowers for the Master's Bouquet and Albert Brumley's Rank Strangers (1960).

Bluegrass would remain the branch of country music most obsessed with dazzling technical proficiency, whether vocal or instrumental.

Tennesse native Roy Acuff became the first star of Nashville thanks to two tunes already recorded by the Carter Family: The Great Speckled Bird (1936), based on the melody of I'm Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes, and Wabash Cannonball (1936), one of the most celebrated "railroad songs". The Precious Jewel (1940), based on The Hills of Roane County, Wreck On The Highway (1942), one of the earliest car songs, Frank "Pee Wee" King's Tennessee Waltz (1947), were sung in an old-fashioned, mournful mountain style, and accompanied mainly with the dobro (James Clell Summey until 1938 and Beecher "Pete" Kirby after 1938). Country broadcasting had been dominated by string bands: Acuff's emotional solo performances changed the very perception of what country music ought to be. He was instrumental in turning country music into a business, and a huge nationwide business. The music publishing company he founded in 1942 with songwriter Fred Rose (credited with many songs that he actually only revised and published, including Hank Williams' Kaw-liga and Take These Chains From My Heart) became a gold mine.

Johnny Bond wrote Cimarron (1938), I Wonder Where You Are Tonight, Hot Rod Lincoln, Your Old Love Letters and Tomorrow Never Comes.

In 1939 the "Grand Ole Pry" moved to Nashville's "Ryman Auditorium" and was broadcasted by the national networks.

Nonetheless, the nation was still largely unaware of country music. It wasn't until 1942 that "Billboard" introduced a column on country music, and only in 1944 it introduced the charts for hillbilly songs.

New York: Dissent

If country music represented the quintessential American values, and a positive attitude towards the American way of life, others (harking back to the epics of the itinerant "hobos") were seeing through the American Dream and confronting the issues of poverty, fascism and racism.

In a somber guitar-based folk style, Oklahoma's Woody Guthrie wrote the Dust Bowl Ballads (1935, first recorded in 1940), the soundtrack of the Great Depression, to become the first major singer-songwriter of the USA. After moving to New York in 1940, he also graduated to be the voice of the political "opposition" with Pretty Boy Floyd (1939), the anthemic This Land Is Your Land (1940, first recorded in 1944), Ludlow Massacre (1944), 1913 Massacre (1944), Deportee (1948), and the Ballads Of Sacco & Vanzetti (1947); but also composed popular songs such as Oklahoma Hills (1937), Pastures Of Plenty (1941), Reuben James (1941), So Long It's Been Good To Know You (1942), Philadelphia Lawyer (1946). His songs were mostly based on ancient hillbilly melodies.

The Left gained strength throughout the 1930s, finding shelter in the artists' lofts of New York's Greenwich Village. The "Village Vanguard", opened by Max Gordon in 1939 in that area (7th Avenue and 11th Street), was a jazz club but soon began to serve a white audience of political dissidents.

The viability of popular music as sociopolitical protest had been proven by Brother Can You Spare A Dime (1932), a song written by Yip Harburg (music by Jay Gorner), a veteran of the Broadway musical and the Hollywood soundtrack, and sung by Bing Crosby. In fact, the whole soundtrack of Victor Fleming's Wizard of Oz (1939), also written by Harburg (music by Harold Arlen), was meant as a commentary to the Great Depression.

Besides Guthrie, other folk musicians composed protest songs. For example, Earl Robinson wrote Joe Hill (1936) to commemorate a murdered union leader.

Another important strain of popular music had to do with folk music, which Guthrie and Robinson had already associated with social awareness. In 1940 Pete Seeger went further: he formed the Almanac Singers to sing protest songs (We Shall Overcome, Guantanamera), sometimes with communist overtones. In 1948 Seeger formed the vocal quartet Weavers loosely modeled after the Country Family. Their arranger Gordon Jenkins added a string orchestra to their cover of Leadbelly's Good Night Irene (1949), thus creating the first folk-pop crossover. The collaboration with Gordon Jenkins continued with The Roving Kind (1950) and Wimoweh (1952). Their If I Had A Hammer (1949), Where Have All The Flowers Gone (1956), Bells Of Rhymney (1959) and Turn Turn Turn (1962) established the vogue of folk music, while Wimoweh (1961) even resurrected African folk music. His Goofing Off Suite (1955) was, de facto, the first record of "American primitivism".

Another pioneer of the folk revival, Burl Ives, popularized Foggy Foggy Dew (1945), a traditional English tune, Blue-tailed Fly (1948), a Civil War tune, Harry McClintock's Big Rock Candy Mountain (1948) and Stan Jones' Ghost Riders In The Sky (1949), based on the traditional When Johnny Comes Marching Home.

"Ramblin' Jack" Elliott Adnopoz became Guthrie's ambassador in Europe. Several black musicians (notably, Leadbelly and Josh White) benefited from the folk revival.

The folk revival was pretty much the invention of a record collector called Harry Smith who assembled a six-LP collection of rare vintage 78 RPM records, the Anthology of American Folk Music, issued by Folkways Records in 1952.

In fact, the folk revival was instrumental in rediscovering forgotten genres and musicians that could not possibly aim for the charts. For example, the tradition of "one-man bands" was kept alive in San Francisco by a black musician, Jesse Fuller, an old man (he debuted at 58) who played at the same time guitar, pedal bass, harmonica, hi-hats and castanets, immortalized by his San Francisco Bay Blues (1954). In 1948 Moe Asch founded Folkways, a record label devoted to folk music, but also to Latin-American music, to Native American music and to blues music.

New York became the stage for a movement of "folk revival" that spawned hits such as the Tarriers' Banana Boat Song (1956), that also launched the calypso craze, the Kingston Trio's traditional Tom Dooley (1958), Jimmy Driftwood's Battle Of New Orleans (1958), and Jimmy Driftwood's Battle of New Orleans (1958) and Soldier's Joy (1958), all of them reconstructed from traditional melodies. Ethno-musicologists such as the New Lost City Ramblers assembled "lost" songs on albums such as The New Lost City Ramblers (1958), Vol II (1959) and Songs from the Depression (1960). The Limeliters assembled a multinational repertory on soothing collections such as The Slightly Fabulous (1961). The "Newport Folk Festival" (1959) created a vast audience for this music, an audience that increasingly came to be identified with the political Left and the young beatniks of the Greenwich Village.

These folksingers had little in common (stylistically or ideologically) with the hillbillies of country music, but they ended up creating the urban audience for country music. Country music, even in states that were rapidly urbanizing such as Texas, had been catering mainly to the countryside. The post-war generation of folksingers catered almost exclusively to the audience of the big cities. It wasn't long before country music learned that lesson.

Also part of the Leftist movement of ideas were the iconoclast satirists who attacked the American way of life, contemporary politics and assorted taboos in the night clubs of New York: Richard "Lord" Buckley, Lenny Bruce and Tom Lehrer (chronologically). Their caustic humour actually anticipated the existential spleen and the political skepticism of the Greenwich Movement.

Texas and Tennessee: Country Music

The 1940s were mainly the years of "honky-tonk" music, a much more driving style than traditional Appalachian music, and the first urban form of country music. Originally named after the saloons where alcohol was being served illegally (which, in turn, took their name from the factories that made gin), honky tonk became even more popular at the end of Prohibition era. Its stars were from Texas: Ernest Tubb (Walking The Floor Over You, 1942), who was also the first country artist to employ an electric guitar, and William "Lefty" Frizzell, Rodgers' natural heir, one of the most innovative vocalists and a poignant songwriter (If You've Got The Money I've Got The Time, 1950; Always Late, 1951; I Want to Be With You Always, 1951; Danny Dill's folk ballad The Long Black Veil, 1959; Saginaw Michigan, 1964; That's the Way Love Goes, 1973). Floyd Tillman wrote It Makes No Difference Now (1938) and the "cheating song" Slipping Around (1949). Houston-based pianist Aubrey "Moon" Mullican predated Jerry Lee Lewis in fusing honky-tonk and boogie-woogie, two styles that had much in common, with Harry Choates' New Jole Blon' (1947) and I'll Sail My Ship Alone (1950). South Carolina's guitarist Arthur Smith did something similar with the instrumental Guitar Boogie (1945). Ted Daffan composed the classics Worried Mind (1940), Born To Lose (1943), Headin' Down The Highway (1945). Honky-tonk songs dealt with more prosaic themes such as alcohol (of course) and cheating.

Purists looked down on honky-tonk, that preserved little of the original spirit of country music, but Hank Williams shut them down with Lovesick Blues (1949) and You're Gonna Change (1949), followed by a repertory of both ballads and pseudo-blues. Among the former: Cold Cold Heart (1950), Why Don't You Love Me (1950), Your Cheating Heart (1952), I Saw The Light (1953). Among the latter: Moaning The Blues (1950), Long Gone Lonesome Blues (1950), So Lonesome I Could Cry (1949), I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive (1952). Plus rhythmic songs that predated rock'n'roll, such as Move It On Over (1947), Honkytonking (1948), Howlin' At The Moon (1951). He died young (at 29), and his last songs, such as Jambalaya (1952) and Fred Rose's Kaw-liga (1952), already predated the age of exotic music.

The star of honky-tonk who succeeded Williams, Webb Pierce, from Louisiana, adopted the electric guitar and steel guitar and moved towards pop and rock'n'roll in Merle Kilgore's More And More (1954) and Teenage Boogie (1956). Ray Price, from Texas, bordered both honky-tonk and western swing in songs such as Don't Let The Stars Get Into Your Eyes (1952), Crazy Arms (1956), City Lights (1958). Hank Thompson's band, also from Texas, did the opposite (from western swing to honky-tonk), starting with Wild Side of Life (1952), basically a cover of Roy Acuff's The Great Speckled Bird (1936). Another Texas, Johnny Horton, adapted the style to the dancehalls and to rock'n'roll with songs such as Honky Tonk Man (1956).

Jimmie Rodgers' style was instead revived by Canadian-born Hank Snow, particularly in his own I'm Moving On (1950), one of the greatest hits of the post-war era, The Golden Rocket (1950) and The Rhumba Boogie (1951).

Among instrumental virtuosi, Merle Travis' finger-picking style (that was basically an adapation of a banjo technique to the guitar) turned the guitar into both a melodic and rhythmic instrument. To his contemporaries, he sounded like two guitarists, not one. He also recorded Folk Songs of the Hills (1947), including his own celebrated protest song Sixteen Tons, in a vein similar to Woody Guthrie's. Smoke Smoke Smoke (1947) was his biggest hit.

His disciple Chet Atkins simplified Travis' style by using three fingers instead of only two. More importantly, Atkins pioneered the classic "Nashville sound" through compositions such as Bluesy Guitar (1946), a duet between electric guitar and clarinet, Canned Heat (1947), Galloping on the Guitar (1949), Chinatown My Chinatown (1952), Country Gentleman (1953), Downhill Drag (1953), that progressively downplayed the rustic role of the fiddle and the steel guitar while emphasizing a sweeter, poppier sound based on guitar and piano.

Jean Ritchie pioneered the revival of the dulcimer with records such as Singing Traditional Songs of Her Mountain Family (1952).

Les Paul, a white guitarist who played more often with jazz musicians than country ones, invented the solid-body guitar (1941), pioneered new recording techniques ("close miking", "echo delay", "multi-tracking") and engaged in archetypical experiments of tape manipulation and overdubbing in his 1948 songs Brazil and Lover (on which he played all instruments by himself), besides sprinkling his recordings with all sorts of sound effects. His creative solos on the hits sung by his wife Mary Ford, starting with a cover of Morgan Lewis' jazzy show-tune How High the Moon (1951) and with the traditional Swedish waltz Mockin' Bird Hill, influenced both jazz and rock.

Los Angeles-based pyrotechnic guitarist Joe Maphis was one of the first to use the instrument not only for the rhythmic accompaniment but also for the lead lines. He also composed Dim Lights Thick Smoke (1952) and Fire On The Strings (1954).

Other virtuosi included fiddler Vassar Clements and blind flat-picking guitarist Arthel "Doc" Watson, who recorded his first album, Doc Watson Family (1963), at the age of forty.

"Tennessee" Ernie Ford was the sex symbol of country music in the 1950s, and launched standards such as Smokey Mountain Boogie (1948), Johnny Lange's and Fred Glickman's Mule Train (1949) and Shotgun Boogie (1950), a progenitor of rock'n'roll.

Leon Payne, a member of Bob Wills' Texas Playboys, wrote Lost Highway (1949) and I Love You Because (1950)

Felice and Boudleaux Bryant were among the most successful Nashville songwriters, from Hey Joe (1953) to Love Hurts (1961) to Rocky Top (1967), and particularly for the Everly Brothers.

At the end of World War II, several studios had opened in Nashville, reflecting the growing popularity of the "Grand Ole Opry". Then musicians started relocating to Nashville. By 1954, when the "Country Music Disc Jockeys' Association" (CMA) was created, Nashville had as many songwriters as New York. Chet Atkins was one of the producers who, in the 1950s, crafted the "Nashville sound", basically country music played with a pop sensibility (the guitar and sometimes the piano replacing the fiddle, background vocals, string orchestra). Atkins was the man who buried the "high lonesome" Appalachian sound. In 1961 there were 81 radio stations devoted to country music, in 1966 there were 328. By 1963 one out of every two American records was produced in a Nashville studio.

The Importance of Country Music

Country music had a profound impact on the American subconscious: it provided the American nation with an identity. Pop music (as performed in theaters, as published by Tin Pan Alley) was largely a European invention, so much so that European stars touring the USA were invariably given a royal welcome and billed as the "real thing". But country music was American, and only American: its performers were American, its audience was American, its stories were American, its "sound" was American. Americans could enjoy pop music on Broadway, but they could not identify with it the same way that they could identify with the hillbillies and the cowboys. The sound of country music embodied the history of the USA, it represented its genome. As it developed from the 1920s to the 1960s, it simply continued to emphasize that "American" element, progressively removing the European elements: it sounded less and less like the English ballads and the Irish dances that originated it, and more and more like something completely new.
From a musical viewpoint, country music emphasized first of all the story, then the voice, and last the arrangement. It was a secular music, devoted to personal, domestic or collective issues, but largely set in a secular universe. It was rational to the extent that its characters were trying to make sense of their life and their surroundings.
This contrasted with rhythm'n'blues, that emphasized first of all the voice, and then (ever more) the arrangement, and finally the story; that had a stronger mystical element (the legaly of the spirituals and of gospel music); that was fundamentally irrational, in that it accepted the human condition as inevitable.

The Nashville Sound


Malone, Bill: "Country Music USA" (1968)

Rock | Germany | Japan | Italy | France | Scandinavia | Latin America | Africa | India | Jamaica | Country | Soul | Musical | Film Music | Blues | Pop | Jazz

Other histories | Main music page