Then & Now: Country


Of all the musical genres we’ve studied in this series—electronica, soul, synthpop, punk and hip-hop thus far—perhaps none is as divisive as today’s topic: Country.

It’s true that the twangy guitar, pedal steel and fiddle that characterize much of classic country aren’t to everyone’s taste. But perhaps more to the point, “country” has become a cultural label as much as a musical one, a stand-in for “traditional values” that some feel don’t match their political ones.  

That’s a lot to ask of an entire genre of music, and it’s misleading. While country music—especially the radio-friendly “new country” offshoot—is more broadly popular in the American heartland than cities, and often expresses pride in conservative values and lifestyles, it certainly doesn’t belong to any one ethnic or political group.

Think of it instead as a broad and resonant palette with which to express any number of emotions and viewpoints, and you’ll get closer to the heart of what country music actually is: One of America’s truly singular musical contributions to the world, capable of seemingly endless rejuvenation and revival.

Traveling Music for a Nation of Immigrants

Because it’s a uniquely American style, it’s only appropriate that country music grew from seeds planted by newcomers. Most historians place the birthplace of country firmly in Appalachia, the broad swath of the eastern United States stretching roughly from southern New York to northern Alabama and Georgia.

Drawing upon the roots of English, Irish and Scottish ballads and traditional music, Christian hymns, and African-American folk, Appalachian music percolated in the mountains, valleys and byways of the region for some 300 years. If it ventured outside the area at all, it was better-known as “hillbilly music,” a hint to the slightly pejorative lens through which many viewed it. Rawly emotional, characterized by primitive folk instruments such as the banjo, dulcimer and guitar, it attracted little critical attention outside its home.

In the first decades of the 20th century, a number of factors conspired to change this. After WWI, the regional coal industry was wracked by fights over unionization and instability in commodity prices; in response, millions of Appalachians headed north in search of industrial jobs.

As a result, “hillbilly music” hitched a ride too. No longer a new and awkward hybrid, it had reached a point of refinement and confidence; it’s no wonder that it soon found welcoming ears in far-flung cities such as Detroit, New York, Boston and further still.

Around the same time, the emergence both of radio and recording technologies meant that, for the first time in history, music didn’t have to be played live to be heard. Like the compact discs then still decades in the future, phonograph albums enjoyed a massive and unprecedented surge in popularity as they were marketed to new urbanites, many of whom found themselves with discretionary income for the first time in their lives.

What’s more, country music spoke to many of these transplants in a uniquely personal way. For those who’d grown up with this music in the background, it was a familiar and emotionally resonant touchstone. For those hearing it for the first time, it suggested a connection to a tradition and a way of life that was fast disappearing. As the blues were a sonic touchstone for the African-American community, so too was country for a largely—though not completely—white audience.

The 1920s - 1950s: Modern Country Takes Shape  

It’s rare that an entire musical genre can be pegged to a single place, let alone a single moment in time. But by act of Congress, the town of Bristol, Tennessee, and the recording sessions that took place there between July 25 and August 5, 1927, are recognized as the “Big Bang of Country Music.” That’s when Ralph Peer, traveling producer for the Victor Talking Machine Company, set up a mobile recording rig and committed performances by the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and a slew of other early country luminaries to wax.

Of course, the story is a bit more nuanced than that, but let’s run with it for a moment, shall we? As a result of the recordings captured during that session, Jimmie Rodgers became country music’s first bona fide star, going on to record such million-selling songs as “Blue Yodel.” And the Carter Family—A.P., Sara and Maybelle—would go on to record no fewer than 300 old-time ballads, traditional and country songs, and hymns. Today, Rodgers and the Carters are widely recognized as two of America’s most important musical artists.

While phonograph sales were hit hard by the Great Depression in late 1929, the emergence of radio kept country music in the public ear. The Grand Ole Opry, which commenced broadcast in 1925, was a vital outlet for these new sounds; the show is currently the longest-running broadcast program in the nation’s history.

Over the next couple of decades, the genre broadened (having by and large dropped the questionable “hillbilly music” label by the 1940s), and a thick tangle of different styles and interpretations began to thread through country music’s family tree.

Some looked backwards for inspiration. Although “bluegrass” took its name from a single musical group—the Blue Grass Boys, led by the genre’s pivotal figure, mandolinist and songwriter Bill Monroe, it hearkened to the fast and energetic folk songs of the mountains of Appalachia. Though it would later incorporate elements of jazz, gospel and blues, in many regards bluegrass is as sonically raw as it comes in the wider arena of country.

Other groups were looking ahead. Western swing brought more sophisticated instrumentation and arrangements to country’s close cousin Western, a genre derived in large part from cowboy campfire ballads and other branches of folk music. By the ‘40s, Western swing was neck-and-neck with big-band jazz in dance halls around the nation, though it would soon fade.  

Many other branches and sub-branches of country music’s tree would rise up in the middle of the 20th century. But if a single artist from this period demands mention, it would have to be Hank Williams, Sr. Though only 29 when he died on New Year’s Day, 1953, after a life largely defined by alcohol and drug abuse, he remains a towering figure not just in country, but in all of American music.

Williams’ best-loved songs—“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”; “Your Cheatin’ Heart”; “Move It On Over” and countless others—fall into the honky tonk vein. A blend of old-time country, Southern blues, Western swing and even Mexican ranchera music, honky tonk perhaps more than any other offshoot of country pointed the way forward. In giving country music increased volume and a more prominent rhythm section, and with lyrical content focused squarely on modern subject matter like loneliness, partying and infidelity, honky tonk in general and Williams in specific inspired many early rock and rollers such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Chuck Berry.

1960s - 1980s: Country, Meet Rock; Rock, Meet Country

It’s ironic that early rock and roll took inspiration from country, because by the 1960s it had largely replaced it, or at least so far as mainstream tastes went. That’s not to say country had died. The highly polished, countrified pop of the “Nashville Sound” soon took root, and the honky tonk enjoyed a notable (and unexpected) moment of commercial success in Ray Charles’ 1962 smash hit Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, which included compositions by such composers as Hank Williams, Floyd Tillman and Eddy Arnold.

A few years later, the decade’s explosion of rock culture brought country to an even more unexpected audience: The underground. In the mid-to-late ‘60s, artists such as the Byrds, cult English band Downliners Sect, and perhaps most notably Bob Dylan all released albums which embraced country to varying degrees.

The hybrid changed both rock and country. The soft-rock, vaguely country-tinged sound of the Eagles would dominate FM airwaves through the ‘70s, and this period would see the rise of “outlaw country,” a subset that would transform the face of country music as well. Led by such stars as Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, Jr., Merle Haggard, and Rosanne Cash, outlaw country in some ways appropriated the sense of alienation that had permeated the rock music of the preceding decade and bestowed it upon a young, largely rural audience.       

The 1990s - 2010s: Worldwide Acceptance but a Turning Inward  

By the‘80s, country was in a bit of a lull. But mid-decade, a ruling by the Federal Communication Commission expanded the number of FM stations in rural and suburban stations, which set the stage for yet another country resurgence. Now artists such as Garth Brooks became not only national but worldwide sensations, and while female artists had been an important component of the genre from the very beginning—two thirds of the Carter Family were sisters—they now experienced commercial success on a new and unprecedented level. Reba McEntire, Faith Hill, Martina McBride, LeAnn Rimes, Shania Twain, and Mary Chapin Carpenter all released platinum-selling albums in the ‘90s.

Many cultural critics point to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 as a turning point in country. Fueled in part by a recession and generalized distrust of outsiders, some country artists released broadly pro-American material championing “family values” and patriotism over inclusiveness. While country music had always had decidedly rural roots, the explicit embrace of conservative themes highlighted a major cultural fault line. And while it helped propel the genre to even greater visibility and commercial success, for many fans who cherished country music’s hardscrabble roots and bare emotionality, the connection to conservatism proved too complicated to overlook.

That said, country only continued to permeate popular culture. Carrie Underwood sprang from winning the 2005 season of American Idol to become a major recording artist of the next ten years. And though her early days may seem like a distant memory now, let’s not forget that Taylor Swift’s first, hugely successful releases were fairly conventional country records.

This raises a question: When all is said and done, what makes a song “country”? Is it the presence of traditional instruments like fiddles and twangy guitars, or something deeper? Viewed from one perspective, country is the music preferred by those of us living between the coasts or in “red” states. But viewed from another, country is simply the trunk at the center of so much of America’s musical heritage, its many branches entwining with blues, folk and jazz to define the sound of a nation. And that’s a priceless gift we can all share.

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