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A Glimpse into the History of Country Music

A Glimpse into the History of Country Music

Country is one of the biggest sounds in popular music, a multi-billion dollar industry whose top stars like Taylor Swift and Luke Bryan sell tens of millions of albums.

Yet country music is older than the record business itself. The genre owes its legacy to poor and working people in the southern and western US, who fused European and African folk traditions to create a sound as distinctly American as blues, jazz, rock ‘n roll, and hip-hop.

If jamming out to country music on your Victrola’s Re-Spin Sustainable Bluetooth Suitcase Record Player has sparked you to know more about the origin, you have come to the right place. We’ll do our darn-dest to trace its path from rural backyards to global amphitheaters while highlighting some of its most revered and treasured country artists.

Pre-Recorded History: 1600s to 1920s

Who invented country music? The origin of country music begins in the 1600s. Around this time, North America’s earliest immigrants brought some essential cultural infusions to what would later become the United States.

European travelers brought British and Celtic folk songs, often about death and hardship. They also took along the violin (or fiddle), Europe’s most popular instrument for dancing.

From Africa came the rhythms and melodies that formed the basis of spirituals. Africans brought North America a stringed gourd that, with a few modifications, would later evolve into a banjo.

Because in the South people often lived and worked in close proximity, exchanging songs and instrumentation styles was common. String bands, typically featuring fiddle and banjo together, became a popular form of entertainment from Appalachia to the American southwest.

Some string band songs, and occasionally imitations of them written by songwriters from the North, became popular sheet music and were featured in Vaudeville and minstrel shows.

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1920s: Commercial Beginnings

In 1923, Ralph Peer from Okeh Records in New York traveled to Atlanta to record local artists. Fiddlin’ John Carson’s rendition of “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane,” a minstrel song from the 1870s, was the first commercially recorded a country song and a regional hit.

The next year, Vernon Dalhart had the first national country smash with “The Wreck of the Old 97.” Around the same time, the National Barn Dance radio show began broadcasting out of Chicago, followed in 1925 by the Grand Ole Opry out of Nashville.

The Bristol Sessions

In 1927, Peer, now working for Victor Records, spent two weeks in Bristol, Tennessee. There he recorded two dozen acts, two of which were met with tremendous popular acclaim:

  • Jimmie Rodgers – Known as “the Father of Country Music,” Rodgers sang blues-inflected songs about his “rough and rowdy ways” in a friendly voice and quavering yodel. He became a star on the strength of his song “Blue Yodel No. 1.”
  • The Carter Family – A family band consisting of AP Carter, his wife Sara, and sister-in-law Maybelle, the Carters sang gospel and folk in high, close Appalachian harmonies. A.P.’s song selection and Maybelle Carter’s guitar fingerpicking style were both influenced by their friend, African American guitarist Lesley Riddle.

“Hillbilly Music” and “Race Records”

The music industry called this sound “old-time” and later “hillbilly” music, while “race records” often featured the same songs played on the same instruments by African American artists.

This was largely a marketing decision based on assumptions that white audiences wouldn’t buy records by black artists, though hillbilly music itself “featured a higher frequency of integrated sessions than any other genre except vaudeville blues.”1

1930s and 40s: Hard Times, Hard Living

The Great Depression increased urbanization throughout the country and so deepened the synergy between white American folk and African American gospel and blues currents.

After World War II ended, the nation found itself invigorated and ready to dance, with four defining developments in country originating in this era:

  • Singing CowboysGene Autry and Roy Rogers both parlayed hit crooning cowboy records into movie careers to become two of the biggest stars of the 1930s and beyond.
  • Western Swing – As exemplified by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Western swing was a wild combination of the cowboy string band and New Orleans jazz orchestras.
  • Honky Tonk – Named for the bars where it was performed, honky tonk’s chirping electric guitar and jumpy snare drum rhythms were designed to cut through crowd noise.
  • Bluegrass – Both a back-to-roots revival and a revolutionary development, bluegrass is named after Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, whose Earl Scruggs popularized the banjo-picking style that defines the genre.

Nashville Ascendent

Hank Williams soulful croons and yodels made him one of honky tonk’s biggest stars. His many hit songs, published by a Nashville company co-founded by the musician Roy Acuff, led to the city becoming the undisputed headquarters of country.

1950s and 60s: Revolutions and Reactions

Rock ‘n roll took the nation by storm, and in the process, shaped the evolution of country music. Three enduring sounds have their origins in this period.

Rockabilly

In Memphis, white artists like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis could listen to Rufus Thomas and B.B. King DJ on WDIA, the first radio station in the US programmed for African American audiences.

Rockabilly, the sound they helped create at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio, pumped up honky tonk with the galloping rhythms of rock n roll to achieve what an ad for Presley’s first single called “Pop-Hillbilly-R&B.”2

The New Nashville Sound

When the rise of rock n roll cut into country’s sales, Nashville pivoted from honky tonk to slower songs with lush strings and backing vocals.

Some of country’s most enduring legends—George Jones, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Patsy Cline—had huge hits in this style, with Cline’s classic “Crazy,” written by a young Willie Nelson, becoming the number one jukebox song ever.

The industry also took steps to promote its product and preserve its history, forming the Country Music Association in 1958 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961. Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams were among the first inductees.

The Bakersfield Sound

A raucous reaction against trends in Nashville was pioneered in California by Buck Owens, who wanted his music to sound “like a locomotive comin’ right through the front room.”3

Merle Haggard, a one-time member of Owens’ band, went on to write some of the most beloved country songs in his long solo career. In fact, Merle’s contribution to the industry and popularity has earned him as one of the best country artists of all time.

1970s and 80s

In its bid for the mainstream, Nashville doubled down on smoothness with a style called Countrypolitan. Charley Pride, the first African American solo country star, was one of the most successful country artists of this era, along with Tammy Wynette and Glen Campbell.

A few movements challenged the supremacy of this sound:

  • The Outlaws – In Austin, Texas, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings led a movement bucking against Nashville with bad boy songs unafraid of rock and soul influences. It worked: Wanted! The Outlaws was country’s first platinum album.
  • Country Rock – Starting in the late 60s, artists like the Byrds, Gene Clark, Gram Parsons, and Emmylou Harris infused country traditions with psychedelic rock sounds.
  • New Traditionalists – In response to the slick urban cowboy pop epitomized by Reba McEntire, George Strait and the New Traditionalists picked up where the outlaws left off.

  • 1990s to Present

    In the early 90s, country music found its biggest audience yet as it continued to both innovate and return to classic styles.

    Stadium Country

    Garth Brooks fused pop and traditionalist strands for an arena-ready brand of country music that made him the second-best-selling country artist in music history. Brooks paved the way for bonafide crossover sensations by the likes of:

    More recently, Taylor Swift has grown from her country music origins to become one of the biggest stars in the world. Justin Timberlake and Miley Cyrus are among the many pop artists who have made country albums.

    Alt-Country

    Acts like Son Volt and 16 Horsepower blended roots music with alternative rock, while Hank Williams III, the grandson of the original honky tonk hero, did the same with cowpunk. Alt-country has since become the term for anything outside of the country’s mainstream.

    Today, alternative country is a hugely successful movement within the country landscape, finding star power in figures like:

    Country Rap

    Rap has long incorporated elements of country music, and contemporary mainstream country songs often employ trap hi-hat patterns and lyrical themes similar to 2000s gangsta rap.

    In 2019, “Old Town Road” created a debate when it was disqualified from Billboard’s country charts despite prominently featuring banjo and Lil Nas X singing in a heavy drawl. St. Louis rapper Nelly, who did a duet with Tim McGraw in 2004, released a country album in 2021.

    Keep Your Collection Fit as a Fiddle With Victrola

    As American as apple pie, country music emerged from the same cultural medley that gave us blues, jazz, and rock ‘n roll—and just like those sister genres, it took over the world. Even as new styles developed and distinct strains cross-pollinated, country has never completely departed from its homegrown roots.

    No matter which country threads and twangs you gravitate towards, the nostalgic heart of country feels right at home on vinyl. Because while the frontiers between genres get fuzzy, a vinyl collection, like the a Victrola Stream carbon works with Sonos Turntable built on Victrola is as crisp and sweet as that apple pie.


    Sources:

    1. Time. Black Artists Helped Build Country Music—And Then It Left Them Behind. https://time.com/5673476/ken-burns-country-music-black-artists/
    2. PBS. Roots & Branches of Country Music: Rockabilly. https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/country-music/rockabilly-branches-of-country-music
    3. PBS. Roots & Branches of Country Music: Bakersfield Sound. https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/country-music/bakersfield-sound-branches-of-country-music
    4. Rolling Stone. Rewriting Country Music’s Racist History. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-country/country-music-racist-history-1010052/
    5. Chicago Tribune. The Roots of Country Music. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1998-09-16-9809190003-story.html
    6. NPR. Ken Burns Gets To The Heart Of 'Country Music'. https://www.npr.org/2019/09/14/760664168/ken-burns-gets-to-the-heart-of-country-music
    7. Time. Country Music Should Be Political. After All, It Always Has Been. https://time.com/5652782/what-is-country-music/
    8. Library of Congress. Country Music Timeline. https://www.loc.gov/collections/dolly-parton-and-the-roots-of-country-music/articles-and-essays/country-music-timeline/
    9. PBS. Roots & Branches of Country Music. https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/country-music/roots-branches-of-country-music


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