The History of Country Music
The term “country music” is often synonymous with American music, which couldn’t be more true. Like the United States, the country genre has a melting pot of cultures and influences to thank for its rise to fame: the soul of Southern gospel, the folksy traditions of Appalachia, and the cowboy twang of the American West.
Today, country music is a worldwide phenomenon, blending the qualities of blues, hip-hop, pop, indie, and much more.
But there was a time before country music dominated the airwaves—and that’s where the history of country music begins.
Humble Beginnings (The Early 20th Century)
It can be practically impossible to pinpoint the origins of a musical genre. But in 1998, the U.S. Congress did just that when they formally recognized Bristol, Tennessee as the birthplace of country music.1 Their resolution cites the historic recording sessions that took place in the city in 1927, even if they weren’t technically the first country music recordings to occur.
Way before the days of Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, the twangy sound of country echoed across the low-lying mountains of Southern Appalachia (think Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia). Working-class emigrants from Africa, Europe, and beyond brought their musical stylings to the region, fusing Celtic music, traditional folk stylings, and African-American roots into the country sound we know and love today.
In the first few decades of the 20th century, country was called “hillbilly music.” Some of the iconic stars of the time were:
- Jimmie Rodgers
- The Carter Family
- Gid Tanner & His Skillet Lickers
- Charlie Pool
Nashville, Cowboys, and the Great Depression (1925-1945)
Over the next 20 or so years, the sociopolitical climate in America paved the way for a new musical genre to take center stage—and that genre was country music. Add rapidly advancing technology to the mix, and there was no stopping the nationwide spread of country.
First, there was the radio. Country artists enjoyed some airplay in the early years, but it was the Grand Ole Opry show, housed in the Ryman Auditorium, that signaled the country revolution. Nashville might be known now as music city thanks to its notorious music row but in 1925, the Nashville-based radio show that began as a “barn dance” show became the home of country music. By 1931, the majority of Americans owned a radio—and the Grand Ole Opry was playing nationwide.2
The silver screen also played a role in the diffusion of country music. Hollywood’s obsession with the Wild West in the ‘30s and ‘40s brought country and western to the masses, widening the genre’s appeal.
The current running beneath it all was the Great Depression (1929-1939). This time of struggle brought the working-class lyrics and spirit of country music to the forefront of the national psyche. By the onset of U.S. involvement in World War II (1941), country music was a symbol of American pride.3
From rising stars to singing cowboys, these are some of the best-known country artists of the era:
- Gene Autry
- Bob Wills
- Roy Acuff
- Bill Monroe
- Rose Maddox
- Roy Rogers
Post-War Changes (1945-1969)
World War II brought sweeping changes around the globe, and those changes were felt by country artists. During these turbulent decades of change, country music branched off into a handful of subgenres, many of which still resonate with fans today.
Of the new styles of country-inspired music from this period, there are three that stand out:
- Bluegrass – Bluegrass music is named after Bill Monroe’s band of Blue Grass Boys,4 this syncopated, high-energy genre brings fiddles, acoustic guitars, and fast-plucked banjos to the fore.
- Honky-tonk – Electric guitars and beat-up dive bar pianos gave rise to the rough-and-tumble sound of honky-tonk.
- Rockabilly – A hearty blend of honky-tonk and rhythm & blues, rockabilly contributed to the birth of rock and roll.
Social changes also shook the country music world, as more women and people of color entered the spotlight.
The list of best-selling and country music hall of fame artists from this era stretches on and on. Here are some you should know:
- Earl Scruggs
- Hank Williams
- Johnny Cash
- Patsy Cline
- Jerry Lee Lewis
- Loretta Lynn
- Merle Haggard
- Charley Pride
- George Jones
- Tammy Wynette
A Genre of Many Faces (1969-1995)
The final decades of the 20th century brought country music to a series of crossroads. After the Vietnam War, singer-songwriters expressed their frustrations through rootsy, country-tinged songs.
In other circles, “Outlaw” country looked to buck the smooth “Nashville Sound” of years gone by. This counter-cultural country movement took cues from blues and rockabilly, to push the boundaries of the genre further than ever before.
In response, the “New Traditionalist” movement saw every country artist looking to stay true to country music’s roots, smoothing out the rougher edges of the era’s country scene in favor of more “old-fashioned” trends. Others brought country into the realms of indie and alt-rock, keeping the spirit of country’s pioneers alive while leaning on distortion and anthemic choruses.
During this time, everyone was vying for their spot in the limelight and a way to influence the path of country music. But despite this rift in the world of country, the genre remained as popular as ever.
With so many movements starting in this period, it should be no surprise that there’s a lengthy list of must-hear artists. Here are some suggestions for where to start:
- Dolly Parton
- Kris Kristofferson
- George Strait
- Willie Nelson
- Reba McEntire
- Bob Dylan
- The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
- Waylon Jennings
- Garth Brooks
Country Goes Mainstream (1995-2019)
From the get-go, country music resonated with a broad audience, but as the 21st century took hold and the Internet age began, the genre truly exploded.
This era brought country-pop sensations on American Idol, rock-soaked country filling stadiums, and hip-hop beats dominating the airwaves alongside banjos and mandolins. The beloved genre reached new heights at home and abroad. More than ever, there was a country sound to suit any taste.
As this modern era is recent history, it’s impossible to say which artists will stand the test of time. However, it’s safe to say music historians won’t forget these names anytime soon:
- The Chicks
- Shania Twain
- Carrie Underwood
- Taylor Swift
- Florida Georgia Line
- Luke Combs
- Kacey Musgraves
The Future of Country Music (2019 & Beyond)
The future of country music is still unwritten. After the chart-topping success of a category-defying country singer like Lil Nas X with his song “Old Town Road,” where the genre goes next is anyone’s guess.
However, one thing is for sure: country musicians worldwide continue to redefine the genre, bringing this classic American art form into the 21st century and beyond.
What Makes Country, Country?
As artists continue to push the envelope and explore new sounds, the lines between country music and other styles like bluegrass and folk start to blur. Country is a wide-reaching genre with more than 100 years of history, so it’s hard to understand bluegrass vs. country.
With that said, most country music will have at least a few of these characteristics.
The “Southern Twang”
Even if they don’t hail from the American South, a country singer might add a little twang to their voice. Whether they mix in a hint of grit or fully commit to a Southern drawl, artists use the twang as a country calling card.
Country music was born from the unplugged sounds of fiddles, guitars, banjos, and mandolins. While the advent of electric guitars and music software may have added new timbres to the mix, the backbone of country is still predominantly string-based.
Nowadays, you will hear pedal steel guitars alongside 808 beats and dobros blending seamlessly with synths. Either way, it’s still country.
Relatively Simple Chord Progressions
In the early days of country music, there were no music schools or resources for the genre’s pioneers. The now-familiar sound came from the working class, melding the traditional sounds they knew into something more.
These humble beginnings led to humble harmonies and song structures. Even today, country music tends to build off the major scale. As they say, “If it ain’t broke…”
That’s not to say that country music can’t be complex, however. Consider, for example:
- The shifting progressions of Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman”
- Zac Brown Band’s 10-minute epic “Who Knows”
Country songs trend toward straightforward progressions, allowing the vocal to shine through.
An Emphasis on Storytelling
The simple, often sparse instrumentation of a country song is the ideal backdrop for honest verses and soulful choruses. Whether it’s a single voice over an acoustic guitar ballad or a band of brothers harmonizing over a full orchestra, there’s always room for the vocal and the tale it tells.
Of course, artists from other genres tell stories, too, but there’s something so authentic about the words of love and heartbreak from a country artist. Perhaps more than anything, this idea of profound, unflinching honesty defines the story of country music throughout the last century.
Continue the Great Tradition of Country Music with Victrola
From the pioneers of the past to the giants of today, at Victrola, we believe that country music is an ever-changing genre steeped in tradition. If you’re looking to understand this meeting of old and new, nothing beats letting the needle drop on a slab of black vinyl.
- America’s Library. Birthplace of Country Music: A Local Legacy. https://www.americaslibrary.gov/es/tn/es_tn_bristol_1.html
- ResearchGate. How America Adopted Radio: Demographic Differences in Set Ownership Reported in the 1930-1950 U.S. Censuses. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/233149747_How_America_Adopted_Radio_Demographic_Differences_in_Set_Ownership_Reported_in_the_1930-1950_US_Censuses
- PBS. Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns. https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/country-music/episode-2-hard-times-1933-1945/
- Library of Congress. Bluegrass Music. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200152684/
- Grand Ole Opry. The Show That Made Country Music Famous. https://www.opry.com/about/