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Who Created Country Music?

Who Created Country Music?

Country is one of the longest-running and most successful genres of recorded music, with dozens of household name stars and hundreds of instantly recognizable hit songs. It’s also one of the oldest: the earliest commercial recordings date back to 1923. And although the technology did not yet allow this historic genre to be played on a Victrola Stream carbon works with Sonos Turntable, these artists were played on record players by many throughout the years.

From country music origins Jimmie Rodgers to Johnny Cash to Dolly Parton to Garth Brooks, some of the best country artists have put their stamp on the industry.

But who invented country music?

Jimmie Rodgers is called “the Father of Country Music.”1 His friendly yodel brought him great fame in his brief life and influenced generations of country and blues singers to this day—but the style of music he wrote and performed existed well before he started his career.

For those who’ve been sidling up to the country sound (whether through new artists like Blake Shelton or the classics like Hank Williams), we’ll delve into this genre’s origins and legacy within American music.

Mixed Traditions: The Origins of Country

Country music was invented collectively by multiple generations of working people, black and white, in the southern and western United States. A long period of exchanging folk traditions spawned several genres, including blues, folk music, and jazz—though the distinctions aren’t always clear. With the emergence of the record player in full force in the 1920’s, country music spread like wildfire. Today, you can still listen to country music on a record player (and on the go!), with Victrola’s Re-Spin Sustainable Bluetooth Suitcase Record Player.

To quote Ray Charles, who made a few country albums of his own: “You take country music, you take black music, and you got the same [censored] thing exactly.”2

That said, country does have a few defining characteristics that set it apart.

Instruments

The unique sound of country is associated with several instruments:

  • The fiddle, a staple instrument in European folk dance traditions.
  • The banjo, based on stringed gourd instruments from West Africa and invented by enslaved Africans living in the Americas
  • The harmonica, a product of early 19th century Europe and a sensation in the US, featured in a variety of genres
  • The steel guitar, which indigenous Hawaiians remastered, created a totally new way to play. The instrument played a starring role in some of the most popular recorded music in 1916 and remained prominent thereafter.

  • These form the heartbeat of country, though originators also wove in instruments like acoustic guitar, upright bass, mandolin, drums, and even horns and woodwinds.

     

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    Song Form DNA

    The bands and artists who created country drew musical inspiration from a medley of sources:

    • Celtic and British folk songs – The traditions of white folks in the South were rich with tear-jerking ballads commemorating tragic events and dance songs about bad behavior.
    • Blues – This form derived from the folk songs of African Americans became part of the fabric of the South and, in the early 20th century, gained national popularity.
    • Hymns and spirituals – Thematically, country is associated with sinning and repentance, borrowing from both European choral church music and black gospel spirituals.

    The Father of Country: Who Was Jimmie Rodgers?

    Jimmie Rodgers was country’s first superstar, with an impact that rippled through generations of country artists and fans after him. Let’s take a look at how he got there.

    Life Before Stardom

    James Charles Rodgers—not to be confused with James Frederick Rodgers, a pop singer in the 1950s and 60s who also went by Jimmie—was born in Meridian, Mississippi, in 1897.

    Though he dreamed of being a traveling entertainer, Rodgers worked on the railroad line to New Orleans at an early age. On the job, he learned songs and instrumental techniques from his coworkers, white and black, as well as itinerants.

    When contracting tuberculosis made him unfit for railroad work, Rodgers dedicated himself to music. He was living in Asheville, North Carolina, performing on the radio weekly, when he learned that Ralph Peer from Victor Records would be recording local artists in nearby Bristol, Tennessee.

    Rodgers’ Road to Bristol and Beyond

    By the time Peer got to Bristol in 1927, two songs had proven country music’s national commercial potential:

    • “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” – Fiddlin’ John Carson’s version of this 1870s minstrel song was recorded by Peer on a trip to Atlanta in 1923. It’s considered the first commercial country music recording and sold out its initial 500-copy print run.
    • “Wreck of the Old 97” – A version of this classic ballad about a famous train accident by Vernon Dalhart became the first national country hit in 1924.

    Among the two dozen acts Peer recorded in his time in Bristol, two would become some of the most revered and influential in country music history: the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.

    Rodgers’ band broke up right before the session, but the two songs he recorded solo sold well, and soon he was in New Jersey to track four more sides for Victor.

    One of these, “Blue Yodel,” became a hit, and over the next six years, until his death in 1933 from tuberculosis complications, Rodgers recorded 110 songs and sold twenty million records.3

    Jimmie’s Signature Sound

    Jimmie Rodgers was distinct from his country contemporaries in several ways:

    • He had a capable, good-natured voice with a secret weapon: a unique yodel he first deployed on “Blue Yodel.” Gene Autry and Hank Williams, among others, were heavily influenced by his vocal technique.
    • Rodgers wrote songs heavily influenced in structure and subject matter by blues, and he is considered influential by blues musicians as well as country artists.
    • Rodgers was accompanied variously by his guitar, by classic string band combinations with fiddle and banjo, and occasionally by cornets and clarinets playing jazz styles—one song features Louis Armstrong riffing on trumpet between Rodgers’ lyrics.

    Country Music Then to Now

    Almost a century has passed since Jimmie Rodgers’ heyday, and country music is still producing bigger stars than ever—as well as cutting-edge artists who steer the music in new directions.

    Some important figures in country’s development include:

    • The Carter Family – The Carters represented country’s Appalachian folk-based, church-going side in contrast to Rodgers’ “blues rambler” persona.
    • Roy Acuff – A popular singer who became a force in the business side of country and played a big hand in Nashville’s earning the title “Music City.”
    • Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys – This group founded the Western swing sound, which fused string bands, cowboy music, and swinging Dixieland jazz.
    • Hank Williams – Williams learned guitar techniques from black blues guitarist Rufus "Tee Tot" Payne as a boy. He’s considered the premiere artist of honky tonk, an electrified strain of country born in rowdy beer halls.
    • Bill Monroe – Monroe led the Blue Grass Boys, the namesake of the string band revival genre bluegrass music. Their banjo player, Earl Scruggs, mastered the novel three-finger picking technique that defined its sound.
    • Chuck Berry – A member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Berry frequently covered hillbilly songs while country artists recorded his songs and adopted his guitar stylings.
    • Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash – The two pop-country icons popularized a countrified rhythm and blues called rockabilly out of Sun Studio in Memphis, TN. Presley became the biggest celebrity in the world; Cash remains a beloved and influential figure in both country and rock ‘n roll.
    • Patsy Cline – One of the early stars of smooth and slow Nashville Sound, promoted as an alternative to rock ‘n roll. Her recording of “Crazy,” written by Willie Nelson, was a crossover hit and the most popular jukebox song ever made.
    • Dolly Parton – A masterful songwriter and a quintessential duchess of country, Parton’s Tennessee mountain influences and unearthly voice make her an enduring cultural icon.
    • Buck Owens – Tired of Nashville’s syrupy sweetness, Owens popularized a rambunctious electric country named for his town of Bakersfield, CA. His bandmate, Merle Haggard, further developed the sound and wrote some of country music’s greatest songs.
    • Charley Pride – Scoring his first hits in the mid-60s, Pride became one of the faces of Nashville’s slick “Countrypolitan” style. He was country’s first African American star since DeFord Bailey’s tenure on the Grand Ole Opry.
    • Willie Nelson – Nelson left Nashville for Austin, TX, and joined with Waylon Jennings in rejecting Countrypolitan for rollicking stories of living hard. Their album Wanted! The Outlaws became country music’s first platinum record.
    • Garth Brooks – Country’s biggest crossover act yet, Brooks blended tones of sweet and rowdy, pop and traditionalism to become the second best-selling artist of all time.

    And, of course, we’d be remiss not to mention today’s most renowned country artists: Taylor Swift, Blake Shelton, and Jason Aldean. Their 21st-century careers were built on the legacies of those that came before them, down to the roots of the genre when country’s first strings were plucked.

    Re-Invent Your Record Collection with Victrola

    Whichever road to country you’re taking, take the best of the genre home with Victrola records.

    Our catalog runs deep, with turntables in sound-in-full-color designs that range from ultra-modern to neo-retro. But these aren’t your grandpap's record players—many feature Bluetooth, USB, and Sonos compatibility, like the Victrola Stream carbon works with Sonos Turntable, so you can get classic sounds into the here and now.

    Our name is derived from the label behind the Bristol Session that first introduced the world to Jimmie Rodgers. What better way to disappear down a country rabbit hole than by hosting your listening session where it all began?


    Sources:

    1. Songwriters Hall of Fame. Jimmie Rodgers. https://web.archive.org/web/20130218030726/http://www.songwritershalloffame.org/exhibits/C276
    2. Time. Country Music Should Be Political. After All, It Always Has Been. https://time.com/5652782/what-is-country-music/
    3. Texas State Historical Association. Rodgers, James Charles (1897–1933). https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/rodgers-james-charles
    4. The Tennesean. How Chuck Berry's love of country inspired Nashville. https://www.tennessean.com/story/entertainment/music/2017/03/18/how-chuck-berrys-love-country-inspired-nashville/99364040/
    5. Nicholas Dawidoff. In the Country of Country.https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/first/d/dawidoff-country.html
    6. Rolling Stone. Rewriting Country Music’s Racist History. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-country/country-music-racist-history-1010052/
    7. Chicago Tribune. The Roots of Country Music. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1998-09-16-9809190003-story.html
    8. 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
    9. Time. Black Artists Helped Build Country Music—And Then It Left Them Behind. https://time.com/5673476/ken-burns-country-music-black-artists/
    10. 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/
    11. PBS. Roots & Branches of Country Music. https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/country-music/roots-branches-of-country-music

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