Country-and-Western music – often referred to simply as Country – is a major genre of American popular music, tracing its beginning to the early 1920s, and was developed by white Southerners. Country, a derivative of Southern Appalachia folk music, encompasses sub-styles such as Western swing, honky-tonk, bluegrass, rockabilly, and new country. Like many genres, country has been influenced over the years by folk, gospel, rhythm-and-blues, and rock – and likewise, country has had a marked effect on these popular genres. Even though country was originally known by the derisory label “hillbilly music,” it has moved into the pop music mainstream and obtained extensive international acceptance.
Theoretically, country music is among the simplest styles to produce and one of the easiest to listen to – characteristics that make it so popular. Because of these features, its basic aspect is dominant lyrical content rather than musical content. Consequently, lyrics are showcased by the musical elements of harmony, melody, and rhythm. Exceptions to this general rule occurred in the genre’s early history in pure instrumentals and the technical virtuosity of bluegrass.
Country harmony is compromised primarily of a simple selection of repeated chords — most typically three (though sometimes as few as two) – although more chords may well be added. Vocals are generally solo and un-enhanced, un- harmonized lines – although they are sometimes accompanied by high, closely spaced voices (which typically occur in the chorus). Moreover, a song’s lyric theme is frequently repeated as a hook in the chorus. Rhythmically, there is little syncopation and the overwhelming majority of country music is written in Common time (4/4), with the emphasis on the first and third beats. Melodies, just as the rhythms are typically basic. Consequently, with these defining characteristics, many country songs sound very similar and are distinguishable by their lyrics.
Lyrics normally portray the lives of ordinary, working-class Americans and not unlike blues, rock, and R&B, cover such subjects as love and relationships, loneliness, poverty, and work. Most songs are lyrically economical, using 150 or fewer words, the efficiency often making the songs evocative and poetic.
The sub-styles of country music typically use different ensembles of instruments. The country genre began in the 1920s with only string bands, which usually consisted of various combinations of guitar, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, bass guitar, and the dobro or the Hawaiian guitar (an amplified guitar made of wood or steel with internal resonators). In the 1930s, through the influence of Western swing, the drum set became part of country music.
By contrast, brass wind instruments such as the saxophone and trumpet – a vital part of Western swing – are rarely heard in other sub-styles. Although the piano can be found in recordings as early as 1925, it did not become a lead instrument until the late 1940s, contributed by the boogie-woogie songs of singer and songwriter Aubrey “Moon” Mullican. In 1954, the high-pitched sound of the indispensable steel guitar made its recording debut in Webb Pierce’s hit “Slowly”. Since the mid-1990s, country bands generally feature six to seven musicians, including a drummer, keyboardist and/or a pianist, bassist, steel guitarist, electric and acoustic guitarists, and an auxiliary musician who plays fiddle, mandolin, banjo, and dobro.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the folk music of English, Irish, and Scottish settlers deposited the roots of country music in the Appalachian Mountain region. In particular, English ballads and Irish reels had a vital effect. Such music, performed in both religious and social contexts (including church services, weddings, and barn dances) was carried from colonial times.
Important early country music artists included the Carter Family, a trio from rural Virginia, and the blues-oriented singer and songwriter Jimmie Rodgers, from Mississippi.
Recording old folk ballads from the late 1920s to the early 1940s, the Carter Family incorporated such instruments as the fiddle, banjo, and autoharp (a flat sound box stringed instrument played horizontally with the fingertips, a plectrum, or a bow, constructed with dampers which deaden some strings, leaving free others that form a chord). The Carter trio’s innovation was exceptionally iconoclastic because the vocals in contemporary folk and hillbilly music were normally of lesser importance compared with the instruments, but the trio used instruments to enhance the simple harmonies of their vocals.
Like the Carter trio, Jimmie Rodgers’ innovations (recorded from 1927 to 1933), introduced yodeling to a mainstream audience by bringing both folk and blues elements to country through sentimental ballads and his so-called “blue yodels”. Because of their originality, many credit the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers as the architects of contemporary commercial country music.
Since the 1930s, country and folk styles have continued to influence one another. Other major figures of folk-country music include singer and fiddle player Roy Acuff in the 1940s and 1950s; singer Johnny Cash from the 1960s into the 1990s; and country artists Lyle Lovett, the Judds, and Mary Chapin Carpenter in the 1980s and 1990s.
During the 1920s and 1930s in rural Kentucky, bluegrass was developed. Because of its heavy instrumentation, bluegrass represents a return to the prerecording days of folk music. Featuring a banjo, fiddle, and lead mandolin with rhythm guitar and string bass, bluegrass is distinguished by the acoustic string-band sound from the Southeast. The sub-genre is characterized by harmonized vocals and highlights a high-pitched tenor voice, while instrumental solos and improvisations may be featured between stanzas.
Bill Monroe, a singer and virtuoso mandolin player, is known as the father of bluegrass music – blending traditional folk ballads and gospel songs with string-band music played at very fast tempos. With his band The Blue Grass Boys, Monroe performed from the mid-1920s until his death in 1996.
Other well-known bluegrass performers include banjo player Earl Scruggs (who played with Monroe during the 1940s); the Kentucky duo the Osborne Brothers in the 1950s and 1960s; and recently, artists Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs, and Vince Gill.
In the roadside bars of Texas and Oklahoma in the 1930s and 1940s, the first truly urban form of country music, honky-tonk, originated – combining the often sad ballads of folk music and older forms of country music with driving, up-tempo rhythms and the improvisational freedom of jazz music.
Unlike bluegrass and hillbilly music, drums and steel and electric guitars were prominent. The new style developed as a result of the urbanization of the rural South, the introduction of electric guitars, and a more relaxed public attitude toward drinking following the repeal of prohibition in 1933. Honky-tonk expanded the themes of country music lyrics, and songs about drinking, infidelity, and divorce became national hits for the first time.
Early honky-tonk’s well-known stars include Al Dexter and Ernest Tubb. The term honky-tonk was first introduced in Dexter’s 1936 song, “Honky Tonk Blues”. In 1941, Tubb’s honky-tonk single “Walking the Floor Over You” was released and eventually sold more than one million records. Combining honky-tonk, blues, and more traditional country singing, Hank Williams Senior composed more than 100 songs, among them are: “Jambalaya” (1952) and “Your Cheatin’ Heart” (1953). Other honky-tonk artists include 1950s and 1960s singer and songwriter Lefty Frizzell, 1980s singer Randy Travis, and the 1990s Alan Jackson and Brooks & Dunn.
The sub-style known as Western music was popularized by motion pictures about cowboys and the American West throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Particularly strong in Texas and Oklahoma, Western music was born out of 19th-century traditional cowboy songs and string bands and was influenced by Southeastern folk-country music, Louisiana’s jazz and blues, and big-band dance music.
Unlike contemporary country or bluegrass, Western music often features improvisation and a broader range of instruments, such as wind instruments. Lyrics typically focus on life on the Western frontier, often romanticizing the life of the cowboy. The singing cowboys Roy Rogers and Gene Autry acted and sang in the 1930s and 1940s Western movies were exemplars of the style. Rogers was a charter member of the Sons of the Pioneers (a band that appeared in over 80 Westerns between 1935 and 1948). The group’s three-part harmony singing style disseminated through motion pictures and recordings and became widely influential.
Western swing (a variation of traditional Western music) developed in the early 1930s in Texas and Oklahoma. During the 1930s and 1940s, a period known as the swing era, Western swing was a country version of the popular big-band jazz music. Incorporating instruments used in jazz and blues, Western swing bands combined the string band with the saxophone and trumpet. Fiddler Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, a band that included as many as 18 players, popularized the sub-style. During the 1940s and 1950s, they were a top musical attraction throughout the Southwest. The fiddling style and musical arrangements of Wills had a major influence on later country artists, including singers Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, George Strait, and the band Asleep at the Wheel.
In the economic boom that followed World War II, the prospects of the entertainment industry expanded, including country music performances and recordings. Moreover, radio exposed country music to a wider audience. In addition, records became available at affordable prices due to new, relatively inexpensive recording technology. These forces facilitated demand for country recordings in greater diversity and quantity than ever before.
The sub-style rockabilly was one of the most successful outcomes of this new urban demand for country music. For all intents and purposes, rockabilly was a mid-1950s form of rock and roll, fusing white hillbilly music and black rhythm and blues. Normally played at a quicker tempo than other country sub-styles, rockabilly regularly features a stand-up bass and an electric guitar played with a patent twang. Vocals emphasize rhythmic phrases and depart from straight singing to unconventional inflections such as quick yelps and high-pitched whines. In the 1950s and 1960s, rockabilly was popularized by such artists as Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Conway Twitty, Buddy Holly, and the Everly Brothers.
Nashville, Tennessee, became the accepted center for the production of country music soon after World War II. Nashville’s WSM radio station in 1925 established the “Nashville Barn Dance”, a country-music stage and radio show. Beginning nationwide broadcasts in 1939, the show was named the Grand Ole Opry – drawing singers and musicians with hopes of having their music broadcast.
Employees of WSM founded Castle Studios in 1946, one of the first Nashville recording studios and in 1949, another important label, Sun Records, built its studio in Memphis. Shortly after in 1952, one of the first independent recording studios, Bradley Recording, was set up in downtown Nashville by musicians Owen and Harold Bradley. The Bradley brothers recorded country stars Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells, and Patsy Cline, and rock star Buddy Holly. The commercial success of the Bradley Recording largely convinced international record companies, such as then Decca Records (now MCA), to build studios in Nashville.
Nashville came to be known as Music City, USA by the late 1950s as numerous country songwriters, singers, and studio musicians relocated to Nashville. In order to promote country music, the Country Music Association (CMA) was chartered in Nashville in 1958. In 1961, the Country Music Hall of Fame was founded in Nashville to commemorate the people who have made the most important contributions to country music.
Describing the music of such artists as Eddy Arnold, Patsy Cline, and Jim Reeves, Nashville executives and music producers Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins created a style called Nashville sound in the 1950s and 1960s. The Nashville sound was an attempt to attract a broader audience during the soaring popularity of rock and roll – combining elements of pop, rock, and country music. Furthermore, the Nashville sound was produced with the cutting-edge technology and sophistication of popular music of the same period.
For example, full orchestral string sections commonly supplanted traditional guitar, mandolin, and fiddle ensembles to produce a lush accompaniment – while a chorus of backup singers completed the vocal tracks of a song. Taking another cue from the popularity of rock-n-roll, the Nashville sound also included synthesizers, overdubbing, reverb effects, and other studio techniques to create a fuller, slicker, more marketable sound.
Since the big-label, large-studio approach remained such a part of the country music industry, and because of the overall tendency to combine popular and country music, the sub-style referred to as country pop was born. Developing since the 1970s, the trends of country pop have produced many crossover artists (such as Conway Twitty, Kenny Rogers, and Dolly Parton). These artists combined popular and country styles and recorded remakes of earlier pop hits to achieve mainstream success. Likewise, several mainstream pop artists (such as John Denver, Olivia Newton-John, and Ray Charles), made successful recordings of country songs.
Ever since the late 1950s, the country and rock-n-roll music genres have borrowed elements for one another. In fact, the earliest form of rock music, rock-n-roll, combined Western swing, the hillbilly style, and R&B music. Rock-n-roll icons such as Elvis Presley and other notable rock music artists began their careers in country music. During the late 1960s and 1970s Gram Parsons, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Eagles, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and other bands pioneered a movement to merge country and rock styles – resulting in a style known as country-rock.
Characteristically, the fused style combined the major elements of each genre: incorporating country’s melody, harmony, and lyric themes – while adding the percussive beat, rhythms, and electric instrumentation of rock. Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, the quartet Alabama became the most successful group in the country-rock genre.
In the mid-1970s some artists felt slighted against mainstream Nashville and record companies that streamlined and institutionalized the Nashville style and staged a slighted pseudo-retaliation developing a style known as outlaw-country in parallel to the maturity of country-rock. These artists, wanting more control of the recording process, called for a return to the acoustic instruments, small bands, and naturalsounding vocals of country music’s past and sought to break away from the recording formulas and generic productions that dominated the industry in the 1970s.
The most prominent exponents of outlaw-country were Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, and David Allan Coe — they embodied the rebellious spirit of outlaw-country both through their music and through their behavior, dressing in frayed blue jeans and T-shirts and using illicit drugs. As country artists moved away from Nashville, smaller, independent recording studios and labels were established in Bakersfield, California; Austin, Texas; and other cities.
But these legendary performers weren’t greeted by the reputable country music labels with enthusiasm. Labels such as Capitol, RCA, and MCA snubbed outlaw country music artists. But as live performances and radio exposure popularized the music of outlaw artists, healthy sales of this sub-genre eventually convinced the major labels to allow their artists to produce and co- produce their own albums on a regularly. RCA’s 1976 album Wanted – The Outlaws (a compilation of songs from artists Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Tompall Glaser, and Jessi Colter), sold more than 1 million copies and became country music’s first platinum album. In the 1980s and 1990s, outlaw country music artists included Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam, and Travis Tritt.
Leading yet another return to the sounds of traditional country music in the mid 1980’s, a handful of artists, particularly Ricky Skaggs, John Anderson, Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam, and the duo Brooks & Dunn. This return, known as new country, was primarily to feature instruments such as the steel guitar and single or twin fiddles, as opposed to full orchestral string sections. New country also included well-known female artists, counting among them Reba McEntire, Patty Loveless, Faith Hill, Trisha Yearwood, and Shania Twain.
Ironically, though new country’s intentions were to return the country genre to its traditional, humble beginnings, its biggest star, Garth Brooks, achieved his unprecedented success in part by composing songs that were amazingly well received. Furthermore, the country star added components of arena rock productions to his live performances. In 1990, Brooks’ second album, No Fences, became the top-selling country album of all time. Even more ironic, just ten years after the introduction of the country sub-genre, and its intention to return country to its roots, the term was applied to all new country artists, regardless of their style.
In the late 1980s, another new country artist, Clint Black, facilitated an era of so-called “hat acts”. Symbolizing the return of country music to its rural roots, nearly all male country vocalists began wearing cowboy hats, following Black’s fashion. Dwight Yoakam in particular was famous for always wearing his tan Stetson in public.
Country music has developed a broad array of styles and attracted a large mainstream audience by integrating aspects of other musical genres. In past years, many contemporary country records, especially those of the 1990s, would have been considered rock or pop music. As in many periods, since country music first emerged, artists advocated a return to a simple, traditional country style.
One such movement in the late 1990s, known as Americana, gained exposure through college and public radio stations and live performances across the country. Encompassing artists who were new to the industry, such as singer and guitarist Robbie Fulks and the band BR5-49, as well as established artists, including Johnny Cash, Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, and Jerry Jeff Walker, Americana emphasized individual artists who combined singing, songwriting, and musicianship.
In the mid-1980s, the average age of country artists became younger, corresponding to the rise of the all-important marketing tool of music videos. As with the chart-dominating genres, such as pop, rock, and hip-hop, recording labels often placed a greater value on the sex appeal of artists over the artists’ musical abilities. As a result of better marketing and greater exposure, during the first half of the 1990s, domestic sales of country music tripled in volume. The 24-hour cable television channel, CMT, (Country Music Television), entered a period of assertive overseas expansion in the early 1990s. By 1997, CMT was available via satellite or cable nearly everywhere in the world which gave country music important gains abroad, especially in Europe and Australia.
During the first decade of the 2000s, country music underwent significant changes to its presentation. While the core of its musical composition stayed largely the same and true to its roots, artists and bands adopted more and more aspects of contemporary pop and mainstream rock music. Elements commonly found in these other two genres are now customary in country music, giving it wider appeal to different audiences.
Upbeat tempos, danceable grooves, and other characteristics found in mainstream rock and contemporary pop music are present in some of the most popular country performers’ repertoire.