Country music developed out of the folk traditions brought to North America by Anglo-Celtic immigrants and gradually absorbed influences from other musical sources until it emerged as a force strong enough to survive—and ultimately thrive—in an urban-industrial-oriented society. However, to explain the genre solely in terms of its British background would be a limited and incomplete approach. Settlers of pre-revolutionary America, throughout the 13 colonies, came out of essentially the same ethnic and social backgrounds. Malone points out that southern history must be studied in order to explain how the area east of the Mississippi River and below the Mason-Dixon line produced a diversity of and the cross-fertilization of musical styles—can be traced back to the earliest days of colonization in the deep South. The extreme pride typifying the region was in large part a result of a cultural inferiority complex which, in turn, arose out of the censure of the civilized world with respect to the institution of slavery and the lagging pace of urbanization and industrialization. This situation undoubtedly heightened the cultural isolationism already based on geographical and climatological factors. However, reference to the cultural isolationism of the South is perhaps should not be overemphasized. The South provided the setting for the melding of many cultures—particularly British, French, Spanish, and African elements—as well as the impetus for the settlement of much of the West. The steadfastly conservative stance adopted by southerners to ward off potentially disruptive external influences was concentrated largely within the socio-economic sphere (particularly with respect to the influx of influences from the North); in the face of the region’s prejudices relatively few barriers existed to impede the exchange of musical ideas between cultures. While this musical cross-fertilization changed all of the genres concerned, country music continued to maintain its own sense of identity. Malone succinctly outlines the development of this phenomenon:
Not only are certain songs transmitted from generation to generation, but the manner of performing them, both vocally and instrumentally, is also passed on through the years. A folk style, created by the interchange of musical ideas and techniques among folk musicians and singers, proves to be a very tenacious factor. A folk style will persist long after the folk songs are forgotten. With the coming of urbanization the old rustic-based songs are discarded and the new ones become largely devoid of rural settings; however, in the style of its performance and in its basic construction the song is, in point of origin, rural in nature. A rural inhabitant or an urban dweller who has formerly lived in the country will likely render a song in a country manner even though the words of the song describe an urban scene or event. This is significant in view of the fact that migration from southern rural areas to southern and northern urban centers has been a steady factor in southern life. Southern cities have been populated largely by individuals of rural origin who carry with them their musical appreciation and tastes. These cities, then, to a great extent continue to be affected by rural attitudes and values. This in great measure explains why country music has endured in an urbanizing south, and why its lyric content has changed to fit the needs of a rural people who no longer live in rural surroundings. That music which thrives in a honky-tonk atmosphere or depicts the problems inherent in an urban existence can accurately be termed country music since it sprang from a rural origin. (Malone 1968, p. 10.)
The spread of country music in an era devoid of mass media outlets such as radio and television was rendered possible by territorial mobility, cultural exchange, and other forces set into motion by the socio-economic climate of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The process involved the slow but steady evolution of the country genre via the assimilation of minor traits and styles.
When southern people moved into new areas, their music acquired new characteristics from the cultures with which they came in contact. Still, a distinct southern backwoods style predominated and provided the basis for other styles that ultimately arose. It is for this reason that such urban-oriented styles as "western swing" and "honky-tonk" music developed when rural people adapted their older music to new environments. Western swing, specifically, is the product of the change that took place when southerners moved to Texas and Oklahoma and adapted the rural- or mountain-based music to new developments and surroundings. (Malone 1968, p. 11.)
The rise of radio and the record industry were of inestimable importance in broadening the audience for country music. Long before country headliners began criss-crossing the nation in customized buses, these media brought the performers into the living rooms of fans in the large northern cities. However, the genre was long known by the somewhat derogatory term "hillbilly music." The cultural pride of the antebellum South was updated in the campaign of leading apologists for the genre to have the more dignified heading "country and western" employed (see 1949 below). Others sought mainstream acceptance via the aesthetically misguided strategy of diluting country recordings with pop orchestral arrangements.
A Country Chronology:
June 30, 1922. "Uncle" Eck Robertson and Henry Gilliand record two fiddle tunes—"Sallie Goodin" and "The Arkansas Traveller" for Victor in New York. Scholars are largely in agreement that these were the first country recordings.
August 14, 1922. The Jankins Family, a gospel group from Georgia, become the first "old time" performers to be heard on the radio (WSB, Atlanta).
January 4, 1923. WBAP, Forth Worth, broadcast the first radio "barn dance" program.
June 14, 1923. Ralph Peer records Fiddlin’ John Carson’s "Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane," considered to be country’s earliest hit. The Carson recording proved that country records could sell.
April 19, 1924. The debut of the Chicago Barn Dance (WLS), which went on to become the highly successful National Barn Dance. The program, which ran continuously until 1970, and launched such stars as Gene Autry, Red Foley, George Gobel, Grandpa and Ramona Jones, and Bradley Kincaid.
August 13, 1924. Vernon Dalhart records "The Prisoner’s Song," backed with "The Wreck of the Old 97," the first country record to sell a million copies. Technically, Dalhart was the first singer to change from pop to country, having specialized in light opera and parlor songs prior to recording "The Prisoner’s Song."
November 28, 1925. The WSM Barn Dance, later renamed the Grand Ole Opry, first broadcast from WSM’s Studio A in Nashville. Uncle Dave Macon, credited with being the Opry’s initial star, began appearing during the first year.
August 1927. The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers cut their first records for Ralph Peer of Victor, in Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia. These sessions mark the beginning of commercial country music.
September 28, 1928. Technically, the first record ever made in Nashville is a Victor field recording of early Opry string bands. The real start of regular recording in Nashville did not begin until 1945.
October 9, 1929. Gene Autry, who would become America’s most popular "Singing Cowboy," makes his first record. His first movie role was a cameo in Ken Maynard’s In Old Santa Fe. Later that same year Autry starred in The Phantom Empire.
1929. The Singing Brakeman, a 15-minute short starring Jimmie Rodgers, is made; it is probably the earliest country music movie.
1930. Ken Maynard, starring in Song of the Saddle, becomes Hollywood’s first singing cowboy.
1930. Dr. J.R. Brinkley, the infamous "goat gland doctor," begins broadcasting country music from radio station XERA in Villa Acuna, Mexico, just across the border from Del Rio, Texas. XERA was instrumental in establishing country music on the West Coast via the migrants who left Oklahoma’s dust bowl for California.
1933. Bob Wills forms his Texas Playboys, the definitive Western swing band in America.
1933. WLS’s National Barn Dance joins NBC’s Blue Network, the first country barn dance show to be aired nationally.
August 16, 1935. Patsy Montana records "I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart," the earliest country release by a female singer to sell a million copies.
1935. Juke boxes are introduced to truck stops and restaurants in the South. The juke box had a profound effect on the kinds of music that country performers recorded, and helped influence the development of the honky-tonk style.
May 1939. Red River Dave sings his composition "The Ballad of Amelia Earhart" on television, from the RCA Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, and proclaims himself to be "the world’s first television star."
October 1939. Bill Monroe makes his initial appearance on the Opry stage, singing "Muleskinner Blues," thereby giving birth to bluegrass music.
1940. Clell Summey, of Pee Wee King’s Golden West Cowboys, plays the electric guitar on the Opry stage, claiming to be the first musician to do so; however, the priority is also claimed by Sam McGee and Paul Howard.
1941. Bing Crosby records "You Are My Sunshine" and "New San Antonio Rose." These were probably the first country "crossover" hits—that is, they were popular with a national, not merely country, audience.
1941. An electric guitar is used for the first time on a country music record. According to the story, juke box operators complained to Ernest Tubb that his records could not be heard over the din of their noisy honky tonks. Tubb proceeded to employ Fay (Smitty) Smith, staff guitarist for KGKO in Fort Worth, to play electric guitar on one of his recording sessions.
1943. Elton Britt’s "There’s A Star-Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere, " a song about a crippled boy who wants to help with the war effort, becomes country music’s first gold record (awarded by his label).
1943. Fred Rose and Roy Acuff form Acuff-Rose, the first song publishing firm located in Nashville. Acuff-Rose became an outlet for country songwriters like Hank Williams, who probably could not have obtained songwriting contracts in Northern urban centers.
1944. Billboard, the music industry’s leading trade publication, introduces the first country music popularity charts, under the heading "Most Played Juke Box Folk Records," thereby further legitimizing the country music business.
March/April 1945. Red Foley records at WSM’s Studio B; he is considered to be the first performer to record officially in Nashville, aside from the 1928 Victor field recordings.
September 11, 1945. Ernest Tubb makes "It Just Don’t Matter Now" and "When Love Turns to Hate," under the direction of Decca’s Paul Cohen, Nashville’s first major producer; many date the real start of commercial recording in Nashville to this session. By 1960, less than 15 years after the first recording studio had been built, most of the major recording companies were doing all of their country recording in Nashville, and by 1963 Nashville had 10 studios, 10 talent agencies, four recording-pressing plants, 26 record companies, and nearly 2,000 musicians and writers.
September 18/19, 1947. Ernest Tubb and Ray Acuff headline New York’s Carnegie Hall, the first country music show ever presented in that venue; people had to be turned away from the doors.
1947. Harold "Sticks" McDonald, of Pee Wee King’s Golden West Cowboys, plays drums on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry His claim to have been the first to do so is disputed by Smokey Dacus, of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, who says that he played drums at the Opry in 1946—behind the curtains. Even today, nothing more than a simple set of snare drums is allowed on the Opry stage.
January 13, 1948. Midwestern Hayride, the first country music show to be broadcast regularly on television, debuts on WLW, Cincinnati.
1949. Billboard changes the name of its country music charts from "Most Played Juke Box Folk Records" to "Country and Western," thereby legitimizing the term in the business.
September 30, 1950. The Opry is broadcast by television for the first time.
1951. Patti Page and Tony Bennett record "Tennessee Waltz" and "Cold, Cold Heart," respectively, and achieve mass popularity for country songs for the first time since 1941. The Bennett recording is Hank Williams’ first crossover hit and does much to make the latter’s name known nationally.
1952. Eddy Arnold becomes the first country star to host a network television show when he is chosen to be Perry Como’s summer replacement on NBC-TV.
1954. The pedal steel guitar is first used on record, played by Bud Isaacs on Webb Pierce’s "Slowly."
1955. George Jones has his first hit, "Why Baby Why?" Johnny Cash makes his earliest recordings (on the Sun label).
1957. The Country Music Association, the oldest country music trade organization, is formed.
1958. The Kingston Trio’s "Tom Dooley" wins the initial country music Grammy award. The group’s growing popularity was an early signal that rockabilly was already entering a decline; "Tom Dooley" helped spark the folk music revival of the early 1960s.
July 19, 1960. Loretta Lynn’s first hit, "Honky Tonk Girl," enters the Cash Box country music charts.
November 3, 1961. Fred Rose, Hank Williams, and Jimmie Rodgers are installed as the first members of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
December 13, 1961. Jimmy Dean’s album, Big Bad John, becomes the first country music record to receive the gold certification (signifying sales of a million dollars) from the Recording Industry Association of America.
1964. Johnny Cash records "It Ain’t Me, Babe," becoming the first country singer to cut a Bob Dylan song.
1966. Bob Dylan becomes the first of the new generation of rock singers to make a major album in Nashville, Blonde on Blonde.
October 1967. The first Country Music Association Awards show is held.
1967. The first country rock album— Safe At Home by the International Submarine Band, featuring Gram Parsons—is released. One year later, Parsons joins the Byrds and the group produces Sweetheart of the Rodeo, a milestone in that genre.
1969. Hee Haw, the highly popular syndicated country television show, makes its debut.
1971. The first annual Fan Fair is held in Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium.
March 1972. The first Dripping Springs, Texas, "Picnic" is held; the three-day redneck-meets-hippie festival includes Willie Nelson, who began sponsoring the event the following year. Thus begins outlaw music’s dominance of the genre.
1972. Loretta Lynn is elected the Country Music Association’s "Entertainer of the Year," the first woman to be so honored.
1973. The Opryland amusement park opens for business.
March 19, 1974. The Grand Ole Opry’s first show at the new Opry House, on the grounds of Opryland, U.S.A., takes place.
1974. George Hamilton IV becomes the first country performer to tour the U.S.S.R.
1976. Wanted: The Outlaws (RCA), featuring Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser, becomes the first country music record to be awarded the platinum designation (signifying sales of 1,000,000 copies of an album) by the RIAA.
1980. The Mandrell sisters—Barbara, Louise, and Irlene—become the first female country singers to host a regularly scheduled network television show.
1980. Paramount releases the film, Urban Cowboy, starring John Travolta. The movie is largely responsible for making country music a bankable commodity with Middle America in the early 1980s. Prime growth areas include honky tonks (particularly Gilley’s, a bar in Pasadena, Texas, where part of Urban Cowboy was filmed), country dress fashions and crossover hits, most notably by Mickey Gilley, Juice Newton, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Ronnie Milsap, and Eddie Rabbitt.
1981. George Strait hits the Country Top Ten with "Unwound" (MCA 51104); his follow-up hits help provide the impetus—along with artists such as the Judds, Rick Skaggs, and Randy Travis—for the hard country revival. Based upon the musical values of honky tonk, bluegrass, and other classic retro styles, hard country was a reaction to the country pop sound then ascendant in Nashville.
September 1981. The rise of MTV provides the viability of music within a video context. The Nashville Network and Country Music Television appear in short order as cable TV alternatives for fans interested in C&W video clips, concerts, interviews, and news.
September 28, 1991. Garth Broooks’s Ropin’ the Wind (Capitol Nashville 96330) reaches number one on the pop album charts. Brooks would credit he implementation of the soundScan by Billboard for enabling country artists to compete with pop and R&B performers on a level playing field. During the 1990s, Billy Ray Cyrus, Lee Ann Rimes, and many other country stars would find mainstream success.
Early 1990s. "Black Hat Acts" such as Brooks, Clint Black, John Michael Montgomery, and Tim McGraw dominate the country charts.
1994. No Depression music—a combination of roots-oriented C&W, the folk mythology of Woody Guthrie, and alternative rock attitude—is widely recognized as a commercially viable genre. Notable artists include Son Volt, Wilco, and the Old ‘97s.
Late 1990s. Nashville discovers that sex sells. Photogenic stars—particularly youthful females such as Faith Hill and the Dixie Chicks—become hot commodities.
The drive within the country field for respectability in the eyes of the music business establishment as well as the population at large has been the overriding theme in the genre’s development during the 20th century. The major record labels were content to allow the independents to dominate the field until after World War II. Radio was somewhat more responsive; however, the modest rise of barn dances and other live country music performances represented a relatively small dent in an overall picture dominated by big-time network programming. Much has been made of the appearance of WSM’s Grand Ole Opry broadcasts in 1925. In reality the event’s short-term impact was largely symbolic in nature; many other clear—channel radio stations (e.g., WLS, Chicago; WBAP, Ft. Worth; WWVA, Wheeling) had successful barn dance programs. In the long-term, though, the Opry acted as a magnet for the country music industry, providing a central focus for recording, promotional, recreational and archival activities (see "September 11, 1945" above). The "Nashville Sound," under the leadership of Chet Atkins, projected the aura of urban sophistication combined with a proper respect for stylistic roots needed to render country music a powerful commercial force within the entertainment business beginning in the mid-1960s. Despite recent challenges to its hegemony, Nashville remains the commercial center and artistic soul of country music, thereby endowing the field with a solidarity and unified posture missing in all other spheres of American popular music. Still, underneath this seemingly homogenous exterior can be found the diversified array of styles that have endowed country music with its present day character. An awareness of these styles is central to an understanding of the broader entity. The leading subgenres (derived from Hume 1982, Malone 1968, and Stambler 1969) include:
1. The Bakersfield Sound. Music performed by musicians centered in Bakersfield, California, in the late 1950s and early 1960s; for example, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and Wynn Stewart. The style is rawer and more rhythmic than the Nashville Sound. The first time country music produced in California achieved popularity on a national level, marking the beginning of the end of Nashville’s domination of country music recording.
2. Bluegrass. A comparatively modern style; the chief difference between bluegrass and the string band music of the Appalachian region that preceded it is the emphasis the former places on rhythm and on instrumental virtuosity. Two major schools exist: the instrumental style, often compared to jazz, most frequently associated with Bill Monroe, the father of blue-grass music, and "the high lonesome sound" (vocal music), best exemplified by the Stanley Brothers’ output. Flatt & Scruggs, via the Beverly Hillbillies and the college concert circuit, stimulated a revival of the style in the 1960s; many rock artists (e.g. the Grateful Dead, Gram Parsons) incorporated it into their work.
3. Cajun. Music made by French colonials who eventually settled in southern Louisiana. It incorporates many elements of the French culture of the region: (a) it is usually sung in the local patois, which is a corrupt form of the French language; (b) many bands include both an accordion player and a fiddler; and (c) most songs are played in three-quarter waltz time. No performer adhering to a pure Cajun style has ever been commercially successful in the country field; however, many Cajun-influenced musicians such as Moon Mullican, Jimmy C. Newman, and Doug and Rusty Kershaw have had country hits.
4. Conjunto. A style of music popular along the border between Mexico and the U.S., incorporating elements of both Cajun and German music. Conjunto bands usually employ an accordion player, while the music is played in either waltz or polka time. Doug Sahm, Augie Meyer, and Freddy Fender have all been heavily influenced by the sound.
5. Country Blues. Often used as a code phrase to refer to music made by white singers who have incorporated Black elements into their style; for example, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, and Ronnie Milsap.
6. Country Rock. Amorphous genre including anything from country songs sung with rock instrumentation to rock songs sung by country singers, to country songs sung by rock singers, to country music sung by anyone who is not from the country. Classic country is generally acknowledged to have been the creation of Gram Parsons; he brought country to the attention of many rock artists, helped stimulate the singer/songwriter movement beginning in the early 1970 and, in the South, encouraged country-based performers to fuse that genre with rock.
7. Folk Music. Refers to two major strains: (a) country folk, which includes songs that have been passed down orally from generation to generation, usually originating with European material. Noteworthy exponents have been Bradley Kincaid and the Carter Family. (b) Urban folk differs in that the music is generally employed to achieve a political end. Chief practitioners have included Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan.
8. Gospel Music. Also divided into two styles: while Black gospel is the more energetic and rhythmic of the two, white gospel has exerted a greater influence on country music. Because the genre features a more emotional, exhortative singing style than is the case with country, gospel-influenced singers like Roy Acuff, Wilma Lee, and Stoney Cooper have changed country vocalizing completely and helped to place the solo singer in the foreground, thereby leading to the creation of a star system.
9. Hard Country. Generally means making no concessions to fad or fashion, using classic country instruments (usually amplified) and featuring the singer rather than the accompaniment or the song. Sometimes used as a synonym for "classic country"; that is, music not adulterated by rock or blues styles.
10. Honky Tonk Music. Originally referred to any music played in a honky tonk. Later, it meant music amplified to be heard over crowd noise and addressing the patrons’ real concerns—adultery, divorce, rootlessness, and drinking. A subgenre of hard country; leading practitioners have included Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams, George Jones, Hank Thompson, and Gary Stewart.
11. The Nashville Sound. Technically the style played by a certain group of musicians working in Nashville in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Because record companies did not allow individual performers to use their own bands and producers while making a record, and because Chet Atkins, who headed the A & R division for RCA in Nashville, had such a large roster of talent to produce, the instrumental arrangements—which utilized the same group of session musicians—became both predictable and standardized. Compared to the country music that preceded it, the Nashville Sound is slick and sophisticated. Prime exponents include Jim Reeves, Webb Pierce, and Floyd Cramer.
12. Old Time Music. Refers to either precommercial country music or the work of modern musicians who play in the old styles. Sometimes used interchangeably with the term "country folk music."
13. Outlaw Country. Originally designated a loose-knit group of musicians—Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Tompall Glaser, Billy Joe Shaver, Kris Kristofferson, for example—who objected to the common Nashville practice of awarding creative control of recording sessions to the record company’s staff producers rather than to the artists themselves. These artists chose to work outside the existing system by pressuring the record labels to give them control over their own work. As a result, the outlaws produced some of the best work of their respective careers and sold equally well to the non-country market and the traditional country core audience. This success undermined the dominance of the Nashville Sound, thereby rendering the movement passé.
14. Progressive Country. A term coined in Texas during the early 1970s, when young, rock-influenced musicians began mixing with mainstream country musicians at places like the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin. Ironically, the genre is often traditional in approach; for example, Asleep at the Wheel’s revival of the classic western swing of the late 1930s. Frequently used interchangeably with "redneck rock."
15. Rockabilly. A hybrid formed out of the intermingling of rhythm & blues and country. The best-known practitioners began their careers with Sun Records in Memphis, including Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Charlie Rich. Others such as the Everly Brothers, Eddie Cochran, Little Jimmy Dickens, and the Johnny Burnette Trio helped elevate rockabilly to a preeminent position in the 1950s.
16. Singing Cowboy Music. Refers to the film output of Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, the Sons of the Pioneers, and others in the 1930s and 1940s. Because many country performers adopted the dress of a movie cowboy, the "western" designation was added to "country" in the late 1940s.
17. The Texas Sound. This term is practically synonymous with progressive country and redneck rock. It has been used to mean any band from Texas; a futile categorization considering that the state has a variety of musical styles.
18. Tex-Mex Country. Nationally, the style is represented solely by Freddy Fender. On a local level, the sound thrives in cities like Austin and San Antonio, where bands employ accordions and six-string basses to produce a hybrid conjunto sound.
19. Western Swing. While the genre draws from country music for much of its instrumentation and lyrics, it differs with respect to its rhythms (derived mainly from New Orleans jazz of the 1920s and 1930s) and sophisticated dance orchestra arrangements. Chief exponents included Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies, and Spade Cooley. After a sharp decline in popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, western swing was revived by rock-influenced artists such as Asleep at the Wheel in the 1970s.
Although country music sales were not damaged in the industry declines of 1979, and indeed the category increased its market share to around 20 percent in the next few years, in 1985 country record sales began a dramatic fall, with star performers selling only near break-even points (about 80,000 sales). By the 1990s, however, the genre was hotter than ever, shrewdly positioning itself as the music of Middle America as alternative rock and rap artists came to be increasingly viewed as too radical for mainstream consumption. [Albert 1984; Hemphill 1970; Hume 1982; Malone 1968.]