Country’s Music Story
Country music, also called “Country & Western” or “Hillbilly”, is a mixture of different musical forms, developed in the south of the United States, with roots in traditional folk music from various origins, such as Irish, British and French music, blues, spiritual, etc.
Even so, “country” is a category that actually embraces different genres of music:
• Nashville sound (pop, very popular in the 1960s)
• Bluegrass (fast style, based on banjo, violin and mandolin, Bill Monroe)
• Western (traditional ballads of the west and of cowboys of Hollywood)
• Western Swing (dance music, with influences from jazz, type Bob Wills)
• Bakersfield (type Buck Owens and Merle Haggard)
• Outlaw (type Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings)
• Cajun and Zydeco (with French roots)
• Oldtime (folk music before 1930)
• And others such as Honky Tonk, Appalachian, Rockabilly, Jug Band, alt.country, etc …
Each style is unique in its execution, rhythmic, string structure, although there are many songs that have been adapted to different styles of country. An example is “Milk Cow Blues”, a blues of Sleepy John Estes and / or Kokomo Arnold, which has been presented for a number of artists in different styles inside and outside the country, such as Aerosmith, Bob Wills, Willie Nelson, George Strait, Ricky Nelson, Eddie Cochran, Elvis Presley, The Kinks, and many others.
The first country song that was a great hit in the United States was “The Wreck of the Old ’97” recorded during 1924 by Vernon Dalhart (also known as Marion Try Slaughter, Al Craver, Tobe Little and Jeff Fuller). Other leading pioneering artists recording albums were Riley Puckett, Don Richardson, Fiddling John Carson, Ernest Stoneman, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, and The Skillet Lickers.
The two artists who are considered the most influential and seen as founders of modern country music are Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family. Coincidentally, the two were first recorded in the same session in Bristol, Tennessee, on August 1, 1927.
The Carter Family was formed by A.P. Carter, his wife Sara and his sister-in-law Maybelle. They had one long record career, based on the sound of A.P., the beautiful voice of Sara and the original style of guitar of Maybelle. The main contribution of A.P. was the collection of songs and ballads that he found in the mountains in the vicinity of Maces Springs, Virginia. In addition, being him a man, he made it possible for Sara and Maybelle to appear in public without the stigma of that time. Those two women were true musical talent. They fixed the songs that A.P. had collected and wrote their own songs. They were precursors of female singers such as Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Skeeter Davis, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton and June Carter Cash, daughter of Maybelle and wife of Johnny Cash.
Jimmie Rodgers was a singer of traditional blues and ballads, originally from Meridian, Mississippi. He wrote songs about his own experiences in bars, streets, railroads, in a showy way for ordinary people. Ducklings, moods, women, lives, murders, deaths, illnesses and destitution are all ingredients in their letters. He sang about life and death from a masculine perspective, point of view that has become dominant in many areas of the country. He is the author of songs such as “T for Texas”, “In the Jailhouse Now”, “TB Blues” (on his own tuberculosis) and “Blue Yodel” (13 numbered songs with that name). Among his followers, we find Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Townes van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash, who have also sung on their sufferings.
Heir to Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams was arguably the most influential artist within the Jimmie Rodgers line up. In his short career (he died at the age of 29), he dominated the country scene and his songs have been performed by virtually every other country artist, whether male or female. He wrote introverted songs about love, happiness and disappointment, as “I’m so lonesome I could die”, and others more cheerful about southern food (“Jambalaya”). He took the music to another level and to a wider audience. Son Hank Williams, Jr., and grandson Hank Williams III, have also been innovative within the country. The one looking for fusion with rock and outlaw country, and this one looking for inspiration even in death metal and psychobilly soul.
Another style within the country is the Bluegrass, based on a tradition of folk music, but in itself invented by Bill Monroe. His group, The Bluegrass Boys, gave the name to the style, which he had taken from the typical vegetation of the state of Kentucky. The first recording was made in 1945 with Bill Monroe in mandolin and vocals, Lester Flatt on guitar and vocals, Earl Scruggs on 5 string banjo, Chubby Wise on violin and Cedric Rainwater on bass. That instrumentation is the standard for all Bluegrass bands, and many of the famous early followers had been members at some point in the Bluegrass Boys, such as Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Del McCoury, Sonny Osborne, The Stanley Brothers and Don Reindeer.
Among the few black musicians in the country, the most notable are Charley Pride and Deford Bailey, and have suffered much from the open racism that is common in large parts of the country audience. Even so, the mutual influences between country, blues, rock, gospel, soul and jazz have always been strong.
During the 1960s, the country evolved into a multimillion dollar industry focused in Nashville, Tennessee. The typical sound lent of the pop of the 1950s: a soft voice, accompanied by a section of strings and a vocal chorus. Important artists in this genre were Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, Tammy Wynette and Charlie Rich. Many critics consider that the diversity of the country was strangled by the Nashville producers and their formalisms.
In reaction to the watery sound of Nashville, many musicians chose to develop their own country styles. In California came the Bakersfield sound, promoted by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, based on the Maddox Brothers and Rose, in a wild mix of oldtime, hillbilly swing and gospel.
Texas produced rebels such as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Jeff Walker and others who created outlaw country. Within Nashville in the 1980s, Randy Travis, Ricky Skaggs and others brought a return to traditional values. Their musicality, authorship and production skills helped to revive the genre momentarily. But they, and even other greats like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, fell out of popularity when the big record companies again imposed their formulas and refused to promote established artists.
The two main branches of country have continued their development since the 1990s. The influence of Jimmie Rodgers is obvious in artists with a working-class image such as Brooks & Dunn and Garth Brooks. The Carter Family has taken its influence to singers like Iris Dement and Nanci Griffith, with a more traditional “folk” style, but with more temporary points of view.
In the 1990s, a new form of country has emerged, called alternative country (“alt.country”), neo traditional or insurgent country. Presented by young artists and inspired by traditional artists, it moved away from the watery pop style of Nashville, and lending more to punk and rock bands.