COUNTRY MUSIC - Although country music is a powerful cultural presence in the United States and an
international export of growing magnitude, it is difficult to define. It has been a creation and organic reflection of southern working-class culture, changing as that society has changed, but it has been simultaneously a dynamic element of American
popular culture. In the 60 years or so since Texas fiddler Eck Robertson made the first documented phonograph recording by a white rural entertainer, the music has become a massive industry with an appeal that cuts across social, generational,
and geographic lines.
Country music had its origins in the
folk culture of the South – a diverse culture that drew upon the interrelating resources of Europe and Africa. It was British at its core but eclectic in its borrowing. Long before the decade of the 1920s, when the radio and recording industries
made their first exploitations of southern folk talent, fiddlers, banjoists, string bands, balladeers, and gospel singers proliferated throughout the South. Most of their performances were given at house parties, fish fries, or corn shucking,
but many were able to function on a broader basis, and in a quasi-professional manner, at fiddle contests or in medicine or vaudeville shows.
Musicians drew upon their inherited folk resources for songs and performing styles, but they also picked up any compatible material that was adaptable to their styles and that
fit their community aesthetic standards from black entertainers or from the vast panoply of 19th-century popular music. The establishment of radio stations in the South after 1920 (including WSB in Atlanta, WSM in Nashville, WBAP in Fort Worth)
and the recording of rural performers after 1922 encouraged further professionalization as well as the development of an ''industry''.
The early entertainers were rural, for the most part, but not exclusively agricultural. Country music has always been a working-class music (although not self-consciously so until
the 1960s). The performers of the early period, who were usually part-time musicians, worked as railroad men, coal miners, textile workers, carpenters, wagoners, sawmill workers, cowboys, and even occasionally as country lawyers, doctors,
and preachers. Whatever their occupation, their dialects, speech patterns, and performing styles reflected the rural South. Given the social context of the 1920s, when the rural and socially conservative South seemed greatly out of step with a
dynamic nation, and when its rural inhabitants seemed given over to strange oddities and eccentricities, such as snake handling, tenantry, and night-riding, it is not surprising that a term such as ''hillbilly'' should be affixed to the rural music
of the region.
The commercialization of southern rural music
had both positive and negative consequences. On one hand, folk styles and folksongs received a wider hearing and, presumably, longer leases on life than they otherwise would have had; on the other hand, folk styles were homogenized and diluted,
and traditional songs were gradually replaced with newly composed ones. But too much has been made of this change. Folk styles were never pure; folksongs were drawn from a multitude of sources, and folk musicians were never reluctant to accept
or seek some kind of reward for their talents.
bands of country music's first decade, including such colorful examples of self-parody as the Skillet Lickers, the Fruit Jar Drinkers, the Possum Hunters, and Dr. Smith's Champion Hoss Hair Pullers, as well as the more conventionally named groups
such as the North Carolina Ramblers and the East Texas Serenaders, played hoedown tunes and British dance tunes, but they were also receptive to current popular dance tunes and especially to ragtime, which remained a national passion in the World
War I period. Songs originally designed for the parlor piano, such as ''Chicken Reel'', ''Redwing'', or ''Over The Waves'' or for marching bands, such as ''Under The Double Eagle'' made their way into the repertoires of stringband musicians
and have become permanently ensconced in the country music repertoire. Singers also ranged far and wide for their songs.
A large percentage of the early hillbilly songs came from 19th-century popular music, the ''parlor songs'', which had originally been written by professional composers and disseminated
on lavishly illustrated sheet music among the nation's urban middle class. Such songs as ''The Letter Edged In Black'', ''Little Rosewood Casket'', ''Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane'', ''Listen To The Mockingbird'', and ''Molly Darling''
found a home among rural southerners long after ceasing to be fashionable with their original audience. Many of these sentimental favorites are still performed regularly by bluegrass and old-time country entertainers.
Country entertainers, therefore, were torn between tradition and modernity. They were
loyal to their own communities but were eager to build a wider audience. Neither they nor promoters (radio and recording men, booking agents, advertisers) were quite sure whether the most feasible promotional method would involve a rustic
or an urbane approach. Country performers might have preferred conventional suits or even formal attire, but they were encouraged to clothe themselves in rustic or cowboy costumes. The conflict between rusticity and urbanity has been a factor in
country music development, in sound as well as in image.
Although string bands and homespun acts predominated on early hillbilly recordings and on radio shows, the star system soon asserted itself and individual talents rose to the top. Vernon Dalhart (born Marion T. Slaughter in Jefferson, Texas) contributed
to the music's commercial acceptance by recording, in 1924, such nationally popular songs as ''The Prisoner's Song'' and ''Wreck Of The Old 97''. Uncle Dave Macon, a comedian, singer, and five-string banjoist from Tennessee, was one of the first
stars of the Grand Ole Opry and a repository of 19th-century folk and popular songs. Although there were a host of pioneer performers, the most seminal, the one whose impacts are still felt in the music today, were the Carter Family, from
Virginia, and Jimmie Rodgers, from Mississippi, both from whom were first recorded in early August 1927 in Bristol, Tennessee. No group better embodied the mood and style of the family parlor and country church than the Carters; their three-part
harmony, Maybelle's unique guitar style, and their large collection of vintage songs (such as ''Wildwood Flower'' and ''Will The Circle Be Unbroken'') still influenced country singers today. In Jimmie Rogers, the former railroad brakeman from Meridian,
Mississippi, the music found its first superstar. Rodgers personified the rambling man, an image in sharp juxtaposition to that which the Carter Family projected. His ''blue yodel'', his appealing personal style and tragic early death, plus
his eclectic repertoire of blues, hobo, train, rounder, and love songs, made him, posthumously, the ''father of country music''.
Country music not only survived the Great Depression but also solidified its position in American popular culture and greatly broadened its market. The 1930s were the heyday of
live radio programming, and cowboy singers, duets, string bands, yodelers, and balladeers could be heard everywhere, even in New York City. Radio barn dances – Saturday night variety shows with a rural or folk flavor – prevailed in
many cities, but none was more important than WLS's National Barn Dance (Chicago) or WSM's Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. The Grand Ole Opry, which first went on the air in 1925, really affirmed its status as a national institution when it
gained network affiliation on NBC in 1939. The 50,000-watt, clear-channel stations, such as WSM and KWKH in Shreveport, Louisiana, played crucial roles in circulating country music, but no stations had a more profound impact in the national dissemination
of country and gospel music than the Mexican-border stations – popular called X-stations because of their call letters (XERF, XEG, and the like). Their powerful transmission, sometimes surpassing 100,000 watts, blanketed North America
with rural music (from the Carter Family to the Stamps Quartet), evangelism, and incessant advertising, which have become part of our national folklore. Radio exposure led to broadened public appearances and the emergence of booking agents and
the complex framework of music business promotion.
professionalism and commercialization of country music proceeded, the nature of the music also changed. Traditional songs continued to appear with great frequency in the repertoires of such groups as the Blue Sky Boys and Mainer's Mountaineers.
Nevertheless, newly composed songs gradually edged the older ones aside, and fledgling performers increasingly sought to find a commercial formula as successful as that of Jimmie Rodgers. Stylistically, the southeastern hoedown-oriented string
bands and the ''brother duets'' (acts such as the Monroe Brothers who usually featured mandolin and guitar accompaniment) relied heavily on old-time songs and ballads and remained conservative in performance and material. On the other hand,
musicians from the southwestern part of the South (Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma) were more innovative, producing dynamic styles that would revolutionize country music. Very few observes recognized distinctions within country music before World
War II, and performers with widely varying styles and repertoires often appeared together on radio shows or on radio barn dances. Whether cowboy singer, mandolin-and-guitar duet, or hot string band, they all conveyed a homespun or down-home feeling,
and hillbilly was the rubric that covered them all. Nevertheless, a modern perspective suggests the great difference among them. In 1934 Gene Autry, a radio hillbilly singer from Texas, went to Hollywood, where he became the first great singing
cowboy in film. The romance of the cowboy would have been appealing to country singers in any case, but Autry's Saturday afternoon horse operas, his syndicated Melody Ranch radio show, and his very popular recordings magnified the appeal while
providing country musicians with an identity much more respectable than that of the hillbilly. The romantic movie-cowboy songs declined significantly after World War II, but singers wearing cowboy costumes endured long after that.
More strongly reflective of evolving southwestern culture than the movie cowboy
songs was western swing, the jazz-influenced string-band music popularized by Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies, the Light Crust Doughboys, and Bob Wills and the Texas .Playboys. The western swing bands were electric in repertories and
were receptive to new stylistic ideas, including the use of drums, horns, and electrified instruments. Developing alongside western swing, and drawing its inspiration even more directly from the bars and dance halls of the Southwest, was honky-tonk
music. Country music's entrance into white roadhouses, which were called generically ''honky-tonks'', divested the music of much of its pastoral innocence and tone. The result was a realistic musical sound that documented the movement of
country people into an urban industrial environment.
War II was both the major catalyst for change in country music and the chief agent in its nationalization. The country music industry itself languished under wartime restrains: shellac rationing (which limited personal appearances). On the other
hand, jukeboxes became ubiquitous accoutrements in bars, cafes, and penny arcades, and country records began appearing on them in cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles (in part, a reflection of the movement of southerners to northern and
western industrial centers). The Grand Ole Opry gained its reputation as a mecca for country fans during the 1940s, and Tennessean Roy Acuff, who joined the show in 1938, became the unquestioned king of country music during those years, taking
his roadshows to all parts of the United States and holding down the most important time slots on the Saturday night Opry. His versions of ''Wabash Cannon Ball'' and ''The Great Speckled Bird'' made both his name and that of the Opry famous throughout
America. Above all, in the wartime crucible of economic and demographic change and heightened migration, the mood, style, and appeal of country music were destined to change significantly.
Country music's first great commercial boom came in the years immediately following the war, continuing to about 1955.
Postwar prosperity and the ending of wartime restraints generated an unprecedented demand for amusement. Record labels proliferated; new barn dances, such as the Louisiana Hayride, competed with the Grand Ole Opry; and thousands of jukeboxes reverberated
with the songs of such country entertainers as Eddy Arnold, Kitty Wells, Lefty Frizzell, and Hank Williams. By the time Williams died on January 1, 1953, pop singers were ''covering'' his songs, and country music was winning commercial acceptance
and respectability that had earlier been scarcely dreamed of. Just a few short years later, country music's ''permanent plateau of prosperity'' had been shattered by the revolution wrought by Elvis Presley and the rockabillies. All forms
of traditional country music suffered temporarily as promoters and recording men began heir urgent searches for young and vigorous stylists who could re-create what Elvis had done and who could hold that youthful audience that now dominated American
music. One consequence of this quest was the creation of a pop style of country music, known generally as ''country pop'' or ''the Nashville Sound''. This form of music was considered to be a compromise that would appeal to both old-time country
fans and the newly sought pop audience. By using vocal choruses and a sedate form of instrumentation (vibes, violins, piano, a muted bass), country-pop singers would avoid the extremes of both rockabilly and hillbilly.
Commercially, country music's development since the late 1950s has been one of the great
success stories of American popular culture. Country performers now enjoy patronage around the world, and country concerts are regularly presented in the White House and on the Mall of the Smithsonian Institution. Country music's spectacular
ascent and expansion have been accompanied by self-doubts and contradictions, and by anguished debates among performers and fans concerning the music's alleged dilution or loss of identity. Many adherents fear that the music may lose its soul as
it gains the world. Although the quest for crossover records remains of older country forms have periodically taken place since the rock-and-roll era. Honky-tonk music lives in the performances of men like George Jones, Merle Haggard, Moe Bandy,
and the father of the style, Ernest Tubb. Bill Monroe and his fellow bluegrass practitioners have preserved the acoustic style of instrumentation and the ''high lonesome'' style of singing, bluegrass festivals are held somewhere almost every
weekend from May until November. Doc Watson, Grandpa Jones, and Wilma Lee Cooper periodically revive the older country songs, even dipping occasionally into the songbag of ancient British material.
One of the most remarkable manifestations of interest in older songs and styles has through the performances
of youthful entertainers, or through older musicians who have catered to youth. Emmylou Harris, who was raised in Virginia, came to ''hard country'' through the influence of her friend and mentor, the country-rock singer Gram Parsons. Her fresh,
uncluttered style of singing and her choice of material are considerably more traditional then most of the women singers who grew up in the country music world. Willie Nelson, a veteran honky-tonk singer from Texas and one of country music's greatest
writers, has probably done most to bridge the gap between the rock-oriented youth audience and country music. He has done so by being receptive to their music and their heroes and by affecting a lifestyle and mode of dress (beard, earring,
jogging shoes) that put them at ease. In the process, he has introduced his young fans to the best of older country and gospel songs. The 1980s has seen the emergence of young performers such as Ricky Scaggs, Dwight Yoakum, Randy Travis, Steve
earl, and George Strait, who consciously revive and update traditional forms of country music.
Country music, then, endures in many manifestations. Yet it remains as resistant to definition as it did over 60 years ago when it was first assuming an organized commercial identity. It has become a phenomenon
with worldwide appeal, but it maintains its southern identification. Nashville remains its financial hub, the center of a multimillion-dollar music business. Country singers still come from southern working-class backgrounds in surprising numbers,
and both they and the lyrics of their songs convey the ambivalent impulses that have always lain at the center of country music and southern culture: uritanism and hedonism, a reverence for home and a fascination with rambling, the sense of being
uniquely different and at the same time more American than anyone else. Country songs convey a down-home approach to life and a element view of love, home, and patriotism that are absent from other forms of American music. In an age of computerized
complexity, country music owes its appeal to the yearning for simplicity and rootedness that permeates modern American society.