Country Music

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Country Music

Country music has a history that is deeply rooted in traditional white Southern working-class values, patriotism, conservative politics, and lyrics that tell the unblinking truth about life. An old joke asks, "What do you get when you play a country record backwards?" The answer: "You get your wife back, your truck back, and your dog back." However, country music is much more than songs of hard luck in love and life. Those lyrics that face "the cold hard facts of life," in the words of a Porter Wagoner song of the 1970s, are more than a series of laments. They look at both success and failure, joy and despair with sentiment and realism. And though most country music and country music fans might advocate a straight and narrow conservative path, the lyrics of country songs deal with the dilemmas of life with a complexity not found in any other popular music.

Country music's earliest roots are found in the ballads of the Appalachian Mountains, songs that stemmed from a tradition brought to America by the English, Scots, and Irish who settled that territory. Their religion was a strict Calvinism, and many of their songs were dark cautionary tales of sexuality and retribution. Playwright Tennessee Williams, who came from that Southern Gothic tradition, put these words in the mouth of Blanche Dubois, his most famous heroine: "They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, then transfer to one called Cemeteries." Williams had learned the message of those old songs: "A false-hearted lover will lead you to your grave" ("On Top of Old Smoky"). One song after another told the story of seduction followed by murder. Pretty Polly's false lover tells her, "I dug on your grave the best part of last night." The false lover on the banks of the Ohio admits that "I held my knife against her breast/As into my arms she pressed." In perhaps the most famous of these songs, Tom Dooley meets his lover on the mountain and stabs her with his knife. These dark songs were not the only part of the Southern mountain tradition, however. There were children's play-party songs, danceable tunes, and upbeat, optimistic songs. But the murder songs were so striking, coming as they did out of a tradition of sexual repression combined with stark realism, that they are the most memorable.

The music of the Southern mountains became something more in 1927, when Ralph Peer, a recording engineer for the Victor Talking Machine Co. (later RCA Victor), went to Bristol, Tennessee, to make some regional recordings of what was then called "hillbilly music." He sent out word that he would pay $50 for every song he recorded, and came away with the first recorded country music.

Peer recorded two memorable acts. The first was the Carter Family (A. P., Sara, and Maybelle Carter), whose songs included both the anthems of optimism ("Keep on the Sunny Side") and the ballads of sex and death ("Bury Me beneath the Willow"). In those recordings, still in print and still considered classics of American music, the Carter Family created an archetype of country music. From their harmonies to their guitar styles to their plain-spoken emotional directness, they created a template for the music that followed them.

Second, and even more important, was Jimmie Rodgers, a onetime railroad man (on his records he was known as "the Singing Brakeman") who had taken to playing music after ill health had forced him off the railroad. When Rodgers showed up for his first session with Peer, he sang popular songs of the day, which earned him no more than a rebuke. Peer was interested in recording folk singers, singing their indigenous music, and he told Rodgers to come back with some traditional folk songs. Rodgers did not know any traditional music, but he needed the few dollars that Peer was offering for the session. With the help of his sister, Elsie McWilliams, Rogers wrote his own "traditional" tunes, hoping that Peer wouldn't notice the difference. The songs they created made music history.

Rodgers' songs struck a chord with rural America. He glorified and romanticized the day-to-day issues of small-town working people—family, sweetheart, the struggles of the hoboes and the working class—and he placed these issues forever in the lexicon of country music. More importantly, Rodgers introduced the blues to country music. His first big hit, "T For Texas (The Blue Yodel)," created the Jimmie Rodgers sound—a traditional twelve bar blues, ending in a yodel. Rodgers was so steeped in the blues that Louis Armstrong played on one of his blue yodels, and his blues-based style was one of the first important melds of black and white styles in American popular music.

The blues had taken the country by storm in the 1920s, first in the urban, jazz-inflected recordings of artists like Bessie Smith, and then in the rural, country blues recordings of Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and others. The surprise commercial success of phonograph records aimed at a rural black audience encouraged companies like Victor to make a similar pitch to rural whites. The same success followed. Jimmie Rodgers sold between 6 and 20 million records (by various estimates) before his death in 1933. The blues were hit hard as a commercial medium by the depression, but country music did well in the 1930s. Radio, a more viable medium for white music, kept country music in the public ear with various local "barn dance" programs, including the phenomenally successful Grand Ole Opry, which started in 1925.

One singer who emerged from regional radio in the 1930s to reshape country music was Gene Autry. Autry, who had scored a hit record in 1931 with "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine," a sentimental song in the Jimmie Rodgers mode, was summoned to Hollywood in 1934, as the answer to a Republic Studios mogul's brainstorm: The hottest new trend in movies was the musical talkie, like The Jazz Singer, and perennial cinema moneymaker was the Western. With Autry's enormous success as a singing cowboy in films, "country" became "country and western." Gene Autry became the first country star to gain an audience beyond the rural South and West, even drawing a million fans at a 1939 performance in Dublin, Ireland. Rather than authentic western songs, Autry sang music composed by Hollywood songwriters, calculated to appeal to audiences that listened to Cole Porter and Irving Berlin as well as Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. The new songs succeeded so well that Berlin would ultimately write his own cowboy song, "Don't Fence Me In."

This was country's first flirtation with the mainstream of American music. Roy Rogers followed Autry's path to success, and soon they were imitated by a multitude of lesser singing cowboys. There was no country music industry as such in the 1930s, but this outsider/mainstream dichotomy would remain an issue throughout country's history. The other significant innovation in the country music of the 1930s also came from the West, and was another unlikely fusion. In Texas, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys blended jazz and country to create a new and infectious dance music.

In the 1940s, country music had its own hit parade, as Billboard magazine created its first country chart in 1944. First called the "folk music" chart, it became the "country and western" chart in 1949, and its first number one hit was Al Dexter's "Pistol Packin' Mama." "Folk music" being loosely defined, the early charts included artists like Louis Jordan, Nat "King" Cole, and Bing Crosby. But country was starting to amass its first generation of major stars—singers like Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Red Foley—and the new sound of blue-grass music, which had been popularized by Bill Monroe in the 1930s, but gained its full maturity when Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs joined Monroe's Bluegrass Boys in the mid-1940s.

In an important sense, country's key figure in the 1940s was Roy Acuff. Acuff joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1938, and not long after became the Opry's host, presiding over its period of greatest popularity. In 1942, Acuff and songwriter Fred Rose started a music publishing company, Acuff-Rose, which signed country songwriters, and created a new standard of professionalism in the field. The Opry and Acuff-Rose were, together, the most significant factors in solidifying the place of Nashville as the country music capital of America. World War II brought a lot of young GIs from the north down to army bases in the South, where they heard Acuff's music and broadened country's listening base even further.

In 1946, Acuff-Rose signed Hank Williams to a writing contract, and in 1947 Williams had his first chart hit, "Move It on Over." He joined the Louisiana Hayride, the second most influential of the country radio shows (Elvis Presley also began his career on the Hayride), in 1948, and came to the Opry in 1949. With Hank Williams, country had a star who outshone all who came before, and who set the standard for all who came after. His songs (like Rodgers' were deeply blues-influenced) were as simple as conversation, but unforgettable. "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Hey, Good Lookin'," "Cold, Cold Heart," and "I Can't Help It if I'm Still in Love with You" are just a few Williams' tunes that are still classics. Williams, like his contemporaries, jazzman Charlie Parker and poet Dylan Thomas, lived out the myth of the self-destructive, tormented artist and died too young in the back seat of his limosine on the way to a concert on New Year's Day in 1953; he was 29 years old.

As the 1950s began, mainstream American popular music was becoming moribund. The creative energy of the "Tin Pan Alley" songwriters, the New York-centered, Broadway-oriented popular song crafters, seemed to be flagging. Singers like Tony Martin, Perry Como, Teresa Brewer, and the Ames brothers were only marginally connected to the pulse of the new generation. Country music and rhythm and blues both began to make inroads into that mainstream, but at first it was only the songs, not the singers, that gained popularity. Red Foley had a number one pop hit with "Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy" in 1950, but for the most part it was pop singers like Tony Bennett and Jo Stafford, the McGuire Sisters and Pat Boone who took their versions of country and R&B songs up the pop charts.

At the same time, country and R&B music were making an alliance of their own. Nashville was now entrenched as the capital of the country music establishment, but the new music came from Sun Records in Memphis, where Sam Phillips recorded Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash. It was called rock 'n' roll, and the country music establishment did not like it. Elvis began his career as "The Hillbilly Cat," and was featured on Louisiana Hayride, but he never sang on the Opry, and rock 'n' roll, denounced by Roy Acuff, never made an impact there. Racism certainly played a part in the country establishment's rejection of rock 'n' roll. The new music was widely denounced throughout the South by organizations like the White Citizen's Council. At the same time, however, country music was beginning to outgrow its raffish, working-class roots. Eddie Arnold, the biggest star of the late 1940s and early 1950s, called himself "The Tennessee Plowboy," a nickname he had acquired early in his career, but he was no plowboy. He wore a tuxedo on stage, and had only the barest trace of hillbilly nasality in his voice.

Perhaps the city of Nashville exerted an influence, too. Although Acuff-Rose and other music companies had made Music Row the symbol of Nashville everywhere else in the country, it was an embarrassment to Nashville society. When a Tennessee governor in the mid-1940s was quoted as saying, "hillbilly music is disgraceful," Roy Acuff responded by announcing his candidacy for governor (he never followed through), but there was a growing feeling that country's image should not be too raw or "low-class." So while rhythm and blues performers responded to rock 'n' roll by joining it, the country establishment rejected it. This was the first of a series of decisions that had the effect of marginalizing what might have become America's dominant musical style. The country establishment has always sought status and recognition, but until the 1990s, it consistently made the wrong choices in following that ambition. As rock 'n' roll's hard edge took over not only the United States but the world, country music became softer and smoother. Brilliant musicians and producers, such as guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins, pooled their considerable talents and came up with The Nashville Sound, a string-sweetened Muzak that was suited to the stylings of Arnold, Jim Reeves, and Patsy Cline, but not to the grittiness of Presley, Perkins, Lewis, and Cash.

Contrary to the popular stereotype, country music has not always been associated with political conservatism. One of the Opry's first stars, Uncle Dave Macon, was a fiery radical leftist. Even Gene Autry, early in his career, recorded "The Death of Mother Jones," a tribute to the legendary left-wing labor organizer. But New Deal populism was replaced, over the years, by entrenched racism, Cold War patriotism, and the growing generation gap. By the 1960s, youth, rebellion, and rock 'n' roll were on one side of a great divide, and country music was on the other.

The anthems of 1960s country conservatism were Merle Haggard's anti-hippie "Okie From Muskogee" and chip-on-the-shoulder patriotic "Fightin' Side of Me." But Haggard, an ex-convict who had been in the audience when Johnny Cash recorded his historic live album at Folsom Prison, represented his own kind of rebellion. Along with Buck Owens, Haggard had turned his back on not only the Nashville Sound but Nashville itself, setting up their own production center in the dusty working-class town of Bakersfield, California, and making music that recaptured the grittier sound of an earlier era. Haggard and Owens, for all their right-wing posturing, were adopted by the rockers. The Grateful Dead recorded Haggard's "Mama Tried," and Creedence Clearwater Revival sang about "listenin' to Buck Owens."

The conservative cause stood in staunch opposition to the women's movement, but in the 1960s women gained their first major foothold in country music. There had been girl singers before, even great ones like Patsy Cline, but now Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, and especially Dolly Parton established themselves as important figures. Lynn and Parton wrote their own songs, often with incisive lyrics about the female experience, and Parton handled much of her own production. Country music has been described as "the voice of the inarticulate," and these singers gave a powerful voice to a segment of the population that had never had their dreams and struggles articulated in this way.

The Nashville establishment was still hitching its wagon to a star that shone most brightly over Las Vegas. Still distrustful of rebellion and rough edges, they looked to Vegas pop stars for their salvation. In 1974 and 1975, John Denver and Olivia Newton-John swept the Country Music Association Awards (Denver was Entertainer of the Year in 1975). Country's creative edge moved away from Nashville to Bakersfield and elsewhere. Singer-songwriters Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings grew their hair long and hung out with hippies and rockers at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Texas. They made the country establishment nervous, but it did eventually accept the so-called Outlaw Movement, and by 1979, Nelson was Entertainer of the Year. The real working-class music of the new generation of Southern whites never got that acceptance. Although the 1950s rockabilly rebels like Cash, Lewis, and the Everly Brothers now played country venues, the young rockers still scared Nashville. There was too much Jimi Hendrix in their music, too much hippie attitude in their clothes and their hair. The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and others played something called Southern Rock that could have been called country, but wasn't. Nevertheless, the kid at the gas station in North Carolina was listening to them, not to John Denver or Barbara Mandrell. By cutting them out (along with white Midwestern working-class rockers like Bob Seger), country music lost a large portion of its new generation of potential listeners.

The country establishment still sought the Vegas crossover secret, and they seemed to find it in 1980, when the movie Urban Cowboy created a craze for yoked shirts and fringed cowboy boots. Records by artists like Mickey Gilley, Johnny Lee, and Alabama shot up the pop charts for a short time, but the "urban cowboy" sound was passing fad, and country music seemed to disintegrate with it. In 1985, The New York Times solemnly declared that country music was finished as a genre, and would never be revived.

However, it was already being revived, by going back to its roots. Inspired by the example of George Jones, a country legend since the late 1950s, who is widely considered to possess the greatest voice in the history of country music, country's new generation came to be known as the New Traditionalists. Some of its most important figures were Ricky Skaggs, a brilliant instrumentalist who brought the bluegrass tradition back into the mainstream, Randy Travis, a balladeer in the style of Jones, the Judds, who revived country harmony and the family group, and Reba McEntire, who modernized the tradition of Parton, Wynette, and Lynn, while keeping a pure country sound. The late 1980s brought a new generation of outlaws, too, singer-songwriters who respected tradition, but had a younger, quirkier approach. They included Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, and Steve Earle. These musicians gained a following (Earle, who self-destructed on drugs, but gradually rebuilt a career in the 1990s, remains the most influential songwriter of the era). However, country radio, the center of the country establishment, gave them little air time, and they moved on to careers in other genres.

There had always been country performers on television, Tennessee Ernie Ford in the 1950s, Glen Campbell and Johnny Cash in the 1960s, and Barbara Mandrell in the "urban cowboy" days of the early 1980s. The 1980s also brought cable television, and in 1983, The Nashville Network went on the air with an all-country format of videos, live music, and interview shows. In 1985, TNN broadcast country music's Woodstock—Farm Aid, a massive benefit organized by Willie Nelson for America's farm families. TNN broadcast the entire 12 hours of Farm Aid live, and audiences who tuned in to see the rock stars like Neil Young and John Mellencamp who headlined the bill, also saw new country stars like Dwight Yoakam.

The creative energy that drove country music in the 1980s, had settled into a formula by the 1990s, and it was the most successful formula the genre had ever seen. In 1989, Clint Black, became the first performer to combine the traditionalism of Travis and George Strait, the innovation of Lovett and Earle, and MTV/TNN-era good looks and video presence. Close behind Black came Garth Brooks. With Brooks, the resistance to rock which had limited country's potential for growth for four decades finally crumbled completely.

Brooks modeled himself after 1970s arena rockers like Journey and Kiss, and after his idol, Billy Joel. Rock itself was floundering in divisiveness, and audiences were excited by the new face of country. In a 1991 interview, Rodney Crowell said, "I play country music because I love rock 'n' roll, and country is the only genre where you can still play it." Brooks' second album, Ropin' The Wind, debuted at number one on the pop charts, swamping a heavily hyped album by Guns 'n Roses, rock's biggest name at that time. Pop music observers compared the new country popularity to the "urban cowboy" craze, and many predicted it would fizzle again. However, with country finally catching up to rock 'n' roll, 40 years late. Country music had taken on a lot of the trappings that had been associated with rock—sexy young singing idols, arena tours, and major promotions. Country music's audience had also broadened; the kid at the gas station joined the country traditionalists and country's new suburban audience. Country music has as many faces as American society itself, and no doubt will keep re-inventing itself with each generation.

—Tad Richards

Further Reading:

The Country Music Foundation, editors. Country—The Music and the Musicians. New York, Abbeville Press, 1994.

Hemphill, Paul. The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1970.

Horstman, Dorothy. Sing Your Heart Out, Country Boy. Nashville, Country Music Foundation Press, 1985.

Leamer, Laurence. Three Chords and the Truth. New York, Harper Collins, 1997.

Malone, Bill C. Country Music USA, Revised Edition. Austin, University of Texas Press, 1985.

Mansfield, Brian, and Gary Graff, editors. Music Hound Country: The Essential Album Guide. Detroit, Visible Ink, 1997.

Nash, Alana. Behind Closed Doors: Talking With the Legends of Country Music. New York, Knopf, 1988.

Richards, Tad, and Melvin B. Shestack. The New Country Music Encyclopedia. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1993.