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History of Country Music

This page looks at the vocabulary of Country Music through its history, people and songs. For other genres see Popular Music Genres.

The Carter FamilyCountry music was one of the first genres of modern American popular music, and old-time music was its earliest style. It developed in the southeastern states of the USA as a mix of folk music from the British Isles, church music and African American blues. It was played on instruments like acoustic guitar, mandolin, autoharp, fiddle and the banjo. Old-time music was first recorded in the 1920s, with recordings of the Carter Family becoming the most popular. A. P. Carter collected folk songs and also wrote new songs, and he sang them in harmony with his guitar-playing sister-in-law Maybelle and his wife Sarah, who also played autoharp. Songs like Can The Circle Be Unbroken (By and By) and Wildwood Flower became hit records, and the Carter Family became the first stars of country music.

Illustrated top right: The Carter Family in 1927, with Maybelle playing guitar and Sarah playing autoharp. Photo: Victor Talking Machine Company / Public Domain

Jimmie Rodgers, another of country music's earliest stars, was recorded at the same recording sessions as the Carters. Jimmie was taught how to play guitar and sing blues and work chants by African Americans in railroad gangs in which he worked. He also heard old-time music and folk songs and combined all these styles in his own songs. He often used a vocal technique called yodelling, and his first hit record, Blue Yodel, sold nearly half a million copies in 1927.

Country Music 1930 - 1960

Before television, American families often sat together and listened to the radio. One of the most popular programs was a live country-music variety show called the "Grand Ole Opry". It was broadcast from Nashville, Tennessee, which had become the centre of the country-music business. Listeners heard old-time music as well as another style called Western music. This style often had horse-like clip-clop rhythms and songs about lovesick cowboys and gun-fighting outlaws. Western music became popular in the 1930s and 40s when singing cowboys began appearing in Hollywood cowboy movies called "Westerns". Singing cowboys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers became huge country-music stars, and Nashville executives decided the cowboy image was better for country music than the hillbilly image of old-time music. They renamed the genre "Country and Western music" and began dressing their musicians in cowboy clothes.

Some country music instruments
Some country music instruments (front, left to right) mandolin, guitar, banjo, dobro guitar, with stand-up bass behind. Photo: lothlaurien / CC BY 2.0

Meanwhile, a style of Western dance music called Western swing became popular in Texas, Oklahoma and California. Western swing bands used amplified instruments like pedal steel guitar to create music loud enough to be heard in large dance halls. Their music was a lively mix of Western country music and swing jazz, and one of the most popular bands was Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys. Another style called rockabilly developed when Western swing bands began playing R&B songs as well as country songs. When singers like Elvis Presley heard this new mix of country music and R&B, they formed rockabilly bands with acoustic guitar, electric guitar, stand-up bass and drums. Elvis had several rockabilly hits early in his career, as did Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash. Cash became one of country music's biggest artists in the 60s when he combined the sounds of rockabilly with those of honky tonk. He soon became known as the "man in black" because he wore black clothes instead of cowboy clothes, as did Roy Orbison who wore dark sunglasses as well to complete his look.

Honky tonk music first developed in the 1940s in working-class honky tonk bars near the oil fields of Texas. Honky tonk bands usually included acoustic guitar, pedal steel guitar, fiddle, stand-up bass and drums, and honky tonk songs were often about loneliness, love, heartbreak and pain. Working-class people could relate to these songs, especially those of country music's greatest singer-songwriter, Hank Williams. Hank drank too much, had a difficult relationship with his wife Audrey, and died at 29. But in his short, troubled life he wrote hundreds of beautiful, powerful songs, many of which have become country-music standards like Lovesick Blues, Cold, Cold Heart and I Saw The Light. Other important artists include Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell and Jean Shepard. The honky tonk sound has often been revived when country music has become too commercial and fans want a more authentic sound.

Another style called bluegrass developed in the early 1950s. It was a revival of old-time country music led by Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. In the 70s, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band became popular, and since the mid-80s the most successful bluegrass artist has been Alison Krauss.

Later Country Music

In the mid-1950s, record companies in Nashville were losing sales to rock and roll and soul artists who topped the charts. To compete, Nashville producers created a new style that would appeal to white adults who didn't like rock and roll or soul, but didn't usually buy country records either. They found singers with smooth voices and had them sing sweet ballads over orchestral strings and choirs. Authentic country instruments like fiddle, guitar and banjo weren't often used, and the plan worked. Sales of records from Nashville companies soon began to increase, especially for artists like Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline.

But many artists weren't happy about what Nashville was doing to country music, and in the early 60s these artists developed a new style that combined the authentic country-music sounds of honky tonk with the rebellious attitude of rockabilly. Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson were some of the most important artists in what's now called outlaw country, and many people loved their music. Songs like Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire, Merle Haggard's Mama Tried and Kris Kristofferson's Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down became huge hits, and country music was saved once again.

Another style called country rock began to develop in the mid-60s. Gram Parsons created some of the earliest country rock when he added rock and roll piano, rock guitar and elements of folk rock to his band's country-music sound. The style developed further when Gram worked with the Byrds and then the Flying Burrito Brothers. Bob Dylan also began mixing elements of country music into his folk rock sound in the mid-60s. Dylan had been writing poetic folk songs since the early 60's, especially protest songs like Blowin' in the Wind and A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall. When he switched from acoustic to electric guitar in 1965, his sound moved closer to rock. But he didn't make a real country-rock album until 1969 when he recorded the album Nashville Skyline with country musicians like Johnny Cash. In the 70s, artists like New Riders of the Purple Sage, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and Neil Young developed the style further.

Another style that appeared in the 60s was country pop. In the early 60s, former rockabilly singer Roy Orbison began producing some of the best pop records ever made by a country-music artist. Orbison's voice was one of the most emotionally powerful in all of popular music, and he had a major influence on many later artists. In the late 60s and early 70s country pop artists like Glen Campbell, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers had many hit records, and female artists like Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift have been successful more recently.

Country music styles, artists and albums

Video: Hank Williams singing I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry, written and recorded in 1949

acoustic (adjective): without inbuilt electrical equipment to amplify the sound - I can play acoustic guitar, but I can't play electric guitar.

amplify (verb): to make sounds louder, esp. by using electrical equipment - If we don't amplify the drums, they'll be hard to hear.

authentic (adjective): real or genuine - You can still see an authentic Chinese opera in Beijing.

autoharp (noun): a small harp with buttons to press for playing chords - Is the autoharp used much in bluegrass music?

banjo (noun): an African American stringed instrument based on the African kora - Do you play four-string or five-string banjo?

bluegrass (noun): a style of country music based on old-time Appalachian music - We're going to a bluegrass concert tonight.

commercial (adjective): made in order to be popular and make money - Garth's country music is much too commercial for me.

country pop (noun): a style that mixes pop and country music - Country pop is really popular in America these days.

country rock (noun): a style that mixes rock and country music - My brother doesn't like country pop, but he loves country rock.

fiddle (noun): another word for "violin", esp. in country and folk music - Who's playing fiddle on that record?

folk rock (noun): a style that mixes folk and rock music - We heard lots of folk rock bands in San Francisco in the early 60's.

hillbilly (noun): an impolite word meaning a poor mountain farmer in the USA - In Nashville, old-time music was called hillbilly music.

honky tonk (noun): a country music style known for its powerful, emotional songs - Who's your favourite honk tonk singer?

mandolin (noun): a stringed instrument like a guitar with a curved back - You can hear mandolin on those early old-time recordings.

old-time music (also "hillbilly music") (noun): country music originating in the Appalachian mountains of the USA - Do people still play old-time music much?

outlaw country (noun): a style of country music popular in the 1960s - Most outlaw country singers wore black clothes instead of cowboy clothes.

pedal steel guitar (noun): an electric steel guitar on a stand with foot pedals for changing the sound - My mum loves the sound of pedal steel guitars.

protest song (noun): a song with lyrics that protest against war, injustice, etc. - Why don't people write protest songs anymore?

recording session (noun): time spent recording in a music recording studio - We've got a recording session on Monday morning.

revival (noun): the return to popularity of an old style or form - There was a rockabilly revival during the punk music years.

rockabilly (noun): a style that mixes Western swing and R&B - Sam recorded lots of rockabilly songs at Sun Studio in Memphis.

standard (noun): a song that is often recorded and performed - Lots of Roy Orbison's songs have become pop standards.

stand-up bass (or "string bass") (noun): another word for "double bass", esp. in country music - Rockabilly bands had stand-up bass instead of bass guitar.

Western (country) music (noun): a style of country music that developed in the western states of the USA - My dad likes Western music more than old-time country music.

Western swing (noun): a style that mixes Western music and big-band swing jazz - Those Western swing records are great to dance to.

yodel (verb): to sing in a way that quickly changes from a very high voice to a normal voice - When I tried to yodel, everyone laughed.

Contributor: Matt Errey