Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



A rural American genre now popular around the world; variously known in the past as folk music, old-time music, hillbilly, C&W (Country and Western) etc. Fiddlers Uncle Eck Robertson and Henry Gilliand recorded for Victor in NYC in June 1922 (the record not issued until later); the Jenkins Family, a Georgia gospel group, were first to broadcast in Atlanta the same year. Ralph Peer recorded Fiddlin' John Carson's 'old-time' music in 1923 as a favour to an Atlanta furniture dealer who sold records, and had a surprise hit. Opera/parlour singer Vernon Dalhart revived his vaudeville career with 'Wreck Of The Old 97'/'The Prisoner's Song' (co-written by Nat Shilkret) in 1925; recorded it for many labels and was said to have sold millions; there were also 'event' songs, cowboy songs, sentimental ballads etc. OKeh issued the first country catalogue in 1924; record companies and mail-order catalogues advertised Old Southern Songs, Mountain Ballads, Familiar Tunes, Hill Country Music etc. Peer dubbed a four-piece band the Hill Billies in 1925 at their suggestion and the name stuck: northerners made the profits but looked down on the music and the term 'hillbilly' was used for years, though considered offensive (Variety wrote in 1926 that 'hillbillies' had 'the intelligence of morons').

Blind guitarist Riley Puckett was the first important country singing star, first to record a yodel (at his first session, in 1924), and the first influential guitarist; he made over 80 traditional string band records from from 1926 with Gid Tanner's Skillet Lickers. See also Charlie Poole. Peer made the first records by Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family on 4 August 1927 in Bristol Tennessee and the two strains continued: traditional mountain music (the Carters, also with Maybelle's influential guitar style), and innovation (Rodgers combined twelve-bar blues with yodels, used Hawaiian guitar, dixieland bands etc, regarding himself as an all-round entertainer). Live country music was used on radio from Miami to Milwaukee to sell goods (see Bob Wills); the first barn dance radio show was apparently in January 1923, from Fort Worth; the Chicago Barn Dance on WLS began April 1924, later called the National Barn Dance (WLS was owned by Sears and Roebuck, the call letters standing for World's Largest Store: the rural audience kept its mail-order catalogue next to the Bible). Announcer George D. Hay was hired away by WSM Nashville and started the WSM Barn Dance late 1925, renamed Grand Ole Opry in 1927. Other barn dances on WSB Atlanta, WWHA Wheeling WV (Jamboree began in 1933), WLW Cincinnati (Renfro Valley Barn Dance began in 1937, moved to Dayton the next year, to its own barn the year after that), KWKH Shreveport (Louisiana Hayride '48). WWHA and WLS barn dances were networked in 1933, the Opry in 1939. Mexican border stations were not allocated channels in USA/Canada agreement, so they ignored the rules: WLS with 50,000 watts was heard all over the Midwest, but Mexican radio with 100,000 and more was heard in Canada and Hawaii in the late 1930s.

Meanwhile western movies had died with talking films, so singing cowboys were invented: countless 'B'-films in the 1930s-40s with Tex Ritter, Jimmy Wakeley and others adopted 'western' material, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers easily the most successful: kids clamouring for cowboy songs were inoculated with country music. The films had a streak of populism which appealed to rural audiences during the Depression: the bad guys were often bankers or lawyers with black hats and pencil moustaches. Cowboy costumes became the norm in country music, the gaudiest made by Nudie of Hollywood; hillbilly music became Country and Western (the term adopted by the Billboard chart '49 after long agitation, especially from the West Coast country-music scene which Hollywood helped to create). Capitol had hits with Ritter, hired disc jockey Cliffie Stone as country expert; he signed Wakeley, Tex Williams, Merle Travis, Ernie Ford; Bakersfield California became a regional country music centre in the 1960s with the Buck Owens empire. Meanwhile, the western swing genre carried a jazz influence through WWII (see Wills, and Spade Cooley), and the pre-war popularity of Roy Acuff made him a G.I. favourite. The Armed Forces Radio Service spread country music in Europe in the 1950s; see also George Hamilton IV. But Hamilton gave Slim Whitman credit for creating a country music audience in Europe.

Bing Crosby had covered Ernest Tubb's 'Walking The Floor Over You', Autry's 'You Are My Sunshine', Wills's 'San Antonio Rose', Lulu Belle and Scotty's 'Have I Told You Lately That I Love You' in the 1940s, but the post-war death of the big bands, closure of ballrooms and the rise of TV had the same effect on country music as on jazz: the entertainment industry treated them as minority interests. (Industry strikes also hurt; see Big Band Era, ASCAP, BMI.) Nashville became an international centre of country music by default because the big-business (insurance) town had a powerful radio station and because the southeastern USA had the most loyal country fans. The Opry was conservative, but the National Barn Dance even more so: it lost influence in the 1940s, switched to WGN when WLS became a Top 40 station 1960, and ended 1970. The Louisiana Hayride was always popular but became a stepping stone to the Opry, its management afraid to risk investment and missing the boat. Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys were Opry regulars from '39, inventing the bluegrass genre from traditional materials; the Opry stars toured USA in Camel Caravan during WWII; the Opry's success lay in singing stars, beginning with Acuff, then Red Foley, Eddy Arnold, many others; Ernest Tubb joined '43 with electric guitars and a honky-tonk style.

The West Coast helped establish country music as big business, but also lost out: between 1940-50 Nashville became the centre of country music publishing, then in the '50s of recording. Hank Williams went there to sell songs to Acuff/Rose (see Fred Rose); his meteoric rise to stardom '49, plus big pop hits with covers of his songs established Nashville (and honky-tonk) for good. The Opry's booking agency run by Jim Denny obtained virtually all the big stars in country music from early '50s, encouraging a Nashville record industry; WSM studio made records beginning with a Victor field trip late '20s; later there were transcription studios for hire, but the country record industry began in Nashville when ex-announcer Jim Bulleit's Bullet label cut Sheb Wooley in December 1945 (Bullet had first recorded Ray Price and B. B. King; hit with 'Rag Mop' by Wills's brother Johnnie Lee Wills '50, but its biggest hit was Francis Craig's 'Near You' '47, nothing to do with country music.) Owen Bradley produced records in Nashville from '52; RCA rented studio time, then space, recording Elvis Presley in Methodist Publishing Company rooms in January '56, built its own studio '57; RCA A&R man Steve Sholes (responsible for buying Presley from Sun) hired Chet Atkins as a producer. Columbia bought a studio from Bradley '61; by the late '60s the city had dozens.

Meanwhile songs had become realistic, still reflecting country values but also contemporary concerns: adultery was allowed with Floyd Tillman's 'Slippin' Around' (the duet by Wakeley and Margaret Whiting crossed over to pop chart '49), also 'Back Street Affair' by Webb Pierce '52; alcoholism treated as something other than comedy in Cindy Walker lyric 'Bubbles In My Beer' (Bob Wills on MGM '48), in Pierce's 'There Stands The Glass' '53 (and pedal steel became ubiquitous with Pierce's 'Slowly' '53). Hank Snow and Kitty Wells were giants in the '50s and crossovers to the pop chart became common with Stonewall Jackson, Don Gibson, Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline, Marty Robbins, etc. The Country Music Disc Jockeys Association '54 became Country Music Association '58 to market and publicize country music; early-morning record shows for rural listeners had almost disappeared, as had live music on the radio; most country fans now lived in cities and were a market not being served: by '67 the number of stations playing country music increased to over 2,000; during '61-6 stations playing country exclusively went from 81 to 328. With the Opry, the CMA was responsible for making Nashville a music centre (also for making Nashville proud of it: many locals had tended to sneer at the business). The Country Music Hall of Fame began '61 with election of Rodgers, Williams and Rose; the next year Acuff was added, abandoning the intention to elect only dead entertainers; then executives like Sholes and Denny. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum opened March 31 '67 in a new ultra-modern building also housing CMA offices, the Country Music Foundation Library and Media Center. The Journal Of Country Music published four times a year by CMF is without doubt the most important in the field. The Academy of Country Music was formed in Hollywood '64 for the West Coast industry; both CMA, ACM give annual awards honouring musicians and songwriters as well as stars.

Producers led by Chet Atkins had created the Nashville sound in the '50s; Bob Dylan made Blonde On Blonde there '66, then John Wesley Harding '68, Nashville Skyline '69; Nashville made half the records in the USA, the best session players heard on every label, so good they didn't need music, only chord sequences. The relaxed way to record had many good points but led to sameness, and the too-slick product was called 'countrypolitan' while the world changed. The folk boom had led to rediscovery of old-time artists such as Doc Watson and Lester Flatt; Monroe's bluegrass concerts sold out in NYC; younger fans had to deal with rock'n'roll, Vietnam, Watergate, marijuana, etc: as Denny and others had updated the country music scene c.1950 now it had to be done again. The impact of rock'n'roll mid-'50s was seen as a threat to country, but ultimately added to it and strengthened it: Southern rock (e.g. Allman Brothers) had some effect, as did maverick producers like Jack Clement and the Glaser brothers, and the honest image of Johnny Cash (a frank attitude to problems with pills etc). But Cash (like Dylan) was then a giant who had control of his product, while many younger artists were not allowed to decide how their work should be presented, so that the inherent strength of the genre was not being realized.

Singer/songwriters David Allen Coe, Kris Kristofferson, Tompall Glaser, Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver, more experienced people like Willie Nelson became more independent. Many of them hung out at the Glasers' studio; Jennings first became an 'outlaw' with the co-operation of the RCA publicity machine (see below) but the term was first applied more generally by Hazel Smith, a writer who worked for Tompall. (Smith, a much-loved matriarch of country music, passed away 18 March 2018 aged 83.) Young artists in Austin and Lubbock were also doing their own thing regardless of Nashville, and the result was the decentralization of country music and the rise of 'redneck rock' (aka 'progressive country', partly the maturity of country rock, a decade-old pop genre discovered by ex-folkies: see the Byrds, Gram Parsons). Nelson ran an annual Fourth of July country music picnics near Austin '72-6 and a whole generation responded: the local paper ran a photo of Nelson, longhaired rocker Leon Russell and the U. of Texas football coach: 'First time the hippy and the redneck had gotten together,' said Nelson. The Kerrville (Texas) Folk Festival (produced by Rod Kennedy) became an institution; in '86 about 70 artists and groups appeared there including a great many of the contemporary Austin and Lubbock singer/songwriters, folkies Carolyn Hester, Odetta, Tom Rush etc. Ironically it was an RCA vice-president in Nashville who compiled tracks by Nelson, Tompall Glaser, Jennings, Jessi Colter (Jennings's wife): the album Wanted: The Outlaws! '76 included 'Good-Hearted Woman' (Waylon and Willie), 'Honky Tonk Heroes' (Waylon), 'Suspicious Minds' (Waylon and Jessi); also a Glaser cover of the biggest Jimmie Rodgers hit 'T For Texas'; with a lean, spare sound like a roadhouse band, it became the first country album to go platinum (a million copies for an album in the USA). Outlaw by Michael Streissguth (2013) was a book that told the whole story. 

Western swing had been revived by Asleep at the Wheel and others; 'They've moved the music back in the dance hall where it belongs,' said Floyd Tillman: at roadhouses and dance halls in Texas and other places, longhaired and straight musicians mixed; country was once again good-time music as well as big business. The Austin story was told in The Rise Of Redneck Rock by Jan Reid '77; in the mid-1980s the Austin scene had cooled down with economic recession, but new, smaller venues were springing up. The 'Lubbock mafia' included fiddler Tommy Hancock, his Supernatural Family Band and his daughters Traci and Conni (several albums on their own Akashic label), fine singer/songwriters like Butch Hancock (no relation), Terry Allen, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, accordionist Ponty Bone and other fine sidemen (many of these contributed to The Flatlanders '72, first issued '80 on Charly UK). Others who sustain performing, songwriting and recording careers without much help from the Nashville establishment included Guy Clark, Richard Dobson and Townes Van Zandt; some of these are still cult figures, some like Jerry Jeff Walker had come from the pop charts; every album by Emmylou Harris did well in the pop charts, with songs by everybody from A. P. Carter to Rodney Crowell as well as her own. Lyle Lovett was in a class of his own.

Country rock, or new country, or whatever you wanted to call it, became one of the strongest genres in music; Wolfman Jack, the legendary disc jockey of early rock'n'roll, was working on Nashville Network radio via satellite '89 and was playing country rock because it had the values that mainstream rock seemed to have lost. It was in country music that the craft of songwriting remained vital, people still willing and able to sing each other's songs; new singers and songwriters coming out of the woods and prairies included Reba McEntyre, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, Steve Earle and Darden Smith, all signed by major labels in the '80s; Lyle Lovett and k.d. lang came from a country direction but completely defied category. The word 'hillbilly' even showed signs of coming back in reaction to the conservatism of Nashville, while artists like George Jones and Bobby Bare, whose hard country was never polluted, were as highly regarded as ever. Bluegrass was still transmuting (e.g. album Hillbilly Jazz; see Vassar Clements); Dolly Parton initially wrote first-class songs, then seemed to have adopted a general-purpose show-business career, but remained one of the biggest stars in the USA.

In the '90s country left behind its image as a minority music forever when Billboard revised its methods of calculating charts, using bar-codes and counting records sold in drug stores and supermarkets, and Garth Brooks turned out to be outselling pop/rock's superstars. The method of calculating radio plays was turned over to Broadcast Data Systems Inc., cutting down on fraud but initially making it harder for new acts to be heard because it concentrated on big-city stations; Billboard planned to be monitoring more than 100 stations by mid-'90 including smaller ones, but the record companies' promotion costs were going up. In the '90s too women in country music continued to push the boundaries of consciousness: Deana Carter's debut album Did I Shave My Legs For This? and Mindy McReady's Guys Do It All The Time '97 were not about feminism as such but about double standards, while 14-year-old LeAnn Rimes was the first country artist ever to win the Grammy for Best New Artist, in 1997. At the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the next there were too many 'country' superstars to mention here; some of them were good songwriters and some very good musicians, and they certainly had legions of fans, but many of them never took off their 'cowboy' hats, leading to the term 'big hat' music, and it remained to be seen how many of them were contributing to the essence of the music: some felt that we needed a new generation of outlaws.

Among the best books were the classic history Country Music U.S.A. by Bill C. Malone; In The Country Of Country '97 by Nicholas Dawidoff, a well-written collection; Country: Living Legends and Dying Metaphors in America's Biggest Music by Nick Tosches, a useful survey. Say It One Time For The Broken Hearted: The Country Side of Southern Soul by Barney Hoskyns pointed up the very real relationship between Southern musics. Related genres for anyone who wants to listen include Tex-Mex, Cajun, Conjunto, Zydeco.