An American popular music idiom derived from traditional oral music brought by immigrants from the British Isles. Commercial recording companies began to tap rural Southern music in the early 1920s as part of a larger strategy to capitalize on the culture of various ethnic and minority groups. Victor recorded the fiddlers Henry Gilliland and Eck Robertson in 1922, Ralph Peer discovered Henry Whitter and "Fiddlin'" John Carson for Okeh the following year, and other companies rushed to build their own catalogs of what was first called old-time music. By the end of the decade, Uncle Dave Macon, Gid Tanner, Ernest "Pop" Stoneman, Riley Puckett, Vernon Dalhart, Clayton McMichen, and a host of other successful performers had been recorded, and the musicians who gave the most important definition to the new genre—the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers— had begun their commercial careers. The label "hillbilly," a derogatory term for rural white Southerners, was now put on this music, taken from the name of a popular recording group from the vicinity of Galax, Virginia, the Hillbillies.
This music at first represented a cross section of the traditional repertory of the rural South. There were old narrative ballads brought to America from Britain and newer American ballads of the same sort, usually accompanied by banjo, fiddle, guitar, or some combination of these instruments. Many other songs had passed into oral tradition from the composed, popularsong literature of the 19th-century American parlor. There was also dance music—two-strain pieces played by one or more fiddles sometimes accompanied by banjo or guitar—as well as blues songs from the early 20th century. Some tunes retained elements of pentatonic or modal patterns, and the oldest style of accompaniment on the banjo or fiddle was nonharmonic, with heterophonic or ostinato figures. But the introduction of the guitar and other chord-playing instruments in the latter part of the 19th century, and the assimilation of pieces from the composed popular repertory at the same time, brought an increasing trend toward a tonal, triadic style.
By the middle of the 1930s, a mainstream style had crystallized, blending elements of traditional and more recent urban music. Roy Acuff was recognized as the first important practitioner of this consensus style in which vocal characteristics retain the nasal, "high-lonesome" sound of older music; instrumentation consists of one or two fiddles, a banjo, guitars (including a Hawaiian or steel instrument capable of producing a characteristic sliding sound [see Steel guitar]), and usually a bass; texts are often concerned with such harsh realities as death, alcoholism, desertion, crime, and thwarted love; both melody and accompaniment reflect a solid harmonic foundation.
The music soon spread beyond the South, thanks in large part to commercial radio. Stations such as WSB in Atlanta, WSM in Nashville, WBAP in Fort Worth, and WLS in Chicago played an important role in popularizing country music and its performers. Regional dialects emerged, all eventually encompassed under the term country, or country and western. In the 1920s, Carl Sprague and Jules Verne Allen performed and recorded songs reflecting the music and culture of the Southwest, and slightly later the image of the singing cowboy was brought to all parts of the country via films starring Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Tex Ritter. In the 1930s, an eclectic genre known as Western swing melded the rhythms, instruments, and improvised solos of swing-era jazz with traditional fiddle and guitar styles and vocal stylings influenced by urban pop; two of the most important early groups, the Texas Playboys and the Musical Brownies, were led by Bob Wills and Milton Brown, who had been bandmates in the Light Crust Doughboys. The Cajuns of rural Louisiana, led by performers such as Joe Falcon, Amédé Ardoin, and the Hackberry Ramblers, assimilated the instruments and general sound of country music into their own tradition, retaining the French language and the distinctive sound of the concertina. In the Southwest, particularly in Texas, a more urban sound emerged in the bars and roadhouses serving as social centers for the region. Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, and Hank Williams, Sr., were the most successful performers of this "honky-tonk" music, which typically featured amplified instruments and drums. Honky-tonk has retained a central influence in country music in terms of instrumentation, vocal style, and song topics. Later examples include the music of Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and George Jones.
Since the mid-20th century, country music's appeal has grown continually. Several major recording companies, including Decca and RCA Victor, established studios in Nashville in the 1950s to take advantage of the city's concentration of successful singers, songwriters, and leading session musicians. The increasing popularity of the Grand Ole Opry, which had expanded from its beginnings in 1925 as a regional radio show on WSM to a nationwide broadcast of live concerts in the Ryman Auditorium, helped establish Nashville as the commercial center of country music. The Country Music Association, founded there in 1958, set out to improve, market, and publicize country music. At the same time, country audiences accepted a wider range of music. For example, early rock and roll performers such as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis brought a new sound and a youthful energy to the country charts. And with the aid of record producers whose musical backgrounds and training spanned a wide stylistic range—Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins, for instance—country records took on some of the smooth trappings of mainstream pop, a style that became known as the Nashville sound. Performers such as Patsy Cline ("I Fall to Pieces") and Eddy Arnold ("Make the World Go Away") recorded songs that managed to retain the older country audience while also attracting new listeners. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the country/pop fusion continued with the so-called country politan style that featured lush string arrangements and vocal choruses. Billy Sherrill became one of the most prominent countrypolitan producers, working with artists such as George Jones, Tammy Wynette, and Charlie Rich.
While some performers, such as Ricky Skaggs and Alison Krauss, have clung to a more traditional sound, country music in general has continued to incorporate elements of other popular music idioms, even among the so-called new traditionalists (Dwight Yoakum, Garth Brooks) who have re-emphasized the honkytonk ethos. Borrowing heavily from rock in the 1980s and 1990s, country records routinely appeared among the Billboard Hot 100. Country music's mainstream acceptance, which at this point is international in scale, and its willingness to conform stylistically to mainstream pop tastes are aptly illustrated by the success of Canadian singer and songwriter Shania Twain, whose songs are cowritten and whose records are produced by South African Robert John "Mutt" Lange, a producer of multiplatinum hits for rock groups such as AC/DC (Back in Black), Def Leppard (Pyromania), and the Cars (Heartbeat City). At the same time, artists working outside the Nashville mainstream in the "alternative country" vein have produced a range of hybrid styles that combine elements of traditional country with the sophisticated lyric sensibilities of songwriters such as Townes Van Zandt and Lyle Lovett and the musical influences of country-rock musicians such as GramParsons and Neil Young.
Bibliography: Bill C. Malone, Country Music, U.S.A. (Austin: U of Tex Pr, 1985). Jimmie N. Rogers, The Country Music Message: Revisited (Little Rock: U of Ark Pr, 1989). Paul Kingsbury, Laura Garrard, and Daniel Cooper, eds., The Encyclopedia of Country Music: The Ultimate Guide to the Music (New York: Oxford U Pr, 1998). David Goodman, Modern Twang: An Alternative Country Music Guide and Directory (Nashville: Dowling, 1999). Peter Guralnick, Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians (New York: Little, Brown, 1999). Charles K. Wolfe, A Good-Natured Riot: The Birth of the Grand Ole Opry (Nashville: Vanderbilt U Pr, 1999). Bill C. Malone, Don't Get above Your Raisin': Country Music and the Southern Working Class (Urbana: U of Ill Pr, 2002). A.Z.
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