American country music, often referred to as the "White Man's Blues", has its distant origins in the folk
music of the British Isles
and to a lesser extent that of continental Europe and
. These form the basis of what is often referred to as "old-timey"
or " hillbilly " music of the southern Appalachians. This music spread with the colonists from the rugged mountain states
out onto the western plains and through the south to Texas and beyond, encountering French, German
and more notably Spanish songs coming up from Mexico. As they went they developed a distinct down-to-earth flavour, reflecting the tough
lives of the cowboys, railroaders and gold prospectors of the Old West, a flavour which sets them apart from the more romantic stylings of
Old World folk songs.
Country music entered the modern era in the 1920's, when the Carter Family
collected a large number of these traditional songs and hymns and
adapted them for vocal harmony, thereby giving them a commercial potential which had previously not been recognised. They,
along with Jimmie Rodgers
- since dubbed the "Father Of Country Music" - made their first recordings on the Victor label in 1927. Rodgers'
"Blue Yodel No.1"
, originally called "T For Texas"
, was a million seller, and the country music
industry was underway.
The 1930's saw country music beginning to spread out from the southern states, due largely to the Grand Ole Opry radio show
broadcast from Nashville on WSM Radio. This show spawned it's next superstar, Roy Acuff
, whose simple songs define early traditional country and
inspired a singer who to this day remains country music's most revered artist, the legendary Hank Williams
. It also saw the
emergence of Western swing, an eclectic branch of country derived from old-time, blues and jazz and pioneered by Bob Wills
In the 1940's Bill Munroe
fashioned a new commercial style, bluegrass, out of hillbilly roots music by giving it a driving tempo, tight vocal harmony
and solo instrumental breaks. Munroe's "Blue Moon Of Kentucky"
was one of Elvis
's earliest recordings, and his
inspired Pee Wee King
to write the classic "Tennessee Waltz"
with Redd Stewart
In the mid 1950's country was subjected to commercial smoothing - the so-called "Nashville Sound" - from which it
could be argued it has never fully emerged. At this time country also played a part in the emergence of rockabilly as Bill Haley
and Elvis Presley
in particular drew on the music of Hank Williams and many others to fashion early rock & roll.
During the 1960's mainstream country veered further towards pop stylings and production techniques, prompting a backlash in the form of the
electric "Bakersfield Sound" pioneered by Wynn Stewart and Buck Owens, a breakaway which paved the way for the early 1970's "outlaw" artists -
Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson etc. - to attempt to revitalise its tougher roots by paring it back down to
the bone, and for the emergence of country rock
pioneered by Gram Parsons
The modern scene remains a battleground between the slick commercial sound of mainstream contemporary country epitomised by Garth Brooks, Randy Travis
and the inevitable forces wishing to rediscover a music which appears to have lost its soul. These include alternative country
artists such as Lyle Lovett, Ryan Adams
and the band Uncle Tupelo
, and writers such as Nanci Griffiths
and Iris Dement
, whose simple "folkabilly" songs
dealing with everyday life take us back to the music's very beginnings.