In popular music, country music, also called country and western music or country-western, is an amalgam of popular musical forms developed in the Southern United States, with roots in traditional folk music, Celtic music, blues, gospel music, and old-time music that began to develop rapidly in the 1920s. The term country music began to be widely applied to the music in the 1940s and was fully embraced in the 1970s while country and western declined in use.
However, country music is actually a catch-all category that embraces several different genres of music: Nashville sound (the pop-like music very popular in the 1960s); bluegrass, a fast mandolin, banjo and fiddle-based music popularized by Bill Monroe and by Flatt and Scruggs; Western, which encompasses traditional Western ballads and Hollywood cowboy music; Western swing, a sophisticated dance music popularized by Bob Wills; the Bakersfield sound (popularized by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard); outlaw country; Cajun; zydeco; gospel; oldtime (generally pre-1930 folk music); honky tonk; Appalachian; rockabilly; neotraditional country and jug band.
Each style is unique in its execution, its use of rhythms, and its chord structures, though many songs have been adapted to the different country styles. One example is the tune "Milk Cow Blues", an early blues tune by Kokomo Arnold that has been performed in a wide variety of country styles by everyone from Aerosmith to Bob Wills to Willie Nelson, George Strait to Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley.
Vernon Dalhart was the first country singer to have a nationwide hit (May 1924, with "The Wreck of Old '97") (see External Links below). Other important early recording artists were Riley Puckett, Don Richardson, Fiddling John Carson, Ernest Stoneman, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers and The Skillet Lickers.
The origins of modern country music can be traced to two seminal influences and a remarkable coincidence. Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family are widely considered to be the founders of country music, and their songs were first captured at an historic recording session in Bristol, Tennessee on August 1, 1927, where Ralph Peer was the talent scout and sound recordist. It is possible to categorize many country singers as being either from the Jimmie Rodgers strand or the Carter Family strand of country music:
Jimmie Rodgers' influence
Jimmie Rodgers' gift to country music was country folk. Building on the traditional ballads and musical influences of the South, Rodgers wrote and sang songs that ordinary people could relate to. He took the experiences of his own life in the Meridian, Mississippi, area and those of the people he met on the railroad, in bars and on the streets to create his lyrics. He used the musical influences of the traditional ballads and the folk to create his tunes. Since 1953, Meridian's Jimmie Rodgers Memorial Festival has been held annually during May to honor the anniversary of Rodger's death. The first festival was on May 26, 1953.
Pathos, humour, women, whiskey, murder, death, disease and destitution are all present in his lyrics and these themes have been carried forward and developed by his followers. People like Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Townes van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash have also suffered, and shared their suffering, bringing added dimensions to those themes. It would be fair to say that Jimmie Rodgers sang about life and death from a male perspective, and this viewpoint has dominated some areas of country music. It would also be fair to credit his influence for the development of honky tonk, rockabilly and the Bakersfield sound.
Jimmie Rodgers is a major foundation stone in the structure of country music, but the most influential artist from the Jimmie Rodgers strand is undoubtedly Hank Williams, Sr. In his short career (he was only 29 when he died), he dominated the country scene and his songs have been covered by practically every other country artist, male and female. Some have even included him in their compositions (for example, Waylon Jennings and Alan Jackson). Hank had two personas: as Hank Williams he was a singer-songwriter and entertainer; as "Luke the Drifter", he was a songwriting crusader. The complexity of his character was reflected in the introspective songs he wrote about heartbreak, happiness and love (e.g., "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"), and the more upbeat numbers about Cajun food ("Jambalaya") or cigar store Indians ("Kaw-Liga"). He took the music to a different level and a wider audience.
Both Hank Williams, Jr. and his son Hank Williams III have been innovators within country music as well, Hank Jr. leading towards rock fusion and "outlaw country", and Hank III going much further in reaching out to death metal and psychobilly soul.
The Carter Family's influence
The other Ralph Peer discovery, the Carter family, consisted of A.P. Carter, his wife Sara and their sister-in-law Maybelle. They built a long recording career based on the sonorous bass of A.P., the beautiful singing of Sara and the unique guitar playing of Maybelle. A.P.'s main contribution was the collection of songs and ballads that he picked up in his expeditions into the hill country around their home in Maces Springs, Virginia. In addition, being a man, he made it possible for Sara and Maybelle to perform without stigma at that time. Sara and Maybelle arranged the songs that A.P. collected and wrote their own songs. They were the precursors of a line of talented female country singers like Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Skeeter Davis, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton and June Carter Cash, the daughter of Maybelle and the wife of Johnny Cash.
Bluegrass carries on the tradition of the old String Band Music and was invented, in its pure form, by Bill Monroe. The name "Bluegrass" was simply taken from Monroe's band, the "Blue Grass Boys". The first recording in the classic line-up was made in 1945: Bill Monroe on mandolin and vocals, Lester Flatt on guitar and vocals, Earl Scruggs on 5-String banjo, Chubby Wise on fiddle and Cedric Rainwater on upright bass. This band set the standard for all bluegrass bands to follow, most of the famous early Bluegrass musicians were one-time band members of the Bluegrass Boys, like Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin and Del McCoury, or played with Monroe occasionally, like Sonny Osborne, The Stanley Brothers and Don Reno. Monroe also influenced people like Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss and Sam Bush, who carry on the folk and ballad tradition in the bluegrass style.
The Nashville sound
During the 1960s, country music became a multimillion-dollar industry centered on Nashville, Tennessee. Under the direction of producers such as Chet Atkins, Owen Bradley, and later Billy Sherrill, the Nashville sound brought country music to a diverse audience. This sound was notable for borrowing from 1950s pop stylings: a prominent and 'smooth' vocal, backed by a string section and vocal chorus. Instrumental soloing was de-emphasised in favor of trademark 'licks'. Leading artists in this genre included Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, and later Tammy Wynette and Charlie Rich. Although country music has great stylistic diversity, some critics say this diversity was strangled by the formulaic approach of the Nashville Sound producers. Others point to the commercial need to re-invent country in the face of the dominance of '50s rock'n'roll and subsequent British Invasion. Even today the variety of country music is not usually well reflected in commercial radio airplay and the popular perception of country music is fraught with stereotypes of hillbillies and maudlin ballads.
Reaction to the Nashville sound
The supposedly "vanilla"-flavored sounds that emanated from Nashville led to a reaction among musicians outside Nashville, who saw that there was more to the genre than "the same old tunes, fiddle and guitar..." (Waylon Jennings).
California produced the Bakersfield sound, promoted by Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakam and is based on the work of the legendary Maddox Brothers and Rose, whose wild eclectic mix of old time country, hillbilly swing and gospel in the 1940s and 1950s was a feature of honky-tonks and dance halls in the state.
Within Nashville in the 1980s, Randy Travis, Ricky Skaggs and others brought a return to the traditional values. Their musicianship, songwriting and producing skills helped to revive the genre momentarily. However, even they, and such long-time greats as Jones, Cash, and Haggard, fell from popularity as the record companies again imposed their formulas and refused to promote established artists. Capitol Records made an almost wholesale clearance of their country artists in the 1960s.
The two strands of country music have continued to develop since 1990s. The Jimmie Rodgers influence can be seen in a pronounced "working man" image promoted by singers like Brooks & Dunn and Garth Brooks. On the Carter Family side, singers like Iris Dement and Nanci Griffith have written on more traditional "folk" themes, albeit with a contemporary point of view.
In the 1990s a new form of country music emerged, called by some alternative country, neotraditional, or "insurgent country". Performed by generally younger musicians and inspired by traditional country performers and the country reactionaries, it shunned the Nashville-dominated sound of mainstream country and borrowed more from punk and rock groups than the watered-down, pop-oriented sound of Nashville.
There are at least three U. S. cable networks devoted to the genre: CMT (owned by Viacom), VH-1 Country (also owned by Viacom), and GAC (owned by The E. W. Scripps Company).
Country music has had only a handful of Black stars, with Charley Pride, Stoney Edwards and Deford Bailey being the most notable. Pride endured much open racism early in his career. Many TV audiences were shocked to realize that the songs they enjoyed were performed by a black man. Pride became the second black member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1993 (he had declined an invitation to join in 1968). He is considered a major influence on traditionalists today. Country music has also influenced the work of many black musicians such as Ray Charles, Keb' Mo' , Esther Phillips and Cowboy Troy.
African-American influences in Country Music can be documented at least as far back as the 1920s. Harmonica ace, DeFord Bailey, appeared on the Grand Ole Opry stage in 1926. Whites and blacks in rural communities in the South played in stringbands.
The Black Country Music Association, headed by Frankie Staton, and located in Nashville, provides a forum for and gives visibility to credible black artists. By assembling a network and building an infrastructure previously lacking, it gives African-American performers a place to turn to for advice and education in the music business.
The Black Experience: From Where I Stand, is an album that presents 52 black artists' contributions to country music and includes not only African-American artists primarily known for their contributions to the blues, but those such as Charley Pride and Cleve Francis, who identified themselves solely as country artists. (Courtesy of Wikipedia)
Country is a style of 20th-century American popular music that evolved from the ballads, folk songs, and popular songs of the English, Scots, and Irish settlers of the Appalachians and other parts of the South. Originally called Country and Western music, the name was later shortened to Country music.
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