|Stylistic origins:||Appalachian folk music, blues, spirituals and Anglo-Celtic music|
|Cultural origins:||early twentieth century Appalachia, especially Tennessee, West Virginia, and Kentucky|
|Typical instruments:||Guitar - Steel guitar - Dobro - Harmonica - Bass - Fiddle - Drums - Mandolin - Banjo|
|Mainstream popularity:||Much, worldwide, especially the Nashville Sound|
|Bakersfield Sound - Bluegrass - Close harmony - Country folk - Honky tonk - Jug band - Lubbock Sound - Nashville Sound - Neotraditional Country - Outlaw country - Red Dirt - Texas Country - Chippy Goth|
|Alternative country - Country rock - Psychobilly - Deathcountry - Rockabilly - Country-rap - Country pop|
|Musicians - List of years in Country Music|
Country music, the first half of Billboard's country and western music category, is a blend of popular musical forms originally found in the Southern United States. It has roots in traditional folk music, Celtic music, blues, gospel music, and old-time music and evolved rapidly in the 1920s.
The term country music began to be used in the 1940s when the earlier term hillbilly music was deemed to be degrading, and the term was widely embraced in the 1970s, while country and western has declined in use since that time.
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 cowboy campfire ballads and Hollywood cowboy music made famous by Roy Rogers, The Sons of the Pioneers, and Gene Autry; Western swing, a sophisticated dance music popularized by Bob Wills; the Bakersfield sound which used the new Fender Telecaster guitars, a big drum beat, and dance style music that would catch your attention like "a freight train running (Buck Owens)" (popularized by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard); outlaw country made famous in the 1970's by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver, David Alan Coe, Jerry Jeff Walker, Mickey Newbury, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, and Hank Williams, Jr.,; Cajun style music from the Louisiana Bayou; zydeco; Evangelical Christian inspired 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.
While often maligned, country music has produced the two top selling solo artists of all time. Elvis Presley, “The Hillbilly Cat,” appeared on the Louisiana Hayride for three years, went on help define rock ‘n’ roll, and became known as “The King.” Garth Brooks, except for a short foray into non country near the end of his recording career, recorded and performed country music, and is the other top selling solo artist.
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, Fiddlin' 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 a 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' 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, humor, 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, Sr., 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. Indeed, his songs were covered by jazz, pop, and rhythm and blues performers from early in his career. Songs like "Cold, Cold Heart" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" have long been pop standards.
Williams 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 (such as "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "Your Cheating Heart"), and the more upbeat numbers about Cajun life ("Jambalaya") or cigar store Indians ("Kaw-Liga"). He took the music to a different level and a wider audience.
Country artists have included Williams in their compositions. Waylon Jennings pondered whether his career matched up with Hank's in "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" and Hank Williams Jr. recounts the uproarious conditions in his and his father's bands in "A Family Tradition." David Allen Coe boasts in "Longhaired Redneck," "I can sing you every song Hank Williams ever wrote."
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 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.
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-emphasized 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 1950s 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.
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 and Merle Haggard 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. Dwight Yoakam helped lead a revival of the Bakersfield Sound in the 1980s and Brad Paisley incorporates it in much of his music today.
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.
Contrary to the current backlash of this music, Contemporary Country music continues to sell harder and faster than any other in this genre. Called 'cookie-cutter' music by some, it's highly popular with the public, the sound and vision media. 'Hot country is really pop rock music for a mostly white middle class', writes one critic whilst Johnny Cash said, "a lot of it is sex, guys wear these tight jeans and work out with a trainer three times a week!" However, although it may only be a passing fad, the number of artists continue to grow. Guys such as, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney, Travis Tritt, Mark Wills, Keith Urban, Clint Black, continue to clock up best-sellers along with gals, Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride, Sara Evans, Faith Hill, Patty Loveless, Lorrie Morgan and Shania Twain. Older singers such as George Strait and Reba McEntire have stayed the course and are still popular. New groups such as the Dixie Chicks seem to make more headlines with political gaffes than the actual music. The Judds, sadly are now a single act, Wynona. Modern acts get to go to TVs' Country Music Awards, annually.
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. While singers such as Lyle Lovett have reintroduced humor back into what had become a humorless modern sound.
In the mid 1990s country western music was influenced by the popularity of line dancing. This influence was so great that Chet Atkins was quoted as saying "The music has gotten pretty bad, I think. It's all that damn line dancing." By the end of the decade, however, at least one line dance choreographer complained that good country line dance music was no longer being released.
In the 1990s a new form of country music emerged, called by some alternative country, neo-traditional, 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. Gillian Welch, a young performer/songwriter resurrected the folksy Appalachian style of singing with a slight modern touch. Lucinda Williams also embraced original country sounds calling it 'roots music'. Groups such as the "Flatlanders" also fill the bill.
Older performers such as (Country's diva) Emmy Lou Harris have also embraced this retro style and she can also be found dueting with contemporary rock stars, even using arrangements by rock producer Daniel Lanois. Her recent work, duets with Mark Knoffler, formerly of Dire Straits, who seems to have crossed over into country, having cut a CD with Nasville's own, Chet Atkins. Legendary blues artist, Eric Clapton, acknowledges influences from laid back country star Don Williams and has recorded with JJ Cale of 1960s fame. Crossing over seems to be in style. Willie Nelson continues to sing almost anything including Hoagy Carmichael but also embraces the newer writers and performers. Mention also goes to Johnny Cash before his death, giving the nod to the new and his daughter, Roseanne Cash, has made her own name with highly personal songs. One cannot forget a debt of gratitude to the folk-rock or country-rock of the 1960s, artists such as the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Byrds and the Grateful Dead have left a legacy that still inspires today. A recent tribute to Gram Parsons inspired by Emmylou Harris included such modern artists as the Pretenders, Beck, Cowboy Junkies and Elvis Costello.
One infrequent, but consistent theme in country music is that of proud, stubborn independence. "Country Boy Can Survive," and "Copperhead Road" are two of the more serious songs along those lines.
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, Cowboy Troy and Deford Bailey being the most notable. Pride endured much open racism early in his career. Many television 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, who had tremendous hits and albums, including, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Complete Country & Western Recordings 1959-1986, etc. Others include; [Keb' Mo']] a more modern singer, 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.
My Country, The African Diaspora's Country Music Heritage, by Pamela E. Foster chronicles African-American involvement in Country Music from its humble beginnings. Published in 1998, this most definitive 378-page study with its detailed discography shows that African-Americans were also musicians, singers, songwriters, record label managers & owners, radio station owners and executives and other related positions. For instance, while Charley Pride is Country's first Super Star, BeFord Bailey was the first star. He was the first African-American member of the Grand Ole Opry, a tenure that lasted from 1926 to 1941. In 2005 he became the last founding member of the Grand Ole Opry to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Herb Jeffries sang and yodeled his way across the Silver Screen as the first and only Black Singing Movie Cowboy, starring in four feature length All-Black cast Westerns during the 1930s. His self-penned "I'm A Happy Cowboy" was his movie theme song. Later he made a name for himself on the Duke Ellington recording "Flamingo" as the lead singer, and with the Mercer Ellington Orchestra and The Mills Brothers. In 1995 Warner Western released Jeffries' Country Album "The Bronze Buckaroo." Between 1948 and 1959, Henry Glover produced hundreds of Country artists like Moon Mullican, Grandpa Jones, Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins, The Delmore Brothers, and Jimmie Osborne on the King Record Label in Cincinnati, Ohio.
McDonald Craig of Linden, Tennessee is a first-rate Jimmie Rodgers Yodeler. He was born in 1932 into a Country/Traditional music household and is the second oldest of seven children. His father Newt Craig was a fiddler who played mountain square dance music and his mother, Conna McDonald Craig was a piano player who played everything from popular to mountain music. Sometime during the mid-1960s McDonald landed a spot on Nashville's Gold Standard Records and had four singles released by them; "I Want To Tell You," "Buckeye Ohio," You And My Old Guitar," and "I'll Never Go To Sleep Alone." He also wrote songs, like "My Home In Tennessee," and "Childhood Memories," the later which appears on his CD "McDonald Craig Sings Traditional Country Music."
In 1978 McDonald went to Meridian, Mississippi for the Annual Jimmie Rodgers Yodeling Championship. This was when the new Jimmie Rodgers Postal Stamp was about to go on sale. McDonald beat out 72 contestants for First Place, also becoming the first and only African-American Yodeler to ever win that honor. His original Cassette Album "McDonald Craig Sings My Home In Tennessee and Other Old Time Country Favorites" was re-mastered to CD in 2001 by Roughshod Records and released as "Yodeling McDonald Craig," the first of their Special Projects Promotional releases. In 2002 he was featured on Roughshod Records Special Project release "Three Country Music Yodelers, Who Just Happen To Be Black," featuring two cuts each by him, Stoney Edwards, and Mike Johnson. And in 2000 he appeared in the "1999 Sonny Rodgers Yodelers Paradise Show" Video filmed by Roughshod Records' Mike Johnson at the 1999 Avoca, Iowa Old Time Country Music Festival.
A crowd favorite with traditionalists wherever he played McDonald is as pure Country as you can get, performing from Texas to Tennessee, Iowa and Nebraska, at numerous State Fairs, Folk-life Festivals and radio stations. He has been a longstanding member of the National Traditional Country Music Association based in Anita, Iowa and is also an inductee in the Old-Time Country Music Hall of Fame. In 2005, the State of Tennessee's Century Farms Program certified the 73-year old McDonald Craig's 110-acre farm as an Official Century Farm for having been in the same family for more than 100 years. It was purchased for $400 with a yoke of oxen as a down payment by his ex-slave great-grandparents, Tapp and Amy Craig on Christmas Day in 1871; which they paid off in two years. McDonald and wife Rosetta, of 46 years, still reside on the historic property. Though McDonald doesn't perform much out of state anymore, if you listen real close you can hear the echoes of his yodels in middle Tennessee.
In 1969 Linda Martel became the first Black Female Country performer to appear on the Grand Ole Opry. She was signed to Plantation Records by Shelby Singleton and made 12 Opry appearances. She appeared on TV's "Hee-Haw" show and charted three Billboard Singles before quitting in 1974 and returning to her home in South Carolina.
Ruby Falls charted nine Billboard singles between 1974 and 1979 on 50-States Record Label. She was voted Country's Most Promising Female Vocalist in 1975 by the country trade media. She toured with Justin Tubb, and performed with Faron Young, Del Reeves, Narvel Felts and Jeanne Pruett, to mention a few. She was born Bertha Dorsey in January 1946 and passed away in June 1986.
Berry "MoTown" Gordy launched the Country Music career of T.G. Sheppard with "Devil In A bottle" on his Melodyland Records in 1974. The first of four No.1's for Sheppard on that label. With Mike Curb at its helm, Gordy's M.C. Records produced 15 singles and three albums between 1977 and 1978 before Curb went on to found Curb Records.
In 1984, songwriter and music publisher, Thomas Cain went to work for BMI and later became their Vice President & Senior Director of Writer Publisher Relations. Hank Williams, Jr., George Strait, The Forrester Sisters, and Ronnie Milsap have recorded his own songs. Cain's publishing company, Candy Cane Music's catalog also contains the songs "Wild & Blue," "Some Fools Never Learn," and "Cry, Cry, Cry."
Mike Johnson is Country Music's No. 1 Black Yodeler. His unique combinations of the Jimmie Rodgers and Swiss yodeling styles, along with being the most publicized, commercially recorded and consistently performing Black Yodeler firmly established him as such. On September 1, 2002 the National Traditional Country Music Association inducted him into America's Old-Time Country Music Hall of Fame. His yodeling song "Yeah I'm A Cowboy" is one of 18 songs featured on the "Rough Guide To Yodel" CD released in 2006.
Pamela E. Foster began researching and writing about social and economic issues in 1988. Inspired by her love of Country Music she moved to Nashville in 1993 and turned her attention to chronicling black contributions to the industry. Her many other works have also appeared in The Tennessean, the Nashville Banner, the Nashville Scene, Country Song Roundup, Country Weekly and other publications. Her 2000 follow-up book, "My Country, The Other Black Music" provides some updates regarding other African-Americans coming full circle back to their Country "roots."
Below is a list of notable country performers alphabetically by period, with each listing followed by a description of the artists' work.
All links retrieved December 9, 2017.
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