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Encyclopedia > Country and Western
Stylistic origins: Spirituals, Appalachian folk music and blues
Cultural origins: early 20th century Appalachia, esp. Kentucky
Typical instruments: Guitar - Steel guitar - Dobro - Harmonica - Bass - Fiddle - Drums - Mandolin - Banjo
Mainstream popularity: Much, worldwide, especially the Nashville Sound
Derivative forms: Bluegrass
Bakersfield Sound - Bluegrass - Close harmony - Country blues - Honky tonk - Jug band - Lubbock Sound - Nashville Sound - Outlaw country
Fusion genres
Alternative country - Country rock - Psychobilly - Rockabilly
Regional scenes
Other topics

Country music, once known as Country and Western music, is a popular musical form developed in the southern United States, with roots in traditional folk music, spirituals, and the blues.

Vernon Dalhart was the first country singer to have a nation-wide 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.

Some trace the origins of modern country music 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 categorise 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 blues. Building on the traditional ballads and musical influences of the South, Jimmie wrote and sang songs that ordinary people could relate to. He took the experiences of his own life 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 blues to create his tunes.

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.

Hank Williams

Jimmie Rodgers was 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 barbershop Indians ("Kaw-Liga"). He took the music to a different level and a wider audience.

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. These two women were the musical talent. They arranged the songs that A.P. collected and wrote their own songs. They were the precursors of a line of talented women country singers like Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and June Carter Cash, the daughter of Maybelle and the wife of Johnny Cash.


The Carter Family probably influenced the development of bluegrass by Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe. Monroe, in turn, influenced people like Ricky Skaggs who carry on the folk and ballad tradition in the bluegrass style.

Other influences

While country music has had only one African-American star (Charley Pride), the innovators and originators were strongly influenced by the sounds and songs of Black musicians. Country music has also influenced the work of Black musicians such as Ray Charles and Keb' Mo'.

At the time of its early popularity, country music shared America's affection with swing music, a type of jazz, and enterprising musicians such as Bob Wills fused the two to form western swing. The early development of rock and roll was a fusion of country music and blues.

The Nashville sound

During the 1960s, country music became a multi-million dollar industry centered on Nashville, Tennessee. Under the direction of Chet Atkins, the Nashville sound brought country music to a diverse audience. Although country music has great stylistic diversity, this diversity was strangled somewhat by the formulaic approach of the record producers like Chet Atkins. They played safe to protect sales. Even today the variety of country music is not usually well-reflected in radio airplay and the popular perception of country music is still influenced by the maudlin ballads and whining steel guitars that many people still associate with the genre.

Reaction to the Nashville sound

The vanilla-flavored sounds that emanated from Nashville under the influence of Chet Atkins, and his fellow producers, 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. Texas produced rebels like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, Jerry Jeff Walker, and others who bucked the Nashville system and created outlaw country. 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 the radio stations ignored the veteran entertainers.

Country music developments

The two strands of country music have continued to develop. 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, 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.

Early innovators

The Golden Age

Country rock

Television and radio shows of note


  • Download recording - "Prisoner’s Song" country music from the Library of Congress' Gordon Collection (http://www.loc.gov/folklife/Gordon/sideAband8.html); performed by Ernest Hilton with banjo accompaniment in Biltmore, North Carolina on November 20, 1925
  • Download sample of Hank Williams' "Cold Cold Heart", perhaps the best-known Williams songs, covered by numerous other stars, and an excellent representation of the 1950s Nashville music.

Further reading

  • In The Country of Country: A Journey to the Roots of American Music,
    Nicholas Dawidoff, Vintage Books, 1998, ISBN 0-375-70082-x
  • Are You Ready for the Country: Elvis, Dylan, Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock,
    Peter Dogget, Penguin Books, 2001, ISBN 0-140-26108-7
  • Dreaming Out Loud: Garth Brooks, Wynonna Judd, Wade Hayes and the changing face of Nashville,
    Bruce Feiler, Avon Books, 1998, ISBN 0-380-97578-5
  • Roadkill on the Three-Chord Highway,
    Colin Escott, Routledge, 2002, ISBN 0-415-93783-3
  • Guitars & Cadillacs,
    Sabine Keevil, Thinking Dog Publishing, 2002, ISBN 0-968-99730-9
  • Country Music USA,
    Bill C. Malone, University of Texas Press, 1985, ISBN 0-292-71096-8


  • Washburne, Christopher J. and Derno, Maiken (eds.) (2004). Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415943663.
    • Fox, Aaron A. "White Trash Alchemies of the Abject Sublime: Country as 'Bad' Music"

See also

External links

Tribute sites to early artists

  • Vernon Dalhart (http://www.geocities.com/robtmorca/)
  • Carson Robison (http://www.geocities.com/acuvar/carson_robison.html)
  • Don Richardson (http://www.geocities.com/Fiddlindon/DON_RICHARDSON.html)
American roots music
Appalachian | Blues (Ragtime) | Cajun and Creole (Zydeco) | Country (Honky tonk and Bluegrass) | Jazz | Native American | Spirituals and Gospel | Tejano

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