Roots of Country Music

Country Music has always been about real people and real lives, it communicates shared truths and common experiences. Songs are about love, loss and everyday joys and sorrows.

Beginnings/Origins (17-18th)

Folk Music from the British Isles

As British Settlers moved westward across the American continent, they took with them the fiddle tunes and folksongs. They also created a new type of music that was played at barn raising, house parties and local dances

African American Folk Music

Since Colonial times, African Americans provided music for dancing, whether free or slave. From black fiddlers to 5 string banjo players in rural stringbands, they developed indigenous styles that became blues, ragtime and jazz overtime.

Commercial music from the 18th century:

While American sang local folksongs for their own pleasure, they also learned songs and styles from professional musicians. Travelling tent shows, medicine shows, minstrels shows and vaudeville troups became provided a new ground for country music.

The Dawn of country radio and records (20’s)

The first country performance on the radio is dated from 1922, quickly followed by the first barn dance radio as radio’s executive started to see a market in the rural audience. These early variety shows, geared towards family gathering, provided a living for country’s entertainers throughout the nation, while becoming a vital part of listener’s lives.

Companies in the North began seeking talent in country, blues and folk-based idioms. They recorded fiddlers, stringbands and “hillbilly” music as they realized that country music could sell, as proven by the hits of Jimmie Rodger and the Carter Family in 1930. The first country stars were born.

In the 20’s and 30’s the main sound remained the raw, fiddled driven stringbands but started to see the incorporation of pop and jazz influences, while in the southwest saw the rise of “western swing”

The western influence (mid 30’s)

If “hillbilly” was loaded with negative cultural stereotypes, by contrast “cowboy” implied romance, bravery and the self-sufficiency of life on the open range. So cowboy hats and and boots became parts of many performers’ wardrobes. They played a sang their fantasy version of the West, a new kind of New Deal cowboy.

Nashville and Hollywood barn dance
By the 40’s, radio was widespread and TV broadcasting started to become more popular and featured performances from barn dances. Some became nationally famous, such as Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and several through out California, where more people were moving to. It lead to the development of recording studios in Nashville and LA.

New sounds in the jukebox

Beginning in the 30’s, a generation of singers trained in tough roadside nightspots forged an amplified steel-and-fiddle style known as “Honky-Tonk”. Geared towards the young people who “left their home out on the rural route”, honky-tonk dealt with the loss and spiritual dislocation, but also stepping out on a Saturday night.

Bluegrass emerged at the same period. It was a proudly conservative yet musically adventurous and combined the austerity of Appalachia with the exuberance of hot jazz

Let’s have a party! (50’s)

Rich in both country tradition and the Beale Street Blues, Memphis proved to be the ideal setting for the birth of rock & roll. Teenager Elvis Presley grew up with the sounds of both Beale Street and the Grand Ole Opry and fused them into a unique style that changed popular music, including country, forever. Soon a generation of “rockabillies” heated up the airwaves with a blend of hillbilly music and rock & roll attitude.

The Nashville Sound

To compete with the new rock & roll trend that sank country’s sales in the younger audience, Nashville began using pop-oriented country production to attract the adult audience. Fiddle and steel guitars gave ways to string sections and vocalists. Experienced studio musicians quickly adapted and created a new gendra that yielded hits. This smooth style was known as the “Nashville sound” and put the city on the music map forever.

The Return of Hard Country (60’s)

Not everyone believed rock & roll had killed the appeal of the straight-up hillbilly music. Many performers seized the moment to enliven their fiddle-and-steel country sounds with inventive rhythms and harmonies, borrowed from Elvis and other rockers, instead of reacting against them.



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