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The origins of country music as we know it today can be traced to two seminal influences and a remarkable coincidence. Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family are considered 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 some 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.
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 Snr. In his short career (he was only 30 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 persona, as Hank Williams he was a singer/songwiter 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 or barbershop Indians. 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 AP, the beautiful singing of Sara and the unique guitar playing of Maybelle. AP'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 AP 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 AP and Sara 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 carries on the folk and ballad tradition in the bluegrass style
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 flavoured 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 Jenning, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock and others who bucked the Nashville system and created outlaw country. Within Nashville in the 1980s, Ricky Skaggs brought a return to the traditional values. His musicianship, songwriting and producing skills helped to revive the genre. Alas, even he has fallen from popularity as the record companies again impose their formulae and the radio stations ignore 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 and 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.
- Jimmie Rodgers, first country superstar, the "Father of Country Music", also bluesman
- The Carter Family, rural country-blues, known for hits like "Wildwood Flower"
- Hank Snow
- Hank Williams Sr, honky tonk pioneer, singer and songwriter, known for hits like "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "Your Cheatin' Heart", followed in music by his son and grandson
- Bill Monroe, father of bluegrass
- Grand Ole Opry, one of the oldest radio programs
- Louvin Brothers, inspired the Everly Brothers
- Stonewall Jackson
- Little Jimmie Dickens
- Wilf Carter, the "Yodeling" cowboy, aka Montana Slim.
- Roy Acuff
- Johnny Cash, a major influence on country music who died in 2003
- Patsy Cline, immensely popular balladeer who died in 1963
- Lefty Frizzell
- Merle Haggard, popularized the Bakersfield sound
- Johnny Horton
- Waylon Jennings, one of the leaders of the outlaw country sound
- George Jones
- Kris Kristofferson, songwriter and one of the leaders of the outlaw country sound
- Loretta Lynn
- Ronnie Milsap
- Willie Nelson, songwriter and one of the leaders of the outlaw country sound
- Buck Owens, pioneer innovator of the Bakersfield sound
- Charley Pride
- Charlie Rich
- Marty Robbins
- Conway Twitty, honky tonk traditionalist
- Kitty Wells
- Tammy Wynette
- Allman Brothers Band, bluegrass influenced jam band
- The Byrds, pioneers in the field
- Flying Burrito Brothers
- The Eagles, possibly the most popular country rock band
- Kinky Friedman
- Grateful Dead, extremely long-lived bluegrass and psychedelic band
- Lynyrd Skynyrd, for many, the archetypal country rock band
- Gram Parsons, critical favorite of the country rock movement
- Grand Ole Opry
- Hee Haw. featuring Buck Owens and Roy Clark and a pack of droll, cornball comedians, notably Junior Samples
- Austin City Limits, PBS goes country
- 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, Wynona 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
- Academy of Country Music
- Country Music Association
- Alternative country for a list of performers in that sub-genre
- List of country music performers