country music

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country music

country music, American popular music form originating in the Southern and Western United States. Country music is directly descended from the folk songs, ballads, and popular songs of the English, Scottish, and Irish settlers of the U.S. southeastern seaboard. It also absorbed the influence of African-American music, particularly blues and gospel music. During the mid-19th century, new forms of entertainment including blackface minstrelsy added to the mixture that would become country music. Traditional instruments included banjo, fiddle, and guitar.

The Birth of Country Music on Record and Radio

Originally marketed as "old-time" or "hillbilly" music in the early-to-mid 1920s, country’s first stars were all rural-born entertainers who had the chance to record their music, including Fiddlin' John Carson, Uncle Dave Macon, and the Carter Family. Besides recordings, radio played a major role in spreading the music, including Nashville's ;Grand Ole Opry and Chicago's National Barn Dance. In 1927, Jimmie Rodgers —nicknamed "America's Blue Yodeler"—became one of country’s first major stars, with enduring hits including "Muleskinner Blues" and "Waitin' for a Train." During the '30s, country expanded with various new styles, including cowboy singers like Gene Autry and Western Swing bands, particularly with the music of fiddler/vocalist Bob Wills ("San Antonio Rose").

After World War II: Honky Tonk, Bluegrass, and Countrypolitan

After World War II, a new popular music chart was established named "country and western" to distinguish the music from mainstream pop and rhythm and blues. Honky tonk music became a popular style, with star performers like Hank Williams scoring hits with his blues-influenced songs like "Lovesick Blues" and "Cold, Cold Heart," and more upbeat numbers like "Honky Tonkin'." Bluegrass, originated by Bill Monroe in the late '40s, is traditionally distinguished by a driving, syncopated rhythm, high-pitched vocals, and an emphasis on the banjo, mandolin, and fiddle. Monroe wrote classic bluegrass songs including "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and instrumentals like "Rawhide."

By the mid-'50s, however, country music was eclipsed by the popularity of rock and roll. To fight back, producers like guitarist Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley promoted a more pop-oriented sound, with artists like Patsy Cline, who scored hits with songs like "Crazy." During the '60s, this new pop-oriented sound would be named "countrypolitan" music (also known as The Nashville Sound) because of its incorporation of pop music touches like background vocal choirs and string sections. Artists like Eddy Arnold ("Green, Green Grass of Home") rose to the top with pop ballads. At the same time, artists like Johnny Cash, came out of the rockabilly style to perform a more stripped-down, highly personal music, scoring hits with his "I Walk the Line" and, in the '60s, "Folsom Prison Blues."

The 1960s-'70s: New Female Voices and The Outlaws

As early as the 1950s, female vocalists like Kitty Wells began to break into the country charts which were traditionally dominated by men. But female singer/songwriters really came to the fore during the mid-'60s-early '70s with Loretta Lynn ("The Pill," "Coal Miner's Daughter"),Tammy Wynette ("Stand By Your Man"), and most successfully Dolly Parton. Parton began her career as the "girl singer" with country star Porter Wagoner's show, but soon revealed herself to be a powerhouse songwriter and vocalist. In the 1970s and beyond, she crossed over to mainstream success with songs like "Jolene," "Coat of Many Colors," and "I Will Always Love You" (later a major pop hit for Whitney Houston). Mainstream performers like Charley Pride ("Kiss An Angel Good Morning") and Charlie Rich ("Behind Closed Doors") continued to fare well on the charts in the late '60s-early '70s. Meanwhile, a group of performers and songwriters were unhappy with the constraints of working within Nashville’s rigid production system. They wanted to return country to its honky-tonk roots, and thus were nicknamed the "outlaws." Major stars associated with this movement included Merle Haggard ("I'm A Lonesome Fugitive," "Sing Me Back Home"), Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson. Nelson has had a long enduring career both as a songwriter ("Crazy," "Hello Walls") and performer.

The 1980s-Today: New Country and Country Pop

A separate group of artists coming out of bluegrass and other earlier traditions sought to break free from the Nashville Sound in the early '80s. Hitmakers included Ricky Skaggs ("Country Boy"), Randy Travis ("On the Other Hand," "Digging Up Bones"), Kathy Mattea ("Love at the Five and Dime"), and Garth Brooks, who became a superstar hitmaker and performer during this period with hits like "Friends in Low Places," "If Tomorrow Never Comes," and "The Thunder Rolls." Some folk-oriented stars were popular, including Rosanne Cash and Mary Chapin-Carpenter, while mainstream pop performers like the Judds, Tanya Tucker, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, and Reba McEntire topped the charts.

During the '90s-today, country music has increasingly absorbed pop and rock music influences. Vocal groups like Rascal Flatts, Lady Antebellum ("Need You Now"), Sugar Land, Florida Georgia Line ("Meant to Be"), and others created music in a highly produced pop style. Hunky men-in-hats including Brooks and Dunn, Alan Jackson, Kenny Chesney, and Toby Keith (with patriotic crowd pleasers like "Courtesy of the Red, Whie, and Blue"), and big-throated balladeers like Lee Ann Womack ("I Hope You Dance") and Shania Twain topped the country charts. A new generation of gutsy female singer/songwriters came on the scene, including Gretchen Wilson ("Red Neck Woman") and Miranda Lambert ("Gasoline"). Possibly the biggest breakthrough star in country in the period was singer/songwriter Taylor Swift, who would use her early country hits as a means to establish a mainstream pop career.

Country music has always had a strong appeal among black performers, with pop stars like Ray Charles having hits with "I Can't Stop Lovin’ You" and others. The early Grand Ole Opry featured black harmonica player DeFord Bailey, and there is a strong influence of blues music found in all styles of country music. More recently, Darius Rucker ("Don't Think I Don’t Think About It") has found chart success. In 2019, Lil' Nas created controversy with his hit, "Old Town Road," among the most successful marriages of country and rap music to date.


See B. C. Malone, Country Music USA (1968; 50th ann. ed., 2018, with T. Laird); P. Hemphill, The Nashville Sound (1971); C. Brown, Music USA: America's Country and Western Music (1985); K. Sparkman, A People and Their Music (2000); R. Carlin, Country Music (2006), Country Music: A Very Short Introduction (2019); D. Jannings, Sing Me Back Home: Love, Death, and Country Music (2008); P. Kingsbury et al., The Encyclopedia of Country Music (2012); J. R. Neal, Country Music: A Cultural and Stylistic History (2nd ed., 2018); D. Duncan and K. Burns, Country Music: An Illustrated History (2019); T. Russell, Rural Rhythm: The Story of Old-Time Country Music in 78 Records (2021).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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