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The Birth of Country Music on Record and Radio
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
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).