From Austin to Tennessee: The History of Country Music

Country music is regarded as a distinctly American musical genre. Drawing on the musical traditions of various immigrant groups who settled in the South, country music evolved throughout the decades, constantly freshening its sound and reflecting the viewpoints of new generations. Cities like Austin, Atlanta, Bristol, and Nashville were instrumental in the development of the country music industry.

The Songs of the People: Early Country (1920s)

Country music grew out of the Southern Appalachian tradition, setting folk tales of heroes, history, and local legends to music. During the 1910s, Appalachian fiddlers were recorded and their albums were released to the public. Victor Records released the first commercial country record in 1922, featuring singer Eck Robertson. Vernon Dalhart's 1924 song "Wreck of the Old '97" was the first country song declared a hit. These early successes encouraged Victor Records to sign both the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers in 1927, and the era of commercially successful country music began.

The First Family of Country Music

On Aug. 1, 1927, the original Carter Family (consisting of A.P. Carter, his wife Sara Dougherty Carter, and their sister-in-law Maybelle Addington Carter) met producer Ralph Peer in Bristol, Tennessee, and began recording their first album. Their first songs included "Can the Circle Be Unbroken," "Keep On the Sunny Side," "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes," "Wabash Cannonball," and "Wildwood Flower." These songs continue to impact multiple musical genres today. The Carter Family's sound married traditional country music with elements from gospel music. Maybelle Addington Carter's distinctive guitar playing, which combined playing lead and rhythmic guitar, is called the Carter scratch and is emulated by guitarists in all genres. The original Carter Family was replaced by the children of the original members, and now the grandchildren of the founding members have carried on the family tradition. Maybelle's daughter June was the breakout star of the second generation, and with husband Johnny Cash, she heavily influenced country music in the latter half of the 20th century.

Jimmie Rodgers

Jimmie Rodgers's life was as tragic as the tales he sang about. Born in Mississippi in 1897, Rodgers began performing in traveling shows at age 13. His father disapproved of performing and forced Rodgers to work for the railroad company. Rodgers stayed with the railroad until he contracted tuberculosis in his mid-twenties. Rodgers then traveled to Asheville, North Carolina, where he met Victor Records producer Ralph Peer. Rodgers's musical style combined country with the sounds of folk, blues, and rhythmic yodeling. He began recording his first album for Victor Records just days after the Carter Family began recording their first album. He was an instant success. His single "Blue Yodel #1" is credited as being the first million-selling single. Between 1927 and 1933, he recorded an entire catalog of songs, appeared in a movie short, and performed in concerts across the country. But the tuberculosis that freed him from the railroad ultimately was his downfall, and he died in New York in 1933. At the time of his death, his songs represented 10% of total sales for Victor Records.

Singing Cowboys (1930s): Hollywood Goes Country

Rodgers was the first country musician to star in a Hollywood film, but he certainly wasn't the last. Western films were incredibly popular in the 1930s. Gene Autry used his country music career as a stepping stone to a career as a movie star, and he remains the only person to have a Hollywood star for film, live performances, music, radio, and television. Autry was best known for his roles as a singing cowboy. Roy Rogers, his wife Dale Evans, and Spade Cooley followed similar career paths. The imagery of the singing cowboy became an integral part of country music's visual vocabulary, which drew from images of the romanticized Wild West. The soundtracks to these movies were usually written expressly for each film and then released as an album. These albums often became best-selling records and influenced other country artists.

Country vs Rock and Roll: Honky-Tonk (1940s)

Honky-tonk, one of country's most enduring sub-genres, also has ties to Hollywood and movie musicals. One of the earliest recorded uses of the term is as the title of the musical film Honky Tonk. During the 1940s, other musical genres began eclipsing the popularity of country, but honky-tonk emerged as a distinct strain of country music and broadened country music's appeal. Pianos played an important part in the development of the honky-tonk sound. Often, pianos in performance spaces were in poor condition, leading piano players to emphasize rhythm over harmony or melody. This changed the sound of the ragtime-inspired piano tunes. The burgeoning popularity of rock and roll also inspired honky-tonk. Country borrowed the high-energy riffs and melded them with other country styles. Also referred to as hillbilly music, honky-tonk music continues to influence country, rock, and other musical genres.

The Honky-Tonk Heroes

Multiple honky-tonk stars emerged in the 1940s. Ernest Tubbs released "Walking the Floor Over You" in 1942, and a star was born. Tubbs would release the first hit recording of "Blue Christmas" later in the 1940s. Hank Williams burst onto the scene in the late 1940s with songs like "Move It on Over," which was a big county hit. Other famous Williams songs include "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Cold Cold Heart," and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Die." Williams was also a prolific songwriter and published multiple songbooks during his life. Williams died in 1953 at age 29, but his impact on music can't be denied. Williams was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 in recognition of how his work as a honky-tonk artist inspired the development of rock and roll. Honky-tonk artist Lefty Frizzell exploded onto the scene; his popularity would only be eclipsed by that of Elvis Presley. Frizzell's distinct sound inspired artists as diverse as John Fogerty, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, and Keith Whitley. Honky-tonk continues to inspire other musical genres and produce new stars like Mark Chesnutt and Hank Williams III.

The Rise of Bob Wills and Western Swing

The other sound dominating country music in the 1940s was western swing, which blended the upbeat horns of the Big Band sound with Dixieland jazz and elements of blues. Western swing added drums to the horns and pianos of Big Band music and soon incorporated steel guitars into the mix. This type of music came from the shores of Lake Austin in the 1920s, but it wasn't until the 1940s that it exploded in popularity across the Midwest and South. The biggest stars of western swing were Milton Brown, the Light Crust Doughboys, and Bob Wills.

Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys

Bluegrass comes out of the tradition of mountain hillbilly music and can trace its origins to western Africa and Great Britain. It is a blend of British ballads and the blues and jazz traditions of African-Americans. Bill Monroe's band, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, was so popular that it lent its name to this type of music. Traditional bluegrass is played on acoustic instruments like banjos and borrows heavily from folk songs. Monroe was inducted into both the country and rock halls of fame in honor of his contributions to music. Two other bluegrass legends emerged from the Blue Grass Boys as well: Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were two of the most famous bluegrass stars of mid-20th century America. Today, they are perhaps best known for writing and performing The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction theme songs.

Country's Return: The Rise of the Nashville Sound (1950s)

The Nashville sound is also referred to as Countrypolitan. While some music was emerging out of Austin, Texas, during this time, Nashville was undergoing its own renaissance. Columbia Records, Decca Records, and RCA Records all began working to commercialize country music and broaden its appeal beyond the South. Stars like Patsy Cline, Chet Atkins, Eddy Arnold, Jim Ed Brown, and Jim Reeves helped popularize the new sound and scored chart-topping singles. Some of Elvis Presley's work was also influenced by the Nashville sound.

The Nashville Sound

So what was the Nashville Sound? It was a reaction to the rougher sound of honky-tonk music and older-sounding bluegrass that was popular in the 1940s. It softened the rough edges of country and blended more Big Band and jazz elements into country music. The tempos were very smooth, the backup vocalists had a sophisticated sound, and the songs leaned heavily on melodic choruses. Cline's "I Fall to Pieces" is an excellent example of the Nashville sound.

Rebelling Against the Past: The Bakersfield Sound (1960s)

Record companies were thrilled with the sales driven by the Nashville sound. However, not everyone was a fan of the style. Many country artists felt that it robbed country music of its traditional aspects. The Bakersfield country music rebellion presaged the Punk Rock rebellion of the 1970s and 1980s against over-produced rock music. This musical rebellion fermented in the honky-tonk bars around Bakersfield, California, where many Southerners and displaced Oklahoma residents had moved to find work. Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, and Webb Pierce were some of the biggest stars to come out of Bakersfield.

The Bakersfield Sound

The Bakersfield sound was rooted in reality. The lyrics focused on real people and real-life problems. The sound was gritty and lacked the well-produced polish of the Nashville sound. The Bakersfield sound came from using elements of rock and rockabilly and combining them with amped-up guitars and large drums. The Bakersfield sound had a large and lasting impact. For example, the Beatles covered Buck Owens's song "Act Naturally," and the Rolling Stones released a song referencing Bakersfield.

Classic Style With a Modern Twist: Outlaw Country (1970s)

Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson are best-selling artists beloved by generations of fans both inside and outside of the country music fandom. At one time, though, they were country music's bad boys who refused to follow the instructions of the record producers and struck out to move country music in a new direction. They took their bad attitudes and love of the genre and melded a new, more honest sound for country music. They drew from the work of the early singing cowboys and returned to lyrics about tall tales and legends. However, they took away the sweet nostalgia of the early songs and replaced it with brutal honesty and a host of antiheroes instead of the romanticized cowboys of earlier songs. Their music built on the Bakersfield sound but blended it with a modern take on old country music styles.

The Outlaw Movement

It wasn't just Cash and Nelson who rebelled against the country music establishment. David Allan Coe, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and Tanya Tucker were part of the outlaw movement, too. Instead of looking like the clean-cut country stars featured on Hee-Haw, they grew out their hair and embraced casual clothes. Some of the most famous songs to come out of the outlaw movement include "Cocaine Blues" by Johnny Cash, "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, and "Whiskey River" by Willie Nelson.

Urban Cowboy

The success of the John Travolta movie Urban Cowboy and television shows like Dallas meant that you didn't need to own Austin real estate to want to feel like a cowboy. Country music bars spiked in popularity, and popular country music started melding elements of disco into its sound. The outlaws of the early 1970s saw a sharp decline in popularity as dance-friendly country music began topping the charts. Mickey Gilley, Johnny Lee, and Dolly Parton released songs that charted on both the country and pop charts. Along with Parton, other stars to emerge from the urban cowboy era included Alabama, Reba McEntire, George Strait, and Steve Wariner.

The Class of '89

Clint Black, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt, and Dwight Yoakam all charted their first hits in 1989. These fresh young stars had a new sound, full of youthful energy and heavily influenced by rock and roll. They would dominate the sound of country throughout the 1990s with songs like Black's "Better Man," Brooks's "The Thunder Rolls," Jackson's "Chattahoochee," Tritt's "Here's a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)," and Yoakam's "Ain't That Lonely Yet."

Further Reading

  • Birthplace of Country Music: A Local Legacy: The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers came to Bristol, Tennessee, in 1927. Within a few days of each other, two of the most influential country records of all time were recorded. This page explains how Bristol came to play such an important part in country music history.
  • Grand Ole Opry: No venue has dominated the history of country music than Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. Learn all about the Grand Ole Opry and its influence on country music throughout the decades here.
  • Timeline: The Roots of Country Music: The Library of Congress has a timeline of the history of country music as part of their collection of material on Dolly Parton.
  • Country: Our National Soundtrack: The National Park Service offers an informative history of country music here.
  • The Country Music Hall of Fame Digital Archives: Listen to early country music records, read concert programs from the early 20th century, and discover more artifacts held by the Country Music Hall of Fame.
  • Jimmie Rodgers: The Father of Country Music: Jimmie Rodgers's life was short, but his influence on country music continues to be felt today. Mississippi History Now has published an account of his life here.
  • 100 Greatest Country Artists of All Time: Ever wondered how country stars from various eras rank against each other? Rolling Stone magazine ranked 100 of country's greatest stars.
  • The Story of Music City: Nashville was first nicknamed "Music City" in the 19th century. This article traces Nashville's long history with country music.
  • The Women Who Built Country Music: Female country artists like Kitty Wells, Maybelle Carter, and Patsy Montana played a large part in country's early popularity, and this article, which includes performance clips, gives insight into their roles as pioneers of country music.
  • Patsy Cline: Patsy Cline, like many other country stars, had a short life but a large impact on music.

By: Jim Olenbush