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Country music

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Country music
Stylistic origins Appalachian folk music, blues, spirituals and Anglo- Celtic music
Cultural origins early twentieth century Appalachia, esp. Tennessee, West Virginia, and Kentucky
Typical instruments Guitar - Steel Guitar - Dobro - Harmonica - Bass - Fiddle - Drums - Mandolin - Banjo
Derivative forms Bluegrass, Dansband, Rock 'n' roll
Bakersfield Sound - Bluegrass - Close harmony - Honky tonk - Jug band - Lubbock Sound - Nashville Sound - Neotraditional Country - Outlaw country - Red Dirt - Texas Country
Fusion genres
Alternative country - Country rock - Psychobilly - Rockabilly - Country-rap - Country pop - Western Swing - Cow-Mo
Other topics
Country musicians - List of years in country music

Country music is a blend of popular musical forms originally found in the Southern United States and the Appalachian Mountains. It has roots in traditional folk music, Celtic music, blues, gospel music, hokum, and old-time music and evolved rapidly in the 1920s. The term country music began to be used in the 1940s when the earlier term hillbilly music was deemed to be degrading, and the term was widely embraced in the 1970s, while country and western has declined in use since that time, except in the United Kingdom, where it is still commonly used.

In the Southwestern United States a different mix of ethnic groups created the music that became the Western music of the term country and western.

Country music has produced two of the top selling solo artists of all time. Elvis Presley, who was known early on as “The Hillbilly Cat” and was a regular on the radio program Louisiana Hayride, went on to become a defining figure in the emerging genre of rock 'n roll. Garth Brooks is one of the top-selling country artists of all time, and except for a short foray into non-country in the late 1990s, has remained in that genre.

While album sales of most musical genres have declined, country music experienced one of its best years in 2006, when, during the first six months of the year, U.S. sales of country albums increased by 17.7 percent to 36 million. Moreover, country music listening nationwide has remained steady for almost a decade, reaching 77.3 million adults every week according to the radio-ratings agency Arbitron Inc.

The term "country music" is used to describe many styles, genres, or subgenres.

Early history

Immigrants to the Southern Appalachian Mountains of North America brought instruments along with them for nearly 300 years. The Scottish and Irish fiddle styles, the German-derived dulcimer, the Italian mandolin, the Spanish guitar, and the African banjo were the most common instruments. The interactions among musicians from different ethnic groups produced music unique to this region of North America. Appalachian string men of the early twentieth century primarliy consisted of fiddling.

Throughout the nineteenth century, several immigrant groups from Central Europe and the British Isles moved to Texas. These groups interacted with the Spanish, Mexican, Native American, and U.S. communities that were already established in Texas. As a result of this cohabitation and extended contact, Texas has developed unique cultural traits that are rooted in the culture of all of its founding communities. The settlers from the areas now known as Germany and the Czech Republic established large dance halls in Texas where farmers and townspeople from neighboring communities could gather, dance, and spend a night enjoying each other’s company. The music at these halls, brought from Europe, included the waltz and the polka, played on an accordion, an instrument invented in Italy, which was loud enough to fill the entire dance hall.

Early recorded history

Columbia Records began issuing records with "hillbilly" music (series 15000D "Old Familiar Tunes") as early as 1924. A year earlier on June 14 1923 Fiddlin' John Carson recorded " Little Log Cabin in the Lane" for Okeh Records. Vernon Dalhart was the first country singer to have a nationwide hit in May of that same year with " Wreck of the Old '97". Other important early recording artists were Riley Puckett, Don Richardson, Fiddlin' John Carson, Al Hopkins, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers and The Skillet Lickers. The steel guitar entered country music as early as 1922, when Jimmie Tarlton met famed Hawaiian guitarist Frank Ferera on the West Coast.

The origins of modern country music can be traced to two seminal influences and a remarkable coincidence. Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family are widely considered to be the founders of country music, and their songs were first captured at a historic recording session in Bristol, Tennessee/ Bristol, Virginia on August 1, 1927, where Ralph Peer was the talent scout and sound recordist.

Rodgers fused hillbilly country, gospel, jazz, blues, pop, cowboy, and folk; and many of his best songs were his compositions, including “Blue Yodel” (Victor 21142 ), which sold over a million records and established Rodgers as the premier singer of early country music.

Beginning in 1927, and for the next 17 years the Carters recorded some 300 old-time ballads, traditional tunes, country songs, and Gospel hymns, all representative of America's southeastern folklore and heritage.

Singing Cowboys, Western Swing, and Hillbilly Boogie

During the 1930s and 1940s Cowboy songs, or "Western music", which had been recorded since the 1920s, were popularized by films made in Hollywood. Some of the popular singing cowboys from the era were, Gene Autry, the Sons of the Pioneers, and Roy Rogers.

Another "country" musician from the Lower Great Plains who had become very popular as the leader of a “hot string band”, and who also appeared in Hollywood Westerns was Bob Wills. His mix of "country" and jazz, which started out as dance hall music, would become known as Western Swing. Spade Cooley and Tex Williams also had very popular bands and appeared in films. At the height of its popularity, Western Swing rivaled the popularity of other big band jazz.

Country musicians began playing boogie in 1939, shortly after it had been played at Carnegie Hall, when Johnny Barfield recorded "Boogie Woogie". The trickle of what was initially called Hillbilly Boogie, or Okie Boogie (later to be renamed Country Boogie), became a flood beginning around late 1945. One notable country boogie from this period was the Delmore Brothers' "Freight Train Boogie", considered to be part of the combined evolution of country music and blues towards rockabilly. In 1948 Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith achieved Top 10 US country chart success with his MGM Records recordings of "Guitar Boogie" and "Banjo Boogie", with the former crossing over to the US pop charts. Other country boogie artists include Merrill Moore, and Tennessee Ernie Ford. The Hillbilly Boogie period lasted into the 1950s, and remains as one of many subgenres of country into the twenty first century.

By the end of World War II "mountaineer" string band music known as Bluegrass had emerged when Bill Monroe joined with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, led by Roy Acuff at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. Gospel music, too, remained a popular component of country music.

"Honky tonk" songs associated with Texas and California barrooms, performed by the likes of Ernest Tubb, Ted Daffin, Floyd Tillman, and the Maddox Brothers and Rose, and later by Hank Williams, would later be called "traditional" country.

In this post WWII period "country" music was called "folk" in the trades, and "hillbilly" within the industry.

Many musicians performed and recorded songs in any number of styles. Moon Mullican played Western Swing, but also recorded songs that can be called rockabilly. Bill Haley sang cowboy songs, and was at one time a cowboy yodeler. Haley became most famous as an early player of rock n roll. Lefty Frizzell played in honky tonks Jimmie Rodgers-stylings to his environment, thus creating a sound that was very much his own.

The 1950s and 1960s

By the late 1940's, Nashville began to slowly integrate the popular big band jazz and swing sounds of top 40 radio with the honky tonk storytelling of country pioneers. Between 1947 and 1949, country crooner Eddy Arnold placed a total of 8 songs in the top 10.

The countrypolitan sound of Nashville

Beginning in the mid 50's, and reaching its peak during the early 1960s, the " Nashville Sound" turned country music into a multimillion-dollar industry centered on Nashville, Tennessee. Under the direction of producers such as Chet Atkins, Owen Bradley, and later Billy Sherrill, the "Nashville sound" brought country music to a diverse audience and helped revive country as it emerged from a commercially fallow period. This sound was notable for borrowing from 1950s pop stylings: a prominent and "smooth" vocal, backed by a string section and vocal chorus. Instrumental soloing was de-emphasised in favour of trademark "licks". Leading artists in this genre included Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, and later Tammy Wynette and Charlie Rich. The "slip note" piano style of session musician Floyd Cramer was an important component of this style. Peter Dempsey was also active during this period.


1956 could be called the year of rockabilly in country music. The number 2, 3, and 4 songs on Billboard's charts for that year are: Elvis Presley " Heartbreak Hotel", Johnny Cash " I Walk the Line", and Carl Perkins " Blue Suede Shoes". Cash and Presley would place songs in the top 5 in 1958 with #3 "Guess Things Happen That Way/Come In, Stranger" by Cash, and #5 by Presley "Don't/I Beg Of You".

What is now most commonly referred to as rockabilly was most popular with country music fans in the 1950s, and was recorded and performed by country musicians. Within a few years many rockabilly musicians returned to a more mainstrean style, or had defined their own unique style.

By the end of the decade, backlash as well as traditional artists such as Ray Price, Marty Robbins, and Johnny Horton began to shift the industry away from the Rock n' Roll influences of the mid-50's.

Bakersfield Sound

Located 112 miles (180 km) north north west of Los Angeles, Bakersfield, California gave rise to one of the next genres of country music. The Bakersfield Sound grew out of hardcore honky tonk, adding elements of Western swing. One-time West Coast residents Bob Wills and Lefty Frizzell influenced the leading proponents of this sound. The Bakersfield Sound relied on electric instruments and amplification more than other subgenres of country, giving the music a hard, driving, edgy flavor.

By 1966 the sharp, Telecaster driven, no-frills, music with an unadorned drive was known as the Bakersfield Sound. The leading practitioners of this style were Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Tommy Collins, and Wynn Stewart, each of whom had his own style.

Changing instrumentation in the mid twentieth century


Drums were scorned by early country musicians as being "too loud" and "not pure", but by 1935 Western Swing big band leader Bob Wills had added drums to the Texas Playboys. In the mid 1940s, The Grand Ole Opry did not want the Playboys’ drummer to appear on stage. Although drums were commonly used by rockabilly groups by 1955, the less-conservative-than-the-Grand Ole Opry Louisiana Hayride kept their infrequently-used drummer back stage as late as 1956. By the early 1960s, however, it was rare that a country band didn't have a drummer.

Electric guitar

Bob Wills was one of the first country musicians known to have added an electric guitar to his band, in 1938. . A decade later (1948) Arthur Smith achieved Top 10 US country chart success with his MGM Records recording of "Guitar Boogie", which crossed over to the US pop chart, introducing many people to the potential of the electric guitar. For several decades Nashville session players preferred the warm tones of the Gibson and Gretsch archtop electrics, but a “hot” Fender style, utilizing guitars which became available beginning in the early 1950s, eventually prevailed as the signature guitar sound of country. Now almost every country band has a electric guitar.

Not Nashville

In 1962 Ray Charles surprised the pop world by turning his attention to country & western music, topping the charts and rating # 3 for the year on BillBoard’s pop chart with the " I Can't Stop Loving You" single, and recording the hugely popular album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.

Outlaw Country

Derived from the traditional and Honky tonk sounds of the late 50's and 60's, including Ray Price (whose band, the " Cherokee Cowboys", included Willie Nelson and Roger Miller) and mixed with the anger of an alienated subculture of the nation during the period, outlaw country revolutionized the genre of Country music.

"After I left Nashville (the early 70s), I wanted to relax and play the music that I wanted to play, and just stay around Texas, maybe Oklahoma. Waylon and I had that outlaw image going, and when it caught on at colleges and we started selling records, we were O.K. The whole outlaw thing, it had nothing to do with the music, it was something that got written in an article, and the young people said, 'Well, that's pretty cool.' And started listening." (Willie Nelson)

The term "Outlaw Country" is traditionally associated with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Billy Joe Shaver, and was encapsulated in the 1976 record Wanted! The Outlaws.

Even in today's current country the outlaw brand and influence is extremely evident from performers such as Eric Church, Jake Owen, and others more like them than the contemporary scene.

Country Rock

The late 1960's in American music produced a unique blend as a result of traditionalist backlash within separate genres. In the aftermath of the British Invasion, many desired a return to the "old values" of Rock n' Roll. At the same time there was a lack of enthusiasm in the Country sector for Nashville-produced music. What resulted was a crossbred genre known as Country Rock.

Early innovators in this new style of music included Rock n' Roll icon band The Byrds (while Gram Parsons was the front man) and its spin-off The Flying Burrito Brothers, Commander Cody, and The Eagles.

Subsequent to the initial blending of the two polar opposite genres, other offspring soon resulted, including Southern Rock and Heartland Rock.

In the decades that followed, artists such as Alabama and Linda Ronstadt moved Country further towards rock influence.


Country Pop or soft pop, with roots in both the countrypolitan sound and in soft rock, is a subgenre of country music that first emerged in the 1970s. Although the term first referred to country music songs and artists that crossed over to top 40 radio, country pop acts are now more likely to cross over to adult contemporary.

Country pop found its first widespread acceptance during the 1970s. It started with Pop music singers, like Glen Campbell, John Denver, Olivia Newton-John, and Anne Murray having hits on the Country charts. Campbell's "Rhinestone Cowboy" was among one of the biggest crossover hits in Country music history. These Pop-oriented singers thought that they could gain higher record sales and a larger audience if they crossed over into the Country world.

In 1974 Olivia Newton-John, an Australian pop singer, won the "Best Female Country Vocal Performance" as well as the Country Music Association's most coveted award for females, "Female Vocalist of the Year". In the same year, a group of artists, troubled by this trend, formed the short-lived Association of Country Entertainers. The debate raged into 1975, and reached its apex at that year's Country Music Association Awards when reigning Entertainer of the Year, Charlie Rich (who himself had a series of crossover hits), presented the award to his successor, John Denver. As he read Denver's name, Rich set fire to the envelope with a cigarette lighter. The action was taken as a protest against the increasing pop style in country music.

The Urban Cowboy Effect

The most infamous era in country music was in the early '80s. Influenced by both Country Rock and Country Pop, the Urban Cowboy movement led country music further away from its traditional roots. Country's move toward pop culture was popularized by John Travolta's Urban Cowboy and spurred on by Dolly Parton's movie 9 to 5. Some older artists from the 1960s and 1970s converted their sound to country pop or countrypolitan, such as Faron Young, Dolly Parton, Dottie West, and Ray Price.

By the mid-80s, however, fans of more traditional country music were growing restless. What resulted was a return to the roots of Country Music, and a sigh of relief from traditional listeners. Some of today's Country Pop Stars are Carrie Underwood,Kelly Clarkson.

Neotraditional Country

After the dismal failure of the Urban Cowboy era, a generation of "new traditionalists" – George Strait, Ricky Skaggs, the Judds, Randy Travis, and Ricky Van Shelton – brought country out of its post-Urban Cowboy doldrums by reminding young audiences what made the music great in the first place.

Other developments

In the mid 1990s country western music was influenced by the popularity of line dancing. This influence was so great that Chet Atkins was quoted as saying "The music has gotten pretty bad, I think. It's all that damn line dancing." By the end of the decade, however, at least one line dance choreographer complained that good country line dance music was no longer being released.

In the 1990s a new form of country music emerged, called by some alternative country, neotraditional, 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.

One infrequent, but consistent theme in country music is that of proud, stubborn independence. "Country Boy Can Survive" and "Copperhead Road" are two of the more serious songs along those lines; while "Some Girls Do" and "Redneck Woman" are more light-hearted variations on the theme.

There are at least four U.S. cable networks at least partly devoted to the genre: CMT (owned by Viacom), CMT Pure Country (also owned by Viacom), Rural Free Delivery TV (owned by Rural Media Group) and GAC (owned by The E. W. Scripps Company). The original American country music video cable channel was TNN (The Nashville Network). The channel was launched in the early 1980s. In 2000, the channel was renamed and reformatted to TNN (The National Network), which was a general-interest network to compete with USA Network, TNT, and Superstations, such as TBS and WGN. Subsequently, The National Network became Spike TV, the first network for men.


Television and radio shows of note (listed alphabetically)

  • American Idol - While not strictly a country music show, it has launched the careers of several country stars, including Carrie Underwood, Kellie Pickler and Bucky Covington.
  • Austin City Limits, PBS goes country
  • The Beverly Hillbillies, legendary situation comedy series that featured a country theme song and frequent appearances, by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs
  • Crook & Chase, hosted by Lorianne Crook and Charlie Chase, 1986 to present, currently on RFD-TV
  • The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, 1969 - 1972
  • Grand Ole Opry, broadcasting on WSM from Nashville since 1925 now on GAC
  • Hee Haw, featuring Buck Owens and Roy Clark and a pack of droll, cornball comedians, notably Junior Samples. Other artist of note, Archie Campbell, writer and on-air talent.
  • The Johnny Cash Show (1969-1971) on ABC Networks
  • Lost Highway, a significant BBC documentary on the History of Country Music
  • Louisiana Hayride, featured Hank Williams in his early years
  • Nashville Star country music talent show that has produced such stars as Miranda Lambert, Buddy Jewel, George Canyon, and Chris Young
  • Pop! Goes the Country, a weekly syndicated country music variety television series, hosted by Ralph Emery, running between 1974 and 1982.
  • The Porter Wagoner Show, aired from 1960 to 1979 and featured a young Dolly Parton and Mel Tillis.
  • That Good Ole Nashville Music, 1970 - 1985
  • Nashville Now, hosted live by Ralph Emery, it was the cornerstone nightly program for The Nashville Network from 1983 through 1993. Featured muppet co-host, Shotgun Red.
  • The Statler Brothers Show, the highest rated show on The Nashville Network from 1991 until its last episode in 1998.
  • The Wilburn Brothers Show, long running syndicated country variety television series, hosted by The Wilburn Brothers, running between 1963 and 1974. Launched the career of Loretta Lynn.
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