Country music is one of the most popular genres of music in the United States. This genre of music takes its roots in blues, Appalachian, Cajun, Old-time music, and cowboy western music, each of which were music traditions from Southern and Southwestern United States. Country music is described as consisting of ballads and dance tunes, accompanied by banjos, fiddles, harmonicas, acoustic guitars, steel guitars, and later on electric guitars (Dawidoff, 1998). Since the development of country music in the early days of music recording, country music has had six generations. This research paper explores how each generation of country musicians take inspiration from artists and subgenres from the previous generations and incorporate their own style, thereby transforming country music each time.
The Evolution Of American Country Music
The genres that later on merged to produce country music developed in various regions of Southern and Southwestern America. Each one was brought by various immigrant groups (Dawidoff, 1998). For example, Appalachian music was derived from European and African music, in particular fiddle music, brought by European and African immigrants who settled in Appalachia (Dawidoff, 1998). Meanwhile, Cajun music, from Louisiana, is influenced by French-speaking Acadians of Canada’s ballads (Dawidoff, 1998). These genres evolved separately, and people started to migrate, influenced each other.
Country music recordings started in the early 1920s but the first commercial recording took place in 1923 (Dawidoff, 1998). Since then country music spread to radios and became widespread to the rest of the country, and even to other countries. True to its origin of being an amalgamation of different genres, country music evolved during the years as it absorbed and influenced the popular genres of the time.
The first generation of country music included fiddlers, such as Henry Gilliland and A.C. (Eck) Robertson, Fiddlin’ John Carson, and “hillbilly” musicians Vernon Dalhart, “Aunt” Samantha Bumgarner, Cliff Carlisle, the North Carolina Ramblers, the Carter Family, and Jimmie Rodgers (Dawidoff, 1998). The last two, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, are considered to be the most important early country musicians (Dawidoff, 1998). These two were the first artists to record at the historic Bristol Sessions. The Carter Family made traditional American folk music, ballads, and gospel hymns that later on influenced country music, as well as other genres like bluegrass, Southern Gospel, and even pop and rock music (Dawidoff, 1998). Jimmie Rodgers is a pioneer in combining different genres of music. His songs were a fusion of hillbilly country, gospel, jazz, blues, pop, cowboy, and folk music (Dawidoff, 1998). These early country musicians introduced country music to the United States. They created music that represented Southern folklore and heritage and shaped the sound of country music for generations to come.
The rise of the radio as a source of entertainment shaped the second generation of country music. Country music was played in radios not just in the Southern regions but also in some Northern and Western states. In Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry was established. The Grand Ole Opry is a long-standing tradition of country music. The Opry started as a radio show and became a weekly music stage concert that introduced the most influential second generation of country musicians (Dawidoff, 1998). Uncle Dave Macon, Roy Acuff, and DeFord Bailey were introduced at the Grand Ole Opry.
A variety of subgenres of country music emerged between the 1930s and 1940s. New artists added their own twists to traditional country music. The popularization of cowboy films, for instance, gave rise to cowboy and western music and singing cowboys and cowgirls (Dawidoff, 1998). Western swing, country boogie, bluegrass, folk and gospel, and honky tonk also rose to fame. But most notably, a few country bands introduced drums and electric guitar into the mix (Dawidoff, 1998). This was received negatively by conservative audiences and by the Grand Ole Opry itself (Dawidoff, 1998). However, these two new additions stayed and became integral in the next generation.
While the second generation saw different sub genres of country music emerge, the third generation saw these sub-genres merge. Dominated by the sound of cowboy ballads, the third generation of country bands produced music that fused Western swing, country boogie, and honky tonk. Folk revival and folk rock were also inching their way into the country music scene. However, due to folk revival and folk rock musicians’ progressive activism, they did not quite succeed and only a few of them managed to cross over.
A notable development in the third generation of country music is the emergence of rockabilly after the World War II, which is an early form of rock and roll (Dawidoff, 1998). Rockabilly is one of the evidences that the electric guitar and drums stayed with country music. Along with this, rockabilly was influenced by western swing, boogie-woogie, jump blues, and electric blues. The Maddox Brothers and Rose is one of the first rockabilly groups. More artists started to blend different musical styles that had great influences on rockabilly and country music in general (Dawidoff, 1998). Meanwhile, honky tonk lyricism became the vogue. Songs focused on working class life and themes of lost love, loneliness, alcoholism, and self-pity. However, songs about singing and dancing were equally popular (Dawidoff, 1998). Country music of this era appealed to the realities of its listeners while also giving them upbeat beats to dance to.
Nashville is also instrumental in the continued rise of country music. Nashville sounds brought country music closer to pop. But Nashville sound refers also to how music was produced (Dawidoff, 1998). In Nashville, artists do not write their own songs. Country musicians pick from an array of songs produced by song writers (Dawidoff, 1998). This system of paying someone else to produce songs became prevalent throughout the genre and spread to mainstream pop music.
The 1970s and 1980s saw a confluence of pop music and rock with country music. A new subgenre also emerged, outlaw country. With Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, and Waylon Jennings at the forefront, outlaw country revolutionized country music (Hight, 2018). The movement emphasized the feeling of being out of place in society while combining the sounds of honky tonk and rockabilly. However, the revolution started when Jennings and Nelson won the right to record with producers and studio musicians they preferred, as well as write their own material and have creative input in their albums (Dawidoff, 1998). Other country artists also started embracing this practice and veered away from the packaged version that developed from Nashville. Since then, more country artists write their own songs and are involved in the development of their albums.
Country rock emerged as an aftermath of the British Invasion when many people wanted to return to the “old values” of rock and roll. Rock and roll merged with Nashville sounds, producing country rock. One of the first to embrace the new genre were Bob Dylan and Gene Clark (Dawidoff, 1998). Other artists, Neil Young, the Allman Brothers, Buffalo Springfield, Eagles, and Ian & Sylvia, soon followed suit (Dawidoff, 1998). Although rock and country were perceived as polar opposites, the merging of the two genres during the 70s and 80s resulted in other subgenres of country rock that were embraced by other country musicians such as Dolly Parton, Juice Newton, Shania Twain, Faith Hill, and Garth Brooks.
Going against the grain appears to be the theme of the fourth generation of country music. The last movement in this generation is the neotraditionalist movement which embraced traditional sounds to mainstream country pop. They wanted to return to the original sounds of country music—bluegrass, folk and gospel, western swing, and honky tonk. Reba McEntire, Travis Tritt, Alan Jackson, Ricky Skaggs, Patty Loveless, and many other country musicians embodied the neotraditionalist movement in their music (Dawidoff, 1998). These country musicians also veered way from the Nashville tradition and chose to write their own songs.
The fifth generation of country music is characterized by the expansion of FM radio to suburban and rural areas. Country music, then, was no longer played exclusively in AM station and reached a wider audience (Strauss, 2002). As such, producers were encouraged to polish their music further.
Punk rock and alternative rock are the two major genres that came about in the 1980s, and while most people would not imagine these genres interacting with country music, they did. Alt country is the subgenre brought about by Southern Californian artists (Dawidoff, 1998). These artists rejected the conservative sounds that were produced in Nashville and favored outlaw country and the neotraditionalist movement (Hight, 2018). Alternative country artists, such as the Bottle Rockets, the Handsome Family, Blood Oranges, and Ryan Adams, rose to fame despite little support from country radio. Instead of radio, alternative country was featured in numerous films, such as O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Strauss, 2002). Alternative country continues to be one of the most popular subgenres. Contemporary country artists like the Civil Wars and Kacey Musgraves attained mainstream success producing alt-country songs.
Women also made a splash in the fifth generation of country music. Although, women have been integral throughout the history of country music, the 1990s saw an unprecedented rise in popularity of women in the genre. Reba McEntire, Faith Hill, Martina McBride, Patty Loveless, LeAnn Rimes, Shania Twain, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and the Dixie Chicks were all successful country artists. Shania Twain even achieved international success. This generation of country musicians did not use their sexual appeal that was pervasive especially in the earlier days of country music (Hight). This generation focused on refining their music, incorporating different genres and writing truthful lyrics, to attract audiences.
Country music expanded even further as artists incorporated pop, rock, and R&B (Hight, 2018). Artists from other genres, in particular, rock, also commonly feature country songs in their rock albums. Country soared to become part of mainstream popular culture with Carrie Underwood, Kristy Lee Cook, Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, as well as younger singers Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift who are some of the most popular country singers in popular culture (Hight, 2018). One would notice the heavy pop inclination of these artists, with the exception of Kacey Musgraves who leans toward alt-country. In fact, Taylor Swift latest albums crossed over to pop.
Bro country, popularized by artists like Blake Sheldon, Luke Bryan, and Florida Georgia Line, produced songs that focused on drinking, partying, pick-up trucks, and women (Hight, 2018). These became popular for depicting common themes in the life of its listeners. However, this subgenre is not well-received within the community of country artists due to its poor depiction of women (Hight, 2018). Nevertheless, the subgenre pushed country music further to the top as one of the most popular genres in the US.
These two are the most popular sub-genres of country music in the 2010s. However, bluegrass country, which revived the tradition of bluegrass music, and Americana, country music, bluegrass, folk, gospel, rhythm and blues, roots rock and southern soul also gained some level of prominence.
True to its origins of incorporating various music styles that encompass the taste of Americans, country music evolved with the taste of the masses through the years. As this research paper demosntrated, country music has become an amalgamation not just of the older folk music but also of the popular music of the times. The origins of country music are still traceable despite the numerous transformations it has undergone and the multitude of influences it has acquired. The honky tonk lyricism of the third generation that focused on realities of its listeners can be felt in the confessional style lyricism of Taylor Swift, Kelsea Ballerini, Walker Hayes and many other contemporary country musicians. The country music of this generation may sound drastically different from its predecessors, but the essence of the first generation’s country music remains.
Dawidoff, N. (1998, April 28). In the Country Of Country: A Journey to the Roots Of American Music. Random House.
Hight, J. (2018, August). In the Write: The Evolution Of Country Music in Nashville. Vulture. Retrieved from: https://www.vulture.com/2018/08/the-evolution-of-country-music-in-nashville.html.
Strauss, N. (2002, March 24). “The Country Music Country Radio Ignores.” The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2002/03/24/movies/music-the-country-music-country-radio-ignores.html