Country music (frequently referred to as just country) is a genre of United States popular music that originated in the southern United States in the 1920s. It takes its roots from the southeastern genre of United States, such as folk music (especially Appalachian folk music), and blues music.
Country music often consists of ballads and dance tunes with generally simple forms and harmonies accompanied by mostly string instruments such as banjos, electric and acoustic guitars, dobros and fiddles as well as harmonicas. According to Lindsey Starnes, the term country music gained popularity in the 1940s in preference to the earlier term hillbilly music; it came to encompass Western music, which evolved parallel to hillbilly music from similar roots, in the mid-20th century.
The term country music is used today to describe many styles and subgenres. The origins of country music are the folk music of working-class Americans, who blended popular songs, Irish and Celtic fiddle tunes, traditional English ballads, and cowboy songs, and various musical traditions from European immigrant communities.
The First Generation Emerged In The Early 1920s
Atlanta's music scene played a major role in launching country's earliest recording artists in the early 1920s—many Appalachian people had come to the city to work in its cotton mills and brought their music with them. It would remain a major recording center for two decades and a major performance center for four decades, up to the first country music TV shows on local Atlanta stations in the 1950s. Some record companies in Atlanta turned away early artists such as Fiddlin' John Carson, while others realized that his music would fit perfectly with the lifestyle of the country's agricultural workers. The first commercial recordings of what was considered country music were "Arkansas Traveler" and "Turkey in the Straw" by fiddlers Henry Gilliland & A.C. (Eck) Robertson on June 30, 1922, for Victor Records and released in April 1923. Columbia Records began issuing records with "hillbilly" music (series 15000D "Old Familiar Tunes") as early as 1924. Pictured Left: A.P Carter, Sara & Mother Maybelle Carter)
A year later, 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 1924 with "Wreck of the Old 97". The flip side of the record was "Lonesome Road Blues", which also became very popular. In April 1924, "Aunt" Samantha Bumgarner and Eva Davis became the first female musicians to record and release country songs.
Many "hillbilly" musicians, such as Cliff Carlisle, recorded blues songs throughout the decade and into the 1930s. Other important early recording artists were Riley Puckett, Don Richardson, Fiddlin' John Carson, Uncle Dave Macon, Al Hopkins, Ernest V. Stoneman, 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.
Pictured Left: Vernon Dalhart
Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family are widely considered to be important early country musicians. Their songs were first captured at a historic recording session in Bristol, Tennessee, on August 1, 1927, where Ralph Peer was the talent scout and sound recordist. A scene in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? depicts a similar occurrence in the same time frame.
Rodgers fused hillbilly country, gospel, jazz, blues, pop, cowboy, and folk, and many of his best songs were his compositions, including "Blue Yodel", 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.
Pictured Left: Jimmie Rodgers
Second Generation (1930s–1940s)
Record sales declined during the Great Depression, but radio became a popular source of entertainment, and "barn dance" shows featuring country music were started by radio stations all over the South, as far north as Chicago, and as far west as California.
The most important was the Grand Ole Opry, aired starting in 1925 by WSM in Nashville and continuing to the present day. Some of the early stars on the Opry were Uncle Dave Macon, Roy Acuff and African American harmonica player DeFord Bailey. WSM's 50,000-watt signal (in 1934) could often be heard across the country.
Many musicians performed and recorded songs in any number of styles. Moon Mullican, for example, played Western swing but also recorded songs that can be called rockabilly. Between 1947 and 1949, country crooner Eddy Arnold placed eight songs in the top 10. From 1945 to 1955 Jenny Lou Carson was one of the most prolific songwriters in country music.
Pictured Left: Roy Acuff - far right
Singing Cowboys and Western Swing
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.
Country music and western music were frequently played together on the same radio stations, hence the term country and western music. Cowgirls contributed to the sound in various family groups. Patsy Montana opened the door for female artists with her history-making song "I Want To Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart". This would begin a movement toward opportunities for women to have successful solo careers.
Bob Wills was 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. His mix of country and jazz, which started out as dance hall music, would become known as Western swing. Cliff Bruner, Moon Mullican, Milton Brown, Adolph Hofner.
Pee Wee King & His Golden West Cowboys were other early Western swing pioneers. Spade Cooley and Tex Williams also had very popular bands and appeared in films. At its height, Western swing rivaled the popularity of big band swing music.
Pictured Left: L-R: Redd Stewart, Eddy Arnold, unknown, unknown, Pee Wee King
Generations of Country Music
First Generation - Emerged in the early 1920s
Second Generation - 1930s-1940s
Third Generation - 1950s-1960s
Fourth Generation - 1970s-1980s
Fifth Generation - 1990s
Sixth Generation - 2000s-present
Pictured Left: Redd Stewart (left) & Pee Wee King (middle)
On June 19, 1926, DeFord Bailey made his Grand Ole Opry debut, becoming the first African-American performer on the show.
Moon Mullican - They called him the King of the Hillbilly Piano Players.
Bob Wills Publicity Photo - taken around (1942)