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Old 07-20-2022, 10:07 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Stranger in Town: Trollheart's History of Country Music

This is in the journals section, but nobody seems to have been interested, so I thought maybe it might do better here, where it might be more appreciated.


It's that old joke, isn't it? You know the one, from the movie The Blues Brothers? Jake (or is it Elwood, I never remember) asks the waitress what kind of music they play in the bar, and she, with a winning smile, assures him "Oh we got BOTH types here, hon! Country AND Western!"

Yeah, Country gets a bad rap; it certainly did from me, for a long time. Look, I'm not particularly proud of it but I won't try to deny I was in my youth something of a music snob. I liked what I liked, and the hell with everything else. Pop music was out. Reggae was out. Punk was out. And so on. And Country was definitely out.

See, I had some very bad preconceived notions of this type of music. Firstly, that it all basically sounded the same, which it probably does to someone who doesn't invest the time to look into it properly, as I never had any intention of doing when I was a young rocker. Secondly, that it was "old people's music". Well, to an extent I couldn't be blamed for that. Country is a very old genre, one of the oldest in fact, dating back to the 1920s, and with the exception of classical is probably one of the few other than folk and traditional (often lumped in together, sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly) that is still both relevant and popular today. It's the music our parents and possibly grandparents may have listened to, but with its broadening appeal as it stretches over into the realms of both rock and pop (and, in some isolated instances, even hip-hop!) the younger folks are getting into it too.

So country music still has its place, and with artists like Garth Brooks and Shania Twain flying the flag, it doesn't look like it's going away any time soon. In this journal I intend to explore this much-maligned and oft-ridiculed genre, find out more about it and dispel some of the myths and prejudices regarding this most American of music styles. I'm quite aware that there are people here far more versed in country than I am, and to that end I'm always ready to learn, so dispense your wisdom here.

Like my history of progressive rock, this will follow a timeline, probably quite rigidly, and I’ll be listening to - but almost certainly not reviewing - important albums along the way. I don’t have in any way the same knowledge of country that I do of prog rock, so I will be guided by my usual research tools, and anyone who wants to cowboy up and lend a rube from out of town a helpin’ hand, why that’d be right welcome of you, sir. Or ma’am. I hope nobody thinks I’m taking liberties with their favourite music genre here; I really do want to understand and get to know it better, and my explorations thus far have led forward rather than back. I don’t like all of the current country music, though I will say there is some that is, if you’ll pardon the expression, mighty fine. So feel free to join in, add your expertise, or just follow me in your pickup as we rattle on down the dusty highway, to paraphrase Waits, lookin' for the heart of country music.
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Old 07-20-2022, 10:37 AM   #2 (permalink)
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How far back are we talking about, like the 1920s? It's one of the oldest American genres of music.
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Old 07-20-2022, 10:39 AM   #3 (permalink)
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Yeah back to Appalachian music if I remember. Pretty far.
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Old 07-20-2022, 01:28 PM   #4 (permalink)
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As I said in the introduction, country music has its roots all the way back in the 1920s, which makes it almost one hundred years old as a genre. That’s impressive. Most genres from that far back, if they even survive today, will be relegated to “niche” or at least specialised areas, such as folk and traditional, both of which, while they do occasionally break out and cross some genre lines and occasionally bother the charts, tend to be fairly rigidly adored by just the fans of those genres. Of course, nothing is that straightforward, and a punk, pop or hip-hop fan could very well have some folk or trad in his or her collection (particularly the former, with the popular crossover into folk and Celtic punk) but there’s generally not the broad appeal among those genres that there is within country.

There’s a saying - don’t know where it came from; could be a song. I know I heard it first on South Park - “I’m a little bit country”, and it’s true of most of us, to some extent. Certainly, there will be those who are huge, serious country fans, who know all the bands, the artists and can all but quote you the history of this music. They don’t have to be older people (though I would imagine most of them are), but those who are that dedicated to country seem to me to be more or less disinterested in other genres. A country fan listens to country, and that’s it. They’re very loyal to their music, and some of that I suppose comes from its being identified with and linked with the places they know: there are, I believe, places in rural America where all you can hear is country.

If you had slapped down a hundred Euro and bet me I couldn’t name the birthplace of country music, I would have snatched up that money and grinned “Easy. Nashville, of course!” And a moment later I would have been regretting my overconfidence bordering on arrogance, and handing back that money along with some of my own, because although this sounds as simple a question as declaring that the blues began in the Mississippi Delta or that the first progressive rock explosion was in England, it’s completely wrong. Right state, wrong city, apparently.

The official birthplace of country music is Bristol, Tennessee, where the famous Bristol Sessions were held, which made stars of The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers in 1927, as Victor Talking Machine Company executive Ralph Peer, of whom we will hear much more later, travelled across the country in search of new stars to record. Incidentally, Peer was the one who invented the idea of artists being paid royalties for their songs, so I guess if you’re an illegal downloader or hate the record companies for ripping you off, he’s the man to blame. I wouldn’t recommend dancing on his grave though, as I expect it’s a pretty revered site, given that he appears to be essentially the man who invented or discovered, or at least brought to the masses, country music.

Of course, we should not forget the original progenitor of country music, hillbilly music, nor its great-grandpappy, Appalachian folk music. The latter goes back as far as the seventeenth century, when settlers from England, Ireland and Scotland arrived in the Appalachia region of the USA, which covers an area from southern New York to northern Georgia and Alabama. Bringing with them their traditional songs and ballads, they influenced a new style of music in the 1920s which became known as hillbilly music. Something of a derogatory term these days, country music was all known as hillbilly music up until about the 1950s, and used primarily instruments such as banjos, fiddles and accordions in mostly lively, dancy type songs with relatively simple lyrical matter - simple music, you might say, for and from simple folks. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.

Interesting side note: hillbilly music that was infused with the traditional sound of African America and subsumed into pop music was called… rockabilly. And to some extent, that’s still around today.

With the formation of the Country Music Association in 1958, hillbilly music was renamed country, or sometimes country and western, and the only real styles still referred to, occasionally, as hillbilly these days are bluegrass and old-time music.

But back to our friend Mr. Peer, the possible godfather of country music, or at least its midwife. Offering fifty dollars a day to anyone who would turn up to his recording sessions and play, he eventually recorded a total of nineteen different artists singing over seventy songs over the course of two weeks in Bristol. The two major stars to emerge from these sessions were the aforementioned Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family, and country (or as it was still to be called for some time, hillbilly) music was introduced to America. It’s never been quite the same since.
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Old 07-20-2022, 02:07 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Given country's longevity and pedigree, while it has splintered into many, many sub-genres, which we'll be going into soon, it has also gone through, literally, separate generations, characterised as much by the times and the places it originated in as by the people who played it.

Note: This is just a primer. We will be delving deeply into each generation, sub-genre and of course artist during this history.

First Generation

The First Generation of Country Music (let’s not call it hillbilly, shall we?) - the Carters, Rodgers, Fiddlin’ Joe Carson, Cliff Carlisle - had originally to make the long trip to New York if they wanted to record: there were no studios down south. Many didn’t have the money to do that, most probably didn't care, happy to perform live. But the arrival of Ralph Peer changed all that and allowed them to finally get their music out there. Traditionally based on fiddle or banjo, country music reached something of a milestone after a chance meeting between Jimmy Tariton and famous Hawaiian guitarist Frank Fererra, leading to the development of what would become a staple of the genre, and still is: the steel guitar.

Gospel music of course played a large part in the genesis of country music, but we don’t want to stray too far, and the last time I walked into a church a statue nearly fell on me (true story! Well, maybe not…) so probably not going to wander off the beaten path that much. However, the influence of “the Lord’s music” on country can’t be overstated. Jazz and blues of course also played their part, and almost more than any other music, country is a mix of various other genres, artists taking what they wanted or needed and creating their own style.

Second Generation

First Generation artists had to make do with recording on wax, but by the 1930s a whole new media system had come into being, and the Second Generation had access to the new-fangled radio, which picked up on the country sensation and broadcast barn dances and country music shows, with the biggest and still the most famous being the Grand Ole Opry, which opened in 1923 and is still going. Guess where? Yup: Nashville. Accounting then, I guess, for the influx of country musicians to the studios there, and the city’s becoming the mecca of country music.

Cowboy songs recorded in the twenties were given new life by Hollywood, and the kings of the “Singing Cowboys” were Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, both of whom starred in almost one hundred movies between 1934 and 1953 and even went on to have their own television show. Westerns, which became hugely popular in the US and overseas in the 1930s and really stayed in vogue till around the late 1960s and even on into the 1970s, introduced a new audience to the music of country and western, spreading its influence further than radio ever could have done. As cowboy, or “western” music was often played alongside country music on the same radio stations, the two having similar characteristics, the term “country and western” was born.

The Second Generation was also the time when the women began to come out of the homestead and into the studio, so to speak. Although there had been the odd female performer in the First Generation - Eva Davis and “Aunt” Samantha Bumgarner became the very first female artists to record and release country songs, and of course there was The Carter Family, but they were definitely in the minority. As usual. It was from western films that this began to change, when cowgirl Patsy Montana had a hit with “I Want to be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart”, which sold over a million copies, and ten years later Jenny Carlson was the most prolific songwriter in country music.

During the Second Generation we get the birth of the sub-genre which came to be known as Western Swing, which incorporates elements of jazz and dance hall music. Western swing also seems to be the first example of country music wherein an electric guitar was used, whereas up to then if guitars were used at all they were acoustic. We also see the rise of “crossover” genres such as hillbilly boogie, which incorporated elements of, well, boogie into the music and was known for breaking the sacred country code of not using electric guitars as well as Honky Tonk, fusing Western Swing with Mexican ranchera music and blues, and seems to have used neither fiddle nor banjo in its recordings. Oddly enough, neither do pianos appear, though I’ve certainly heard of honky tonk piano. Must be in some other genre, or later on.

Third Generation

The Third Generation began in the 1950s, just as television was making its debut, and with it came the emergence of Bluegrass, a hillbilly offshoot of Appalachian folk music pioneered by Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Bluegrass is typically more banjo or fiddle-oriented, normally played at a faster pace than some of the more maudlin, slower country music, and with a great deal of exuberance - almost, you might say, the punk or speed metal of country. Maybe.To quote Monroe (and he should know) it’s “Scottish bagpipes and ole time fiddlin’. It’s Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It’s blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound.” There are three sub-genres of bluegrass: traditional, progressive and gospel, but we’ll get to those later.

Politics, sometimes a uniting force but more usually a divisive one, proved the latter as country music tutted at its more rebellious brother, folk music, and particularly the folk revival movement, which was all about taking on the system, while the neo-conservatism of country music believed the system was just fine, and if you’re a-thinkin’ otherwise, well I got me two full barrels here! Few artists managed the crossover from folk to country, Western music, on the other hand, was just fine, standing back to back and shoulder to shoulder with country music against the rising tide of new young’uns, preserving the traditional values in a world in which those values were slowly being eroded away, or becoming less and less relevant. It reached its peak in 1959 with Marty Robbins’s hit “El Paso” getting to number one both in the country and pop charts.

Country had always been the music of the working-class man though, and for a lot of people working meant sitting behind the wheel, and so a new sub-genre was born at this time, which would become known as, you guessed it: trucker country. People like Red Sovine and Dave Dudley would bring a new type of country music to the downtrodden working stiff. In 1953 the first ever country music station was opened, in Lubbock, Texas. Yet another sub-genre, rockabilly, taking the precepts of rock and roll as its guide, would give us future giants such as Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and the King.

By the late 1960s the singing western, or musical western movie was on the way out. A new generation wanted more realism and less singing. They had grown up learning of the real fighting men of the west, and they knew that the true cowboy did not carry a guitar but a gun. They weren’t interested in gentlemanly cowboys who serenaded senoritas down Mexico way, or whistled happily as they drove the cattle rustlers before them to the jolly sheriff's office. As Homer once moaned “Oh no! They’re singing! Why are they singing? Why aren’t they killing each other? Their guns are right there!” Blood, guts, bravery, drama and above all action - proper action - this was what was needed. The generation that had swooned and sighed over Rogers and Autrey (some of the women were as bad), and bought their records, were retired now, and their successors wanted something different, something at least halfway believable.

And Hollywood responded, with Peckinpah and Leone, with a slew of “gritty” westerns like Ride the High Country, Hombre and of course The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; with tough-guy actors like Eastwood and Newman and Redford, and a whole new take on the Wild West. In these movies there was no room for singing cowboys: the themes were stark and haunting (who can forget Ennio Morricone’s theme to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly?) and music very definitely took a second, or third seat to action, drama and violence. The day of the singing cowboy was over, and western music (as opposed to country) was on the decline. There would, however, be room for the cowboy ballad and honky-tonk music when the new outlaw country surfaced in the 1970s.
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Old 07-20-2022, 02:14 PM   #6 (permalink)
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The Nashville Sound

The Nashville Sound came into being in the mid-fifties and had by the late 1960s successfully overtaken the “honky tonk” sub-genre that had up till then dominated radio airplay, and was seen as rough and ready music, perhaps we could call it roughneck country and still be able to show our faces on the streets of Bakersfield. Record companies considered it too raw for radio, and I suppose in the way “true” or what they call “free” jazz is seen as a totally different animal to smooth jazz, The Nashville Sound became the smoother, more acceptable and certainly more commercial and saleable face of country music, with artists like Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, Don Gibson and later on, the King himself, Elvis Presley. He, of course, would be more linked with the rockabilly sound, but as already explained above, this itself was an offshoot of country, or indeed, hillbilly music.

The Bakersfield Sound

But the Nashville Sound artists didn’t have it all their own way. In the late sixties a new sound began to emerge, latching on to the newborn rock and roll, and bringing in significant changes with the widespread use of electric instruments. Some of the Bakersfield Sound’s biggest stars were Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Jean Shephard, Tommy Collins and Freddie Hart. Later on, and crossing genre divides somewhat, the Bakersfield Sound was carried on by classic rock bands such as The Grateful Dead, The Byrds and Creedence Clearwater Revival, who would, with many others, including Bob Dylan, create a new sub-genre: Country Rock. The Bakersfield Sound was also responsible for the sudden growth of guitar shops in the area as the West Coast Sound, as it was to be known, took such influences later from the Bakersfield Sound.

The Next Wave of the Nashville Sound - Countrypolitan

In a way that seems perhaps to mirror the later attack of punk rock on progressive rock, or even I guess rock and roll on the mainstream bands of the time, the Bakersfield Sound was a direct reaction to the new incarnation of its smoother rival, the Nashville Sound, which by now had morphed into what became known as Countrypolitan, using full orchestras, lush arrangements and vocal choirs, and targeting the more mature and refined audience. With the deaths of two of the biggest stars in the Nashville Sound, Patsy Cline in 1963 and Jim Reeves the following year, the Bakersfield Sound had begun to gain ground, but Countrypolitan fought back and eventually dominated with artists such as Glenn Campbell, Charley Pride, Charlie Rich, Lynne Anderson, Tammy Wynette and George Jones. This would basically set the scene for what would become a kind of crossover to pop in the 1970s, as country artists would have hits outside of the country charts. Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” and Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” are still remembered today, even by those who have no interest in country music, and have become music, rather than just country standards.

Country Rock

As mentioned above, artists like The Byrds and the Dead, Creedence and Bob Dylan began to take country influences into their music, mostly if not all from the harder-edged, rawer Bakersfield Sound, and in fact it was Dylan who eschewed the zeitgeist of the time, hippie psychedelia and experimentation, and instead went back to rock’s basic roots, heading to Nashville to record his album Blonde on Blonde. Quickly followed by The Byrds, this engendered a rush by other bands to follow suit, and artists like Linda Ronstadt, The Eagles The Doobie Brothers and Emmylou Harris began also fusing the two genres, until country rock was a thing. Later this would also give way to Southern Rock/Southern Boogie, but that might just be a sub-genre bridge too far; we’ll have to see. Certainly “Sweet Home Alabama” is a very country-influenced song, but whether we want to step over the state line and start blurring the distinction too much I have yet to decide, at least insofar as my own writing goes.

Fourth Generation

As the 1970s hit so too did country pop, which is still with us today, although in a more polished and some would say more soulless form, this derived of course from the original Nashville Sound and Countrypolitan, while the Bakersfield Sound gave us outlaw country, of which the two main stars to emerge were to be Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. Punk got in on the act too, as cowpunk resulted in bands like Jason and the Scorchers and The Long Ryders, while John Denver rose to fame in 1972 with a soft, crooning kind of music perhaps harking back to the old “cowboy songs” of Gene Autry et al. Then disco tried to claim country in 1980, but neo disco country was shot in the head by artists such as George Strait, Ricky Skaggs and Randy Travis pioneered Neotraditional country, who were determined to take country back to its roots, idolising the likes of Hank Williams and George Jones.

The 1970s and 1980s were the heyday of country pop, when artists like Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton had hits on both sides of the country divide, and others like Juice Newton, Willie Nelson and Crystal Gayle scored serious points on the mainstream charts, most hitting the top five or ten with their releases. John Denver was a major figure in country pop, as was Olivia Newton-John, possibly (though unconfirmed by me) the first act from Australia to break into the American country scene, in fact winning the Country Music Association’s award for Female Vocalist of the Year in 1975, something that irked traditional country artists like George Strait and Tammy Wynette. There was, however, no stopping the march of musical progress, whether it was seen by Strait and his cohorts as a march backwards, or by Parton et al as vindicating their talent and introducing them to a new audience.

Bands hailing from the state of Oklahoma became known as Red Dirt, due to the colour of the soil found at Stillwater, OK. Incidentally, Oklahoma was also the home of Western Swing and the Tulsa Sound. The main thing about Red Dirt seems to have been the breadth of different sounds, the experimentation and the supposed impossibility of pinning it down to one style. In some ways, it’s been likened to indie music, in others punk. Or to put it in the words of one Stillwater resident, singer-songwriter Jimmy LaFave: "It's kind of hard to put into words, but if you ever drive down on the (Mississippi) Delta, you can almost hear that blues sound," he explains. "Go to New Orleans, and you can almost hear the Dixieland jazz. Go to San Francisco, and you get that psychedelic-music vibe. You hear the Red Dirt sound when you go through Stillwater. It has to do with the spirit of the people. There's something different about them. They're not Texans, they're Okies, and I think the whole Red Dirt sound is just as important to American musicology as the San Francisco Sound or any of the rest. It's distinctly its own thing."

Bands linked with red dirt include Moses, The Great Divide, No Justice, Red Dirt Rangers and Bob Childers, the latter of whom is seen as the father of the sub-genre. Some describe it simply as country music with attitude while others believe it’s impossible to describe properly. Red dirt contains elements of Americana, folk and the later alt-country.
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Old 07-20-2022, 02:20 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Fifth Generation

This seems to be split mostly between neotraditional acts such as Randy Travis and Alan Jackson, and the new emerging sub-genre of stadium rock in country music, typified by the likes of Garth Brooks and The Dixie Chicks. The extension of FM radio signals to city and suburban areas meant that the country music stations, who had been up until now broadcasting on AM, mostly or only in rural areas, were now able to reach the cities, and this allowed more people than ever to hear country music. Allied to this was the abandonment by many stations of their former “muzak” format to embrace country. Of course, this wider availability of country music did also mean that the rougher, rawer sound of the past decade was no longer feasible for radio or for record sales, and accordingly production became more polished and tended more to target the pop and casual audience, rather than appeal to the die-hard country fan.

With the arrival of country stadium rock, not only were records by country artists selling well in the mainstream, the whole profile of country music had risen and acts such as Brooks could command top dollar for their tickets. Conversely, artists were expected to provide value for money, leading to the perhaps rather silly sight of old Garth flying around on a highwire on stage like some latter-day country version of Peter Pan! Other artists such as Travis Tritt, Clint Black and Toby Keith became very popular in this generation, as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s. Female artists, who had been somewhat restricted to the likes of Dolly Parton, Crystal Gayle, Emmylou Harris and Tammy Wynette in the previous decade, began to come into their own, with Reba McIntyre, Shania Twain and Faith Hill all having Platinum albums.

On the other side of the coin, the 1990s saw the rise of Alt-Country (literally, alternative country) as bands lashed back against the established order and the new wave of pop country artists, incorporating elements of punk and alternative rock in their sound. Building a little on the idea of outlaw country, and pushing the boundaries thereof, bands like Bright Eyes, Jason and the Scorchers, Lucinda Williams, Drive-by Truckers, Old 97s and Steve Earle looked more to the music of old hands such as Woodie Guthrie, Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt for their inspiration. Cowpunk bands such as Lone Justice and the Long Ryders were also part of the alt-country scene. Perhaps vindicating the “alt” tag in their new sub-genre, these bands were largely ignored by the mostly conservative established country radio stations and got little airplay, but became known to listeners through soundtracks to movies, and the breakout of artists such as Earle and Ryan Adams into the mainstream, where they could no longer be ignored.

Sixth Generation

Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, though artists still play and thrive at the likes of outlaw country and neotraditionalist venues and clubs, the genre itself has been watered down to such an extent that we have pop playing a far greater role in the music of country artists, so that your Taylor Swifts and Carrie Underwoods are often cited by people who “think they know country”, while Faith Hill, despite being married to country star Tim McGraw, can really only claim the most tenuous link to the genre through her mostly pop-oriented songs, as can Shania and others. Such sub-genres as the godawful Bro Country have risen, marrying the worst of pop/boyband tropes with the most inoffensive country strains, drinking songs and questionable attitude towards women, with more emphasis on love of trucks, especially pickups, than girlfriends, resulting in a coupling that should really be seeking divorce right now.

For better or worse, many, even most artists, whatever their genre (with the exception - mostly - of hip-hop, and one would assume this is more due to a racial disparity - country being traditionally, and mostly still, seen as “music for whites”) have tended to dabble in country music. Richard Marx included five country songs on his album Days of Avalon, while Bon Jovi’s Lost Highway album was reviled by many fans and critics as being “too country”. Other pop artists have successfully (commercially at least, if not always aesthetically) mixed country with their pop tunes and have made a bundle and created a huge following. We’ve already mentioned Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift, but there have been tons of others: Kelly Clarkson, Faith Hill, Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town, Miranda Lambert, The Shires… the list goes on and on, some better than others, some more country and some more pop. Shania Twain and Melissa Etheridge continue to enjoy mass appeal, and nearly everyone loves Dolly and knows a song or two.

It would be unfair, unkind and wrong to say that The 9/11 attacks were a godsend to country music, but there’s no denying that they helped bring the more traditional values of country - nationalism, god-fearing, patriotism and fighting back - to the fore again, and very much into the mainstream. Toby Keith, Alan Jackson, Ryan Adams, Trace Adkins, even the largely-forgotten Charlie Daniels, remembered by most for that one song, all stood up to the terrorists as country music came together and shook its collective fist in the direction of - well, wherever the terrorists lived, they guessed. Or down towards Satan in Hell. Who cared? They were showing Al Quada, and the world at large, that while you certainly don’t mess with Texas, you do not fuck with the United States. Naturally, such patriotic fervour was laughed at by the terrorists but did not do any harm to the artists' often-flagging record sales, just sayin'.

Of course, though country music as a genre began in the USA it has since spread far and wide, with even the stupid Irish getting in on the act (believe me, you do NOT want to hear an Irish country song! Not unless you have medical insurance, cos you’ll need to have your ears amputated) and countries as diverse as Germany and India, the Philippines and even Iran! However this is not intended to be a detailed, blow-by-blow, country-by-country chronological history of country music, and is merely presented here as a basic guide, so that ignorant people like me, who know, or knew until I began researching and listening to it, next to nothing about country music can get a decent grounding in what it’s all about, how it began and how wide and varied the breadth of music is.

If nothing else has come out of my research (and it definitely has) then I’ve learned that country music is not all about pig farmers playing banjos and sitting around singing about tractors and women, the Dust Bowl and how times used to be better. It’s got a long and varied history, and it deserves some damn respect.

Through this journal, that's what I hope and intend it will get.
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Old 07-24-2022, 03:33 PM   #8 (permalink)
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Chapter I: Go Tell it on the Mountain:
The Courtship of Country Music


“All of American music comes from the same place, it's just sort of where it ends up, and country music is one of the destinations.” - Ketch Secor, Old Crow Medicine Show

There are probably few if any music genres made up of so many different types of music as country music. Note, I don’t mean it has a lot of sub-genres - it does, like most other music genres - but nearly every other genre has come into being as the fusion of one, two or maybe three other types of broadly similar music. Country is, well, different. It would have to be, being, as I mentioned at the start, one of the oldest surviving forms of music. Among the many and varied traditions that went together to give a sort of birth to what we now know as country music were Appalachian music, Folk music, Blues, Old Time music, Cajun, Creole, Western Music, Celtic, Singing Cowboys, Corrido, Ranchera, French Folk music, Norteno, Folk music of the British Isles, Africa-American music and of course Gospel music. Not all of these genres of music are always present in country music, but each of them has and mostly continues to have an influence on the genre.

A question usually asked of any genre of music is where did it begin, where did it come from and who, for want of a better word, invented it? Who can we look back to and say that he, she or they is or are the father/mother, godfather/mother or grandfather/grandmother of the music? In some genres, this isn’t hard to ascertain. Most people will agree that Deep Purple and Black Sabbath are the godfathers of heavy metal, Genesis, ELP and Yes are among the progenitors of progressive rock, and The New York Dolls and The Sex Pistols invented punk rock. It’s harder to find a common source for jazz or classical, and the further back you go into the music’s origins the murkier those origins become, making it very difficult to assign the title of “first” or “creator” of the music style.

With country music it’s even harder, mostly due to the wide range of influences that came to bear from the 1920s on to coalesce into the country music we have today, broadly speaking. Rather than try to answer the rather impossible question then, the question without a true answer, it’s probably best to look back to the beginnings of the genre, by examining the many types of music that lent something of themselves to the formation of country music.


Appalachian music

For those, like me, who aren’t American and for whom the word means pretty much nothing, Appalachia is an area in the eastern United States, basically running from Upstate New York down to Alabama and Georgia, and it was to here that settlers from Britain, Northern Ireland and Scotland arrived in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, and like any immigrants they brought with them music to remind them of home, and maintain a link to the old country. Mostly these were ballads, sung acapella, more stories in song format than anything else, and obviously very heavily dependent on the lyrical matter, as they were listened to primarily for the story they told and not necessarily for the cadences - or indeed skill - of the singer. Ballads could be (and still are, to some extent, at least here) sung by people who had no idea of rhythm or melody and who could, to be completely fair to them, be described as being unable to carry a tune in a bucket. Rather like me. But that wasn't important. The story was the thing, and nobody cared if you could sing, for who can’t talk, and while there were of course people with highly musical voices who were a joy to hear and listen to, any old sod down the local crooning in a totally off-tune way about the fields back home would be listened to, and joined in with, probably by a crowd of people who would have similar difficulty transporting a tune in a metal canister.

It didn’t matter.

But then there was the music, and that was a separate thing. Reels and jigs were made to be danced to, and the instrument folk usually danced to when these were played was the fiddle. Fiddles were quick, lively and actually took skill to play, so a fiddler at say a barn dance or other gathering was always welcome, and possibly paid well for his time, possibly with liquid refreshment or tobacco.

Another thing immigrants bring with them generally is their worship, their faith, their religion, and a form of singing called “lining out” (which sounds like something a rugby team would do, and also brings to mind the later horrors of line dancing!) involved one person singing a line from a psalm or hymn, and the rest, the congregation, responding in chorus. Sounds a lot like the chants of the monks to me, popular (well, about the only real music available) back in the times before the Renaissance.

The New World ballad became popular, both as a music form and as a way to disseminate news of events, which would be written up in song and then distributed and sung, perhaps a more sophisticated and inclusive version of the old town crier in medieval Europe. Given how endemic to country music it became, it might surprise you to learn (it did me anyway) that it was African-American slaves who first brought the banjo to the Appalachians, their playing influencing some of the greats of the era. This also led to the beginning of blues music, which rapidly spread throughout America but always was, and more or less always has been, seen as “black music”, so much so that when white men attempted it - often very successfully - their music was usually labelled as “white blues”, to distinguish it from the original (and seen as better) and also, perhaps, to note that this was a form of what might later qualify as cultural appropriation. Blues was supposed to be the music of the oppressed black community, slaves and then even as free men, still second-class citizens. It’s probably a truism that nobody can play the blues like a black man.

As string bands began to form, instruments such as the guitar, mandolin, spoons, washboard and others began to appear in the Appalachians, as well as the fretted dulcimer and the autoharp. A string band was and is a music ensemble, made up exclusively of stringed instruments and whose prevalence would eventually give way to the very popular sub-genre of country music called bluegrass. Most of the instruments above need little or no explanation, but some do. So here they are.

Spoons

Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? But to play the spoons takes energy, skill and dexterity. You’ll probably not be surprised to learn that they’re a percussion instrument, or even accompaniment - I don’t recall ever seeing Concerto in A Minor for Spoons or Rhapsody on a Theme of Spoons. They’re not what you’d call musical. You can play them solo but they’re not going to sound like much more than they are, which is, well, two spoons banging against each other, but when used to accompany say a fiddle or accordion or harmonica, or multiple instruments, they can sound very impressive. I would imagine you also need something of a high pain threshold, as the spoons are typically hit against the leg, arm, hand or other part of the body, and while they’re obviously not hit hard, they are hit repeatedly, so that I expect it must hurt a little after a while. Contrary to public belief though, this is not from where we get the expression “he’s a real spoon, isn’t he?”

Autoharp

Autoharps come from the zither family of stringed instruments, and are basically a portable harp with bars that mute all strings except those needed to make that chord. Originally conceived to be played lying flat - rather like the later steel guitar - one hand would pluck the strings while the other worked the chord buttons.


Fretted Dulcimer

Unrelated to the hammered dulcimer (but then, you knew that, didn’t you?), this one does not go out and get drunk at all. It has acquired various nicknames, some of them quite charming, such as the Kentucky dulcimer (are you sure it doesn’t get drunk?), the harmony box, the hog fiddle and the hilariously prosaic the music box. Again, it is or was intended to be played flat, either on the lap or on a table, and the strings plucked, which again - and this may be way off but it sounds right to me - makes me think of this as some distant ancestor of one of country’s most popular and enduring instruments, the lap steel guitar.


Washboard

Yeah, you’ve probably seen this in either some old cowboy movie, cartoon or episode of the Grand Ole Opry. Originally developed as, well, a board for washing clothes, it became defunct after mechanical washing machines became available and is another thing we have to thank our black brothers for, as it was again slaves who brought the musical version of the washboard to America, through a style of African dance called “hamboning” (and no doubt thought savage and pagan by us civilised folks) and can be played in many ways and styles but is generally a rhythm or percussion instrument. It became popular through the formation of jug bands, which emerged in the early 1920s. Jug bands are bands which employ washboards, spoons and, um, jugs to make their music.

Washtub Bass

It’s exactly what it sounds like. A washing tub, used as a resonator, is attached to a long, usually single-stringed instrument. This, too, originates in Africa, in instruments such as the ground bow and the ang-bindi. It’s another instrument that often found its way into jug bands, and was also called the gut-bucket bass or the gas-tank bass.
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Old 07-24-2022, 03:42 PM   #9 (permalink)
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I: Pioneers on the Dusty Road: The Men and Women Who Helped Create Country Music

Invisible Men and Women: The Myth of the Mountain Whites

Given that the settlers mentioned earlier all came from the British Isles, it will possibly come as no terrible surprise to hear that they believed themselves, and the region they colonised, the Appalachians - especially the mountains - racially pure. And so, despite the fact that there were African-American people living there, and also despite the fact that much of the style and format that goes to make up Appalachian music comes from their black brothers (to say nothing of, as already mentioned, the introduction of the banjo, guitar and other instruments they had never heard of), the history of Appalachian music - written, of course, by white men - traditionally ignored the role of the black musicians in its creation and development. With a sort of Trumpian blindness, it seems, these white immigrants failed to see or refused to see any faces that were not the same colour as theirs, leading to historians for decades calling the Appalachian settlers “the mountain whites”, and assuming, or believing, or reporting that all the music coming out of that region was made by white men.

And we obviously have to address that, so I’ve dug around to see what names history - if only recent history - has unearthed within the black music community of the Appalachians that I can talk about. It’s quite possible that some of these men and women may not necessarily have had much of, or indeed any impact on country music, but even so, as they’ve been ignored and pushed aside like a dirty secret for most of the twentieth century, I feel it’s important that we acknowledge their work, catalogue their efforts and afford them the respect of at least admitting they existed.

J.C. Staggers (1898 - 1984)

Jacob “Jake” C. Staggers was born in Oconee County, South Carolina and learned to play home-made banjos made from tin pots and animal skins at the tender age of ten years. In this he was assisted by his older brother Hansell, a friend called Jesse Godine and a friendly white man called Garnett Spencer. He played at dances and, perhaps reflecting both the different times and the nature of the Deep South, um, hog killings and corn shuckings, whatever they were. Something to do with harvest I guess. In addition to dance tunes, he also played railroad songs, gospel or spirituals and blues - though technically he more or less helped invent the blues, so his songs are described as pre-blues. He is credited (eventually) with introducing the banjo to the white Appalachian community, and is also described, as I say, as being one of the banjo players who helped develop the blues. Much of the information given about him is noted as being “estimated”, probably referring to the lack of real interest in blacks by the state census board and such institutions.

His legacy survived in the playing of the (white) “Minstrel of the Appalachians”, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, who recorded his “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad”, but changed the lyric slightly to refer to the assassination of President James Garfield.


Lesley “Elsey” Riddle (1905 - 1980)

One of the few black musicians whom Appalachian historians will - grudgingly - admit played a part in the scene, Riddle actually did much more than that. A man who had every reason to play the blues, he lost his lower right leg below the knee at the age of 22, and while recovering learned to play the guitar. He developed his own innovative style of picking and slide guitar, and began playing with other musicians such as Harry Gay, John Henry Lyons, Steve Tarter and Brownie McGhee. One year after his accident (and therefore, having only been playing the guitar at best for twelve months), Riddle met the founder of one of country music’s first true superstars, the Carter Family Band. He and A.P. Carter began a song-collecting trip around Virginia, Riddle having the ability to memorise any melody, while Carter wrote down the lyrics.

His guitar technique was picked up by Maybelle Carter, and incorporated into her playing, but after marrying and moving to New York in 1942 Riddle retired from music. He was however coaxed back in 1965 by legendary folk musician Mike Seeger (half-brother of Pete) and they played together for the next thirteen years. Riddle died in 1980, but his memory is kept alive by a special festival held in his hometown of Burnsville, N.C., called the Riddlefest.

Walter “Brownie” McGhee (1915 - 1996)

Another with the right to sings the blues, Brownie was stricken with the dreaded polio when he was only four, leading to his brother, Granville “Sticks”, having to push him around in a cart as the polio incapacitated his leg. They both got their interest in music from their father, who played guitar and sang in addition to his job as factory worker, while Brownie’s uncle made him his first guitar out of a tin box and a board. As a youngster, Brownie was involved with the local gospel group, and taught himself to play guitar, banjo, ukulele and piano. Surgery to correct the polio was successful and he was able to walk again.

Brownie became a travelling musician at age 22 and joined the Rabbits Foot Minstrels, a touring company, where he met Blind Boy Fuller, who was to have such an effect upon him. He later went on to record and then meet Sonny Terry, harmonica player for the now-deceased Fuller, in 1942 in New York, and the two teamed up, playing music right up to 1980. McGhee also went on to have a small but successful career in film and TV, and both he and Sonny were presented with National Heritage Fellowships in 1982. Brownie died in 1996, ten years after Sonny had passed on.



Granville “Sticks” McGhee (1918 - 1961)

Older brother, as related above, to Brownie McGhee, Granville acquired his sobriquet from his having to push his brother around in a cart, and also taught himself to play the guitar. In 1942, when his little brother was having his fateful meeting with Sonny Terry in New York, Sticks signed up to go fight Hitler and the Japs, but kept his hand in by playing guitar when he had a moment. On his discharge after the war, his path again diverged from that of his brother, though it still led in a musical direction. Sticks went for more out-and-out rock and roll, which was becoming very popular by then, writing the song “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” (huh?) which seems to me, given the time, surely the first song ever to use the word motherfucker?

Drinkin’ that mess is our delight,
And when we get drunk, start fightin’ all night.
Knockin’ out windows and tearin’ down doors,
Drinkin’ half-gallons and callin’ for more.
Drinkin’ wine motherfucker, drinkin’ wine!
Goddam!
Drinkin’ wine motherfucker, drinkin’ wine!
Goddam!
Drinkin’ wine motherfucker, drinkin’ wine!
Goddam!
Pass that bottle to me!"

Setting the stage for later hip-hop, perhaps? Another way the two brothers differed is that Sticks only had a very moderately successful career, cutting records but having no hits to speak of. His “Drinking Wine” (no I’m not going to say it again, damn you) did reach number two in the charts, but in a very much modified version, presumably motherfucker-less, and not until 1949. He too met Terry later in life and recorded with him, but his musical career, as such, was spent moving from label to label, and he never really made any money from his music. He died in 1961.

Interestingly (or not) both brothers died from cancer.

Blind Willie Walker (1896 - 1933)

Sadly very little has been written about him (and almost nothing recorded) apart from the rather obvious fact that he was blind, from birth, and that he died very young (only 37 years old) possibly from syphilis. He was respected as one of the best guitar players ever in South Carolina, so fast and intricate his playing that many other guitarists of the era would not even attempt to try to emulate it.


Reverend Gary Davis (1896 - 1962)

Another blind guitar player (guess there were a lot of children born blind in those days), Gary could count himself lucky, as he was only one of two children out of eight who survived in his family. I couldn’t say, and I wouldn’t presume to, but perhaps his parents were disappointed or even angry he survived when six others died (any of whom might have been sighted, who knows?) - at any rate, it seems parental love was not at a premium in his household, and he is said to have been mistreated by his mother before his father decided to offload him on a relative, Gary’s grandmother. Whether justice or not, Gary’s father was shot when he, Gary, was aged ten, by the sheriff (one can only assume in the commission of a robbery or something, or maybe just for being black).

His conversion to Christianity in 1933 was probably the best and the worst thing that ever happened to him. Ordained as a Baptist minister (the sobriquet was not just affected, he really was a reverend, and a practicing one) he, like most converts, took his religion seriously, and as a result refused to play “the devil’s music”, ie blues. This was unfortunate, as he has been called one of the most accomplished and influential guitar players in America, cited by people like Dylan and The Grateful Dead among many others. But he stuck to “spirituals”, and though he taught Blind Boy Fuller how to play, he refused to record or perform on stage any blues tunes.

I guess luckily for him, gospel or worship music was at least as popular as blues in America, especially the South, and he made a good living sticking with “God’s music”. He would later claim that God had taken his sight but replaced it with something even better, the ability to play music and pay tribute to his glory. But it wasn’t an easy road, and he spent years busking, begging and preaching on street corners, perfecting the art of the showman, doing things with his guitar others had never even dreamed of, such as using it as a percussion instrument, making it sound like a brass band, and in addition shouting out rapturous epithets and praise to God. It’s said he made an interesting, even mesmerising show.

Songs of his covered in later years by people as diverse as Peter, Paul and Mary and The Stones earned him enough royalties to buy himself a house and get off the streets, and he was a major attraction in the folk revival of the sixties. He died of a heart attack in 1972, aged 66.
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Old 07-29-2022, 02:22 PM   #10 (permalink)
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Excellent write-ups usual, TH. You've managed to do a great job here of summarizing a genre with a very rich and diverse history.

Reading this has been somewhat of a trip down memory lane for me, as I was raised heavily indoctrinated into Country music by my mother - who was a Southerner transplanted to the Northeast by way of marrying my father. The likes of Merle Haggard, Tammy Wynette (a deep vocal influence on my mother, who was a good singer), George Jones, Charley Pride, Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Buck Owens, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Jimmie Rodgers, Porter Wagoner, Glen Campbell, and many others were constantly played in our home. I think more than anything else I gained an appreciation of the instrumentation in Country music (Telecasters and pedal steel!) and also its many fine vocalists.
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