ORIGINS OF COUNTRY MUSIC
The Roots of Country
Country music is rooted in the folk traditions of the British Isles. In the new world, those roots became entangled with the ethnic musics of other immigrants and African slaves. Many gospel hymns were also popularized in the nineteenth century South, while tent shows and blackface minstrelsy introduced folk-sounding tunes written by northern professionals. Played on fiddles or homemade banjos, all this music would one day sound as if born in the Southern hills.
The Country Industry Takes Shape
Beginning in the 1920s, the first country records and radio programs brought the music out of the rural heartland and into homes across America. Radio shows made national stars of many performers. The early records, covering a broad range of musical styles, told of train wrecks and shipwrecks, and of nostalgia for "The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane."
By the 1930s, as America struggled with the twin horrors of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, the dream of the Wild West and the freedom it symbolized provided escape. Western imagery dominated country music, and as World War II approached, the singing cowboy appeared to stand for all that was fair and just.
The Dawn of Country Radio
Country musicians first performed on radio in 1922. The following year, station WBAP in Fort Worth, Texas, debuted what's believed to have been the first country music radio "barn dance" - an ensemble variety show that had the feel of a family gathering and was aimed at rural audiences. Eager to exploit radio's advertising power, stations in Chicago (WLS), Nashville (WSM), and elsewhere soon followed suit. The early radio barn dances provided a living for country entertainers throughout the nation while becoming a vital part of listeners' lives. As a distant fan of WLW-Cincinnati's Monday Night in Renfro Valley put it, "You make . . . your folks of Renfro Valley so real to us that we may be coming to Kentucky just to get back to happiness and contentment."
Early Country Recordings
To widen the troubled market for records during the early 1920s, the industry began seeking talent in country, blues, ethnic, and other folk-based idioms. The major companies in the North recorded Southern fiddlers and stringbands prolifically, though the company chiefs couldn't always fathom the "hillbilly" music they were promoting. One famous executive, Ralph Peer, described as "pluperfect awful" a 1923 Fiddlin' John Carson recording that turned out to be his company's first country hit. Carson and others proved that country music could sell, and by 1930, two of the most influential country acts of all time, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, had become major stars.
Country music in the 1920s and 1930s allowed for much innovation and stylistic diversity. While the principal sound remained that of the raw, fiddle-driven stringband, brilliant musicians such as fiddler Clayton McMichen found room within that sound for all manner of personal expression. As microphone technology improved, the harmony of country's brother duets became a force on radio and records, while in the Southwest, a cadre of visionary fiddle-band veterans drew inspiration from jazz and blues, and invented western swing.
The Western Influence
Many country performers bridled at the word "hillbilly," considering it loaded with negative cultural stereotypes. By contrast, "cowboy" implied romance, bravery, and the self-sufficiency of life on the open range. By the mid-1930s, Western fringe and cowboy hats had become part of many singers' wardrobes - including pop stars' - especially after Gene Autry and other Hollywood singing cowboys began to tackle the world's ills in their fantasy version of the West. As Autry wrote of one of his typical movies, "While my solutions were a little less complex than those offered by FDR . . . I played a kind of New Deal cowboy who never hesitated to tackle many of the same problems."
- Adapted from Sing Me Back Home: A Journey through Country Music, the permanent exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum.