OUTLAWS, ARENAS AND THE AGE OF CELEBRITY
The social and political turmoil of the 1960s reverberated to every level of popular culture-including country music. Many performers responded by reaffirming their faith in country's heartland values and musical traditions. Others rebelled against the powers-that-be and connected with kindred spirits from other genres. Country's identity was challenged then, and has been challenged ever since. As its popularity grew, the lines separating country from rock and other genres became more blurred, a trend accelerated by video, Web sites, and the technological thunder of the concert arena.
Yet country has continued to be sung by those unaffected by the glitz of modern entertainment. Whether playing state fairs, nightclubs, or bluegrass festivals, the road remains their element, binding them to music that, for all its changes, remains country to the core.
Country Music Meets the Mass Market
As America contended with the upheaval of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War era, a number of performers from traditional country backgrounds met the changing times and culture head on. Some, like Roger Miller, brought an air of hipster elan to their music. Others revolted against what they considered to be the hidebound methods and attitudes of Music Row, earning for their efforts the title of Outlaws. Still others-Dolly Parton in particular-vaulted from country stardom to the ranks of global celebrity, becoming larger-than-life personalities trailed by the tabloid press. Whatever their approach, they all followed their own rules and attracted new fans to country music.
Rocking Back to the Country
While many country artists were reaching out to a non-country audience, performers with backgrounds in other genres were introducing hillbilly sounds into their own music. Such unique talents as Bob Dylan and Ray Charles recorded country-oriented albums, thereby validating the music of Hank Williams for untold numbers of new fans. "After all, the Grand Ole Opry had been performing inside my head since I was a kid in the country," Charles explained.
By the early 1970s, the music scenes in southern California and Austin, Texas, had made country-rock a staple of FM radio, led by such influential artists as Gram Parsons and the Eagles.
The Rise of Southern Rock
The intermingling of blues and country music in the South, a tradition dating back through Elvis Presley to Jimmie Rodgers and before, surged anew in the 1970s with the arrival of southern rock. Deeply rooted in the tastes and attitudes of southern youth, the music of the Allman Brothers and their followers echoed both the dissatisfactions and the defiant pride of the region's baby-boom generation. To many of the country stars who would emerge in the 1990s, the desolate strains of "Tuesday's Gone" echoed a longing as familiar and ancient as that of Hank Williams's "Lonesome Whistle."
The Old Ways Prevail
While the Outlaw movement and southern rock represented country's tendency to reinvent itself with the times, performers such as George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, and Tammy Wynette embodied the continuing vitality of country's essential, unchanging spirit. They established their music and public personas within a seemingly ageless culture of hard times and old ways. So strong was the force of their elemental country music that each of them attained some of their greatest fame during the tumult of the 1960s and 1970s. "I love country music, and it's my life," Jones said, and he could have been speaking for many. "It's the only thing I ever cared for, and it's the only thing I ever will care for."
Country Looks Homeward
The 1980 movie Urban Cowboy spotlighted a country dance club scene then flourishing at nightspots such as Gilley's in Pasadena, Texas. The movie and media attention temporarily boosted country sales, but as the fad waned, the so-called Urban Cowboy era came to stand for a soulless attempt to mass-market a watered-down version of the music. Yet even during that era, a generation of singers and musicians that included Ricky Skaggs, George Strait, and Dwight Yoakam, among others, had begun to re-energize the country airwaves. Drawing inspiration from the sounds and styles of their country forebears, these "New Traditionalists" and "cowpunks," as the media called them, proved the undiminished appeal of straight-ahead country.
Country in the Age of Plenty
In September 1991, Garth Brooks's Ropin' the Wind debuted at #1 on Billboard magazine's chart of the best-selling albums in the nation, spanning all genres. Brooks's achievement astonished the media and music industry, calling attention to an unprecedented escalation in country's mass popularity. Theories abounded as to the cause of this, with pundits suggesting everything from improved studio technology to a nationwide political shift in favor of country's perceived conservative values. Whatever the cause, country grew into the #1 radio format, and introduced so many new stars to the airwaves that the term "hat act" emerged as a not-always-sympathetic descriptive phrase. The boom leveled off in the mid-1990s, but by then, a diverse array of performers had established solid careers.
Country's Changing Currents
Every stage of country's long history has left an imprint on the music. Today, country is many sounds and many styles, some as old as fiddle and bow, others as new as tomorrow's technology. A fan can hear it in the loudest venues or the quietest hollows, through the scream of electricity or the trill of acoustic steel strings. It's sung by superstars and rising stars and never-want-to-be stars. The young renew its vitality, while veteran colleagues re-teach its truths. Country music changes daily, but it always remains, as Willie Nelson said, a place where "people tell their life stories."
- Adapted from Sing Me Back Home: A Journey through Country Music, the permanent exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum.