From the recording studios of Nashville across the bayous of Louisiana to the streets of Austin, country music is a vital part of America's story. This unique musical style is as diverse as the cultures that make up our nation. Understanding the history behind country music not only teaches us about our nation but also allows a better understanding of other cultures and of the national pride that spans borders.
History of the Art Form
Descending from the ballads and folk traditions of England, country music made its start in the New World when musicians used fiddles instead of traditional singing or spoken word. Gospel hymns in the South were played on homemade fiddles or banjos, instruments descending from West Africa. As people from around the world immigrated to America, they brought their roots with them, weaving these roots into country music forever.
Country music first found its way onto the radio waves in the 1920s when country music variety programs became popular. The Grand Ole Opry began as a radio barn dance in 1925 and was so successful that recording studios shot up in Nashville and Hank Williams became a household name. Country musicians were still a rarity so record executives looked to blues and folk sounds to fill the void and cash in on the Grand Ole Opry's success. This integration led to the more diverse country music styles that exist today.
Iconic western imagery, such as saguaros, cowboys and indians, fringed chaps and cowboy hats, soon began dominating the radio and television. By the late 1930s, singing cowboys like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry became the rage, with "cowboy fever" continuing well into the 1950s.
During World War II, southern boys brought their country music to the barracks and into northern ears. Southern bars were playing boisterous honky-tonk style country. Barroom performers could leave their family values at home, preferring to sing of cheatin' women and ramblin' men. This style quickly spread amongst the barracks as northerners had only heard the clean-cut Roy Rogers style. The movement of men throughout the world during the war allowed musical styles to mix yet again and cross more cultural barriers.
Sweeping the nation, country music exploded in popularity. The 1950s saw the rise of Elvis Presley who melded country with traditional hymns and a newer sound, rock and roll, to create a Memphis hit - rockabilly. Other artists like Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash helped to make rockabilly one of the most popular musical styles of the decade, leaving traditional country behind.
Nashville fought back by incorporating string instruments and background vocals to give more of a "pop" sound to country music in hopes of regaining popularity.
During the tumultuous 1960s, a harder edged country arose - country rock. Steel and electric guitars added to country music further propelled the musical style into mainstream America. By now, country music had many different styles, sure to appeal to many different cultures and artistic tastes.
In the early days of country music, singers crooned of travel, nostalgia, shipwrecks and train wrecks. By the 1930s, more modern subjects were gaining popularity. Songs of cheating, heartbreak, and celebrating a honky-tonk lifestyle took over the airwaves.
Today the song topics are as varied as with any musical style and very much dependent on the region and recording label. Listening to the country music stations, you may hear everything from traveling woes and nostalgia, love and loss, the celebration of a honky-tonk lifestyle, or the celebration of a clean-cut All-American lifestyle.
The principle instrument to almost any country music style is the fiddle. It was the first instrument recorded for a country record in 1922 and has since become the center of the bluegrass sound. Musicians such as Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and Emmylou Harris were fiddlers. The banjo, guitar and steel guitar are also quite popular with country music artists. The Carter family helped bring the guitar to popularity in the 1930s. The edgier sound of the steel guitar is favored by artists like Waylon Jennings.
Supporting instruments vary according to regional style. These include the accordion, the bass, drums, harmonica, mandolin, piano, and even the washboard.
Regional Differences / Musical Styles
Due to country music's homegrown nature, it is no surprise that there are so many regional styles to be found. Many of these styles play off each other or are combined to create a new style.
Bluegrass - identifiable by harmonies, emotion and pure acoustic style, bluegrass arose from string bands in the 1920s. The television show "The Beverly Hillbillies" brought bluegrass to new audiences with its theme song. Bluegrass is still widely popular with artists such as Allison Krauss & Union Station or Nickel Creek.
Honky-Tonk - a loud and brash style of country that focuses on the hardships of blue-collar life, heartbreak and cheating. Hank Williams and his son, Hank Williams Jr. best showcase this style.
Cowboy - the opposite of honky-tonk, cowboy music comes from Hollywood's Wild West image and from actor-singers like Gene Autry, who helped to make country music so popular.
Western Swing - this style comes from Depression-era Texas and Oklahoma, marrying the sensible country sound to the more sophisticated jazz sound. Bands such as Asleep at the Wheel carry on this style.
Rockabilly - in the 1940s and 1950s, recording studios needed to sell R&B to white audiences, who preferred country music. Rockabilly is a cultural melting pot of country, hymns and rock/R&B. Elvis Presley is best known for his controversial rockabilly style.
Nashville Sound - this style favored piano, string instruments and background vocals, like those of Patsy Cline, in an effort to appeal to a wider audience when tradition country music popularity was waning.
Country Rock - in the late 1960s, a new hard-edged style of country came out of California. Emmylou Harris and the Eagles paired country themes of heartbreak and nostalgia to rock music. Drums were introduced into country, but not without conflict, to help create that rock n' roll sound.
Outlaw Country - Texas legend Willie Nelson, along with Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings, started this new trend in country music in the 1970s. This rebellion against the commercialized Nashville studios marked a return to traditional country music with annual concerts in Austin. Nelson explains that "the term outlaw was a marketing thing that someone came up with in Nashville, but the cowboy side was something me and Waylon and others could relate to, sure. It made a good story and felt fresh again."(1) Audiences around the nation were drawn in by the rugged individualism of this style, making it one of the most popular styles today.
New Country - the 1980s and 90s saw the rise of a more pop-music sound on country stations. Artists such as Brooks n' Dunn, Garth Brooks and Shania Twain took out the fiddles and acoustic instruments in traditional country, placing emphasis on electric guitars and drums.
Conjunto - straight from the heart of the Rio Grande Valley, conjunto comes from the late 1800s. Musical styles mixed as Mexican, Texan and German cultures converged on the border. The style is also referred to as tejano in Texas and norteño in Northern Mexico. Artists, such as Flaco Jimenez, blend the rhythms of polka and waltz with Mexican folk music. "My grandfather died before I was born," says Jimenez. "My dad told me a lot of stories about the European polkas that my grandpa played. By watching my father play, I saw how my grandfather played."(2)
Cajun - found in the bayous of southern Louisiana, cajun music is a form of country that centers on the fiddle and the accordion. The music has a high-spirited syncopated rhythm and is generally sung in French.
Zydeco - another popular style out of the bayous of Louisiana is zydeco. Born of the mixing of Cajun and Creole cultures, this musical style is filled with influences of African music and the Blues. The washboard is featured in this eclectic style. Artists of this genre include Clifton Chenier and Buckwheat Zydeco, and will usually sing in French.
What is your style? Is it a choice of nationality or regional identity? Maybe it is based not on where you live, but by your personality. The great thing about country music is there is a style of out there for everyone.
Country music has been incorporated into almost every culture found here in America. The beauty of this art form is that as much as it has changed, its roots remain. A radio listener can find every one of these musical styles, from the 1920s and 30s cowboy westerns to conjunto and even alternative country. Bands like Wilco and The Jayhawks cross over between country and indie rock, allowing for an even wider range of audiences. The cultural diversity found in country music styles and the folk traditions captured in its themes truly make country music our national soundtrack. One way we celebrate our national heritage and cultural diversity here at Chamizal National Memorial is by offering musical performances, including multiple country music styles. Join us in the park to revisit your heritage, and to learn about the heritage of your neighbors, through music.
Can I listen to Country Music at Chamizal National Memorial?
In the past Chamizal National Memorial has hosted country performers at the Music Under the Stars (MUTS) summer concert series. Check the calendar of events or inquire at the memorial's visitor center for further information.
1 - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/rockandpopfeatures/7653190/Interview-Willie-Nelson.html
2 - http://www.rootsworld.com/interview/flaco.html
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Last updated: February 24, 2015