Country & Western Music: History & Artists

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

Folk, Hillbilly, Honky-Tonk; these terms are synonymous with the early years of Country & Western music in the public imagination. This lesson looks at the beginning of the genre in the 1920s through the heyday of the class country sound in the 1960s.

The Early Years

Country music developed from the heady merging of the folk music traditions of England, Scotland and Ireland preserved in the Appalachian region of the United States together with popular music of the early 20th century and African-American musical traditions such as the Blues. During the 1920s, many poor Appalachian families moved to cities such as Atlanta to find work and brought their music traditions with them. The Atlanta music scene would remain influential for the next two decades and many of the earliest country music stars were first discovered and recorded there. Three of the top rated artists of this period were The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Charlie Poole. The Carter Family were influenced by mountain gospel music and known for performing traditional folk and gospel tunes with trademark vocal harmonies. Charlie Poole, meanwhile, was a renowned banjo player who invented his own style and mainly performed covers. Poole was on the verge of even greater success, having been invited to Hollywood to perform music for films, when he died after a 13 week drinking bender. Of the three, Jimmie Rodgers was the most successful and influential; he merged the gospel, folk and blues music he learned while working as a brakeman on the railroad. Rodgers is best remembered not only for popularizing the yodel in Country Music, although he was not the first to utilize it, but also for being one of the first popular singer-songwriters in American music. He eventually died in 1933 from the effects of Tuberculosis, which he had caught earlier in life.

The Golden Era

Jimmie Rodgers
Jimmie Rodgers

Although the Great Depression significantly hurt record sales, country musicians continued to innovate and play locally. During this era several new forms such as Western Swing and Honky-Tonk began to develop. Western Swing was a combination of traditional country music medleys and western music blended together with Swing and Dixieland jazz. This style was immensely popular in the western states, especially Texas (so much so that it is occasionally referred as 'Texas Swing'). The predominant artist of the style was Bob Wills, who played with his band The Texas Cowboys who reached the height of their popularity in the 1940s. Another popular performer of the style was Peewee King from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, whose music was highly influenced by the Polka of the city's Polish community.

Honky-Tonk music was developed in the rough saloons and bars of the South and Southwest and featured a rhythm section along with steel guitar and the fiddle. The rhythm guitar was often the dominant instrument and was played by the lead-singer. Songs were often written to appeal to the working-class clientele who frequented Honky-Tonk establishments with common lyrical themes that involved heart break, drinking, and work. As the Country Music establishment began to center in Nashville during the 1940s, Honky-Tonk became the most popular form of country music. Important early pioneers were singers such asLefty Frizzell, Hank Williams, and Ernest Tubb, who became the first performer on the Grand Ole Opry to use an electric Guitar. Of these three, Hank Williams became the most popular in the '40s and early '50s and, to many, remains the quintessential county musician. His songs were plain spoken odes to the poor working men of the nation and often focused on the joys of parties and the sorrows of broken love affairs and the sadness of life. Williams, a devout Christian, also penned many gospel hymns, such as 'I Saw the Light', but would lament his inability to live up to the ideals he sang about. The earnestness with which he performed songs such as 'Honk Tonk Blues', 'Wedding Bells' and 'Long Gone Lonesome Blues' earned him the title of Hillbilly Shakespeare. He would die young at the age of 29 due to complications caused by a deformed spine, painkillers that he had been prescribed, and alcohol.

Hank Williams Sr
Hank Williams Sr

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