Saturday, July 1, 2017

Brief history of country music

When Ralph Peer signed Jimmie (Charles) Rodgers and the Carter Family to recording contracts for Victor Records, on August 1, 1927, little did he know what he was starting?

The popular music was to become known as country (folk) music and incorporated many styles and traditions from the origins of the migrants that played the music. To begin with the country was played by both black and white musicians then later country music became predominantly white music. Ray Charles always considered himself to be a country singer, as did Bill Haley and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Throughout the 20s Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family were filling halls and entertaining the homestead through records and radio giving inspiration to many. The Grand Ole Opry started as a radio broadcast in 1926 and soon became an everyday part of Americana.

The basic concept was the theatre was church like with pews for the audience. This helped facilitate the broadcast but also may have been a deliberate attempt to break the music away from the rough Honky Tonks (rough saloons with entertainment areas) . The Grande Ole Opry (Opera for the working person) was moved several times but now has a permanent site in Nashville.

The Ryman Theatre in downtown Nashville sits on a site which was previously the Grand Ole Opry and can be seen in Neil Young’s Prairie Wind.

Also worth catching is the movie, A Prairie Home Companion, which is set in a similar setting to The Grand Ole Opry.

Roy Claxton Acuff made his first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry in 1938, Acuff changed the name of the band to the Smoky Mountain Boys and had many hits including Wabash Cannonball (featuring vocals by Sam 'Dynamite' Hatcher) and "The Great Speckle Bird."

Acuff’s fame was so great that during the war Japanese soldiers cried ‘Death to Acuff’ as they charged with fixed bayonets. By the 30s and 40s cowboy films were incredibly popular worldwide and the music which accompanied them saw Roy Rogers and Gene Autry became household names. Gene had many hits including "Yellow Rose of Texas" (1933), "Mexicana Rose" (1936), "South Of The Border" (1940), and "You Are My Sunshine" (1941).

But it was the Sons of the Pioneers who became the foremost vocal and instrumental group in western music.

They specialised in cowboy songs, setting the standard for every group that has come in their wake. They are also one of the longest surviving country music vocal groups, going into their seventh decade.

Another variation on country came when country swing was combined with big band swing and Dixieland to make incredibly popular dance music. Drums and Hawaiian steel guitars featured prominently as singers like Bob Willis took centre stage.

Bluegrass was another variation when William Smith (Bill) Monroe pioneered the sound with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.

Scruggs developed a "three-finger banjo" technique on the five-string banjo which gave bluegrass a distinctive sound with enduring hits like "Blue Moon of Kentucky," which was later recorded by Elvis Presley.

After World War II jazz and country merged with lyrics that took on strong story lines often reflecting working class lives, sadness and human frailty. Pianos were the most common instrument and were frequently played out of tune. As swing music was gradually integrated into the Nashville scene the piano (or tonk) was replaced by the guitar and boogie woogie became Honky Tonk. The term Honky is a colloquialism used by Afro-Americans since the 1900s to describe white people. So the literal translation of Honky Tonk was white boy piano music played loudly and in rough gin joints. Hank (Hiram King) Williams and Ernest Dale Tubb became honky tonk heroes.

Later a more commercial sounding country, centred in Nashville as the music came to represent a blend of pop and country that developed during the 1950s, with Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline, & Eddy Arnold the stalwarts of Nashville Country.

Outlaw Country became popular in the late 1960s and 1970s and saw the resurgence of a more traditional country sound. Charlie Pride, Conway Twittie, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Merle Haggard were all associated with the new order of country.

By the eighties Urban Cowboy music led the faithful away from the roots of the music as it again became more pop orientated. The era was dominated by Kenny Rodgers, Dolly Parton, John Conlee, and Dr Hook.

More recently New Country has reclaimed the past and set it back into its roots with Garth Brooks, Leanne Rhimes, George Strait, Ricky Skaggs, the Judds, Randy Travis, Dixie Chicks, and Ricky Van Shelton all committed to celebrate what made the music great in the first place.

Worth a listen:

Jimmie Rodgers
Blue Yodel (T for Texas) (1928)

The Carter Family
Keep on the sunny side (1928)

Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys
Night Train to Memphis (1943)

Bill Monroe
Blue moon of Kentucky (1947)

Gene Autry
Back in the saddle again Texas (1938)

Bob Willis and the Texas Playboys
San Antonio Rose (1940)

Hank Williams
Hey good looking (1951)
Jim Reeves
Mexican Joe, (1953)

Patsy Cline
Walkin' After Midnight (1957)

Johnny Cash
I walk the line (1956)

Dolly Parton
9 to 5 (1980)

Leanne Rhimes
Blue (1996)

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