The Origins of Country Music

On August 21, 1938, Kenneth Ray “Kenny” Rogers was born in Houston, Texas. He arrived at a fortuitous time in the history of country music. In the 1920s, a curious genre that combined Appalachian folk and blues began to gain national attention. It consisted mostly of soulful ballads and up-tempo tunes played at barn dances. By the 1940s, audiences lined up to watch to “singing cowboys” like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers in Hollywood films. No longer derided as “hillbilly music,” country music had gone mainstream.

Country music originated in the early twentieth century among working-class Americans living in the south, especially in the Appalachian Mountains. Generations of musicians had blended English ballads with Celtic and Irish fiddle songs, adding influences from various European immigrants who settled nearby. Often overlooked was the influence of African Americans. Not only did jazz and the blues influence country artists, but also many white musicians, such as Hank Williams, learned their craft from black teachers. The banjo came to the United States from West Africa, played by slaves who taught picking techniques to their children. One of the Grand Ole Opry’s greatest stars, DeFord Bailey, was an African American harmonica player.

While a number of musical genres influenced country music, scholars trace the origins of country music to eastern Tennessee. In the 1920s, studios in Bristol, Johnson City, and Knoxville produced the first recording sessions, capturing the intriguing sounds emerging among “mountaineer” musicians living in the Great Smoky Mountains. At the same time, a vibrant music scene in Atlanta pulsed with the music brought by former Appalachian residents who had come to the bourgeoning metropolis to work in its cotton mills. They formed a sizable audience who yearned for the “hillbilly music” they had left behind. Music promoters now had the necessary ingredients to commercialize country music. When a promoter “discovered” Fiddlin’ John Carson, country music became an official genre in the landscape of American music.

By the 1930s, AM radio stations across the country began to play the distinct regional genre on programs featuring “barn dance” shows. Among them was the Grand Ole Opry, which began in Nashville in 1925. Broadcast on a powerful signal reaching across the country, the Grand Ole Opry played a distinct role in disseminating country music to new audiences. Country music stayed largely on rural AM radio stations until the 1980s.

For all its qualities, country music was a broad musical tradition. As it became more popular, it grew to include other regional genres, including western swing, honky tonk, country boogie, and rockabilly. Artists crossed boundaries regularly, which encouraged audiences to define country music loosely. Some of its first stars, like Jimmie Rodgers, the “Father of Country Music,” fused gospel, jazz, pop, cowboy, blues, and folk. Other notable groups, like the Carter Family, recorded hundreds of songs, including folk, gospel, and old-time ballads.

Instrumentation and form often distinguished country music from other traditions. In general, string instruments, like banjos, acoustic and electric guitars, dobros, fiddles, and harmonicas accompanied simple harmonies with rhythmic precision. The earliest country musicians rejected drums, believing they were too brash and loud. By the mid-1930s, however, western swing musicians, such as band leader Bob Wills, added drums. By the 1950s, the rosters of most country music groups included a drummer.

In the 1950s, when Kenny Rogers began his career, most “country and western” musicians played a fusion of western swing, country boogie, and honky tonk. Influenced by Tejano rhythms from southwestern United States and northern Mexico, these songs, like Marty Robbins’s “El Paso,” recorded in 1959, reached large audiences.

Political changes, along with new musical styles, were on the horizon by the 1950s. Rock n’ roll began to influence country music, encouraging some artists to incorporate its stylistic elements into a form called rockabilly. In the 1960s, progressive artists began a folk revival, writing protest songs in response to social and political turmoil. Most country music artists understood that their audiences were culturally conservative, however, so many largely avoided progressive politics.

For nearly a century, country music has remained a powerhouse because of its ability to adapt. Just as country music artists did in the 1920s and 1930s, musicians since the 1970s have refused to confine themselves to a particular sound. In the 1970s, country pop, named for the country songs that broke top 40 radio, and country rock, created as a return to “old” rock n’ roll, reshaped country music. Country pop emerged with hits by musicians like Kenny Rogers and Glen Campbell. Country rock acts included the Marshall Tucker Band, the Allman Brothers, and the Eagles.

The hybridization of country music has continued into the twenty-first century, with country music artists reaching the top of the charts. As “a federation of styles, rather than a monolithic style,” country music continues to attract large audiences with spellbinding fusions that cross musical boundaries.

By Dr. Sara Egge
Assistant Professor of History

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timthumb (1)Sara Egge joined Centre’s faculty in 2012 as an assistant professor of history. She was named a Centre Scholar in 2015, a two-year appointment recognizing teaching excellence, scholarship, and contributions to the Centre community.

Egge’s research interests include gender, ethnicity, and rurality in the American Midwest, historical constructions of political representation and citizenship, and historical intersections of agriculture, food production, hunting, and the environment.

At Centre, Egge teaches courses in late 19th- and early 20th-century American history, gender and women’s history, food history, and environmental history.

Egge has a B.A. in history and Spanish, and a B.S. in history education from North Dakota State University. She received her M.A. in history and Ph.D. in agricultural history and rural studies from Iowa State University, where she studied the woman suffrage movement in the Midwest.

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