Vernon Dalhart was the first country singer to have a nation-wide hit (May, 1924, with "The Wreck Of Old '97" (see External Links below). Other important early recording artists were Riley Puckett, Don Richardson, Fiddling John Carson, Ernest Stoneman, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, and The Skillet Lickers.
Some trace the origins of modern country music to two seminal influences and a remarkable coincidence. Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family are widely considered to be the founders of country music, and their songs were first captured at an historic recording session in Bristol, Tennessee on August 1, 1927, where Ralph Peer was the talent scout and sound recordist.
It is possible to categorise many country singers as being either from the Jimmie Rodgers strand or the Carter Family strand of country music.
Pathos, humour, women, whiskey, murder, death, disease and destitution are all present in his lyrics and these themes have been carried forward and developed by his followers. People like Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Townes van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash have also suffered, and shared their suffering, bringing added dimensions to those themes. It would be fair to say that Jimmie Rodgers sang about life and death from a male perspective and this viewpoint has dominated some areas of country music. It would also be fair to credit his influence for the development of honky tonk, rockabilly and the Bakersfield sound.
Jimmie Rodgers was a major foundation stone in the structure of country music but the most influential artist from the Jimmie Rodgers strand is undoubtedly Hank Williams Sr. In his short career (he was only 30 when he died) he dominated the country scene and his songs have been covered by practically every other country artist, male and female. Some have even included him in their compositions (for example, Waylon Jennings and Alan Jackson). Hank had two personas: as Hank Williams he was a singer/songwriter and entertainer; as "Luke the Drifter", he was a songwriting crusader. The complexity of his character was reflected in the introspective songs he wrote about heartbreak, happiness and love (e.g "I'm so Lonesome I could Cry"), and the more upbeat numbers about Cajun food or barbershop Indians. He took the music to a different level and a wider audience.
The Carter Family's influence
The other Ralph Peer discovery, the Carter family, consisted of A.P. Carter, his wife Sara and their sister-in-law Maybelle. They built a long recording career based on the sonorous bass of A.P., the beautiful singing of Sara and the unique guitar playing of Maybelle. A.P.'s main contribution was the collection of songs and ballads that he picked up in his expeditions into the hill country around their home in Maces Springs, Virginia. In addition, being a man, he made it possible for Sara and Maybelle to perform without stigma at that time. These two women were the musical talent. They arranged the songs that A.P. collected and wrote their own songs. They were the precursors of a line of talented women country singers like Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and June Carter Cash, the daughter of A.P. and Sara and the wife of Johnny Cash.
The Carter Family probably influenced the development of bluegrass by Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe. Monroe, in turn, influenced people like Ricky Skaggs who carry on the folk and ballad tradition in the bluegrass style.
While country music has had only one African-American star (Charley Pride), the innovators and originators were strongly influenced by the sounds and songs of Black musicians. Country music has also influenced the work of Black musicians such as Ray Charles and Keb' Mo'.
At the time of its early popularity, country music shared America's affection with swing music, a type of jazz, and enterprising musicians such as Bob Wills fused the two to form western swing. The early development of rock and roll was a fusion of country music and blues.
The Nashville sound
During the 1960s, country music became a multi-million dollar industry centered on Nashville, Tennessee. Under the direction of Chet Atkins, the Nashville sound brought country music to a diverse audience. Although country music has great stylistic diversity, this diversity was strangled somewhat by the formulaic approach of the record producers like Chet Atkins. They played safe to protect sales. Even today the variety of country music is not usually well-reflected in radio airplay and the popular perception of country music is still influenced by the maudlin ballads and whining steel guitars that many people still associate with the genre.
Reaction to the Nashville sound
The vanilla-flavoured sounds that emanated from Nashville under the influence of Chet Atkins, and his fellow producers, led to a reaction among musicians outside Nashville who saw that there was more to the genre than, "the same old tunes, fiddle and guitar..." (Waylon Jennings). California produced the Bakersfield sound, promoted by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Texas produced rebels like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, Jerry Jeff Walker, and others who bucked the Nashville system and created outlaw country. Within Nashville in the 1980s, Randy Travis, Ricky Skaggs, and others brought a return to the traditional values. Their musicianship, songwriting, and producing skills helped to revive the genre momentarily. However even they, and such long-time greats as Jones, Cash, and Haggard, fell from popularity as the record companies again imposed their formulas and the radio stations ignored the veteran entertainers.
Country music developments
The two strands of country music have continued to develop. The Jimmie Rodgers influence can be seen in a pronounced "working man" image promoted by singers like Brooks & Dunn and Garth Brooks. On the Carter Family side, singers like Iris Dement and Nanci Griffith have written on more traditional "folk" themes, albeit with a contemporary point of view.
In the 1990s a new form of country music emerged, called by some alternative country, or "insurgent country". Performed by generally younger musicians and inspired by traditional country performers and the country reactionaries, it shunned the Nashville-dominated sound of mainstream country and borrowed more from punk and rock groups than the watered-down, pop-oriented sound of Nashville.
Vernon Dalhart recorded hundreds of songs until 1931.
Jimmie Rodgers, first country superstar, the "Father of Country Music", also bluesman
The Carter Family, rural country-blues, known for hits like "Wildwood Flower"
Hank Williams Sr, honky tonk pioneer, singer, and songwriter, known for hits like "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "Your Cheatin' Heart"
Bill Monroe, father of bluegrass
Grand Ole Opry, one of the oldest radio programs
Louvin Brothers, inspired the Everly Brothers
Little Jimmie Dickens
Wilf Carter, the "Yodeling" cowboy, aka Montana Slim.
The Golden Age
Eddie Arnold, the all-time hit leader
Johnny Cash, a major influence on country music who died in 2003
Patsy Cline, immensely popular balladeer who died in 1963
Lefty Frizzell, perhaps the greatest of the honky-tonkers
Merle Haggard, popularized the Bakersfield sound
Johnny Horton, made the story-song very popular about 1960
Waylon Jennings, one of the leaders of the outlaw country sound
George Jones, widely considered "the greatest living country singer", second to Arnold in hits
Kris Kristofferson, songwriter and one of the leaders of the outlaw country sound
Willie Nelson, songwriter and one of the leaders of the outlaw country sound
Buck Owens, pioneer innovator of the Bakersfield sound
Dolly Parton, began her career singing duets with Porter Wagoner
Charley Pride, the first (and only) afro-american country music star
Jim Reeves, crossover artist, invented Nashville Sound with Chet Atkins
Marty Robbins, another performer of story-songs who did well in the pop field
Connie Smith, known for her "big" voice
Conway Twitty, honky-tonk traditionalist
Allman Brothers Band, bluegrass influenced jam band
The Byrds, pioneers in the field
Flying Burrito Brothers
The Eagles, possibly the most popular country rock band
Grateful Dead, extremely long-lived bluegrass and psychedelic band
Gram Parsons, critical favorite of the country rock movement
Lynyrd Skynyrd, for many, the archetypal country rock band
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