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The Golden Age of Country Music

The commercialisation of Country Music began in the 1920s. Prior to this it had been called ‘hillbilly music’ and it was in the 1920s that the term ‘country and western’ first came to the fore, though it wasn’t perhaps until the 1940s that the term ‘country music’ really took hold. To be honest I wouldn’t listen to pre-1940s country music too often, however there are some artists, from the 20s and 30s, that still, in my opinion, hold their own to this day.

Jimmie Rodgers
The two giants of early recorded country music are Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. Rodgers was known as the ‘Singing Brakeman’ and is often referred to as the ‘Father of Country Music’. He was famous for his yodelling records and ‘Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas)’ has been estimated to have sold anything from 500,000 to a million copies in the 1920s. He also recorded the original, or at least, I think, the first recorded version, of ‘In the Jailhouse Now’ (which was later recorded by among others Webb Pierce, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, and by the Soggy Bottom Boys for the soundtrack of ‘Oh Brother, Where art Thou?’). Rodgers is without doubt a true great of country music as, indeed, are the Carter Family.

As far as music goes, the Carter Family are country music royalty and, despite the relatively primitive recording techniques and audio quality, their records have, in general, stood the test of time. Their music influenced country, bluegrass, ‘white gospel’ and even rock and pop. They are often called ‘the First Family of Country Music’ and it is difficult to argue with this. The Carter Family have hundreds of recordings but my own personal favourites are ‘Can the Circle Be Unbroken?’, ‘Wildwood Flower’ and ‘Lay My Head Beneath Your Rose’. They also recorded, perhaps the earliest version of ‘Wabash Cannonball’.

The Carter Family

Following the Wall Street collapse in 1929, it became difficult to sell records in the USA. However, a by-product of this, was the emergence, or if not the emergence at least the re-invigoration, of radio as a vital form of entertainment. Within the country music world ‘the Grand Ole Opry’ became a staple and
Grand Ole Opry

fundamental player in the growth of Country Music in the southern states of the USA.

The Grand Ole Opry began in 1925 and initially broadcast for one hour a week but by the 1930s, this had risen to 4 hours a week and it was during this decade that the Opry was to become available, due to its now 50,000 watts capability, in nearly 30 states.

Roy Acuff is probably the musician most associated with the ‘Grand Ole Opry’ and Acuff is often given the credit for moving country music from the ‘hoedown/Appalachian’ backwaters to the star singer industry that developed in the 40s and 50s. He founded, in 1942, the first major Nashville music publishing company, Acuff-Rose music, which signed acts such as Hank Williams, Roy Orbison, Lefty Frizzell, Don Gibson and the Everly Brothers. Classic tracks by Roy Acuff include ‘Great Speckled Bird’ and ‘the Prodigal Son’.
Bob Wills

The 1930s saw the rise of ‘Western Swing’. The greatest proponents of Western Swing were perhaps ‘Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys’. There are elements of Blues, Jazz and Ragtime in Western Swing and perhaps the epitome of the recordings of Bob Wills can be seen in ‘Steel Guitar Rag’. The beginnings of Honky Tonk also echo from the 1930s. Gene Autry’s ‘Silver Haired Daddy of Mine’ (1931) is often cited as the first ‘Honky Tonk’ record, though the golden age of Honky Tonk is really in the 40s and 50s. Gene Autry also ushered in the era of the ‘Singing Cowboys’, a style typified by Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers.
The electric guitar was invented in 1931 and the electric steel guitar soon followed. This had a massive impact on all styles of music and country was no exception. These changes further accelerated the move away from the hillbilly/Appalachian purists and led to a shift towards the western states, such as Texas.

Despite these changes it was at this time that ‘Bluegrass’ came to the fore. Bluegrass accentuated the role of the instrumentalist and was in many respects a throwback to earlier mountain style music. First among early Bluegrass artists was Bill Monroe, whose influence could still be felt as late as the 1950s, with Elvis covering ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’.  Two of Bill Monroe’s finest instrumentalists (Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs) were to break away and form their own band (Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys) in 1948 and were to go on to produce some of the finest bluegrass in the history of the genre – stand out tracks include ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ and ‘The Ballad of Jed Clampett’.

Flatt and Scruggs
Ernest Tubb
‘Walking the Floor Over You’  by Ernest Tubb (The Texas Troubadour)  in 1941 established honky tonk as the dominant style in country music (Tubbs also had the first hit version of ‘Blue Christmas’ in 1948). It was Tubb who took his sound to Nashville and brought about the golden age of honky tonk in the 1950s. Artists such as Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Locklin, Johnny Horton and George Jones came to exemplify both the music and the lifestyle of hard drinking and womanising that characterised the honky tonk sound and life. Songs such as Johnny Horton’s ‘Honky Tonk Man’ can also be seen as forerunners of both Rockabilly and Rock ‘n’ Roll and this era, from the late 1940s and into the early 50s, had a big influence on the likes of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and the early Sun sound in general. It was perhaps the combination of this sound with rhythm and blues that led to the advent of Rock ‘n’ Roll. 

As the Nashville sound developed it became slicker and less raucous. Pioneered by producers such as Chet Atkins, fiddles and steel guitar became less prominent and more pop orientated instruments and strings came to the fore, while the nasal vocal sounds of earlier singers was replaced by crooning vocals. It was during this period that the classic country ballad (not dissimilar in many respects to the ballad form that took hold of rock ‘n’ roll in the period between Elvis going into the army and the arrival of the Beatles) reached its apex. Forerunners of these ballads can be seen in songs such as ‘Gone’ by Ferlin Husky or ‘Young Love’ by Sonny James but a classic example would be a song such as ‘Crazy’ by Patsy Cline. Female balladeers such as Cline and Kitty Wells became very popular at this time and paved the way for later female country singers such as Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton. It must be remembered, however, that while there was a general move towards a ‘softer’ sound, artists such as Johnny Cash, Hank Snow, Ray Price and Carl Smith, to name but a few, were still producing records that owed their origins to a more raw sound. And as the 50s turned into the 60s artists such as Johnny Cash became heavily influenced by the revived folk music scene.

Country music was, by the late 1950s, big business and this affected both its sound and marketing. As a result the music became more sanitised and less rebellious. There was, however, a backlash in the 60s and 70s and this backlash was typified by the ‘outlaw’ sound. The most prominent artists associated with outlaw country are Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard.  Throughout this period vital music was still being produced on a regular basis, and not just by the so-called ‘outlaws’. Artists such as Glen Campbell and Charlie Rich were making fantastic records. Nevertheless by the 1980s country music had become part of the ‘mainstream’ music industry in the USA and had, in my opinion, lost its cutting edge and while there are still artists, such as Alison Krauss, who continue to produce good music, there is little evidence to suggest that country music will ever recapture its golden age. But what a golden age!
Willie Nelson

This post first appeared on Three Chords And The Truth, please read the originial post: here

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The Golden Age of Country Music


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