Most people probably have little understanding of the roots of country music in America because it has always been taken for granted that country is one of the core genres we have always had around. It is known as the heartbeat and soul of America and been around about as long as the Europeans have been here.
Over the years we may have heard country music we liked, some even crossed over to pop and rock charts, and many stars in other genres either started as country music singers or became famous and then cut a country song or album. But do we really know from whence it came?
When English speaking America was first being colonized in the 1600's the coastal areas were settled first, Virginia, Massachusetts and Maryland, all by 1634 and it did not take long for the European immigrants to make their way to the Appalachian Mountains, the Southern Appalachians that is, which included the Blue Ridge Mountain range and Cumberland Plateau. Western Virginia and Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee territories along with pieces of the Carolinas and Georgia made up the region which served as a barrier to westward expansion.
Immigrants came to the area because the coastal regions were already populated and with them came the Old World musical instruments were brought together in barn dances and celebrations by these hardy people settling the region. This was in the days before electricity, before electric guitars and synthesizers
The Irish fiddle, German dulcimer, Italian mandolin, Spanish guitar and African banjo were brought to these celebrations and played together in hillbilly jam sessions far from the operas and symphonies of the cities on the east coast. This came to be known as "Old Time" music.
In the 19th century some immigrant groups moved to the Texas area to settle and further integrated the hillbilly sound with Spanish, Mexican and Native American music and large dancehalls were built where the locals could gather and dance to the sounds. This was the final step in the evolution of the roots of Country Music.
Then came the 20th century with cars and roads and radio which brought down the barriers of communication and people from throughout the nation could hear this unique American creation. The first country recording was in 1921 and throughout the 1920's as radio expanded so did the country music.
Country musicians were great innovators ever since mixing the instruments from five counties up in the Appalachians and electricity, recording and touring gave them more and more opportunities to do this. Hillbilly music grew in popularity driven by the Carter Family and Jimmy Rodgers and in 1925 WSM-AM radio in Nashville started the first country music broadcast, on November 28, 1925, when the WSM Barn Dance was first broadcast. In time it would become the Grand Ole Opry under the guidance of people like Roy Acuff.
By the 1930's and Great Depression people were poor and the radio became the primary source of news and entertainment. Soon a fledgling movie industry introduced the Singing cowboys while radio was expanding the barn dances with legendary country shows being broadcast from Chicago to Texas to California. In the 1940's these shows introduced singers like Roy Acuff, Bill Haley, Eddie Arnold and singing cowboys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.
Bob Wills and his legendary Texas Playboys was among the innovators of country music when in 1935 he introduced drums to the band, a first, then became the first group with the electric guitar in 1938. Yet it was not until the early 1960's that the steel guitar and drums were fixtures in country bands.
Hillbilly music spawned Hillbilly Boogie by 1939 and a new country genre called Bluegrass emerged with the sound of Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs at the end World War II. By this time country music included Hillbilly, Boogie, Blues, Honky Tonk, Gospel and Rockabilly.
To the rest of the world country music was called Hillbilly until 1944 when the name was changed to Folk and Blues music. By 1949 it was labeled Country or Country Western, the latter referring to the singing cowboys of movies and then television. Honky Tonk saw the rise of Ernest Tubb, Floyd Tillman, the Maddox Brothers and Rose, Lefty Frizell and Hank Williams.
Along came the 1950's and country music changed again as Rockabilly dominated with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins leading the way. From 1955-1960 ABC-TV became the first network with a nationwide country show called the Ozark Jubilee that showcased country stars to the nation. Elvis helped drive the cross-over between Rockabilly and Rock 'n Roll.
Late in the '50's came the Lubbock Sound of Buddy Holly and then there was a country backlash as the industry felt rock 'n roll was to dominate. Ray Price, Marty Robbins and Johnny Horton began to shift the music back to traditional country.
In the early 1960's the Nashville sound became dominant with producers like Chet Atkins, Owen Bradley and Billy Sherrill reviving the genre with legendary singers Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold. Ray Charles introduced Country Soul in 1962 with his release of I Can't Stop Loving You. A new sound in Nashville called Countrypolitan was created featuring the sounds of Tammy Wynette and Charlie Rich. But soon the Nashville sound became stale.
Out west Honky Tonk and Western Swing were merged by Bob Wills and Lefty Frizell to form the Bakersfield Sound. It would encompass the diversity of different styles from Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Tommy Collins and Wynn Stewart.
In other places like Lubbock, Tulsa and Austin the disappointment with the Nashville Sound and control of the record labels was causing an Outlaw movement. Inspired by the success of The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Rolling Stones in demanding creative control of their music and control of their songs, the Outlaws gravitated to Austin where Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson became the leaders.
Not only did their music change but their image as well. Gone were the clean cut, clean shaven cowboys of old and in were the long haired radical Outlaws of the future. Jessie Colter, wife of Waylon, was one of the female pioneers while Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard soon joined forces.
With The Beatles astounding success blending rock and pop music Nashville was hungry to tap into the crossover sound needed to reach the mainstream markets. Others, seeking a return to the "old values" of rock 'n roll, created a new genre called Country Rock.
The Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker Band, Poco, Buffalo Springfield and Eagles exploded onto the music scene as Southern Rock and Heartland became new subgenre spin offs. Ever since there has been a tug of war between traditional country and country rock or country pop as stars like Dolly Parton, Rosanne Cash, Linda Ronstadt, Juice Newton, Alabama, Hank Williams, Jr., Brooks and Dunn, Garth Brooks, Dwight Yoakum, Shania Twain, Faith Hill, and Keith Urban helped move country towards rock over the years.
By the mid 1970's Olivia Newton John and John Denver captured the Country Pop crossover market and powered their way to CMA and Grammy Awards with multi million selling hits. Soon a whole new group of country performers would take up the mantle.
George Straight, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Toby Keith, Reba McEntire, Kenny Chesney, Alison Krauss, Vince Gill and Tim McGraw among others perform the Classic Country style today while the pop crossover comes from new artists like Carrie Underwood from American Idol fame and newest sensation Taylor Swift who have breathed new life into the country music industry.
What is next? Who knows. Still, those who understand that country music is an ever-changing genre that morphs into a variety of styles depending on the needs of the people and the innovation of the artists, must feel good as a broad range of artists currently dominate the radio airwaves and rule the concert circuit.
As the major record labels collapse, the radio stations strangle on their own automated programming and the formula music once again becomes stale we know it is the time when country music always rediscovers itself. Nashville will be a lot better as a result, all country artists will benefit, the public will reap the rewards of new and innovative country music and history will once again record that the American country sound once again became relevant in a time of need and a time of truth.