A little like so many genres of music, the title ‘Country Music’, covers a huge selection of sub-genres of music. When thinking about Country Music, often the image of a pair of dueling banjo players springs to mind, or perhaps a foot-tapping fiddle player accompanied by a bodhrán and acoustic bass?
Stetson hats, steel guitars, and more than the modest twang of a Southern American accent typically feature in the genre of Country Music, but this is by no means the extent of this wide musical style.
Characteristics of Country Music
Country or Country and Western Music as it is often referred to has its origins in the folk music of the USA. These origins, in turn, traced back to the Irish, Scottish, and English immigrants who made the southern states of America their home. These roots into Blues and South American folk have strong links to all the different types of country music that evolved from these humble beginnings. The popularity of Country Music started in the early part of the 20th Century when recordings of Atlanta artists became available commercially.
This early music was perhaps unfairly labeled as ‘hillbilly’ music and somewhat dismissed until the early 1920s when the radio began to adopt Country Music and the popularity spread rapidly. The ‘Grand Old Opry’, still a leading Country Music venue today, and WSM Nashville Radio were one of the most important sources of Country Music through The Great Depression and onwards and helped launch the career of the legendary Hank Williams.
One key feature of Country Music is the use of a story on which to build a song. The narrative is extremely important in nearly every type of Country Music and it provides a strong and compelling element that binds the genre together. What you often hear in many country songs are very personal stories or accounts of love, loss, and experience that resonates with those who listen to the tracks. The Country artist Lee Ann Womack has a remarkable ability to not only tell a story but to capture and express so much of what it is to be human in her work. Here is a link to one of her most popular songs titled, ‘I Hope You Dance’ that illustrates Country Music’s expressive power.
At its heart are simple chords progressions, repetitive rhythms, and catchy riffs that accompany the singer. There are so many country songs with straightforward chord structures that are lifted by great vocal harmonies, and extremely strong choruses. It is the emotional content of many Country hits that generates its lasting appeal and singles it out as one of the most enjoyable genres of music to listen to.
In the 1940s, Country Music found itself beginning to absorb the influences of Jazz. What Jazz brought to Country Music was the ‘swing’ aspect and a new subgenre of Country was created called Western Swing. The gentle lilt of the swing rhythm effectively made the careers of singers like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers who quickly became household names. It was Western Swing where the highly commercial side of Country developed with songs that literally ‘crooned’ their way into people’s hearts. This was quite a departure from the folk-based, earthier Country songs at the turn of the century. Here is a short example of Autry at his best song.
Far from the simplicity of early Country Music, the 1940s and 1950s saw Nashville make some truly extravagant recordings of new Country songs. These arrangements were closer to the big numbers you would expect in a Hollywood movie. The commercial success of Country gave artists a far greater chance to indulge themselves and the songs include some rich, lush orchestral arrangements. It was this period of Country that saw the meteoric rise of stars like Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette and Patsy Cline who vocal styles for many came to epitomize that Country sound.
At a similar time, Hollywood was making cowboy movies that included notable Country singers. Latching on to the Western Country style and the growing fame of certain singers, Country Music enjoyed a huge commercial boost through the film industry. Here is a video of a classic movie called ‘Cheating Heart’ (1964) starring Hank Williams.
As Country Music moved into the 1970s and onwards the divide between Pop and Country narrowed considerably. Whilst songs still included more traditional instruments like fiddle, banjo, acoustic guitars, the electric guitar and drums were now deemed to be perfectly appropriate for Country Music. The character of the singer became the focus of the style of the music. The diversity as you head into the 1990s to the present day is dramatically diverse.
Dolly Parton became a massive success with hits like ‘9 to 5’
and Garth Brooks with hugely popular songs like ‘The Dance’
and ‘The River’,
both quite different in their approach to Country Music but both with their roots firmly in the traditions of the genre. Many commentators would add that the music of artists like Brooks is closer to Southern Rock than traditional Country Music. The modest acoustic instruments are replaced with electric, amplified ones, and the rhythms derive more clearly from Rock than Folk, Jazz, or Blues.
In more recent years there has been a deliberate return to the older styles of Country. There is an encouraging number of bands and artists who are looking back to the foundations of Country Music and finding inspiration. Country Singers to explore would include William Michael Morgan, Cody Jinks, Miranda Lambert, and the band Midland whose links to the Nashville sound are undeniable.
At the core of Country Music is a song that tells a great story either about an event or the singer themselves. It is heartfelt music that comes in many different shades from the traditional to the highly commercial. Underneath the song structures orientate around a verse-chorus format with the chorus often vocally harmonized and immediately memorable. Despite the simple impression, this genre can give there is some considerable virtuosity in the performance of many banjo players, fiddle players, and guitarists that should not be overlooked.