The old joke claims you get your dog, wife, and trailer house back if you play a country song backwards, but we fans of the genre realize the music we love is much more than cliched stereotypes.
If we are going to use a cliche, “Three chords and the truth” comes closer to capturing the spirit of country music. The history of what is the first purely American form of music is as rich and diverse as both the artists that have made country what it is today and its many loyal fans.
Here’s a look at some key points and figures.
Birthed in the hills of Appalachia
The very beginning of country music can be traced to folk songs played by immigrants that settled in the Appalachian Mountains. English ballads blended with Irish and Scottish jigs were played mostly on the fiddle. Church hymns and African-Americans introduced the banjo and the blues into the mix. A full decade before the first “hillbilly music” recordings were made, books of Appalachian folk songs were published under the name of “old-time music”.
Texas led the way
While it would take decades for the term “country music” to come into vogue, the first recording of such music was made by a Texas fiddler named Eck Robertson in 1922. Robertson cut 16 tracks of old-time music from 1922-1929. A compilation of those records is still available today.
Radio made the country star
A radio station out of Georgia was the first to play folk songs to its audience in 1922. The term “hillbilly music” was used to describe the sound. Not long after that, a radio station out of Fort Worth, Texas, started the first “barn dance” show. It was a station from Nashville, Tenn., WSM, that really kicked off the movement with the launch of its own barn dance program Nov. 28, 1925. In 1939 The Grand Ole Opry moved to the Ryman Auditorium and was broadcast nationwide for the first time. As they say, the rest is history.
The Singing Brakeman
The genre struggled for both an identity and a star those early years. Labeled “hillbilly music”, many of the early performers were sketch comedians. Things changed when a young brakeman for the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad Company was forced to give up life on the rails due to declining health from Tuberculosis. Jimmie Rodgers entered the music scene in 1927 and over the next six years, until his death in 1933, he became the very star the genre needed. Today, he is known as the Father of Country Music.
Giddy up cowboy
By the mid-30s, the term “hillbilly” had taken on negative connotations. Around this same time, Gene Autry introduced the first honky-tonk style songs to the genre. The first of the so-called singing cowboys, Autry made his Hollywood debut in 1935. Soon, others like Roy Rogers and Tex Ritter emerged. The music became “country and western”. Bob Wills introduced music with jazz influences and soon Western swing was the thing. These bands brought new instruments to the genre like drums, electric guitars and horns, taking the sound away from the traditional string sound of Appalachia. Texan Ernest Tubb was the first country star to record with an electric guitar.
The honky-tonk sound dominated the 40s, although purists frowned at the decline of the traditional tone, much as they do today. But a thin young man from Alabama recorded “Lovesick Blues” in that warbling twang and changed everything. Hank Williams did everything just a little bit different. He shook up conventions and made people in the business nervous. Hank earned six encores at the Grand Ole Opry when he sang “Lovesick Blues” but his hard-living ways caught up to him. Kicked out of the Opry for his repeated drunkenness, Hank’s spiral ended with his death in 1953. Sadly to this day, Hank Williams still has not been re-inducted to the Grand Ole Opry despite his undeniable influence on every artist in the genre.
“It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” Kitty Wells sang, but she certainly was blessed with some powerful talent and drive. Wells forever changed the landscape for women with her 1952 hit. Long believed to be unworthy of headline gigs, women were few and far between when Wells became the first female to hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart with the musical retort to Hank Thompsons’ earlier hit, “The Wild Side of Life”. The song was controversial for the time and was even banned by the Opry for a while, but audiences drove the song and Wells to success opening doors for future female artists.
They don’t make ’em like they used to
These days, pickup trucks and country songs go together like fleas and hound dogs, but few understand just how important Henry Ford was in the proliferation of country music. The genre was struggling back in the 20s, but Ford promoted and sponsored old-time music because he believed it to be of superior moral quality than other music of the day. Many of the early radio programs and performers stayed afloat because of Ford’s involvement.
Merle Haggard did three years at San Quentin for robbery, Steve Earle did time for drugs and Johnny Paycheck served two years in the pen for shooting a man; but the country star most associated with prison life never served a day. Johnny Cash had a few scrapes with the law and had overnight stays in city jails, but his only time in actual prisons was spent onstage. Much of his defiant attitude and outlaw spirit can be attributed to his series of prison concerts. Cash’s At San Quentin and Folsom Prison albums are regarded as classics, but the Man in Black never went to prison. Nor did he shoot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.
Who you calling a Patsy
It’s no great secret that Willie Nelson penned Patsy Cline’s most notable song “Crazy”, but most people would be surprised to know Cline didn’t like the song when she first heard it. Troubled by Nelson’s narrative style, she resisted recording. On crutches and recovering from a near-fatal car wreck at the time, Patsy finally stopped to rest after a hard day in the studio. Upon her return, she did it her way (didn’t she always) and the classic song we all know today was born. Like her predecessor and contemporary, Kitty Wells, Patsy proved women were headliners and capable of producing great music. The country stars of today, male and female, owe Mrs. Cline a debt.