These pivotal moments forever changed country music history.
Country music has come a long way from its origins as hillbilly music in the hills of Appalachia. Over the course of its hundred-year history, many moments stand out as ground-shaking, which represented a turning point for the genre and its heritage.
Jimmy Rodgers wouldn’t recognize country music today. Neither would Johnny Cash. Shania Twain might. However, all three have played pivotal roles in making country music what it has become.
Here are the 10 most important turning points in country music history.
10. Shania Takes Off Her Clothes
Shania Twain was certainly not the first country singer to land heavily on the pop side of the genre. However, she was its biggest. In the early ’90s, country music experienced a revolution. The traditional sounds of artists like Randy Travis and George Jones were replaced by pop and rock-tinged songs.
Twain took it to a whole new level. When she released her music video for “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!,” stripping away her clothes to reveal a sexy costume that pinched her in all the right places, Twain unleashed upon the world a new generation of country music. Both male and female artists started flaunting their assets, putting looks and musical accessibility before lyrics and artistic quality. With the help of Garth Brooks’s pop-heavy music and Toby Keith’s “How Do You Like Me Now?,” Shania would help steer country towards the musical Frankenstein it is now. Over 15 years later, we still feel the effects of Shania’s women-power anthem.
9. Johnny Cash Plays San Quentin
Cash built his reputation around his prison songs. His first top-10 hit was “Folsom Prison Blues” in 1956. Eventually, he was going to have to back up his words. In 1958, he didd. Cash played his first prison concert that year in San Quentin, just outside of San Francisco. This concert would lead Cash to Folsom Prison itself in a string of prison concerts that would solidify his reputation as an outlaw of country music. It would also lead him to play Folsom Prison ten years later, helping Cash revitalize his career.
Playing San Quentin had another unexpected effect. The first night he played there, he met one of the inmates, a 19-year-old kid sentenced to 15 years for burglary. His name was Merle Haggard. Haggard would cite Cash as his inspiration to get his act together and be released after serving only two years. Haggard then was instrumental in founding the Bakersfield sound, which rocked Nashville’s choke-hold on country for nearly a decade.
8. Earl Scruggs Invents Bluegrass Banjo
Ok, so maybe he didn’t invent it, but if it wasn’t for Earl Scruggs, the world might not have the three-finger picking style that characterizes bluegrass music. Scruggs made the banjo cool, and it made it sound like it never had before. Today’s bluegrass banjo is still essentially the same style, even the same licks, that Scruggs pioneered starting in the 40s and played well into the 80s. Together with Bill Monroe and Lester Flatts, Scruggs did more to shape bluegrass than any other person in history. Porter Wagoner once compared Earl Scruggs to Babe Ruth, claiming he was the best there ever was and the best there ever will be.
7. Johnny Meets June
On July 7, 1956. Johnny Cash takes the stage at the Grand Ole Opry for the first time. He had just released his hit “I Walk the Line.” Introducing him is the singer Carl Smith. Backstage his wife, June Carter, is preparing for her own set. The rest, as they say, is history.
Within the year June had divorced Smith and joined Cash on the road. June would support Johnny throughout his turbulent career and life, leading, guiding, and advising him. Without June Carter, the Johnny Cash we know would be much different. The two would be together for the rest of their lives, and their impact upon music and America is too profound to measure.
6. Woody Guthrie Pens “This Land is Your Land”
Legend has it Woody Guthrie was fed up with listening to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” over and over on the radio. So he decided to do something about it. As a response, Guthrie sat down and wrote “This Land is Your Land,” and in doing so launched an unofficial national anthem, a protest, and a folk evolution.
Guthrie stood for two things above all others: he stood for equality and peace, and for making music that made people feel good. Guthrie stood for the plight of the common man, most often identified with the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. He sang about beauty and his country. He also sang in protest when he didn’t see beauty.
Other folk signers grasped onto these ideas and ran with them, and they became pillars of the folk music culture.
5. Country Music Moves to Nashville
Music City wasn’t always Music City. In fact, many other cities were home to country music before Nashville became widely-recognized in the 1950s. Country roots can be traced to Atlanta, Memphis, and Bristol, Tennessee. Later Bakersfield, CA and Lubbock, TX would threaten Nashville for the title of home of country music.
In the 50s, there was a good chance the home of country music could have become Memphis. Elvis was there. Cash was there. However, two things drew country music to Nashville: the Grand Ole Opry (see above) and the Acuff-Rose record label. Roy Acuff and Fred Rose promised to treat their performers honestly, a rarity in those days. Well, they recorded Hank and Lefty, and Nashville became Music City.
4. Gene Autry Dons a Cowboy Hat
Blame the movies for giving us the image of a country musician in cowboy hat, boots, and paisley shirt. Before the big screen, country music was heard, not seen. Stars played their hits over the radio, and could have been wearing overalls just as easily as a suit.
Enter Gene Autry. Before Autry there were a few singing cowboys in the movies. But none captured the imagination of the audience like Autry did. He first appeared in a film in 1934, spawning not only country music’s image, but the entire genre of western films as well. Autry branded himself western and introduced himself as a cowboy. And America loved it. After that, people didn’t listen to hillbilly music anymore; they listened to country and western.
3. The Newport Folk Festival
The Newport Folk Festival has been instrumental in the shape of the American music landscape in more ways than one. The Folk Festival began in 1959 as a counterpart to the Jazz Festival, which began in 1954. The two were among the first music festivals, paving the way for the likes of Woodstock, Willie’s 4th of July Picnic, Bumbershoot, and all others.
Besides influencing the culture of music festivals, Newport also introduced and featured a number of historically influential musicians: Joan Baez (who herself introduced Bob Dylan), Jose Feliciano, Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, and Howlin’ Wolf, among many others.
If that weren’t enough, in 1965 Bob Dylan famously plugged his folk guitar in, ripped off a number of electric chords, and launched a counterculture that carries on to this day.
2. The Grand Ole Opry Hits the Air
There would be no Grand Ole Opry today if it wasn’t for the National Life and Accident Company. The company, based out of Nashville, was looking for a cheap way to advertise. Enter radio. They hired a director to create a radio station as a vehicle to promote their product. The director, George D. Hay, brought his popular show National Barn Dance to Nashville, where popular musicians would play live over the air. Soon he began to spoof the show that was on air directly before his, the Music Appreciation Hour, which played classical and opera music. Hay told his listeners he wasn’t going to bore them with grand opera music; instead he would entertain them with good, solid Americana. He called his show the Grand Ole Opry.
1. The Bristol Sessions
Before the Bristol sessions, country and hillbilly music was recorded by crossover musicians in New York. True country musicians were often too poor to make the trip to New York to record. So with the advent of portable recording equipment, the Victor Talking Machine Company sent a representative to Appalachia and the south to discover musicians that otherwise would not have had a chance to record. In 1927 they set up a portable studio in Bristol, Tennessee and placed advertisements in the local newspaper calling for musicians. Over 12 days he recorded 19 performers. Two of those performers were the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers.
Rodgers would go on to fuse his own meld of country music and sell millions of records. His influence lives on today. The Carter family toured for 17 years, recording over 300 songs. Together the artists introduced America to southeastern country music.