A beginner's guide to country music

From Dolly Parton, to Taylor Swift, country has had a huge influence on a number of singers – but its roots lie much further back in time

Chris Gillett |

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Country music has been making a revival in recent years, with huge pop acts like Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Ke$ha, and Justin Timberlake infusing this style into their most recent albums. However, the genre can be traced all the way back to the 1920s. While it is often cited as the sound of the southern US, many of its roots derive from Blues, and popular European and Celtic folk songs, dating back hundreds of years.

The first country acts to release music in the 20s were singers like Fiddlin’ John Carson (Little Log Cabin in The Lane was the first commercial country release), Jimmie Rodgers (whose song Blue Yodel sold more than a million copies), Cliff Carlisle, and The Carter Family.

Thanks to the rise of radio broadcasting, country music (or Hillbilly music as it was formerly known) gained a much wider audience, with an increase in popularity during the 30s and 40s. Country music was also featured in many Hollywood Western or cowboy films. Musician Bob Wills gained fame for mixing country with jazz, creating the western swing scene, Johnny Barfield pioneered boogie – often cited as helping evolve country into rockabilly, and one of the first crooners, Eddy Arnold, produced a handful of top 10 hits.

The term country and western, meanwhile, came from radio stations playing both genres alongside each other. Western is a type of filk music from the west of North America. Cowgirl Patsy Montana was also a huge influence on female musicians at the time, carving out a successful solo career in a mostly male-dominated industry. The instrumentation was changing too, with the introduction of drums and electric guitar, often replacing banjos and acoustic guitars.

The merging of western swing and blues created the honky-tonk movement, and was popular with many artists, most notably Hank Williams – who would later be influential to the rock’n’roll trendsetters of the 50s such as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Rockabilly reached its peak popularity in the mid-50s, partly due to television exposure of the previously mentioned artists, spreading them further from the south, and becoming popular artists in the northern states too.

The city of Nashville was a melting pot for country music subgenres, providing a brief revival for the genre, with acts like Patsy Cline and Eddy Arnold using more pop-oriented melodies, as well as string accompaniments. The scene was short-lived, though, as The British Invasion of rock music soon dominated the airwaves during the mid-60s.

Gospel and soul often found their way into country music, even as far back as the 1920s, but its most successful hit was 40 years later with Ray Charles’ cover of I Can’t Stop Loving You reaching number 1 in 1962, becoming one of the most successful songs of the year.

The 1970s saw country crossover with pop music, even more than the Nashville sound, with many traditional pop singers like John Denver, Olivia Newton-John, and Glen Campbell adding country elements to their songs. The most commercially successful artist of the decade though was Dolly Parton with hits like Jolene and 9 To 5. Country rock also proved popular during this time with acts like The Eagles, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young providing an alternative to the widespread popularity of rock and punk music.

Garth Brooks gave country another revival in the 90s with huge sell-out shows and multi-platinum record sales, which were quickly followed by successful country pop records from Shania Twain and LeAnn Rimes, but it still lacked the commercial edge it once held.

Pop contest American Idol launched the careers of dozens of country singers in the mid-2000s, most notably Carrie Underwood, who went on to sell 65 million records, and received seven Grammy awards. But the most successful country pop star of the millennium is Taylor Swift, who began her career with simplistic acoustic country pop tunes, inevitably inspiring others to follow suit.

Recommended Listening:

Jimmie RodgersBlue Yodel

Eddy ArnoldIt’s A Sin

Patsy ClineWalkin’ After Midnight

Hank WilliamsHey, Good Lookin’

Dolly PartonJolene

Carrie UnderwoodBefore He Cheats

Taylor SwiftTim McGraw

Recommended Viewing:

Lost Highway: The History of American Country

Country: Portraits of an American Sound

Recommended Reading:

It’s A Long Story – Willie Nelson

Cash: The Autobiography

Hank – Hank Williams Biography

Edited by Ginny Wong