Updated December 2020
Where, where, are you tonight?
Why did you leave me here all alone?
I searched the world over,
And thought I found true love.
You met another and
Phht! you were gone.
- Archie Campbell/Buck Owens
What is 'country music'? The first question might be, 'which country?' The obvious answer would be the United States of America, in which country this genre was born. But Canada produces famous country singers1, as well, and country music stars draw large audiences in both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. In fact, country music is popular from Germany to Japan. It has even been played on the way to the Moon.
Country music isn't about a particular country. It's about the abstract concept of 'country', as opposed to 'city'. American pop music originates in centres like New York City's Tin Pan Alley. Hip-Hop is deeply urban. For music celebrating the sexiness of tractors, you have to head to the countryside.
Geography and Instrumental Boundaries, or Lack Thereof
Country music, formerly known (and still sometimes referred to in the hills2) as 'Country & Western', is a blend of ethnic influences. Much of it originates in the Anglo-Irish-Scottish ancestry of those who settled in the Appalachians, and it also contains the influence of the Deep South: the legacy of slavery, African American experiences, and the lives of sharecroppers, hoboes, convicts, and other marginalised persons. This blend of traditions lends a variety to the stylings, rhythms, and themes of country music.
Almost any instrument can be used in country music, from piano to electric guitar to whatever you find in the kitchen. You can even play the saw from the woodshed. The guitar is really a latecomer to the country music scene, having become really popular during the Spanish American War of 1898. The oldest country instruments are fiddle, banjo3, and whatever rhythm 'instruments' could be improvised, such as spoons or an empty demijohn. From the mountain jug band to the modern studio musician, improvisation has been a key element in country music, as well as a breezy disregard for formal genre definitions. From a mountain hymn to a sly parody, it's all country music if 'country artists' do it.
Roots and Evolution
In the 1700s, Scots-Irish and German immigrants came down the Great Wagon Road in their tens of thousands, mostly settling in the Appalachian mountain region as subsistence farmers. The music that evolved in those mountains originated in the border ballads of the UK. The border in question is the one between England and Scotland. Border ballads tend to involve cattle thievery, internecine violence, and tragic love stories. Many of these songs continued to be sung and passed down in the Appalachians for the next two centuries.
Other immigrants to the southeastern US added to the musical mix, African rhythms and tropes in particular. A quick note about genre: 'minstrel songs' are not part of country music. Minstrel songs were a commercial product invented by professional musicians in the northeast, like Pittsburgh's Stephen Foster. Minstrel songs, in addition to being racially insensitive, are pop music, not folk music4. Those musical portraits of the idyllic, sunny Southland were a product of northern imaginations.
One reason for this was that the southeast US at this time was contributing almost nothing to the greater musical life of the nation. As for the southern plantation owners in the low country, cultural pursuits were of little interest to them. In 1856, Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who designed New York's Central Park, travelled across the lowland South for his three-volume exposé A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States; With Remarks on Their Economy. He remarked that he hardly saw a book or a piano in any of those slaveholders' homes. The hill country was remote and inaccessible: nobody was hauling 'pye-anners' up the Great Smokies. People there made music for themselves and their neighbours with more portable instruments.
The post-Civil War cultural climate changed all that. Appalachian young people travelled for work, and wrote sad songs about homesickness and railroads. Young men went to war, and brought back guitars, which had a rakish and exotic air about them, but combined nicely with the banjo. A musician who'd been farther afield came up with the Hawaiian guitar by sliding glass from a broken bottle across the strings.
The piano finally arrived, in the form of the upright. By the 1890s, most music-loving mountain homes had one, often with a player-piano function. 60 years later, the same pianos, jangly and slightly warped from the constant humidity, were still in service in homes, community halls, and backroads churches. In the low country, pianos were also ubiquitous, but didn't enjoy much status. This was because of their frequent employment in questionable venues such as 'honkytonks' (bars) and 'houses of ill repute' (brothels). The fact that such musical legends as ragtime composer Scott Joplin played in such places cut no ice with the churchgoers, who banished the piano in favour of various incarnations of the organ, from the portable folding organ to the later Hammond. Mountain people, if they had an organ at all, had a pump organ, usually in the parlour, and played anything they wanted on it.
'Hillbilly music', as it was called then, was rarely heard outside the South unless you happened to walk by a boarding house in a northern industrial city and happened to catch the doleful wail of a displaced factory worker. Then sound recording was invented. In the 1920s to 1940s, hillbilly music became increasingly popular, although at first in the form of novelty songs. Singers like Jimmie Rodgers, the 'singing brakeman', increased the popularity of the genre5.
The real breakthrough in country music, though, came during the Second World War. US servicepeople took their record players wherever they went. They also took their V-Discs, specially-produced recordings of popular music, just for the fighters overseas. In 1943, the big hit was Pistol-Packin' Mama. Armed Forces Radio included the weekly radio broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry and National Barn Dance in their repertoire. Country music became so popular that the enemy were against it. War correspondent Ernie Pyle reported from the Pacific front that during the Battle of Okinawa, Japanese soldiers shouted, 'To hell with FDR! To hell with Babe Ruth6! To hell with Roy Acuff7!'
After the war, country music continued to grow in popularity. Country music singers such as Tennessee Ernie Ford even had their own television variety shows in the 1950s. By the 1960s, the genre was well-established nationally. Shows like Hee Haw introduced new fans to the songs of such artists as Dolly Parton and Buck Owens.
Modern incarnations of country music are often virtually indistinguishable from pop music. These are commonly called 'crossover' tunes, and they are played on both pop stations and country stations. This is much to the chagrin of many traditional country music fans, who don't appreciate it when easy-listening music is labelled as 'country' merely because the singer is wearing a cowboy hat and mentioning pickup trucks.
In spite of the proliferation of 'feel-good' music in the mass-appeal country genre, country music artists continue to perform music that is more traditional, such as bluegrass, or controversial and satirical. From the Austin Lounge Lizards' 'Jesus Loves Me (But He Can't Stand You)' to Kinky Friedman's 'We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You', country music continues to comment and challenge social history.