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Any Major Dude With Half A Heart

A Brief History of

COUNTRY MUSIC
www.halfhearteddude.com

Published privately by the Any Major Dude With Half A Heart website
(www.halfhearteddude.com)

halfhearteddude.com 2013
All rights reserved.
This book may not be sold. It may not be edited or altered

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This book may be freely distributed in its current form.
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CONTENTS
Introduction

Chapter 2: The rise of Country Music

12

Chapter 1: Pioneer Days

Chapter 3: Country and Rock & roll

Chapter 4: The Glory Years

20

24

Chapter 5: Establishment vs Outlaws

30

Chapter 7: Corporate shine and alt.country

37

Chapter 6: The Rise of the Stetson

34

Cover graphic: Orchestra at square dance. McIntosh County, Oklahoma, 1939 or 1940.
Reproduction from colour slide. Photo by Russell Lee. Prints and Photographs Division,
Library of Congress

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INTRODUCTION
his booklet is the collated and edited version of a series of articles
that appeared on the Any Major Dude With Half A Heart blog
(halfhearteddude.com) from July 2010 to October 2012. It sought
to provide a brief history of country music. The series was accompanied by several compilations of songs from the eras covered. The idea
was to illustrate the text, not to shift some music to freeloaders. I know that
some readers were inspired to seek out the CDs or official downloads of
many of the featured songs; and even if they did not, I hope that the compilations, and the articles, might have helped to diminish some deeply ingrained prejudices against country music.
So the objective was not only to inform those who already had an interest
in the genre, but also to persuade those had resisted becoming acquainted
with country music to give it a chance. I hope the series weakened resistance
and preconceived notions of the stereotypes of Confederation flags and the
jargons of Hicksville. Since the series concluded, the TV series Nashville has
become a big hit; although it is in essence a soap opera, it surely will help
dispel further notions of country music being the exclusive domain of people
who say howdy pardner, giddy-up and yee haw while chewing on
straw, never mind the image of Deliverance woodsmen and KKK parades.

Of course it is legitimate to dislike the sound of the steel guitar, the banjo,
the fiddle, the mandolin or the yodel. But is country all that? I would propose
that country is so broad a genre that it is practically impossible to claim to
hate all of it. At its best, as Hank Ballard once said, country is soul music.

I have consulted many sources, but I should single out two: the exquisitely
compiled and illustrated book Country Music: The Complete Visual History,
edited by Paul Kingsbury & Alannah Nash, and Roughstocks History of
Country Music (www.roughstock.com/history/introduction). The Roughstock
history takes a different approach to the one I take here, so the histories are,
I hope, complementary. Where I commit errors, I apologise. Where I emphasise one fact and omit another, feel free to disagree.

You are invite you to circulate this eBook as widely as you like. I assert
the copyright to the text, but the book is absolutely free.
Any Major Dude With Half A Heart, January 2013
www.halfhearteddude.com
1

Chapter 1: Pioneer Days


or the first few decades of its recorded history, country music was
not even called that. Alternately, it was called things like Old-Time
Music, Old Familiar Music, Hillbilly or Folk, but the term Country did not find any currency until the late 1940s.

Whatever it was called and however one may define it, country music has
its roots in the rural Southern Appalachian folk songs the so-called broadside ballads, which geographical isolation had preserved for decades and even
centuries and in the minstrel shows which brought black music to white
folks through the visual medium of blackface. It has its roots in the Christian
revivalism of Billy Sunday (read up his story; its quite amazing) and Dwight
Moody, in Calvinist church music, and in the gospel of the cotton fields. It
has its roots in the French square dance, the quadrilles, in the Alpine yodel
and the music of Hawaii. It has its roots in the songs sung by cowboys, whose
mobile lifestyle encouraged the use of small musical instruments, such as the
mouth harmonica and the fiddle. And it has its roots in the popular music produced in urban New Yorks Tin Pan Alley, whose songs travelled south via
vaudeville shows.

Bluesman Arnold Shultz (left) was also a pioneer in country music.

From the start, country was located in the South, with its socially inflexible but culturally promiscuous racial barriers. The fiddle and banjo, for example, were initially instruments of black music, though the banjo, an African
instrument brought to America by slaves, was innovated on by whites to give
it its present five-string form. The blues had a profound effect on country (in
the 1920s and 30s many country songs incorporated the term blues in their
titles). That, of course, did not inhibit the occasional incidence of coarse
racism in country music. So it was not peculiar that the hugely popular and
very influential string band Gid Tannen and the Skillet Lickers should release
songs with titles like Run Nigger Run (even though the track was an old
black folk song about escaping slavery, the title is singularly startling).

Still, forgotten black blues musicians such as Arnold Shultz and Rufus
Payne had a huge influence on the development of country. Shultz, a fiddler
and guitarist, taught the future bluegrass legend Bill Monroe and influenced
the famous finger-picking guitar style of Merle Travis, while Hank Williams
perhaps countrys most pivotal figure learned to play guitar from Payne.
Bob Wills, another country pioneer with his Western Swing, incorporated the
blues and jazz sounds he loved into his music. Uncle Dave Macon, meanwhile, claimed to have learned his seminal song Rock About My Saro Jane
from black stevedores along the Cumberland river in the 1880s.

The advent of accessible radio in the early 1920s was crucial in the rise
of popular music, country included, as record companies started to seek new
sounds. Indeed, radio was crucial in the long-term. With Nashvilles WSM
Radios broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry from the citys Ryman Auditorium
reaching almost all of the US by 1927, many country artists became household names even before the Oprys syndication.

The first-ever country record was recorded on 30 June 1922 not in a


random southern location, but in New York City, at the Victor Talking Machine Company on West 38th Street. The 35-year old Texan fiddler Eck
Robertson put on record several tracks, accompanied on some by Henry C
Gilliland, a 77-year old Civil War veteran who died in 1924. After a few
months, Victor chose to release Robertsons signature song, Sally Gooden.
It made no impact whatsoever, nor did the fiddlers four follow-up releases.

The first country hit came soon after, and it was recorded in the South. In
March 1922, an Atlanta radio station, WSB, invited local fiddlers and other
folk string musicians pickers to perform in its studio. The experiment
3

Eck Robertson, whose Sally Gooden was the rst-ever country record.

proved popular, and the star performer was Fiddlin John Carson. He was
heard by a visiting A&R man, Ralph Peer, who three years earlier had released
one of the first blues records, Mamie Smiths Crazy Blues. Peer, a key person
in the development of country music, signed up Carson for the Okeh label.
On 14 June 1923, in a make-shift studio on Atlantas Nassau Street, Carson
recorded Little Old Cabin In The Lane, a minstrel song from the 1870s
written by Will S Hays. Peer thought Carsons vocals were nothing like anything he had heard before, and not in a good way. Yet, what Peer thought was
pluperfect awful singing would provide a template for generations of country singers. The recording became a hit.

A year later, classically-trained tenor Vernon Dalharts The Wreck Of


The Old 97, backed with The Prisoners Song, became countrys first
million seller. Country music was now a commercial proposition, and Dalhart
was its first superstar. New stars now popped up. Uncle Jimmy Thompson,
already 78 in 1925; Uncle Dave Macon, a trucker in his 50s (whose 1924
Hill Billie Blues gave the genre one of its early names); Carl T Sprague, a
genuine cowboy singing genuine western music; North Carolinas Charlie
Poole (countrys first celebrity death, in 1931 at 39); Riley Puckett, who was
countrys first yodeller; Gid Tannen and his Skillet Lickers (of which the blind
Puckett and his fiddling collaborator Clayton McMichen were also members).

And then, in 1929, the Carter Family A.P., his wife Sara and her cousin
Maybelle (a later incarnation, after Sara and A.P. divorced, included wider
family members, including Maybelles daughters June and Anita) broke
through with the lovely Wildwood Flower. Along with Jimmie Rodgers
and Bob Wills, the Carter Family would define the sound of country music.

If Dalhart was countrys first superstar, then Jimmie Rodgers was the
genres first megastar. Discovered and signed to the Victor label by Ralph
Peer (on 1 August 1927, the same day Peer signed the Carter Family),
Rodgers first recorded in 1927, and found success with the Blue Yodel,
which set a theme of yodelling sequels until his death at 35 in 1933. One of
these yodel songs marked the first interracial country recording, 1930s Blue
Yodel No.9 with Louis Armstrong. And there was even a black country star,
the harmonica, guitar and banjo virtuoso DeFord Bailey, who regularly appeared on the Opry until 1941 when he was abruptly dismissed, but whose
recording career, like that of many others (including Eck Robertson) ended
with the onset of the Great Depression.
5

Ralph Peer, the A&R man who saw country


music scommercial potential.

Jimmie Rodgers, countrys rst superstar.

Carl T. Sprague

Fiddlin John Carson

The Carter Family: Sara, A.P. and Maybelle.


Maybelle, a hugely inuential guitarist, later
revived the Carter Family with her daughters, including June.
DeFord Bailey

Uncle Dave Macon

Vernon Dalhart

Gid Tanners Skillet Lickers, with the


blind Riley Puckett on guitar.

Uncle Jimmy Thompson

Record sales collapsed dramatically with the Depression, with sales dropping from 104 million in 1927 to just 6 million in 1932. Some records still
sold prodigiously, of course. Gene Autrys That Silver-Haired Daddy Of
Mine (released in 1931 but becoming a mega-hit a couple of years later, it
is sometimes considered the first honky tonk record, a decade before that subgenre really took hold) sold a million copies, as did Patsy Montanas 1935
hit I Want To Be A Cowboys Sweetheart.

The 1930s saw the rise of the Singing Cowboys, combining the motion
pictures with records. There had been singing cowboys before, like the real
cowherder Carl Sprague, and the frontier ballads (lovingly collected in the
1910s by John Lomax) contributed to the country repertoire. The breakthrough,
however, came with the movie cowboys. The first was Ken Maynard, but others were more successful, such as Autry, Tex Ritter (father of the late actor
John Ritter) and Roy Rogers, perhaps the most commercially savvy of the lot.
Various other country stars made cameos in Hollywood over the years, including Patsy Montana, Pee Wee King, Red Foley, Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb and
Jimmie Davis. The movie cowboy imagery had an enduring influence, especially in the Stetson hats that periodically become obligatory country uniform
and the garish rhinestoned outfits taken to extravagant extremes in the 1960s
by Porter Wagoner.

The cowboy song has made intermittent comebacks, led by the likes of
Marty Robbins in the 1950s and Willie Nelson in the 70s. Apart from Patsy
Montana (from Bill Clintons hometown of Hope, Arkansas), there were
singing cowgirls too, such as Louise Massey and Kitty Lee. The era was a
good time for harmonising sibling acts such as the Monroe Brothers (future
bluegrass legend Bill and brother Charlie), the Allen Brothers, The Blue Sky
Boys, the Delmore Brothers, and the Coon Creek Girls (three of whose five
members were the Ledford sisters).

A massively influential form of country that infused the genre with jazz,
blues and pop had its origins in the 1930s: Western Swing, a term that would
be coined only in 1944. Its progenitor was Milton Brown. Brown had just
found success when he was killed in a car crash in 1936 at the age of 33. Bob
Wills, a member in Browns previous band, took the baton and popularised
western swing. The charismatic fiddler (who adds the cartoonish falsetto
asides in the records) and his Texas Playboys with their country string and
swing horn sections had enduring success, but had their biggest hit early:
7

1940s New San Antonio Rose, with Tommy Duncan on vocals. By then
several western swing acts had come and some already gone. Coming in the
wake of Brown and Wills were acts such as Cliff Bruner, Hartmans Heartbreakers, the Light Crust Doughboys, Swift Jewel Cowboys, Hoosier Hot
Shots, Tune Wranglers and Hank Penny, who in his long career would staddle
various forms of country. Some country artists, such as Montana and Louise
Massey, would dabble in western swing occasionally.

1940s country legend Merle Travis defined western swing this way: Western Swing is nothing more than a group of talented country boys, unschooled
in music, but playing the music they feel, beating a solid two-four rhythm to
the harmonies that buzz around their brains. When it escapes in all its musical
glory, my friend, you have western swing. When rock & roll broke big in the
1950s, Wills caustically remarked that he and his likes had been playing that
already in the 1930s. Perhaps Uncle Dave Macon (born in 1870!) was the first
rock & roller; he was the first country singer to feature the word rock in a
songtitle, back in 1927 with the song he had learnt from those stevedores.

The Depression gave rise to a series of songs with socialist undertones


(though nobody would call it that), and not only by Woody Guthrie. Socially
critical songs preceded the Depression, of course. Bob Miller, a collaborator
with Irving Berlin, wrote Eleven Cent Cotton And Forty Cent Meat in 1928,
for example (it includes a brilliant pun: Flour up high, cotton down low
How in the world can we raise the dough?). In 1932 he called people to come
out and vote in the election that brought Franklin D. Roosevelt into the White
House, with the promise that the poor forgotten man is gonna cause a
change. Bob Miller also predicted the 1937 assassination of Louisianas
wealth redistributing governor Huey Long in his 1935 song The Death Of
Huey P Long. Even the fun-loving Uncle Dave Macon sang about living in
hard times. Woody Guthrie was regarded as a country singer, and articulated
the injustices of capitalism and society in ways that anticipated the schism
between country and folk music.

As we will discuss later, rock & roll grew out of R&B and various shades
of country, especially rockabilly, a sub-genre that peaked in the 1950s. But
what is widely regarded as the first rockabilly number dates back to 1939,
Buddy Jones Rockin Rollin Mama. Its a futile exercise to identify the
first-ever rock & roll record, but any list of contenders must include Rockin
Rollin Mama.
8

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fames list of 500 Songs that Shaped Rock
and Roll features shockingly few early country songs. One that is included
is Jimmie Rodgers Blue Yodel No. 9, his 1930 recording with Louis Armstrong which helped to introduce jazz to the crazy sterw of country influences,
which would find fuller expression with the rise of western swing.

Red Foleys Old Shep of 1941, a maudlin ballad about a childs dying
dog, is not really very good, but it also merits consideration in the development of rock & roll for helping to inspire a pre-pubescent Elvis Presley of
Tupelo, Mississippi, to take up music. In fact, Old Shep was the first song
Elvis ever sang in public, at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show
in Tupelo in October 1945 (he placed fifth in the talent show). After becoming
a rock & roll sensation, Elvis paid tribute to the song he once was obsessed
with by recording it.

The terribly arbitrary and incomplete Rock and Roll Hall of Fames list
also includes Roy Acuffs Wabash Cannonball one of the many train
songs in country. A folk song from the late 19th century originally recorded
by the Carter Family in 1929, it was Acuffs breakthrough hit, launching a
career that spanned four decades. In 1948 he reluctantly ran for governor of
Tennessee on a Republican ticket (the idea initially was a publicity stunt), but
lost to two-time governor Gordon Browning, who won 67% of the vote.

One country singer who did become a governor was Jimmie Davis, who
governed Louisiana as a Democrat for two non-consecutive stints (194448,
196064). Davies signature tune, You Are My Sunshine, now is
Louisianas state song. He even claimed to have written it as a school boy,
but that is untrue (imagine that, a politician who tells lies). It was written by
the Rice Brothers Gang of Shreveport, Louisiana, and first recorded on 22
August 1939 by the Pine Ridge Boys of Atlanta. Davies, who recorded his
version in 1940, put his co-composer credit on the song after buying the rights
to it from the Rice brothers. At campaign rallies, Davies would sing the song
while riding a horse called, of course, Sunshine.

Bob Wills had been co-inventing western swing for a few years before
he scored his first national hit with New San Antonio Rose, a reworking of
his 1938 instrumental song (his use of drums and horns when performing his
hit at the Grand Ole Opry caused quite a bit of a stir in Nashville). Arguably
the more influential Wills song, however, was 1936s Steel Guitar Rag,
written by Leon McAuliffe, which was pivotal in popularising the steel guitar,
9

Patsy Montana, the rst female superstar of


country music.

Woody Guthrie with Leadbelly in 1940.

Above: Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.


Below: The Swift Jewel Cowboys

10

Jimmie Davis

Roy Rogers, Trigger and


Dale Evans

which gives country the Hawaiian sound (the steel refers to the slide held in
the hand that holds the frets).

Roy Rogers was among Hollywoods singing cowboys of the movies, but
before that he was a founder, in 1933, of the Sons of the Pioneers. The original
pioneers are long gone, but new generations of pioneers are keeping the name
alive even now, currently led by Luther Nallie, who joined the group in 1968.
But back in the 30s, Rogers soon left for the big screen while the Sons of the
Pioneers became both country staples and performers on the big screen, including the 1942 movie with Rogers which was named after the band. They
recorded the first version of Tumblin Tumbleweeds written by bandmember Bob Nolan, who first named it Tumbling Tumble Leaves before Gene
Autry made it famous. The Sons later recorded another great original, 1946s
Cool Water (also written by Nolan).

Woody Guthrie, of course, influenced generations of folk singers; indeed,


he spearheaded the folk movement with acolytes such as Pete Seeger. It arguably reached its zenith with the output of Bob Dylan in the 1960s. Dylan
also owed a lot to the repository of blues and country. Other than Guthrie, it
is evident that Dylan listened much to the original Carter Family. Their rendition of a traditional song, Can The Circle Be Unbroken, was covered by
Dylan and many others (Carl Perkins also borrowed the chorus for his Daddy
Sang Bass, later covered by Johnny Cash with the help of June Carter).
Dylan adopted several traditional folk songs, including the Appalachian ballad
Pretty Polly for his Ballad Of Hollis Brown.

Lastly, Gid Tannen and his Skillet Lickers might have been the first disco
musicians: in the introduction to Soldiers Joy Breakdown, Tannen makes
reference to shakin booties before his band launches into a remix of the song
they first recorded in 1929.

11

Chapter 2: The rise of Country Music


y the early 1940s the crooners had begun to make their mark, with
Jimmie Davies having led the way. Many of them had toiled and
crooned in the 1930s. But with a world war slowly engulfing the
globe, the market wanted, and got, the distraction of romance.
More than that, men took their country songs with them to the army and disseminated the music among their fellow soldiers. Country music thus found
new fans, and its leading singers Roy Acuff, Gene Autry, Red Foley, Tex
Ritter, Eddy Arnold gained a national audience. In 1945, Arnold even beat
the mighty Frank Sinatra in a favourite-singer poll among GIs stationed in
Germany.
Some singers hit temporary highs before disappearing, such as Ted Daffan, whose 1944 hit Born To Lose (actually recorded in 1942) would later
be covered by Ray Charles on his seminal 1962 LP Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music. Other momentarily bright stars included Wesley Tuttle
and Jack Guthrie. The latter, Woody Guthries cousin, was very influential
but died in 1948 at the age of 32 of tuberculosis.
Western swing continued to grow in popularity. Not only was Bob Wills
one of the biggest names in country, but artists such as Pee Wee King, like
Wills a bandleader, made an impression. Spade Cooley took the genre towards
a more pop-oriented style (more about him shortly).

Other new stars appeared on the scene. In 1941 Ernest Tubb recorded his
first hit record, Walking The Floor Over You, and the prolific songwriter
and singer Cindy Walker hit the country and pop charts with her cover of
Bing Crosbys Long Star Trail.

The importance to country music of Walking The Floor Over You cannot be overestimated. It was not the first honky tonk record, nor the first to
use the new-fangled electric guitar. But it was the first really big hit to use
electric guitar solos, performed by Fay Smitty Smith, and is considered the
breakthrough record for honky tonk music, a label that was variously used
for different genres, but was now usually applied in country music.

The trouble is, honky tonk is difficult to define as an identifiable genre.


One can identify the distinction between, say, barndance, bluegrass, and rockabilly, but bar room music (a honky tonk is a bar) has few definable charac12

teristics. Honky tonk arguably is an attitude more than a genre. In fact, most
of what would be defined as mainstream country from Tubb to Hank
Williams to Hank Thompson to Lefty Frizzell to George Jones to the stetsoned
gang of latter years is honky tonk. But so are the Outlaws of the 70s, such
as Waylon Jennings, Tompall Glaser and Willie Nelson. But here we are moving ahead of ourselves.

Helped along by the proliferation of hayride and barndance shows on


radio, country went mainstream. The most influential of these of course was
Nashvilles Grand Ole Opry, which attracted the best and most popular stars
from other shows, a policy it would follow well into the 1950s (when it nevertheless failed to spot the talents of Louisiana Hayride regular Elvis Presley,
even after he appeared on the Opry as Hank Snows opening act). Augmenting
the Opry line-up, headed and presented by Acuff, were comics such as the
wildly popular Minnie Pearl. Not surprisingly, the novelty record was very
much part of country music. Some of them, such a Lonzo & Oscars Im My
Own Granpa, were even funny.

As the US joined the war, some singers turned to the sort of jingoism
which 60 years later Toby Keith exploited to lucrative effect, with a similar
lack of tact or sophistication. Very soon after the Japanese attack on the US
naval base in Hawaii, the Carson Robison Trio entreated their listeners to
Remember Pearl Harbor, demanded that Were Gonna Have To Slap The
Dirty Little Jap and called to arms with Get Your Gun And Come Along
(Were Fixing To Kill A Skunk) though none of them sounded much like
country, nor any good, at all while yodeller Elton Britt promised that
Theres A Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere. The latter, recorded
on 19 March 1942, narrated the desire of a handicapped country boy to fight
in the war. This slice of maudlin patriotism became country musics first gold
single. Zeke Williams Smoke On The Water (also recorded by Red Foley
and no relation to the Deep Purple song) in 1944 represented the victory
which within a year would become reality. Around the same time, Woody
Guthrie still in the country fold threatened just comeuppance for fascists.

Most of the stars of the early 1940s not only survived the post-war years,
but benefited from a boom which saw the emergence of new superstars in the
late 40s and early 50s, such as Merle Travis, Hank Snow (a Canadian!),
Webb Pierce, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Hank Thompson, Jim Reeves and so on.
In the 1940s, Bob Wills was still a big star, but he was being eclipsed by
13

Hank Williams in concert Before he died at 29, Williams had 37 hits, out of 66 songs he had released.

14

Spade Cooley, whose brand of California-based western swing was more pop
oriented than the rest of the genre. Indeed, it is said that the term western
swing was invented by Cooleys manager, and after Cooley beat Wills in a
Battle of the Bands contest (on Cooleys hometurf), he modestly styled himself King of Western Swing. His appearance in 38 western films helped
further to make Cooley a national star, and by the late 1940s he hosted his
own Emmy-winning variety television show. That show was dropped in 1956.

Five years later, his wife asked for a divorce. In a drunken rage, Cooley
beat her to death. He served eight years of a life sentence. The night before
he supposedly was to be paroled, he died backstage after playing a benefit
concert in Oakland for the Deputy Sheriffs Association of Alameda County.
Two stars of the era would be monumentally influential: Lefty Frizell and
Hank Williams.

Debuting in 1947 with the outstanding Move It On Over (which in parts


sounded much like the later Rock Around The Clock), Williams scored 36
more hits before his death at 29 on New Years Day 1953 out of only 66
songs he released, which is an astonishing strike rate. There might have been
rock & roll without Hank Williams, but perhaps not quite the way we know
it. Williams has become something of a litmus test for country authenticity,
as in the title of Waylon Jennings protest against the sentimental schlock
churned out by the Nashville machine by the mid-70s: Are You Sure Hank
Done It This Way? (There is no need to specify which one of the genres
many Hanks he meant).

Frizell was just as huge as Williams, at one point in 1951 scoring four simultaneous hits in the country top 10. His artistic independence, his charisma,
his laid-back honky tonk stylings and soulful vocals directly influenced future
country giants as diverse as George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Roy Orbison
(whose Traveling Wilbury name, Lefty, was a tribute to Frizzell), Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, George Strait, Randy Travis and so on. Frizzell was also
a hard drinker, and his abuse of alcohol contributed to his death at 47 in 1975.

The era also saw the slow rise of the female country singer. Such artists
as Sara and Maybelle Carter, Patsy Montana, Louise Massey and Cindy
Walker had enjoyed success in the preceding two decades, but there were
very few women in country. The early 1950s produced the first enduring superstar, Kitty Wells, and a few others in whose footsteps the likes of Loretta
15

Lynn, Wanda Jackson, Skeeter Davis and Tammy Wynette would walk. Molly
ODay had briefly attained star status in the 1940s, Goldie Hill was hugely
popular for a while, Rose Maddox had a series of hits with her brothers. Kitty
Wells was bigger than any of them.

Kitty Wells was already in her 30s and a mother of three when she became
a star. She was the first female ever to top the country charts though she
was not the first female million-seller; that honour belongs to Patsy Montana.
And in that first hit, It Wasnt God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels, she
made a statement that a woman need not be submissive even if it was written
by a man, J.D. Miller and knocked off Hank Thompsons slightly misogynist anthem which her song answered, The Wild Side Of Life off the #1
spot (both were, it might be pointed out, cover versions of previously released
records). Many women in country would peddle the submissiveness of their
gender in song, but Wells introduced feminist themes long before it was regarded as ordinary, and she articulated a female self-confidence which would
become characteristic of many women who succeeded her especially
Loretta Lynn. Wells, who took her stage name from a 19th century song, was
countrys leading female singer every year from 1952-65.

Country had always been a diverse genre. New forms emerged in the
1940s and early 1950s. Bluegrass took country back to its rural roots, with a
sound based primarily on the interplay of string instruments banjo, guitar,
fiddle, mandolin.

The pioneer of bluegrass was Bill Monroe, a big fellow with a small mandolin, who in 1939 had formed a band called the Blue Grass Boys. The lineup kept changing, with the most consequential incarnation, in 1946/47,
including the hitherto unknown Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, who soon
would form their own band, have a massive hit with the instrumental Foggy
Mountain Breakdown (revived later as a theme for the film Bonnie And
Clyde), and enjoy long careers together and separately. Bluegrass has never
become mainstream. Various revivals and dedicated musicianship have kept
the sub-genre alive; it is possibly more popular now than it ever was, thanks
to the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack and the efforts of singers such
as Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson, Ricky Skaggs, Del McCoury, Alison Krauss
and Dolly Parton.

The Blue Grass Boys were founded after Bill split from his brother Charlie as the Monroe Bothers. Monroe was not an easy-going character. The man16

dolin maestro resented other bluegrass acts for encroaching on what he regarded as his territory. So when the Stanley Brothers signed with Columbia
Records, Monroe left the label in a huff for Decca. Monroe and his Blue Grass
Boys performed for 57 years until a few months before his death in 1996. It
was a Monroe song, Blue Moon Of Kentucky, that served as the b-side of
Elvis Presleys debut single.

Rockabilly borrowed from western swing, boogie woogie and the new
genre of black music, rhythm & blues. It had in fact been around for a while:
the record commonly identified as the first ever rockabilly record, Buddy
Jones Rockin Rollin Mama of 1939, featured a boogie woogie piano solo
and guitar work that anticipated the sound of the 1950s. The evolution of
rockabilly is key to the birth of rock & roll as much as R&B. The slap bass
style of playing which was so integral to early rock & roll was a common
western swing and rockabilly technique. Western swing artist Bill Haley
turned into a rock & roll pioneer via rockabilly and western swing.

Just a couple of years before he started to shake, rattle and roll with his
Comets, Haley was still churning out country records. Unlike most of the
eras country musicians, Haley was not a Southerner, even if his band, the future Comets, was known as the Saddlemen. Born in Detroit, he lived and
gigged in Pennsylvania, where he was a director of music at a radio station
in Chester, before becoming a rock & roll trailblazer.

Carl Perkins was first and foremost a rockabilly musician, as were Jerry
Lee Lewis and Ricky Nelson. Elvis Presley was initially regarded as a rockabilly singer who also did R&B and, as mentioned before, he was a regular
on the Louisiana Hayride.

Other acts initially rooted in country would become rock & roll legends,
such as the Everly Brothers (who were well served by Nashville songwriters
Felice and Boudleaux Bryant), Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran. And the folk
scene that had begun growing from New York City in the late 1940s (and
would reach its zenith with the rise of Bob Dylan in the 1960s) had its roots
in country, especially through Woody Guthrie and the Carter Family.

The 1950s also saw a revival of cowboy music, with Marty Robbins enjoying some big success with his Gunfighter Ballads And Trail Songs LP and
its pop #1 single El Paso. Marty Robbins was a prolific songwriter and versatile performer. From the time of his first hit in 1952 till the year after his
17

Comedy duo Lonzo & Oscar

Kitty Wells, who paved the way for assertive


female country singers.

Webb Pierce

Lefty Frizell

Ernest Tubb, whose Walking The Floor


Over You helped establish Honky Tonk
or bar room music.

Tex Ritter

Roy Acu

Bill Monroe

Shame would soon be on convicted


killer Spade Cooley

18

Marty Robbns

death at 57 in 1982, Robbins was never off the country charts. He did a cover
of Arthur Crudups Thats Alright Mama before Elvis recorded his version.
Who knows what might been had Robbins single been a huge hit? He also
scored a batch of pop hits, most famously A White Sports Coat (And A Pink
Carnation), a US #2. He might have had another massive pop hit; he was
the first to record Singing The Blues, written by Melvin Endsley, but his
label, Columbia, pushed the version by Guy Mitchell, recorded almost two
months later. Robbins version sold 750,000 copies; Mitchells 3 million. Robbins was also a skilled NASCAR racing driver, notching up six top ten finishes he played himself in the NASCAR film Hell on Wheels.

The 1950s also launched the biggest, and perhaps most important star in
country: Johnny Cash, who one day wandered into the Sun Records studio in
Memphis, timidly introducing himself as a gospel singer. Of course, he became the leading free-thinker in country, often going against the grain and
conventions of the genre. Cashs impact on almost all areas of country was
tremendous. And it was Cash who pioneered a new trend in country: the outlaw movement.

Its difficult to say who was the biggest star in 1950s country. The crooner
likes of Eddy Arnold were immensely successful, but in terms of sales and
influence, the biggest names were Left Frizzell and Webb Pierce, rival kings
of honky tonk music. Pierce notched up more country #1s than any other in
the 1950s, having in the late 40s gained recognition by placing girls in the
frontrow of his gigs and paying them to scream at him, bobbysoxer style.

Pierce was also famous for his Nudie suits the ornately decorated outfits
country singers used to be associated with, if they didnt wear cowboy hats.
Pierce did much to popularise the suits made by the Hollywood tailor Nudie
Cohn. After a row over money, Pierce resigned from the Grand Ole Opry in
1957. The move coincided with the decline of Pierces career, though he continued to record until 1982. He died in 1991 at the age of 69.

19

Chapter 3: Country and Rock & roll


ome years ago, the brains at Rolling Stone grappled to identify the
first ever rock & roll record. In the final face-off, they picked Elvis
Presleys debut single Thats All Right, a cover of R&B singer
Arthur Crudups song, over Bill Haleys Rock Around The Clock
(itself a cover, though the song was actually written for the former western
swing singer).
It is, of course, a fruitless mission to identify a first rock & roll song,
because the genre is a jumble of diverse influences that convened, not always
simultaneously, in an untidy evolution. One might as well try to pinpoint the
first piece of classical music or identify the inventor of the wheel. There is
no single originator; there cannot be, because rock & roll is not a recipe consisting of essential ingredients. The genre has always been diffuse, subject to
a broad sweep of influences.

Rock & roll grew from various strands of what we broadly term R&B,
gospel and country. Alas, the latter influences are often relegated to the incidental. Rock & roll might have received its name from Cleveland DJ Allan
Freed as a crossover term for black music, but what the genre became is not
what Freed had in mind in 1951, at least not musically.

Indeed, it could (and, indeed, should) be argued that more than a genre
of music, rock & roll was an attitude, a new ethos, a response to the times.
Rock & roll was an assertive posture, a rejection of prescribed inhibition and
the formulae of social expectations. It was a cultural insurrection, and politically helped nudge America towards racial integration. It was a social and
sexual revolt, and, briefly, a musical uprising.

A bid to emphasise the contribution of country music to the rock & roll
revolution must not be seen as diminishing the absolute importance of black
musical genres in the narrative. Almost all American music, save perhaps for
Appalachian broadside ballads, has its roots in black sounds. But country and
R&B were not driving on so segregated tracks that there was no cross-pollination before rock & roll .

The reality is that in the South, where the roots of rock & roll are so
deeply embedded, social boundaries were regularly crossed when it came to
music. The notion of white and black workers singing together in the cotton
20

fields (proverbial and otherwise) is documented fact. Some blues of the 1920s
or 30s sounds much like some of what would come to be called country, and
vice versa. Early country produced a huge number of songs with the word
blues in the title, and these were indeed blues songs; not because these
singers were consciously imitating black musicians (though they were profoundly influenced by them), but because the blues cut across the races. The
father of popular country music, Jimmy Rodgers, had a catalogue full of numbered blues songs. In short, as we saw in the first chapter, early country owed
a big debt to black music, perhaps above all in the songs authenticity. The
late soul singer Brook Benton once described country music as a form of
gospel music, the soul of the country.

Jazz also influenced some country. Bob Wills, the biggest name in western
swing, commented in the 1950s that he was doing rock & roll already 25 years
earlier: Rock & roll ? Why, man, thats the same kind of music weve been
playin since 1928! [...] But its just basic rhythm and has gone by a lot of
different names in my time. Its the same, whether you just follow a drum
beat like in Africa or surround it with a lot of instruments. The rhythms
whats important. He cant have meant the sound itself, but the fusion of
musical influences from across the racial divide, and the innovative use of
instrumentation in western swing.

Wills also provided a prototype for one of rock & roll s most pivotal
songs. Chuck Berrys Maybelline, another perennial contender for the first
rock & roll song, was a reworking of Bob Wills version of the fiddle number
Ida Red, released in 1938 and using drums, which was very unusual in
country music at the time.

Berrys debut single, released in July 1955, was the first rock & roll record
performed by a black musician to break the Billboard top 10 (those were pioneer days; Elvis was still a regional star and yet to sign with RCA). Playing
the piano at that session was Johnny Johnson, who had given Berry something
of a break in 1952 when he let him join his Sir John Trio, and to whose prodigious drinking Berrys later hit Johnny B. Goode was dedicated. One of
the trios staple songs was a take on Ida Red. Berry, already brimming with
charisma and showmanship, had taken that song to Chess in Chicago, and
signed for the label as a solo artist. Pragmatically, Johnson and the third member of the trio, drummer Ebby Hardy, became members of Berrys backing
band. Now Leo Chess suggested that Ida Red be remodelled as a 12-bar
21

blues, with different lyrics. Johnson reworked the arrangements, and Berry
came up with the lyrics about the car and a girl, those rock & roll staples.

It is striking that many of the songs which Rolling Stone named as being
aming the first rock & roll records were by performers whose roots were
in country (if I had been asked, Id have nominated any number of songs by
the jump blues and jazzman Louis Jordan, who sounded and acted rock &
roll long before it became a thing).

Bill Haley, as noted earlier, was a western swing musician, and Elvis
might have grown up in a small white enclave in Tupelos black ghetto and
hung out in Memphis Beale Street, but his roots were in country. After his
handful of recordings at Sun, Elvis was signed to RCA by the labels head of
the country division, Steve Sholes; was often produced by country guitarist
and producer Chet Atkins with legendary country pianist Floyd Cramer occasionally on the ivories and country harmonising quartet The Jordanaires on
backing vocals.

And surely there can be no denying the importance of rockabilly a subgenre of country that did not really sell well in the rise of rock & roll . The
most notable exponent of rockabilly was Carl Perkins, who was taught the
guitar by bluesmen. The Beatles, especially George Harrison, were fans and
covered three of his songs: Matchbox, Honey Dont and Everybodys
Trying to Be My Baby (for the latter, Perkins borrowed liberally from the
1930s song by the same name of Rex Griffin).

Likewise, rock & roll would not have been quite the same without the
hillbilly boogie of Moon Mullican, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Cliffie Stone,
the Delmore Brothers, Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant, Merril Moore and The
Maddox Brothers & Rose (who drew also from rockabilly). The slap bass, so
integral to early rock & roll (imagine Elvis singles without Bill Blacks
bass!), was standard in boogie, rockabilly and western swing.

As already noted, many leading rock & roll stars crossed over from country: Jerry Lee Lewis (whose piano style borrowed heavily from Merril
Moores), Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Eddy Cochran, Roy Orbison, the
Everly Brothers, Del Shannon, Ricky Nelson, Wanda Jackson and so on.
Many of them intermittently returned to their country roots.

Several R&B performers were at home with country. Ike Turner (another
regular first rock & roll song nominee) could do a mean country song, as
22

could southern soul men Joe Tex and Solomon Burke. Ray Charles recorded
a whole collection of country songs. Arthur Alexander, a massive influence
on The Beatles, was known for his country-soul. Hank Ballard, another black
rock & roll legend, identified as his most pivotal influence the singing cowboys, led by Gene Autry (of course, Hank was not his real name).

The mutual respect and shared sources of rock & roll may be summed up
well by Carl Perkins. When he first heard Chuck Berrys Maybelline, he
recalled thinking: Here is a man who likes country just as Carl loved the
blues.

23

Chapter 4: The Glory Years


n the late 1950s and early 60s country was in a good shape. The likes
of Johnny Cash, George Jones, Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline (who like
Reeves would die in a plane crash), Don Gibson, Kitty Wells, Marty
Robbins, Skeeter Davis, Ray Price, Faron Young, Ernest Tubb and Lefty
Frizzell were recording with prodigious success, even in rivalry with its progeny, rock & roll.These were the comfort years before the social upheaval of
the 1960s put into question old certainties, even in the world of country music.
By now, country was no longer confined to the South. In some ways,
country even influenced the English 1950s skiffle genre, particularly via rockabilly and western swing. In London, a young Keith Richards was obsessed
with country even more than he was with the blues (and his love for the genre
would return with force when he became friends with Gram Parsons in the
late 1960s). In Liverpool, young George Harrison was obsessed with Carl
Perkins. And a young Jewish songwriter from Minnesota based his sound on
the folk music of Woody Guthrie who once was regarded a member of the
country camp (which then, just to confused matters, was called folk) and
the entire repository of country music. That singer caught the Zeitgeist of the
1960s when he announced that the times were a-changing. Country was not
immune from societal shifts.

Spearheading that new age was Johnny Cash, who attracted audiences
well beyond the traditional country set without compromising his sound. Outspoken on social rights issues Cash recorded an album, Bitter Tears, bemoaning the treatment of Native Americans in 1964 he also performed for
President Richard Nixon (he refused to sing Nixons requests of right-wing
songs, instead singing a defence of the counterculture which Tricky Dick so
despised). A hellraiser in classic and acceptable country mode, he also broke
moral taboos such as divorcing his wife, Vivian Liberto, and then marrying
June Carter which scandalised the conservative country set.

Yet, Cash also represented traditional values, particularly his deeply-held,


life-long Christian faith. Cash was so mainstream that he hosted a TV show,
and so alternative that he would invite acts on it who otherwise would never
get an airing on TV. And Cash stood with the downtrodden, performing in
prisons. It was at Cashs first jail gig, at San Quentin on January 1, 1958, that
inmate Merle Haggard decided to forego a life of crime in favour of making
24

music. Cash was the first country singer to really provoke (and then stare
down) the Ku Klax Klan, which once burnt a cross on his lawn.

Other musical forms were influenced by country, in turn influenced country and even fused with country. In 1962 Ray Charles released his Modern
Sounds In Country And Western (employing a terminology for the genre that
never had currency in country circles), a collection of shrewdly selected country songs. Around the same time, R&B artists were recording in the country
medium, though not exclusively. These include Solomon Burke, Brook Benton, Arthur Alexander, Clarence Frogman Henry, Stoney Edwards, Clarence
Gatemouth Brown and even Joe Tex.

In the slipstream of Johnny Cash came what would become known as the
Outlaw Movement, an informal response to Nashvilles easy listening, corporate and safe style, often recorded in Texas, reviving the honky tonk sounds
of Hank Williams with strong lyrical content. Starting in the mid-60s with
singers like Bobby Bare, Tompall Glaser and Johnny Darrell, the sub-genres
standard bearers would come to include Waylon Jennings and his wife Jessi
Colter, Willie Nelson (after he grew his hair), Kris Kristofferson, Leon Russell, Billy Joe Shaver, Hank Williams Jr, Jerry Jeff Walker and Gram Parsons.

More traditionally-minded country stars, many mentored by the great


RCA producer and guitarist Chet Atkins, still broke through. These included
Roger Miller, Charley Pride (the first black mainstream country singer),
Tammy Wynette, Porter Wagoner (on whose TV show Dolly Parton began
her iconic career) and Conway Twitty, who hitherto had been a rock & roll
singer.

Some straddled the mainstream/outlaw divide. Merle Haggard, though


not part of the Nashville establishment, often sang about social issues, but
had his biggest success with hippie-bashing, hyper-patriotic songs such as
Okie From Muskogee, which won him the greatest establishment accolade,
the Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year award. Haggard was
in fact satirising small-town values, though he didnt advertise that too loudly.
Whatever the case, the counter-culture liked the song because they thought
they got the joke, and those who didnt get the joke loved it because it articulated their feelings so accurately. In that way, Okie is the first postmodern
country hit. The follow-up, The Fightin Side Of Me, was more angryAmerican fodder, entrenching Haggard in the public imagination as a rightwing spokesman, a position he resented.
25

Johnny Cash communicates his feelings through the medium of interpretative dance.

26

Haggard came from the country scene in Bakersfield in California, where


the sounds of the South were implanted by Dust Bowl migrants, just like his
parents, in the late 1930s. While Haggard was actually born there, the king
of Bakersfield Sound doubtless was Texas-born Buck Owens, whose long career was influential (and whose names Beatles fans will recognise as the original singer of Ringos Act Naturally). He was preceded by the Ferlin Husky,
an innovator and creator of some of the worst records ever made. And Bakersfield gave rise to Gram Parsons, whose brief but eventful career continues
to influence music today. And up the road, in Los Angeles, Arkansas-born
Glen Campbell was enjoying great success with a slicker brand of country.

The counter-culture touched country in a time of change. The Fraternity


Of Man, for example, recorded the drug anthem Dont Bogart That Joint
in 1968, helping to ring in a fusion of country music and rock which would
locate its spearhead in The Byrds collection of country covers, Sweetheart
of the Rodeo, and which saw a member of bluegrass outfit The Dillards, Doug
Dillard, record a couple of excellent duet albums with a member of The
Byrds, Gene Clark.

It was the age of the country songwriter, with people such as Harlan Howard
(Heartaches By The Number), Hank Cochran (I Fall To Pieces), Roger
Miller (Billy Bayou), a clean-cut Willie Nelson (Crazy), Mel Tillis (Detroit City), Tom T Hall (Harper Valley PTA) and the Bryants (Love
Hurts) creating many classics. Some of them would become stars in their
own right. None maybe more so than Kris Kristofferson, a man whose early
biography reads like a far-fetched penny novel. Many of the songs he is best
known for were first recorded by others, sometimes several times. With the
arguable exception of Me And Bobby McGee, Kristoffersons versions
eclipsed them all. One need just compare the Kristofferson version of For
The Good Times with the songs first incarnation as Ray Prices hit.

Kristofferson had a rock attitude which didnt always go down well with
the country establishment. The establishment of the genre that helped give
birth to rock & roll seemed to prefer distancing itself from the long-haired
hedonism of rock. But rock wanted a bit of country.

In the 1960s, The Beatles covered Buck Owens, Dylan record a couple
of pure country albums, and The Byrds (in the incarnation featuring Parsons,
27

The ideal son-in-law:


Willie Nelson

Merle Haggard

Buck Owens

Kris Kristoerson, who started out writing songs for others.

Porter Wagoner, in restrained sartorial mode

28

The Dillards

Roger McGuinn and bluegrass veteran Chris Hillman) would help inaugurate
what would become known as country rock a genre taken further by The
Grateful Dead, Poco, The Eagles et al . The Byrds even performed at the
Grand Ole Opry, but the response was hostile, inspiring their acerbic response,
Drug Store Truck Drivin Man. Some country acts will have dug that. In
1972, the strands came together when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band recorded
their Will The Circle Be Unbroken album which featured legends from the
repository of country music such as Roy Acuff, Maybelle Carter, Merle
Travis, Doc Watson, Jimmy Martin and Earl Scruggs.
With civil rights and social integration defining American politics for
much of the 1960s and early 70s, large portions of the country scene (but by
no means all) flew the Confederate flag. Most disgusting were the pure racist
records of Louisianas Johnny Rebel (the coward declined to make known
his name), whom the Internet sometimes confuses with the much more likable, and tragic, Johnny Horton. Tammy Wynette, George Morgan and
Granpa Jones were among the country stars who endorsed Alabamas segregationist governor George Wallace.

The fissure ran deeper with the Vietnam War. On the one hand, Mel Tillis
in his Ruby Dont Take Your Love To Town sang about that crazy Asian
war (even if that line referred to the Korean war), and Willie Nelson weighed
in with Jimmys Road, but the pro-war sentiment was more voluble. Marty
Robbins called anti-war protesters communists, Stonewall Jackson and Ernest
Tubb made their flag-waving views known as well. And bluegrass legend
Lester Flatt, always more conservative than his partner Earl Scruggs, complained about men with long hair, whom he could not distinguish from
women.

29

Chapter 5: Establishment vs Outlaws


he traditional country stars Conway Twitty, George Jones,
Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Charlie Rich, Dolly Parton,
Charley Pride were still selling many records in the 1970s, and
periodically crossed over into the pop charts. Singers like Donna
Fargo evoked the good old days with sappy songs such as The Happiest Girl
In The Whole USA. These were still the Opry years in fact, in 1972 the
Grand Ole Opry opened a theme park called Opryland, and two years later
moved out of its long-time home, the Ryman Theatre, to Opryland.

But the Nashville scene no longer monopolised country, nor did it define
it. In the introduction to his live recording of Me And Bobby McGee, Kris
Kristofferson deadpans: If it sounds country, man, then thats what it is: a
country song. So John Denver, with his songs about the Rocky Mountains,
was regarded as a country singer, and even won the 1975 Country Music Associations Entertainer of the Year award (Australian-born songbird Olivia
Newton-John had won the female award in 1974). At the ceremony, the battle
lines were drawn. Presenting Denver with his CMA award, 1974 winner Charlie Rich the Silverfox who had started his career as a rockabilly singer on
Sun Records, then served a stint as a credible soul singer in the 60s, and now
crooned his way through country chart fodder set fire to the card announcing
Denvers name, holding it up for the TV cameras. The act, which Rich attributed to medication and Gin & Tonics, all but killed his career.

Rich and his Nashville cohorts had no trouble crossing over to the pop
charts with their housewife-friendly formula, which they shared with Denver.
But a different constituency was now claiming the soul of country. The Outlaw Movement hit its stride in the 1970s, led by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kristofferson. It was Jennings song Ladies Love Outlaws, also
the name of his 1972 album, that gave the movement its official name (some
say it was invented by Tompal Glasers publicist, Hazel Smith). While traditional Nashville was suffocating from a lack of new ideas, and even Johnny
Cashs output was suffering, it was the Outlaws, many with contractual links
to Nashville, that kept the genre going.

While the Nashville production line kept on churning out mostly uninteresting music though occasionally producing gems, such as George Jones
1980 hit He Stopped Loving Her Today the Outlaws insisted on exercising
30

artistic control, with Bobby Bare being the first to negotiate his freedom from
the Nashville formula, shortly followed by fellow RCA artists Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Their freedom would create a new process of making
country music, one that would give an answer to Jennings question, You
Sure Hank Done It This Way?

Other artists, well out of the Nashville mainstream, began to record country music, often fused with folk. The likes of Gram Parsons, Townes van
Zandt (both of whom died too young), and John Prine would have massive
influence further down the line, on people like Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett
in the 1980s, and on the alt-country scene that sprung up in the 1990s.

Thanks in large part to country-influenced acts like The Byrds, The Grateful Dead and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, rock fans were starting to dig the
country scene not the Nashvilles crooners or the clean-cut John Denver, of
course, but the Outlaws, Gram Parsons and some of the old pioneers. Some
of California rocks great names had their roots in playing bluegrass; people
like Eagles co-founder and Flying Burrito Brother Bernie Leadon, the Grateful Deads Jerry Garcia and the singer-songwriter J.D. Souther, who wrote
for the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt (and now acts in the TV show Nashville).
Ronstadt, the erstwhile Queen of Rock made her start as a country performer before going the folk-rock route (she would later return to country,
particularly in her collaborations with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton).

The convergence of rock and country found concrete expression on 17


March 1972 at a country festival in Dripping Springs, Texas. Long-haired
rock people and tidy country fans spliffs and stetsons gathered to watch
a bill that included the Outlaws-in-chief plus Tom T. Hall (who wrote so many
mainstream numbers without ever being mainstream himself, and later called
on the Outlaw guys to stick to their country roots and return to Nashville) as
well as the classic artists Roy Acuff, Tex Ritter and Kitty Wells.

Outlaw country crossed over to the rock market at the latest with the 1975
release of Willie Nelsons Red Headed Stranger album. A year later, an album
of older tracks by Jennings, Nelson, Tompall Glaser and Jessi Colter, was released as Wanted! The Outlaws. It became the first country album to sell more
than a million. Jennings subsequent Greatest Hits album topped that, going
triple platinum. The Outlaws at least Jennings and Nelson and acts that
followed the path of credibility they had beaten, such as Emmylou Harris and
Rosanne Cash, were now mainstream, and many of the old guard disappeared.
31

George Jones

Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter

Tom T. Hall
Emmylou Harris

Donna Fargo

Charlie Rich prepares to put re to the card that declares John


Denver Entertainer of the Year at the Country Music Awards.

32

Tompall Glaser

Some of the old acts survived, if only for a while. Only a few, such as
Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard, recorded with commercial
success into the new millennium. But new country-pop acts appeared, benefiting from the blurring between country, rock and pop; artists such as Crystal
Gayle and Kenny Rogers (coming in from the cold). Their long-term impact
would not be profound has anyone ever listed Ronnie Milsap as an inspiration whereas Emmylou Harris became one the most significant women in
country history. A close collaborator with Parsons on his two solo albums before his death in 1974, Harris created a sub-genre of her own with her amalgamation of country-rock, bluegrass and honky tonk. Some important people
emerged from Harris band, chiefly singer-songwriters Rodney Crowell,
whod become Rosanne Cashs husband, and Ricky Skaggs, who played a
crucial role in 1980s country, and a clutch of future producers.

33

Chapter 6: The Rise of the Stetson


t a Country Music Association Awards show in the late 1970s,
Ray Benson of Asleep At The Wheel showed up wearing a stetsons. He and the similarly behatted and long-haired Charlie
Daniels and John Anderson were politely asked to remove their
headgear. But as the rhinestones faded, the Stetson would become an obligatory sartorial item in the country fraternity.
We might credit the mercifully brief Urban Cowboy movement spearheaded by John Travoltas Honky Tonk Night Fever movie for popularising
the cowboy hat, which had been sported by many people over the years but
never was standard apparel in country. Ironically, the Urban Cowboy soundtrack
featured mostly AOR artists, such as Boz Scaggs, The Eagles, Bob Seger, Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt (who was yet to revisit her country roots). Country,
the genre portrayed in the movie, was marginalised, reduced to the presence of
The Charlie Daniels Band, Jerry Lee Lewis cousin Mickey Gilley and Johnny
Lee (whose Looking For Love from the soundtrack became a million-seller).
The movement the film described moved country away from its roots, crossing
over into middle-of-the-road rock, adult pop and easy listening with the likes
of Kenny Rogers, Juice Newton, Crystal Gayle. Even Dolly Parton got in on
the act, as did Willie Nelson, who contributed to the mush of MOR by duetting
with Spanish bersmoothie and housewives favourite Julio Iglesias.

The Urban Cowboy hype didnt last long. While the faithful Outlaws were
falling out of the charts, there was a vacuum. It was partially filled by credible
artists such as John Conlee, but it took the breakthrough in the early 1980s of
George Strait and Ricky Skaggs to lend country a new identity.

Strait, Skaggs and others, like the less successful John Anderson, were
spearheads of a wider movement driven by innovative new producers and executives. Their impact was profound: with their initial success they returned
country music to its traditional foundations the honky tonk of Hank Williams
and Ernest Tubb and the bluegrass of Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers
while maintaining a commercial sound which could sustain such a renaissance. Had their formula flopped, who knows where country would have gone.
Skaggs went on to become the biggest selling country artist of the 1980s; the
stetsoned Texan George Strait went on to score a record number of country
charts toppers.
34

In their wake artists who had battled along for years Rosanne Cash,
Hank Williams Jr, Reba McIntryre, Rodney Crowell began to flourish, and
important new blood emerged in numbers unseen since the 1950s: Naomi and
Wynonna Judd, Randy Travis, Keith Whitley, Holly Dunn, Patty Loveless,
Dwight Yoakam, Lyle Lovett, k.d. lang, Pam Tillis, Ricky van Shelton, Steve
Earle, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Vern Gosdin and so on. Not a few of these
were songwriters who would help inspire the alt.country movement of the
1990s and 2000s.

So it was all the more strange when the New York Times, through critic
Robert Palmer in a front-page article, on September 17, 1985 evidently a morbidly dull news day declared country music dead. The mainstream country
music of the 1970s was indeed fading, but the evidently poorly premised and
slothfully researched article exaggerated the demise of the genre. To his great
credit, Palmer later embraced some of the acts who would prove him wrong.
Two years later, the New York Times covered how country had turned itself
around.

The 1980s were the MTV years; as radio once helped spread country beyond its natural habitat, so did TV channels dedicated to broadcasting country
music disseminate the new crop of stars. As importantly, for the first time
since Jennings and Nelson attracted the attention of rock fans, some country
singers, such as Earle and Yoakam, were acknowledged by the rock press.
Country, or at least some strands of it, was hip again. The rock press also rediscovered legends such as George Jones and Dolly Parton. Consequently
Partons collaboration with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt in 1987 was
celebrated as a music event well outside country circles.

At the same time, some acts were reviled for what was seen as their insipidity most of all country-rockers Alabama, who nonetheless have continued to shift huge amounts of records to the present day, more than three
decades since the demise of The Eagles and The Marshall Tucker Band,
whose blueprints Alabama predicated their career on. And just as Strait and
Skaggs shaped the rise of the cowboy-hatted superstars, and Earle, Lovett
and Yoakam inspired alt.country, so did Alabama and Restless Heart give
rise to a cluster of country-rock bands, such as Atlanta, Highway 101 and
Shenandoah.

35

Ricky Skaggs

George Strait

Reba McIntyre

Dolly Parton

The Charlie Daniels Band duels with the devil.

36

John Anderson

Chapter 7: Corporate shine and alt.country


ountry music enjoyed a commercial boom in the 1900s, in particular that strand led by George Strait and Ricky Skaggs. Superstars
such Alan Jackson and Vince Gill would give them credit for their
success, as would the biggest star of them all: Garth Brooks.
Clean-cut and black stetsoned, the Oklahoma native sold 12 million copies
of his first three albums and more than 100 million up to his semi-retirement
in 2001. He was the first country star to enter the Billboard album charts at
#1, with 1991s Ropin The Wind. His extravagant concerts filled stadiums.
Country had had superstars before, but Brooks arguably was the genres first
corporate megastar.
Brooks crossover appeal helped many other honky tonk performers
Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Vince Gill, Travis Tritt, Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Brooks & Dunn expand their commercial appeal. It wasnt just the behatted dudes who attained superstar status in the 1990s; women
like Trisha Yearwood (later Garth Brooks wife), Faith Hill (later McGraws
wife), Martina McBride and the Dixie Chicks crossed over, while 80s stalwarts Wynonna Judd and Reba McIntyre continued to enjoy success.

Artists such as these might have traced their influence back to countrys
traditions, to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, fiddle and pedal steel, but their
commercial lucrativity set mainstream country on a course of selling out. The
worst excess of that came early with Billy Ray Cyrus 1991 novelty hit Achy
Breaky Heart (a cover of The Marcy Brothers original), with its choreographed line dance and Mileys dads chest-hair revealing vest. Country
singers rightly feared that Cyrus hit would undermine countrys integrity and
credibility, much as ubiquity and novelty cash-ins had damaged disco.

Few things as bad as Achy Breaky Heart would taint country musics
name (though Toby Keiths post-9/11 song did so on another level), but the
record companies would now aggressively promote singers who were more
pop than country, such as Shania Twain and the teenage LeAnn Rimes. Slowly,
country format radio purged all but the commercially successful from their
playlists. This reached bizarre proportions when one programme director demanded that Patty Loveless 1997 song You Dont Seem To Miss Me be
remixed to remove George Jones harmonies. Loveless refused to allow this,
and the single stalled.
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Garth Brooks

Alison Krauss and Union Station

Patty Loveless
Johnny Cash and the bearded Rick Rubin in the recording studio.

Steve Earle

Alan Jackson

Uncle Tupelo, who spearheaded the alt-country movement.

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The invention of country-pop, as headlined by the likes of Shania Twain,


has proven to be a sustainable commercial though artistically not corrosive
proposition. Bland eye-candy singers, their vocals auto-tuned, guitar strapped
on and sold as country, much as Juliette Barnes in Nashville. The inarguably
talented Taylor Swift reportedly asked to be marketed as a country singer not
because her music has its roots embedded firmly in that genre, but because
such a claim would deliver an audience. Many teenagers today may describe
themselves as country fans, but they dont mean any of the many Hanks or
George Jones, but Swift and Carrie Underwood.
While the wildly successful material diluted country with their commercialism, the genres integrity was maintained by several other strands. Bluegrass
had been kept alive since its 1940s heyday with Bill Monroe and Flatt &
Scruggs by the likes of Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson, Del McCoury, Jimmy
Martin, Ricky Skaggs and in the 1990s by acts like the angel-voiced Alison
Krauss and her band, Union Station, the Soggy Bottom Boys, and Rhonda
Vincent. Bluegrass festivals began to spring up in the 1970s, the International
Bluegrass Music Association was founded in 1985, and the Grammys instituted a bluegrass award in 1988. Bluegrass crossed over into the public consciousness with the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers 2000 film O Brother
Where Art Thou, which won a Grammy and was led by Stanley, Union Station
and the Soggy Bottom Boys.

Serving as an antidote to the smooth pop puppetry, some female singers


made an impression with a dont-fuck-with-with-me-misterattitude. Though
Gretchen Wilson had a hit with Redneck Woman, these barroom chicks
arent going to threaten the autotuned country-pop brigade, but singers like
Wilson and Miranda Lambert help ensure that their genre will survive the inevitable collapse of corporate country and help rebuild it much as the Outlaws did in the 1970s and Strait and Skragg in the 1980s.

Another antidote to the bland commercialism was administered by Johnny


Cash and erstwhile rap svengali Rick Rubin. Cash had sunk into musical irrelevance in the 1970s and did not emerge from it until Rubin approached
him to record an album of acoustic country. Backed only by his guitar, Cash
recorded a few demo songs in his lounge. It sounded so soulfully raw that
Rubin used that approach for a series of critically acclaimed albums, still releasing material after Cashs death in 2004.
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Alternative country (known in the style of the Internet newsgroups that


championed the movement as alt.country), or Americana, combined the genre
with its close cousin folk, just as its patron Emmylou Harris had done two
decades earlier. Some artists who started off in countrys mainstream found
themselves confined to the Americana ghetto, such as Steve Earle, Townes
van Zandt, John Prine, Nanci Griffiths, Lucinda Williams and Jim Lauderdale.
The birth of alt.country may be pinpointed to the 1990 release of the album
No Depression by Uncle Tupelo (featuring Jeff Tweedy, later of Wilco, and
Jay Farrar and Mike Heidorn, later of Son Volt). The albums title itself is
symbolic, borrowing from a song by the Carter Family, the immensely influential group of the 1920s and 30s which mainstream country had long forgotten.
Back then, the genre in which the Carter Family and their contemporaries
recorded was known as folk, before the title country began to stick in the late
1940s. Half a century later, alt.country and Americana drew from both the
country and folk traditions, as well as from the cowpunk sub-culture of the
1980s, with some acts impossible to define.

Other acts, such as Bright Eyes and Tweedys Wilco, move fluidly across
genres. Other acts still move from other genres into country, sometimes temporarily, such as Ben Kweller, the Texan prodigy who in 2009 released a most
exquisite country album after a decade in singer-songwriter pop.

The terms alt.country and even Americana have fallen out of favour, even
as no alternative names have gained currency. Perhaps it is right to call artists
such as Tift Merritt, Shelby Lynn or Allison Moorer just country. It is singers
like them, Krauss, Lambert and Wilson surely not the likes Taylor Swift
who help keep alive the traditions of country.

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