From “The Rock Primer” edited by John Collins published by Penguin Handbooks in 1980
The Country chapter was written by John Collins
Country music, developing from Anglo-Celtic immigrant origins, has become so diversified that perhaps we must fall back on Kris Kristofferson‘s definition, which precedes his recording of ‘Me and Bobby McGee’: ‘If it sounds country, man, that’s what it is, a country song.’ In other words, you know it when you hear it. Some can hear it in the ballads of black soul singers Percy Sledge and Solomon Burke, or in the rock & roll of longhaired Texan bar-bands. At another extreme it can simply be a repository of blue-collar, right-wing moralizing. This political aspect cannot be ignored, though its dilution is one of the beneficial aspects of the spread of the music. Country grew from the home-made music of poor, hardworking, uneducated southern whites, and if they were lucky enough to grasp the opportunity of pursuing the American Dream, their grasp was inevitably a self-centred and defensive one. Southern culture and economics were originally based on the exploitation of slave labour. It was because of this, indirectly, that the music took root in the South: settlers from the British Isles landed in other parts of America as well, bringing their ballads and folk songs with them, but in the South they developed an inward-looking, protective character which deliberately isolated them from the rest of the country, and prevented the immediate dispersion of their indigenous music. Even now, southerners find themselves ranged against northerners, intellectuals, sophisticates, other minority groups – anyone who isn’t them, and somehow threatens them. Inevitably country music has become in part a defiant expression. of southern pride, standing by to repel boarders. But as its followers have migrated in search of work – to the fruit-growing West during the Depression, to the farms of the Mid-west, and to the industrial North – they have taken their music with them.
The music of the South is polyglot: to those Anglo-Celtic ballads which can be taken as the basis of ‘hillbilly’ music must be added, for example, the jazz and rhythm & blues of New Orleans, the French-Canadian music of Louisiana, the polkas of German settlers a little further west, the blues of Texas and the Mississippi Delta, and the Spanish music of Mexico. The development of Western Swing in the Texas of the twenties symbolizes this: it is now seen as a form of country music, but it has equally strong elements of big-band jazz and urban blues.
The original hillbillies were untouched by these influences, which only began to filter in during the early years of the last century. When they settled as pioneering farmers in the hills of Virginia, the Carolinas, Kentucky and Tennessee, they sang their British narrative songs to the accompaniment of home-made fiddles and dulcimers. As the songs became adapted to reflect their new life, so other stringed instruments were introduced, particularly guitar, banjo and mandolin. ‘Bluegrass’ music is directly derived from these early rural string bands.
As the descendants of the early settlers travelled further south and west, before the spread of radio, they would pick up other influences – black guitar styles and the jazz of the cities, for example – and learn new songs. The 1920s, with the arrival of both radio .and gramophone, enabled the music to be instantly, and commercially, disseminated for the first time. Of the radio shows that came into being, the most famous is ‘The Grand Ole Opry’, which started in Nashville, Tennessee in 1925, and still exists. It has always been broadcast live as a sponsored concert, acting as a magnet for fans of the music, and must be one of the major reasons why Nashville has become the commercial centre of country & western. The record companies, too, moved in to exploit the music, just as they were beginning to do with Negro blues (‘ race music ‘) and as a result.a tubercular ex-railroad man from Mississippi, Jimmie Rodgers, became country music’s first’ superstar’ by the end of the decade. The Carter Family, too, were profusely recorded, playing the pure ‘mountain music’ of Virginia (see ‘Folk & Blues’): thus the ‘ethnic’ basis of country music was preserved in unsullied form.
Although still confined largely to the South, and to the South-west as a result of migration, country music was now a business, in spite of the Depression, and soon lost its exclusively homemade character. Performers could now be paid for appearances on record and radio, and on travelling road-shows. This growth continued throughout the thirties, together with the progressive infiltration of other regional musical influences.
Another significant change in the organization of this new ‘industry’ occurred in 1939. In order to make a living from his songs, a writer has to be affiliated to a body which ‘licenses’ his music, monitors its use, and collects the royalties for broadcast performances. Until this time, there was only one such organization, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, which, being northern orientated, had proved resistant to ‘hillbilly’ music. In 1939 they increased their licensing rates to radio stations to an unacceptable degree, which led to the formation of a rival organization, Broadcast Music Incorporated. BMI were more receptive to the song-writers of the South, who suddenly found available the revenue-collecting set-up they had previously been denied. No doubt ASCAP would eventually have broadened their outlook without this breaking of their monopoly, but the 1939 confrontation resulted immediately in potentially nation-wide exposure for country performers, at a time when ever-increasing migration was spreading the demand for them. Furthermore, the war brought people from different parts of the continent together, exposing many of them to country music for the first time.
The second ‘great’ of c&w came to prominence in the late forties, by which time its regional nature had been broken down enough for him to become a national star. Hank Williams came from Alabama, and like Jimmie Rodgers had learnt as much from the black musicians he knew in his youth as from the hillbilly music on the radio. His first hit, ‘Lovesick Blues’ in 1949, was not one of his own compositions, but during his short career he was to write more ‘standards’ than anyone. His life has unfortunately become a musical blueprint – the country boy suddenly presented with money and fame, fatally destroying his career with alcohol and pills. It would seem that Williams was one of those with a low resistance to narcotics, with the result that he was blacklisted by promoters as unreliable at the very time that his fame was at its height.
Although the c&w industry could remain immune to the early stirrings of rock & roll, particularly in its urban and northern manifestations, and shrug it off as ‘nigger music’, it was ironically a young hillbilly who became the figure-head of the revolution in the mid fifties. On Presley‘s early records, while he was still a local phenomenon causing a sensation on ‘Louisiana Hayride’, a rival to ‘The Grand Ole Opry’ – one of his re-interpretations of a black song would be carefully coupled with a hillbilly number; for Tennessee consumption. Rock & roll, bringing with it the cult of youth and rebellion, hit the traditional country artists hard.
As a result of rock & roll, the young generation of country performers adopted the new style to a varying degree – Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent, the Everly Brothers – and the galloping expansion of country music, by now firmly centred on Nashville, was contained for almost a decade. Of this generation, only Johnny Cash became hugely successful in a more traditional style, and as a result of his persistence is now seen as the third of the very great artists, in company with Rodgers and Williams. Many of the older artists made attempts to accommodate the youthful music with varying degrees of success; others just waited resentfully for it to blow over.
Of course the revival came, and many of the rock’and’rollers (Perkins, Lewis and the Everly’s as well as many lesser lights such as Conway Twitty) drifted back to country music. I would argue that one of the major turning-points was the curious decision by Ray Charles, in 1962, to record two albums of country & western standards. Charles, with his unique and influential fusion of gospel and blues, was as revolutionary an influence on black rhythm & blues music in the fifties as was James Brown, and yet he suddenly grabbed a handful of hillbilly tunes and surrounded them with lush arrangements. But if anyone could indicate, to those with ears to hear, the essential similarities between rhythm & blues and country, it had to be Charles: he had a huge following who would never have listened to c&w, and he had the interpretive genius to draw the best from the songs. His ‘betrayal’ was shocking, but many blues fans had their minds broadened.
Perhaps the’ British invasion’ helped country & western back to its feet. The raw power of early rock & roll had long been neutralized, and many Americans turned back to their own musical tradition. The sixties saw a huge expansion in the number of country-music radio stations, and the industry in Nashville, and to a lesser degree in other cities such as Bakersfield in California (‘Nashville West’), expanded to feed the demand. The television companies woke up to this, and more and more country stars found themselves hosting networked shows. Inevitably, at this time the definition of a ‘country song’ became broader, to take in the simple, gut-bucket style of the early fifties, the harder edge of the rock & roll generation, the syrupy patriotism fuelled by the Vietnam War, shimmering violins, the contemporary ‘folk’ style that had developed in the coffee-houses and the foot-stamping dexterity of bluegrass, as well as Bob Dylan and the Byrds.
The dominant sound emanating from Nashville in the late sixties and early seventies was one of entrenchment, of nostalgia for understandable values in a world that was clearly changing. Kennedy’s America had changed to Nixon’s, but in the meantime people had had their automatic beliefs rudely questioned, there were even troublemakers doubting the imperial righteousness of conducting a squalid war in a tiny country halfway across the world. Mainstream country became a comforting cocoon of schmaltz, and an ever-widening audience was ready for it. Producer and writer Billy Sherrill tapped this mood perfectly via Tammy Wynette; her songs were only concerned with marriage and its problems, problems comprehensible to a vast audience confused by wider issues. The best popular music is almost invariably about sex, but the successful country records of the time limited their points of reference to those of a particular listenership: the proud and ambitious lower middle class. They required old-fashioned ‘sincerity’ with new, sweet production techniques. It is noticeable that the other large record buying section of the population, the young and educated, had themselves turned, by the mid seventies, to slick, bland, inoffensive music, much of it distantly originating in country & western; music that is usually gutless, but immaculately performed and produced.
The dominance of Nashville as the centre of country-music activity has not seriously been challenged. Bakersfield remains largely based on the success of its two stars, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, and the Texas city of Austin did not develop an industry. The importance of Austin grew in the early seventies; it had an attractive atmosphere and a local folk/country scene based around the university. Performers from outside drifted to the city, Doug Sahm, Jerry Jeff Walker and notably Willie Nelson (who by his move was consciously rejecting the direction in which Nashville was going), but it would seem that the ‘business side’, record companies, recording studios and entrepreneurs, did not follow the artists to a sufficient degree. However, much of the vitality of contemporary country music does come from Texas, while the performers in Nashville continue to look for ways to broaden their appeal and increase their income, ‘a race for Las Vegas’, as one producer puts it, which inevitably threatens to enervate the genre. But while Dolly Parton and Bill Anderson pioneer ‘country disco’, there are still bands like that of Joe Ely, musicians who grew up with rock & roll, who are injecting a much-needed dose of vitality into the continuing tradition of country music.
Essential Country Singles
The Delmore Brothers
Blues Stay Away From Me
The harmonies are ‘country’, but the title and mood are another reminder of how close the hillbillies were to their black neighbours, though few could admit it.
I’m Movin’ On
As above: when later arranged by Ray Charles, this driving railroad song became a rhythm & blues classic. Snow, a Canadian, has proved one of the longest-surviving country stars.
The Wild Side of Life
Honky-tonk meets Western Swing in a standard with the unforgettable line ‘I didn’t know God made honky-tonk angels’, which was immediately and successfully contradicted by Kitty Wells, it was the feckless male who made them.
The teenager arrives in country music, via the familiar C-Am-F-G chord sequence, and provided an international pop hit for both James and actor Tab Hunter.
Deck Of Cards
The “po-faced moralizing’ school of country music in monologue form: war, patriotism and, above all, God, unfortunately successful worldwide. But it can’t be ignored.
That other c&w stand-by, death, features in the greatest of the cowboy songs (Tex Ritter was too bad a singer for ‘High Noon’ to compete), dressed in Spanish rhythms from just over the border.
I Ain’t Never
A relentless rhythm and the line ‘You’ve got me living in a haunted dream’ gave a durable star his most appealing hit, still worth reviving.
He’ll Have To Go
He had a voice like cocoa and flew into a mountain, but the king of schmaltz overcame disrespect with this desperate song , he’s on the phone and his rival’s on the job.
I Fall To Pieces
Or ‘Crazy’, or especially ‘She’s Got You’, the late Miss Cline conveyed a convincing brand of sexual angst.
You’re The Reason
A lilting and hypnotic melody over simple chords, with above-average lyrics, this was also a hit at the time for Hank Locklin and Joe South, and was successfully revived in 1967 by Johnny Tillotson.
Sea Of Heartbreak
Few, apart from the obvious Hank Williams, have written more classics than Gibson; his wistful songs combine a dry voice, strong acoustic guitar and immediately appealing melodies. Among the others are ‘Oh Lonesome Me’, ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ and ‘Sweet Dreams’.
Leroy Van Dyke
Walk On By
A reverberating and catchy lead-guitar line cannot fail, especially when allied to that most pressing of country-music problems, adulterous guilt.
The End Of The World
A gauche but perfectly pitched voice and a hollow production suggest that the world did indeed end when we said goodbye.
King went on having country hits, but he also briefly became a pop star with this curiosity: it sold on the background yodelling, its melody and unusual story-line.
From A Jack To A King
Love found (rather than the more usual love lost) produced an international hit, thanks to a rhythm which sounds suspiciously like West Indian blue-beat.
Six-Days On The Road
The truck-driver has succeeded the cowboy as c&w hero, never more successfully than in this subsequent country/rock & roll standard.
Stand By Your Man
Tammy, dressed in a housecoat and covered in kids, would never have cheated on her man in the late sixties, though D-I-V-O-R-C-E could be discussed among adults. Usually, however, she stood by her man and spoke to southern women who would understand.
Diggy Liggy Lo
The cajun music of the displaced French-Canadians, who were expelled from Acadia by the British and migrated round the coast to Louisiana, provides one of the most fertile and unsullied of southern music styles: this example crept into the c&w charts.
Life’s Little Ups And Downs
After years of dues-paying, starting as a Memphis rocker with a unique jazzy sound, Rich finally broke through in 1973 with ‘Behind Closed Doors’. ‘Ups and Downs’; a smaller and earlier hit-written by his wife, is a perfect vehicle for his soaring voice.
When You’re Hot You’re Hot
An example of one of Reed’s best singles, which invariably combine staggering guitar technique with cocky, humorous vocals.