Country Music’s Roots

Laura Sood

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“This is real; this is your life in a song, yeah this is country music.” These are just a few of many famous lyrics sung by Brad Paisley, an artist in the country music industry, who, like others, takes great pride in the genre of music he represents. American country music has been a staple in the South for over two centuries and has been telling people’s stories through song (Dolly). Country was once a genre with two basic instruments, the fiddle and the guitar, but as time has passed, not only has the instruments used in the genre changed, but the sound electrified by country music has as well (“What”). Many societal expectations have influenced a change in country music over the years, but the most prominent influencers over country culture have been the artists themselves and the styles that they choose to portray their music.

Country music’s legacy in the United States dates back to the seventeenth century, when immigrants from Europe brought their folk tales, instruments, and music traditions to their new homes. At the time, country songs remained within families. Music and song traditions were simply passed down between generations and stories were kept between family members that told the tales of past relatives and enchanting experiences. It wasn’t until the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 when country music began to spread across the budding nation (Dolly). Only instruments that could be transported easily were brought with travelers from one end of the country to the other as people migrated to the nation’s new lands. “At first it was just the fiddles and accordions” that made up country music, but the first change that sparked a tougher sound in country was the use of guitars and banjos in song (“What”). Soon enough, gospel hymns heard at church each week were even shaping the sounds of music played in American homes after country musicians took a liking to how gospel “emphasize[s] personal salvation” and they incorporated such styles in their songs (Dolly). Among many that have continued to play a huge role in country music today, those instruments and regularities took the style of music to a whole new form in the nineteenth century.

By the nineteen hundreds, country music had officially found a home in Bristol, Tennessee. A local family, known as The Carter Family, took up the offer by Victor Records to record for their studio (Dolly). The recording studio was the first to record country artists and found a base in the small city in Tennessee in 1926. Victor Records was known for playing “pure country music [artists]” of the time and built country music’s base in the heart of Bristol, Tennessee (Dolly). The first true country record label grew quickly in its home town in Bristol over a period of fourteen years, after taking on emerging artists such as Jimmie Rodgers who continued to pave the way of country music (Dolly). In 1945, the home of country music moved from Bristol, to Nashville, Tennessee, which is still known as “Music City, USA” (“What”). The new city “was a move away from country music’s hillbilly roots” where budding artists relocated to in hopes of discovery at the local honky tonk bars at the time and still today (“What”). Nashville would signal a start to a new era of country music.

Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan were the first of many artists to take the country world by storm. In the 1960’s, Dylan made the move to Nashville and essentially “changed what people thought” of the small, once conservative city (Light). Dylan was known as a rock and roll artist, who after moving to Nashville, incorporated the hard style that comes with rock music, to classic country tunes. Bob Dylan was able to produce numerous albums in Nashville that tied together rock and country, creating a new sound of music yet to be heard. Behind him, was Johnny Cash, a good friend in the country music industry who helped Dylan grow in the country world, and an ever-changing group known as the Nashville Cats who also incorporated rock music into country (Light). Dylan’s “stamp of approval” on Nashville did more than just change the sound of country music, but opened up a gate for so many new artists to travel to the up-and-coming city (Light). Dylan did more than express to music listeners that rock country was a new style to hear, but that country music, and any genre of music for that matter, could be influenced and altered to sound differently with just a little creativity (Light). Artists still recognized today for their greatness followed Dylan out to Nashville in the pursuit of this golden era in country music, leading the way for people like George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Loretta Lynn to also find success in Nashville.

Similarly, pop music took its turn in influencing country music’s sound today. This time, though, Britney Spears did not try to enter Nashville in the early 2000’s as Bob Dylan had nearly forty years earlier. Instead, artists like Lee Ann Rimes and Shania Twain, though originally pure country artists, had become “crossovers” between the country world and the pop world (“Country”). Pop radio began playing music with country twists, and, in Nashville’s opinion, there was “not much country on country radio” (“Country”). The idea was not at all that Twain and Rimes were to be shunned in the country music world, but that real country, was to stay true to it’s roots and to a sound that included basic instruments and reflected people’s lifestyles. The reason behind the pop country crossover, though, was to get younger crowds interested in the country scene and record labels no longer “[believed] traditional country [could] sell” (“Country”). On the radio today, many ‘traditional’ artists still find success in radio, such as Alan Jackson, but Nashville is still producing artists that are heavily focused on pop (“Country”). Artists today that are heavily influenced and appreciated by pop-country crossover listeners include Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line.

Bristol, Tennessee is where it all began for country music. The story telling, instruments, and now national industry began with one small record label. As the likes of Americans changed, country changed with them. As the heart of country moved to Nashville, Tennessee, people with a love of all music brands were able to join together and create different styles of country and change the sound that listeners hear on the radio. Turning the radio on today and dialing it to a country station can lead to many different types of ‘country music’. Whether that style be true to the definition of country one hundred years ago, or more likely, the pop crossover many prefer today, it is all characterized as country music.

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