Country & Western Music
US Culture

Country and Western Music

When the original colonists from Britain settled in this new land called America, they brought along their music. This included traditional English, Scotch and Irish dance melodies, folk songs and ballads. As the colonies grew, the population diversified, and many other types of music were imported and absorbed into the culture of this new country called the United States of America.

Rural Folk Music became "Country Music"

In the Isolated rural communities of the Southeastern and Midwestern states, many residents preserved their own local derivations of the Scotch-Irish based music. They called it "folk music", "hillbilly music" or simply "country music". This rustic music was a favorite form of entertainment at rural festivals and local barn dances. Each region independently developed its own unique style. It has always remained exclusively white folks music. Very few Afro-Americans perform or listen to country music.

The early twentieth century brought an innovation called radio that radically changed the nature of country music in the USA. Southern radio stations soon learned that their rural audiences preferred listening to local performers playing their own local music. They began broadcasting country music programs. For the first time, rural residents from across the land heard the different styles of folk music popular in various regions of the country.

Country Music and radio helped create "The Grand Ole Opry"

The WSM barn dance radio show in Nashville Tennessee became the most popular country music broadcast of all. Since the barn dance followed a classical music program named "The Grand Old Opera", country performers began calling their show "the Grand Ole Opry". This show was rebroadcast by radio stations across the country and heard by millions of listeners. It soon became the most popular country music program in the USA. It still holds that title.

For over 75 years, the Grand Ole Opry has been on the radio every Saturday night with its programs of country music, country song and country humor. Today, Grand Ole Opry radio and television broadcasts are still the most widely heard and viewed country music entertainment in the world. From 1943 until 1977 the program was broadcast from Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville. It has since moved to a new broadcast studio in Music Valley, a few miles north of the city.

Nashville became Music City

For many years, country performers flocked to Nashville with their guitars slung across their backs and their fiddles tucked under their arms. They came seeking fame, fortune and a chance to appear on the Grand Ole Opry. Most ended up playing in one of the many honky tonk bars in town. Some of them play on the street corners hoping to snag a few coins from the tourists.

This influx of country music talent fueled the creation of the first country music recording studios in Nashville. Today, nearly every major international recording company has a Nashville studio. That's why they call it "The Country Music Capitol of the World" and "Music City".

Historic photo of musicians © Library of Congress - Lomax Collection
Early country music featured many self-taught musicians plucking guitars, banjos, fiddles and rustic homemade instruments.

Country Music became Country Western Music

In the 1930's, Hollywood studios became infatuated with cowboy movies. Singing cowboys were the rage and western music was immensely popular. The movie studios recruited country performers to appear in western films and to sing western songs. The link between country music and western music was firmly established. Now, these two distinct styles of music are often included in the single title of "Country Western Music".

Early country music featured many self-taught musicians plucking guitars, banjos, fiddles and rustic homemade instruments. They usually sang in thick southern drawls or the nasal wails of their distinctive backcountry dialects. Their music was often appreciated only by fellow country folk. Today, country music has become highly-polished, commercially-produced entertainment. People all over the world listen to country music. Some purists think that this slick new music lost the heart, the soul and the authenticity of that original country music.

It began with the Carter Family

The beginning decades of the twentieth century brought the first commercially successful country artists such as Fiddlin John Carson, Vernon Dalhart, Al Hopkins and his Hillbillies and Jimmie Rodgers. It also brought the Carter Family with their simple pure melodies and gospel-like lyrics. The Carters recorded many songs that have become classics of country music like "Will the Circle be Unbroken", "Keep on the Sunny Side" and "Wabash Cannon Ball".

Roy Acuff, Johnny Cash, Tex Ritter, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Charley Pride, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and many other musical legends followed in the footsteps of the early country pioneers. Hank Williams (senior) and Patsy Cline were possibly the most famous of all. Hank's rendition of "Your Cheatin Heart" and Patsy's recording of "Crazy" are probably the two best-known country music hits of all time.

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Country western music is more popular than ever

Modern performers like Ricky Scaggs, Garth Brooks, The Judds, Tanya Tucker and Reba McEntire have raised country music to the top of worldwide popularity charts. That original old hillbilly music of the past has given birth to many new and different styles. Pop country, new country, country rock, rockabilly, blue grass, western swing, honky tonk, Nashville sound, outlaw country, urban cowboy and traditional country all share the title of "country western music".

Country western music is still the most popular music of the rural folks in the USA. Modern country music, especially the slick new studio-produced variety, even attracts an audience among sophisticated city dwellers and cosmopolitan professionals.

If you want to really experience Country Western music in the USA, you can visit Nashville, Tennessee to attend a performance at the Grand Ole Opry or to hang out in a few of the honky tonk bars on Broad Street listening to the country stars of tomorrow. You can visit Branson, Missouri where many of the legendary old time country stars perform on a regular basis. You can attend country music performances at the Alabama Theater or the Gatlin Brothers Theater in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. You can visit Dolly Parton's, Dollywood near Gatlinburg Tennessee. You can even see a great country music performance at one of the Las Vegas shows.

Written by: Mike Leco
Top Photo Credit: Branson Lake Area Chamber of Commerce
Photo Description: A country western band plays on stage.