Country music today sucks (but some of it doesn’t)

This is the start of a new series on Daily Disgust about the deplorable state of country music today and the sliver of the genre that manages to be both relevant and good.  This post will focus on the history of this distinctly American music, tracing it from is Appalachian fiddle roots through the Garth/Shania era.  Next week I will look at the overproduced dreck the comes out of Nashville today.  After that, with the help of my friend Joel, I will begin featuring some of the great country music that is being made today–I guess it could be considered the other 1%.

A brief history of country music, brought to you the easy way–by summarizing the history presented at Roughstock.  The links provided in the title of each section connect to the corresponding page on Roughstock, and any quotations come from that page unless otherwise cited.

The early years–20’s through 40’s

Although the origins of country music reach further back into the hills and hollows of Appalachia, the business side of the genre picks up in the 1920’s.   “The first commercial recording of “country music” was “Sallie Gooden” by fiddlist A.C. (Eck) Robertson in 1922 for Victor Records.”  Jimmie Rogers and the Carter Family were two of the significant early contributors to the genre, both signed to Victor on the same day in 1927.  Other big names of this era were Gene Autry, Roy Acuff, and DeFord Bailey.  The Grand Old Opry got its start during this time, debuting in 1925.

The Carter Family performing Black Jack David, recorded in 1940:

Western Swing–30’s through 50’s

Western Swing came out of Texas and the lower plains states during the great depression.  Waylon Jennings explained in the song Bob Wills is Still the King that “Lord I can still remember,the way things were back then/In spite of all the hard times, I’d live it all again/To hear the Texas Playboys and Tommy Duncan sing/Makes me proud to be from Texas where Bob Wills is still the king.”

As the name suggests, Western Swing was dance music.  It grew out of the beer halls, and featured fiddles in the lead role. “Western Swing, although hard to truly define, is best described as a blend of big band, blues, dixieland, and jazz, among others, and the genre introduced drums and the steel guitar (by way of Hawaii) to country music.”  Big names of this era included Bob Wills, the Light Crust Doughboys, Tommy Duncan, and the Texas Playboys.

Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys performing Take me back to Tulsa:

Acuff and the Opry–40’s through, well, today

The Grand Old Opry is probably the best known institution/venue in country music through to this day.  It began in 1925 with live Saturday night broadcasts (on the radio, of course).  Roy Acuff first played the Opry in 1938, and through his performances over the 1940’s, his name became tied to the broadcast.  “He won many friends with his sincere, mountain-boy vocal style and his dobro-flavoured band sound, and eventually became as popular as Uncle Dave Macon, who was the Opry’s main attraction” in the late 30’s.

Acuff went on to found the publishing firm Acuff-Rose with Fred Rose.  As Uncle Tupelo sang in Acuff-Rose: “Name me a song that everybody knows/And I’ll bet you it belongs to Acuff-Rose.”

Roy Acuff performing Wabash Cannonball on the Opry in 1956:

Bill Monroe and Blugrass–40’s through 60’s

Bill Monroe was influenced early on by prominent acts such as Charlie Poole and local musicians such as Arnold Schultz, an African American.  Monroe brought bluegrass (and sharp fashion) to the national stage.  Other prominent bluegrass artists of the era were Lester Flatts and Earle Scrugs, as well as the groups Foggy Mountain Boys and the Nashville Grass.

Steve Earle wrote of Bill Monroe in Annie Leibovits’ American Music Book:

“Know this. Bill Monroe was a hipster, and bluegrass, the music that he invented, is the Southern rural equivalent of bebop. Like jazz, it’s an experimental art form that, at it’s best, balances on a knife edge, constantly pushing ahead musical frontiers while never turning its back on the centuries of tradition that gave it life. Monroe used to talk about the ‘ancient tones.’ Echoes of Ireland and Scotland and Africa. He believed that they could be heard in the hollers of his native Kentucky if only you knew how to listen. Then and only then are you ready to pick up a mandolin, a fiddle, or a five-string banjo and bring the music down from the mountain.”

Bill Monroe performing Uncle Pen in 1956:

Cowboy Music–1940’s through 1960’s

The cowboy music era featured such artists as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, and was closely associated with a concept of cowboys and the west.  This genre was also connected to and popularized by cowboy films–indeed the artists were featured in these movies, as witnessed by the enduring story of Roy Rogers and his equally beloved Dale Evans and Trigger.

King of the Cowboys Roy Rogers performs Don’t fence me in in the movie Hollywood Canteen in 1944:

Honky Tonk Music–1950’s

” Honky Tonk music embodied the spirit of dancing and drinking, and of loving and then losing the one you love.”  These of course are themes that continue to be featured in country music to this day.  Reminds me of an old joke:  What do you get when you play a country music song backwards?  You get your lady back, your truck back, your dog back, your job back, and your life back.

Hank Williams (I won’t use the Sr. so as not to give any credit to the Jr.) is the best known musician of this era.  His music was heartfelt and upbeat despite its often forlorn nature.  Lefty Frizzell, Ernest Tubb, and the Texas Troubadours were other prominent names of the genre and era.

Hank Williams performing Lovesick Blues:

The Nashville Sound–1960’s

This is the first era in which country music really started to suck as it tried to cross more into the mainstream by blending with pop.  With the exception of Patsy Cline, this is a fairly forgettable era that saw country music give up the rough edges that made it resonate in favor of slick production and pop sensibilities (sound familiar?).

Patsy Cline performing Crazy, notably written by Willie Nelson:

Outlaw Country–1970’s

To my mind/ear, outlaw country was the genre’s last hurrah, save a number of notable outliers through the years.  Outlaw country came to be in reaction to the bland over-produced crossover target music being put out of Nashville.

Waylon Jennings put it best: “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?”

I’ll post more on this era later, as it is still something I listen to regularly.  But for now, I’ll share my favorite made up song lyric from a novel about a bar in Texas in the 70’s:

Too many late nights/trying to kill me; Too much Waylon/not enough Willie.

(If you don’t get it, I’d be glad to explain.)

Urban Country–1980’s

This is an era that I am thankful to know little about.  But the theme here is similar to those worst periods in country’s history–overproduced attempts at crossover produced little to write home about.  From the Roughstock site:

The Urban Cowboy movement of the early ’80s led country music away from its roots. The genre’s move toward pop culture was popularized by John Travolta’s movie, Urban Cowboy, and spurred on by Dolly Parton’s movie 9 to 5 and the popularity of its title song.

In the early ’80s, country attempted to crossover to a easy-listening pop audience. In many cases, Urban Cowboy country was ’60s and ’70s polished pop music with a hip, rock beat. The outlaw heroes of the 1970s — Willie, Waylon, Johnny, and Merle — faded into obscurity on the country scene.

Anything that pushes Willie, Waylon, Johnny, and Merle into obscurity is the devil in my book.

Dolly Parton working 9 to 5

Garth And New Country

As much as I’d like to talk some trash about Garth, his music is catchy and country, and I don’t hate it.  He and Shania Twain managed to make millions on making catchy, twangy music, and somehow I can’t get myself riled up about them.  I mean, you have give Garth some authenticity cred for retiring and going back to  Oklahoma!

Also, he’s got some cojones for willing to be a country star who says about Barack Obama:

I think he’s trying his heart out.  I love him to death.


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