Country Music

Updated: February 28, 2011

Although long associated with rural America, country music continues to thrive in an urbanized, postindustrial society.

Although long associated with rural America, country music continues to thrive in an urbanized, postindustrial society. It was initially popular among working-class people but later attracted more affluent audiences. While the genre had a national following from its emergence in the 1920s, country music has been particularly popular in the South, especially in Appalachia. Early recordings now identified as country were marketed under such names as “songs from Dixie,” “old-time tunes,” “old familiar tunes,” or “folk music.” After Al Hopkins in 1925 referred to members of his band as “a bunch of hillbillies from North Carolina and Virginia,” record producer Ralph Peer named the group “The Hill Bil- lies,” and the term hillbilly soon became the popular label for this type of music. The Country Music Association, feeling the term was derogatory, led an effort, successful by the 1950s, to replace it in the public consciousness with the coinage country and western. With a broadening of styles and themes, the word western was dropped, and the music became known simply as country music.

The origins of country music are diverse: British ballads, music of other European immigrants, native Appalachian ballads, spirituals, gospel music, minstrel and vaudeville songs, parlor songs, work songs, cowboy songs, the blues, and swing. Although most country music performers have been white, their songs and styles were heavily influenced by African Americans.

Commercial country music emerged with the development of radio and the growth of the recording industry in the 1920s. Although some country fiddle tunes had been recorded as early as 1922, most historians date the beginnings of the country music recording industry to the records of Fiddlin’ John Carson (from Fannin County, Georgia) and Henry Whitter (of Grayson County, Virginia). On June 14, 1923, Carson recorded “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” and “The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Going to Crow” in Atlanta for the OKeh label. By that date, test recordings of Whitter had already been made. After the release of Carson’s recording brought commercial success, Whitter was called back to New York for another session. His recording of “The Wreck on the Southern Old 97,” backed by “Lonesome Road Blues,” was released in January 1924. Other recording companies decided to tap into the emerging market for “hillbilly” recordings. The Victor label issued Texas singer Vernon Dalhart’s cover of “The Wreck of the Old 97” coupled with “The Prisoner’s Song,” which became the biggest-selling country recording of the decade, with more than one million copies sold by the end of 1925.

Among the most successful of the other country music pioneers of the 1920s were several performers from Appalachia, including Ernest V. Stoneman; Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers; Gid Tanner, Riley Puckett, Clayton McMichen, and other members of the Skillet Lickers; Dock Walsh; and Doc Roberts. Appalachian natives Samantha Bumgarner and Eva Davis were the first successful female per- formers in country music. Most of these performers were from southwestern Virginia, western North Carolina, or northern Georgia. A seminal event in country music history occurred in 1927 in Bristol, on the Tennessee-Virginia line, when two of the genre’s most famous acts, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, were discovered during the same field recording session (today known as the Bristol sessions).

Performers from Appalachia were prominent on the nation’s leading country music radio programs, the National Barn Dance on WLS in Chicago and the Grand Ole Opry on WSM in Nashville. The top star of the early National Barn Dance was Kentuckian Bradley Kincaid. Other stars of the program, all Kentuckians brought to the station by promoter John Lair, were Lester McFarland and Robert Gardner (Mac and Bob), the Cumberland Ridge Runners, the Prairie Ramblers, and Bob Atcher. The first major star of the Opry was Uncle Dave Macon, who in 1938 was replaced as head- liner by Roy Acuff; both of these performers were from Appalachian Tennessee. Harmonica player DeFord Bailey, born in Smith County, Tennessee, was the Opry’s first featured African American performer, and he inspired the incorporation of the blues cross-harp style into country harmonica playing. Red Foley, from Madison County, Kentucky, hosted the prime-time segment of the Opry on NBC radio from 1946 to 1954.

Family groups were common in Appalachian music, and during the early years of commercial country music, family groups from Appalachia—whether brother or husband-wife duos or larger ensembles—were very popular among country music fans. The Carter Family, the Stoneman Family, the Blue Sky Boys, the Delmore Brothers, Lulu Belle and Scotty, and the Louvin Brothers were some of the best known from Appalachia. The music of the close harmony duos and groups, popular throughout Appalachia and in neighboring regions, was influential in the evolution of bluegrass music. Bluegrass was viewed as a new genre of acoustic string-band music and was credited to western Kentucky mandolinist and bandleader Bill Monroe. Monroe’s 1945 bluegrass group featured, in genre-defining roles, banjo player Earl Scruggs and guitarist Lester Flatt, both from Appalachia. Bluegrass continues to receive some of its greatest contributions and appreciation from Appalachian musicians and audiences.

Two factors greatly accelerated the spread of country music throughout the nation. One of these was World War II, when southerners—including many Appalachian men— joined the armed forces and introduced their music to their non-southern comrades, many of whom warmly embraced it. The other factor was the migration of Appalachian people, especially those from West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, into northern and western U.S. cities to work in factories and shops. Cities such as Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio, and Detroit had whole sections largely populated by Appalachian migrants. Nor was the spread of country music limited by national boundaries. The music would eventually become popular in Australia, Japan, Germany, and Great Britain, among other countries.

Since World War II, Appalachia has contributed numerous important figures to country music. Hank Williams Sr. and Tammy Wynette came from the margins, while Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton were from the heart of Appalachia. In their accomplished songwriting, the latter two often celebrated their Appalachian heritage. Some important behind-the-scenes figures in the country music recording industry, which was mostly based outside the region, were also from Appalachia. Florence, Alabama, native Sam Phillips played a vital role in fusing country music with the blues to generate rockabilly music in Memphis, while Chet Atkins (from Luttrell, Tennessee) and Billy Sherrill (from Phil Campbell, Alabama) were two of the most significant producers of the lush Nashville Sound, which brought new audiences to country music. Two of the major country music publishing companies were Acuff-Rose, cofounded by Maynardville, Tennessee, native Roy Acuff, and Tree, overseen by Buddy Killen of Florence, Alabama. Numerous Appalachian musicians, including Atkins, Zeke Turner, Hank Garland, Jimmy Day, Buddy Spicher, Vassar Clements, and Charlie McCoy, contributed their instrumental skills to Nashville’s mainstream country recordings.

By the 1970s, various Appalachian and non-Appalachian musicians were infusing elements of country and other traditional southern musics into a rock format. While some country rock acts from Appalachia, such as the Earl Scruggs Revue and the Marshall Tucker Band, primarily aimed at a rock audience, other performers from the region—including Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, Exile, and Alabama—found more success in the early 1980s among country music fans as part of Nashville’s neo-traditionalist movement; by the late 1980s, this movement was featuring other commercially successful musicians from Appalachia, including Keith Whitley, Dwight Yoakam, and Patty Loveless. In the 1990s, some Appalachian country music performers, such as Billy Ray Cyrus (from Flat- woods, Kentucky) and Kenny Chesney (of Luttrell, Tennessee), gained crossover success; others, including Parton, Skaggs, and Loveless, recorded in more tradition-influenced styles, garnering critical accolades while also enjoying significant commercial success.

During the 1920s, the country music recording industry focused on the southeastern United States. Not surprisingly, more than 90 percent of country performers born before 1905 hailed from the South, with many originating in Appalachia. As the popularity of the music spread across the United States, the percentage of country music notables emerging from other places gradually increased. For instance, major stars of commercial country music have been born in Canada (Hank Snow, Anne Murray, and Shania Twain) and Australia (Olivia Newton-John). Still, nearly two-thirds of country music recording artists born after World War II have come from the American South. Ac- cording to one study, Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia generate the nation’s highest number of recording artists per capita. Six of the top nine U.S. counties producing country music recording artists are in Appalachia, with Kentucky’s Madison, Johnson, and Clark Counties topping the list. Fourth and sixth rankings are held by Appalachian counties in Virginia—Carroll and Grayson—while Sevier County, Tennessee, ranks ninth.

Among the hundreds of country musicians with Appalachian connections, some of the most prominent are Red Allen, Pete “Bashful Brother Oswald” Kirby, Chris Bouchillon, Hylo Brown, Carl and Pearl Butler, Archie Campbell, Bill and Cliff Carlisle, Martha Carson, Earl Thomas Conley, Karl Davis, Uncle Eck Dunford, Barbara Fairchild, Donna Fargo, the Forester Sisters, Hank Garland, Crystal Gayle, Jack Greene, Rex Griffin, Kelly Harrell, Roy Harvey, Bert Layne, Rose Maddox and the Maddox Brothers, Asa Martin, Kathy Mattea, the McCarters, Ronnie Mil- sap, George Morgan, Jimmie Osborne, Brad Paisley, Hank Penny, Fiddlin’ Cowan Powers, Jeanne Pruett, Blind Alfred Reed, Del Reeves, Mike Reid, Jeannie Seely, Jimmie Skinner, Carl Smith, Red Sovine, Uncle Bunt Stephens, Gary Stewart, Mel Street, Harty Taylor, Ernest Thompson, Uncle Jimmy Thompson, Aaron Tippin, Dottie West, Mark Wills, Marion Worth, and Steve Young. Scholarly interest in the history of country music was stimulated by the publication of the so-called “Hill-billy Issue” of the Journal of American Folklore (July–September 1965). Since then an increasing number of academic and popular publications have focused on country music, which has become one of the top-selling musical genres.

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MLA Style

"Country Music," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2017, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 21 Jul 2017 <http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=62>

APA Style

"Country Music." (2017) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved July 21, 2017, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia: http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=62