Is county music country music?
Unlike a rose, which is a rose, which is a rose, country music isn’t country music isn’t country music.
That’s the message Josh McCreary brought to an Institute for Learning in Retirement audience in a presentation on the history of country music. McCreary, the president of the Centurion history club at Co-Lin, traced American country music from its beginning as a popular genre in the pre-Depression 1920s up to its expression by composers, vocalists and players of musical instruments today, concluding that diversity is its hallmark.
Country music, in general, often consists of ballads and dance tunes (most commonly known as "Honky Tonk music") with generally simple forms, folk lyrics, and harmonies accompanied by string instruments such as electric and acoustic guitars, steel guitars (such as pedal steels and dobros), banjos, and fiddles, as well as harmonicas. But that oversimplifies it. While it continues to be the music of common people that evolved from the folk songs and instruments immigrants brought to America, its varied subgenres with diverse motifs and instrumentation may bear little discernable resemblance to each other, McCreary pointed out.
McCreary cited nine distinct Country subgenres, commenting on the nature of the music and the artists who brought them to the public with samplings:
With the invention of the carbon microphone, which enabled smaller performance venues, and the dawn of commercial radio in the 1920, original country music in the style of The Carter Family made the initial footprint in popular culture, he said. The acoustic guitar was the primary instrument, sometimes with a fiddle. “The Carter Family reflected the public reception of the new genre, receiving $50 for their performances and earning ½ cent each on each of the 300,000 records the group sold,” McCreary noted. During the 1930s, the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, other similar regional and local theater-like settings and barn dances spread the new musical genre nationally. Hank Williams, who died at age 29 with a spinal disease as a drug addict in search of relief from his pain, was the first Country super star.
When Elvis and other rock musicians challenged the popularity of the new genre in the 1950s, Country artists, including Patsy Cline and Eddy Arnold – the “Country crooner,” brought background orchestration to their genre in the Nashville Sound, McCreary said. Charley Pride was the first black artist associated with the Nashville Sound.
“The Bakersfield Sound, coming out of California in the music of Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakum, introduced the electric guitar and a full drum set to Country,” McCreary added. “Country met Rock in the electric sound.” The “fuzzy peddle” on the electric guitar was a mark of the genre.
Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, Marty Stuart and Rick Skaggs brought faster strumming and picking on mandolins and banjos in Bluegrass, with “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” as an example of a new direction for County, he said.
Outlaw Country, through Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, Jr., and Lynyrd Skynyrd, departed from the softer mainstream into traditional Honky Tonk, folk storytelling and counter-culture with songs about drinking and rebellion, in general, backed by bare instrumentation, according to McCreary. Hank Williams, Jr.’s “Family Tradition” captured the philosophy of the subgenre. Mainstream County’s music represented by Glen Campbell, John Denver and Dolly Parton – sometimes called Countrypolitan – contrasted with Outlaw Country’s break with tradition, McCreary pointed out.
In the 1980s, Pop Country – or Urban Cowboy – started blending rock, pop and country to reach a broader mainstream audience, continuing efforts of artists associated with the Nashville Sound and Countrypolitan. By the mid-1970s, many country artists were transitioning to the pop-country sound, while many pop and easy listening artists crossed over to country. Alabama’s music exemplifies the sound, McCreary said.
Neo-traditional Country music introduced in the 1980s emphasizes instrumental background and a traditional country vocal style. Neo-traditional country artists often dress in the fashions of the country music scene of the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s. Ricky Skaggs, George Strait, Randy Travis, Alan Jackson and Tracy Lawrence are associated with the genre. In the 1990s and into the 2000s, the genre influenced Shania Twain, Lone Star, the Dixie Chicks, Billy Ray Cyrus and Garth Brooks, McCreary said.
Bro Country originated in the 2010s, influenced by 21st-century hip hop, hard rock and electronica, is musically upbeat with lyrics about attractive young girls, the consumption of alcohol, partying, and pickup trucks. Florida Georgia Line, with "Cruise," Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and Jake Owen are also associated with the genre, according to McCreary.
Modern Country. Country music continues to evolve, McCreary said. New artists include Carrie Underwood, Kane Brown and Morgan Wallen. McCreary noted the influence of George Jones, often considered the “father of Country music singing” because of his eclectic style encompassing religious, gospel, Country pop, Honky Tonk, traditional Country, Country gospel and Nashville.