100 Years of Heartland Music

Adapted from his book A Century of Country.

The close of the millennium also marks the end of the first 100 years of commercial country music, a field of entertainment that boasts one of the most striking success stories of our time.

As the century began, cowboy entertainers such as Otto Gray, Will Rogers and Powder River Jack were touring in Wild West shows. From 1902-1915 vaudevillians such as Abner Weaver developed stage “rube” characters that influenced hillbilly comedians for generations to come. Between 1904 and 1912 Cal Stewart, Len Spencer, Ada Jones, Billy Murray and Charles Ross Taggart portrayed rustic characters on cylinders and discs. Bob Taylor fiddled his way into the governorship of Tennessee and by the turn of the century was publishing a “country” magazine in Nashville.

In 1900 The Journal of American Folklore published its first article about Appalachian music. “Some Real American Music” by Emma Bell Miles in Harper’s Monthly in 1904 was probably the first appreciation of mountain music ever published in a popular periodical. In 1910 John Lomax issued his influential collection of cowboy folk songs.

Big-selling records such as Vernon Dalhart’s “The Prisoner’s Song” (1925), Ernest Stoneman’s “The Titanic” (1925), Wendell Hall’s “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo’” (1923), Carl T. Sprague’s “When the Work’s All Done This Fall” (1925) and Charlie Poole’s “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” (1925) were clear signposts to the recording industry that there was a market for country music.

But it was the discovery of The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers in 1927 that brought country music its first truly enduring national recording stars. The Carters popularized “Wildwood Flower,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “I Never Will Marry,” “Wabash Cannonball” and dozens of other standards. The original trio spawned a dynasty of entertainers that would include Mother Maybelle & The Carter Sisters, June Carter Cash and Carlene Carter.

Rodgers, known as the Father of Country Music, originated “T for Texas,” “In the Jailhouse Now,” “Muleskinner Blues” and “Daddy and Home” and inspired generations of performers, including Merle Haggard, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb, Grandpa Jones, Hank Thompson and Jean Shepard. In the 65 years since his death from tuberculosis, his records have never been out of print.

Thanks to Rodgers, Uncle Dave Macon, The Skillet Lickers and their peers, country had carved out its niche as a musical format on records by the close of the 1920s. But it achieved even more prominence by becoming a staple of U.S. radio in the 1930s and 1940s. Chicago’s National Barn Dance, begun on WLS in 1924, was the prototype of country’s radio format, a repertory cast of singers, comics, instrumentalists and announcers who presented a hoedown-style variety show each week on the airwaves.

WLS made stars of LuluBelle & Scotty, Gene Autry, Patsy Montana, Bradley Kincaid and dozens of others. Its show was the first country program carried coast to coast on network radio. By the dawn of the 1940s, virtually every state in the union had its own “barn dance” of country characters, notably West Virginia with its Wheeling Jamboree (WWVA), Kentucky’s Renfro Valley Barn Dance (WHAS) and Tennessee’s Grand Ole Opry (WSM), all of which survive to this day.

The national popularity of such shows was matched by a craze for singing-cowboy movies from Hollywood. Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, The Sons of the Pioneers, Gene Autry, Rex Allen and Dale Evans became cinematic idols and major popularizers of the country sound in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.

Their music was a smoother style of country, incorporating pop instrumentation and fewer raw edges than old-time mountain music. This era was country’s most experimental on several levels. In addition to Hollywood singing-cowboy tunes, Cajun (French) and Tex-Mex (Spanish) styles were incorporated into its mixture. A jazzy offshoot of cowboy music gave country its “big band” component, Western swing. This was exemplified by the music of Bob Wills.

In 1945 Nashville’s Bill Monroe took old-time mountain music and threw it into overdrive with the instrumental flash and “high lonesome” vocals that characterized bluegrass. The style’s other stars have included The Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, Jim & Jesse, The Osborne Brothers, Ricky Skaggs and Alison Krauss.

Yet another new country style was forged as society changed following World War II. Americans “grew up” and became more worldly. In the oil fields of East Texas and the working-class communities of California, blue-collar workers gathered in roadhouses and taverns to listen and dance to the throbbing sounds on jukeboxes. Country bands adjusted their sound accordingly, adding amplification and the whine of the steel guitar. Singing became nakedly emotional, and lyrics of such previously taboo subjects as divorce, drinking and marital infidelity became common.

This was honky-tonk music, and its masters were artists such as Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and Webb Pierce. All of them were recruited by the Grand Ole Opry, which went on such a major talent drive from 1940-1955 that Nashville rose to become country’s undisputed capital city.

The Opry’s network radio exposure made national figures of such entertainers as Roy Acuff, Red Foley, Minnie Pearl and Pee Wee King in the 1940s. They were joined in the early 1950s by Marty Robbins, Kitty Wells, Hank Snow, Johnny Cash and dozens of others.

In 1942 Acuff decided to start his own publishing company. Acuff-Rose, the company he formed with Fred Rose, was the founding firm of the Nashville music business. In 1944 RCA reasoned that it would be cheaper to record its Opry artists in Nashville rather than Chicago or New York. That December, the label’s Eddy Arnold inaugurated modern country recording in Music City. In 1952 pianist Owen Bradley began building studios in Nashville, and two years later his 16th Avenue facility became the first business located on what became known as Music Row. Guitarist Chet Atkins was hired by RCA. He built Music Row’s second studio in 1957.

The creativity of Bradley, Atkins and their peers was soon put to the test. Young country pickers began incorporating elements of uptempo rhythm and blues into their styles and fashioning music that appealed to a new consumer group called teenagers. In 1952-55 Bill Haley & The Comets were the first to emerge with this new sound, which was dubbed rockabilly. By the late ’50s they were joined by a stampede of rockabilly acts, including Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Brenda Lee, The Everly Brothers and, most importantly, Elvis Presley. All of them would eventually return to their country roots, but in the late 1950s their brash young sounds all but drowned out traditional country music.

To combat the rockabilly onslaught, country producers of the late 1950s and early 1960s toned down the twang of honky-tonk music. They added strings, backup choruses and other dressy elements to their records, while retaining the “heart” in country’s lyrics and vocal styles. The resulting records “crossed over” to the pop charts and re-established country music as a commercial force. This new style was dubbed the Nashville Sound.

Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, Dottie West, Marty Robbins, Ray Price, Skeeter Davis, Roger Miller, Sonny James, Bill Anderson, Bobby Bare, The Browns and many others enjoyed pop-crossover success because of this development. Glen Campbell emulated the style on the West Coast and became another ’60′s superstar. Meanwhile, performers such as George Jones, Conway Twitty, Charley Pride, Mel Tillis and Porter Wagoner were reinvigorating the honky-tonk tradition. Also putting a modern spin on the honky-tonk style in the 1960s were such Bakersfield, Calif. artists as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.

By the mid-1970s, the Nashville Sound had an assembly-line atmosphere. On the West Coast, rock artists began experimenting with rootsier country sounds. The resulting records by Emmylou Harris, The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and others were called country-rock. In Nashville some acts began to rebel against the Nashville Sound system. They, too, wanted something rootsier. Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Paycheck, Charlie Daniels, Hank Williams Jr. and their confederates made “outlaw” music.

The country-rock and outlaw sounds attracted a massive youth audience to country music for the first time. They made country “hip” and sold millions.

Nashville responded to country’s renewed popularity of the ’70s by creating a “countrypolitan” radio format. Kenny Rogers, Anne Murray, Eddie Rabbitt, Olivia Newton-John, The Oak Ridge Boys, Crystal Gayle, Donna Fargo, John Denver, Lynn Anderson, Charlie Rich, Bobby Goldsboro and others benefitted enormously. The nation embraced country music like never before as Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Roy Clark (Hee Haw), Mac Davis, Barbara Mandrell, Austin City Limits and the annual CMA Awards all became ratings champs on network TV.

Hollywood took notice in the 1980s. Prior to then, most country-music movies were grade-B, drive-in “second features.” But such 1980-1985 films as Coal Miner’s Daughter, 9 to 5, Urban Cowboy, Sweet Dreams, Tender Mercies, The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas and Honeysuckle Rose brought prestige and respect to country. Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton, Mac Davis, Jerry Reed, Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers, Hoyt Axton and others developed secondary careers as the stars of theatrical and made-for-TV films.

When the “Urban Cowboy” era ended in the mid-’80s, country sales nosedived. But in 1983, TNN and CMT were launched as channels in the then-new cable TV industry. By decade’s end they’d helped introduce a whole new generation of young country performers.

The earliest of the “young country” acts to appear were Alabama, The Judds, George Strait and Sawyer Brown. Their popularity led radio programmers to introduce more new talent. This process reached its zenith in 1986 when over two dozen newcomers achieved success on the charts. No year before or since has seen as large an injection of fresh artists into country. Among those who rose to popularity in ’86 were Ricky Van Shelton, Kathy Mattea, Keith Whitley, Dwight Yoakam, Randy Travis and the experimental stylists Steve Earle, k.d. lang and Lyle Lovett.

The blockbuster sales of acts like Alabama, Strait and Travis set the stage for the even more explosive developments of the 1990s. Six writer/artists heralded the new decade — Clint Black, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Travis Tritt and Vince Gill all rose to stardom in 1989-1990. They were soon joined by an army of million selling performers. Country’s sales figures doubled between 1989 and 1991, from $500 million annually to $1 billion. By 1995 the business had doubled again, to the level of over $2 billion. Brooks, alone, sold more than 75 million records. Jackson racked up nearly 30 million. By the dawn of 1996 two thirds of the albums on country’s popularity charts had been declared gold, platinum or multi-platinum for their sales accomplishments. Country dance clubs, tourist destinations like Branson, Mo., and more than 2,500 radio stations spread the sound like never before.

An avalanche of media attention descended on Music City as John Michael Montgomery, Brooks & Dunn, Billy Ray Cyrus, Tim McGraw, Jeff Foxworthy, Collin Raye, Joe Diffie and dozens of others ascended to stardom. Most patterned themselves to one degree or another on George Strait (Tracy Byrd, Mark Wills, Mark Chesnutt, Tracy Lawrence, Clay Walker, etc.), but country still made room for highly individualistic acts as well (Aaron Tippin, Marty Stuart, Trace Adkins, Steve Wariner, Neal McCoy, etc.).

By 1997 more than 20 country stars were topping the $1 million mark in annual concert revenues. Most of them were men, for one consequence of the “hot hunk” sales boom was that country’s women lost much of the ground they’d gained in the 1970s and 1980s.

Spurred by the breakthroughs of Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton, women such as Barbara Mandrell, Crystal Gayle, Tanya Tucker, Janie Fricke, Rosanne Cash and especially Reba McEntire had made enormous strides forward for country’s female performers. But in the early 1990s only Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, Lorrie Morgan, Trisha Yearwood, K.T. Oslin and a handful of others held their own in a musical sea of cowboy hats. Then, in the late ’90s, the previously unthinkable happened: country’s women battled back to dominate the field.

Martina McBride, Faith Hill, Jo Dee Messina, LeAnn Rimes, Lee Ann Womack, SHeDAISY, The Kinleys, Deana Carter, Terri Clark and Mindy McCready all topped the million-selling mark. Shania Twain took the industry by storm with more than 25 million in sales in three years. The Dixie Chicks sold eight million copies of their debut disc in 1998-1999.

In the final months of the century, the always evolving country community was experimenting in two new directions. A rash of teen stylists appealed to children. And a growing group of rootsy, “alternative country” acts pulled the style back to its raw roots.

Today, country music is a richer tapestry than ever before. Bluegrass, rockabilly, Western swing, Cajun, honky-tonk and the rest of its styles continue to thrive in nightclubs and at festivals throughout the nation. And all of America whistles the radio tunes of Music Row.