Like the blues, country music is a homegrown American art form. Like jazz, country music was big before World War II and then had to contend with the rock and roll revolution from mid-century onwards. Like rock and roll, country music is often a culture unto itself: a look, a feel, and an attitude.
But the similarities only go so far. The story of country is unique within the history of popular music. From folksy, traditional origins, country music grew to a sophisticated multi-billion dollar a year business. From the honky-tonk bars of rural Texas and the mountains of Appalachia, country sounds have come to permeate popular music and to constantly assimilate new pop influences.
In other words, the story of country music is big, bigger probably than anyone would have expected a music so strongly tied to a vanishing rural past to ever get. The story of country music is so big, in fact, that it's not hard to see quite a bit of the history of twentieth century America in the history of its biggest music.
So country music is huge. It's been huge since the forties, right? So what? Well, jazz was commercially huge in the forties, but it's not now. Rock pretty much pushed it off the charts, off the dance floor, and off the popular airwaves. Not so with country. Country is the music that stared rock and roll down and didn't flinch. Country is made of different stuff.
Like what? Whiskey, for one. And history for another. Those jokes about country music being an endless lament for lost women, lost farms, and lost horses have some grain of truth to them. Country became a commercial music in 1923, a time when America seemed to be rushing headlong into the future (ever hear of the roaring twenties?). An older, agrarian world seemed to be vanishing into an uncertain future of urban industrialization, and from those early days of country on record and radio, it has been a music of considerable comfort and familiarity for millions of people who identify deeply with something that is unique to country music.
To find out just what that is, that thing uniquely "country", and where it came from, and what it means, read on. You'll also learn why Hank Williams was Kurt Cobain before Kurt Cobain, where bluegrass came from, and why Eminem will never be tough enough to be country. But that's all just part of the bigger story…