For something that is now considered to be such a quintessential part of American culture, country music has an interesting history with regard to the idea of being "mainstream." At its inception, commercial country music was deemed nationally marketable precisely because of its regional specificity. Some of the best early country music worked because it was so distinctive. The blue yodel of Jimmie Rodgers and the mountain music of the Carter Family didn't sound like anybody else. These performers and the larger musical contexts that surrounded them were predicated on a kind of difference, an identity that was defined in opposition to something else.
The genre tag "country" comes from the Billboard chart designation of "country & western," a sort of catch-all meant to somehow differentiate music from a more urban, citified sound—to acknowledge a stylistic as well as the geographic and cultural difference between the East (particularly the music publishing mainstays of Tin Pan Alley in New York) and the rural South and West. Before "country," the music was called "old familiar" or "hillbilly," both of which get at a similar quality that is essential to country music. "Old familiar" ties the music to a sense of the past, of a culture based on tradition rather than on hit records. And "hillbilly" likewise tags the music as homespun and decidedly rural in way that sets it apart from the sound of urban, industrial America.
Tremendously popular live radio shows like Grand Ole Opry and strong record sales for its biggest performers brought country music and its regional stars closer to the mainstream of national popular culture. The country sound began to infiltrate the urban metropolises of Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York (which had been the seat of the nation's music publishing business since the nineteenth century), but as an industry country music never quite took hold in these traditional hubs of the entertainment business. The explanation for this is largely economic. Most performers made so little money through record sales and song royalties (which were then notoriously difficult for artists to secure) that they remained almost wholly focused on securing a gig with one of several enormously popular radio "barn dance" programs—live broadcasts of country's hottest performers that reached homes, farms, and fans across the a large swath of the nation. The Nashville-based Grand Ole Opry was the largest of these programs, and in the 1940s, scoring a chance to perform at the Opry was the gold standard of success. An Opry performance announced a star's arrival and maybe the beginning of a regular gig—every singing cowboy or cowgirl's dream. The only catch? Opry performers were expected to be in Nashville and ready to go on air every Saturday night. The Opry's insistence on that policy combined with its continued reputation for making and sustaining stars did a lot to move country singers, songwriters, and musicians to Nashville.
A parallel music publishing and recording industry, a country music establishment, and even a certain sound coalesced in Nashville around the Opry and the country-focused publishing house run by Roy Acuff and Fred Rose. Former industry outsiders became Nashville insiders, and more than a few piles of money were made as successful producers replicated chart topping hits and pop crossovers. The eventual downside to finding a sort of Nashville formula, not surprisingly, was the creation of a lot of formulaic music, songs that tried to split the difference between country and pop, hoping to catch both audiences but too often winding up blandly over-produced and forgettable. Kenny Rogers and Olivia Newton John are two of the more popular artists associated with the country-lite style of pop, which was dubbed by the industry, not without humor, as "MoR"——middle of the road——music.
Fortunately, country music always had its rogues, and fans have maintained their identification with outsiders. In the 1940s, Hank Williams, a brilliant songwriter and serious alcoholic, came to personify the rough and lean honky-tonk style (named for working-class, edge-of-town type Texas juke joints) that had been gaining notice with its bouncing rhythms and electric guitar leads. Williams cut just 66 songs under his own name, 37 of which became hits. His spare, emotional style, troubled personal life, and mysterious drink and drug-related death at age 29 have combined over time to make him probably the most iconic figure in all of country music. Williams is country music in the same way that Kurt Cobain is 1990s grunge and for similar reasons.
Williams had a raw personal quality that Nashville could never quite replicate (although it tried plenty), let alone invent in the studio. His hard-edged honky- tonk had an energizing effect on country song craft that a handful of other innovators would have over the next few decades. Elvis Presley, of course, in defining the rockabilly style in the 1950s brought the rock revolution to country and managed to be both rock and roll and country in a way that no other figure has (although Jerry Lee Lewis, the "Great Balls of Fire" country wildman whose excesses rival most anything in rock, came pretty close). The West Coast brand of dusty, guitar-driven country associated with the Bakersfield, California scene of post-Dust Bowl transplants from Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas (the most famous being country guitar hero Buck Owens) digested early rock and honky- tonk to create a rougher sound that provided a counterpoint to slicker Nashville crossover efforts through the 1960s.
The country outsiders who rose to prominence in the next decade combined the influences of the Bakersfield sound with the eclecticism and folk roots of Johnny Cash, himself a rough contemporary of Elvis who had carved his own idiosyncratic space as a country star through the 1960s. Artists like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson self-consciously fashioned themselves as an alternative to Nashville, and fans embraced the idea of "outlaw" country in huge numbers. Jennings, whose 1972 album Lonesome, On'ry and Mean is often cited as the original "outlaw" album, had been known to brandish a pistol on at least one occasion, and Nelson, most famous for his 1975 album Red-Headed Stranger, is almost as well known for his IRS scandal and pot smoking as for his prodigious musical output. "Outlaw" followers were often just cashing in on an image, but the appeal of that image—rebelliousness, a pride in being different, and a refusal to compromise or kowtow to the Nashville establishment—represent an important and ongoing streak in the evolution of country music.
Through the 1990s and into the present, popular country has been dominated by big names making radio ready music and performing elaborate shows for stadium crowds. But for every Garth Brooks and Dixie Chick, there are several bands operating at the margins of country culture—the territories of which have come to be collectively known as alternative or simply alt-country. The margins of country music continue to serve a dual function of assimilating new sounds and serving up refreshing outsiders. What rockabilly and the Bakersfield sound were to country in the '50s and '60s, "cowpunk" (a horrible name for a remarkably fertile subgenre that infused a country soul with punk rock urgency—see The Gun Club's Fire of Love album and Uncle Tupelo's No Depression LP) and other strains of alt-country were in the '80s and '90s. Thus, the sparks of cultural "difference" that made the earliest country music so compelling have been kept alive long after country's success had brought it into the American mainstream.