The most influential figure in the early history of country music wasn't a honky-tonk man and certainly wasn't a coal miner's daughter. He was a dapper A&R (artist and repertory) man named Ralph Peer, who was based in New York and worked for Okeh Records and Victor in the 1920s and '30s. Beginning with his recording of Fiddlin' John Carson in 1923, Peer created the idea of commercial country music. Combining an anthropologist's enthusiasm for field recording with a Hollywood scout's eye (and ear) for talent, Peer was part of a larger process that extended the reach of the major record companies beyond urban America and into the homes and the culture of the rural South and the West. The advent of field recording, well before the rise of independent labels, marked a first step in the democratization of the record business. It didn't put any power in the hands of performers, but it did mean that you didn't have to live in New York or Los Angeles to cut a record. In fact, you didn't even have to be able to get there.
One of the great apocryphal legends of country music is a story about how the Carter Family showed up late for the recording session that would make them famous. Driving a borrowed car down from Clinch Mountain (on the Virginia-Tennessee border) into Bristol, Tennessee, the Carters suffered a few tire blowouts, and the sweltering pavement melted the patches off the tires faster than family impresario A.P. could replace them. When the Carters finally made it to Bristol it was too late to rehearse, and they were too beat to do anything but sleep. At the recording session the next day, they blew Ralph Peer away just the same.
The story of the blowouts probably isn't true, but the point is clear enough: Field recording connected record companies to folks who weren't going to get anywhere near New York City without some serious help and a record deal in hand. Does this mean country music as we know it began as a commercial enterprise run by carpet-bagging A&R men? Of course not, but it should give one pause enough to consider just where the idea of "country" music came from and just what we mean when we talk about it. Country developed alongside the nation's media technologies. Two of the great American social developments of the first half of the twentieth century were the proliferation of mass media and the proliferation of a truly national popular culture. The spread of country music from its regional roots to a nationwide phenomenon was bound up with those developments.
Accordingly, the history of country music as we know it—as an umbrella genre grouping several types of strikingly different music—is entwined with the history of recording technology. Before it existed on the record for commercial purposes, there was no "country," just many regional musical styles that occasionally borrowed from and bled into one another. Western swing mashed up country fiddle tunes with jazz and a bit of polka but tended to prominently feature Hawaiian style steel guitar. Appalachian folk, a kind of traditional mountain music, had lyrical roots in the popular culture of eighteenth-century England and had adopted the banjo (an instrument of African origin) from the music of black slaves. And yet the Appalachian sound was unlike anything anywhere in the world. It bore the unmistakable stamp of lived experience of its creators, having evolved in isolation to mirror the hardship and spirituality characteristic of Appalachian culture. It was powerful and unique and, therefore, marketable.
The recorded legacy of the Bristol sessions that launched the Carter Family would quickly be pressed to wax and heard far outside of Appalachia. The cultural impact of the Carters and Jimmie Rodgers, who was recorded in the same session and quickly became country music's original rambling man and first superstar, was clear and immediate—whether tabulated in record sales by the thousand or imitators by the dozen. A more subtle legacy emerged from Bristol as well, that of Ralph Peer, the A&R man, and his field recording equipment. With Peer began a process that would shape the nation's many regional variations on traditional music into something more uniform—something more approaching our idea of "country" music. When record companies (and their representatives) cut deals and arranged distribution, they not only determined the success of an artist, they passed judgment on a sound and style. Success would be replicated and ideas, borrowed. Every singing cowboy from Gene Autry on down wanted to be Jimmie Rodgers and cut his teeth on Rodgers's standards.
Perhaps not surprisingly, radio technology had an effect on the development of country music not unlike that of field recording. The hugely popular live broadcast "barn dance" style programs, of which Nashville's legendary Grand Ole Opry was only the most famous, brought regional stars national audiences and decisively shaped the evolution of the music. Rather than drawing on local tradition, artists would begin to draw on contemporary popular culture. The success of the traditional and regional sounds created a threat to musical regionalism and traditionalism itself.
This was (and is) a threat of some consequence for a music and culture that place a premium on authenticity and connection with the past. Some techniques and traditions are popularized and preserved; others inevitably lose out in the process. Maybelle Carter's innovative guitar style has been widely imitated for generations. The same goes for the banjo technique popularized by Earl Scruggs (a bluegrass innovator who made his name as a banjo ace with Bill Monroe's band). But consider this: Scrugg's three-finger style, which facilitated incredibly quick melodic runs, became so dominant that some other styles have nearly vanished.
And when a musical culture becomes a business, it's not just techniques that are lost. Songs are forgotten as well. In its early days, the lyrical universe of country music might be home to four or five versions of the same traditional song, the variations possibly according to region, performer, or decade. As the songs came to be sold, however, performers and publishers claimed them. An arbitrary version became definitive, and the others might fade away.
And yet for all the forward-looking influence of media and innovation and economics and copyright law, country remains a culture profoundly concerned with roots, a condition that fosters a give-and-take between past and present that is unique in popular music. Consider the case of bluegrass. People often conflate bluegrass with the original mountain music of Appalachia, when in fact bluegrass is a more recent development, an innovation of the 1940s really, and the creation, chiefly, of Bill Monroe. Monroe and his band, The Blue Grass Boys, took some of the old mountain songs, like Jimmie Rodgers's "Mule Skinner Blues, and gave them a thorough reworking with faster tempos, higher keys, and lengthy instrumental solo breaks. The results were brilliant, defining an entire new genre while giving new life to old songs. Eventually what was cutting edge became old fashioned and venerable. There was a bluegrass revival in the '60s when folk music was being "discovered" by new urban audiences, and we are arguably in the midst of a second revival right now, with the recent success of the bluegrass soundtrack to the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Raising Sand, the 2007 collaboration between Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant and the bluegrass musician Alison Krause.
In an important sense, what's true of bluegrass is true of country music in general. It's a nationally popular music with a strong, specific sense of place. It has a deep reverence for and connection to the past, particularly its own past, from which it continues to draw inspiration. And it's a music with a strong sense of tradition that remains vital in the present. And of course, it's more popular now than ever before.