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Like the blues, country music is a homegrown American art form. And 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.
And like rock and roll, country music is often a culture in and of 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. Dare we say it's as unique as a Great Smoky Mountains theme park named after one of country's greatest?
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've 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 20th-century America in the history of its biggest music.
So, country music's huge. It's been huge since the '40s, right? So what?
Well, jazz was commercially huge in the '40s, but we'd argue it's really not now. Rock pushed jazz off the charts, off the dance floor, and off the popular airwaves.
Not so with country. Whether you like it or not, country's stood the test of time. Country's the music that stared rock and roll down and didn't flinch. Country's 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 'em.
Country became a commercial music in 1923, a time when America seemed to be rushing headlong into the future. (Oh, hey, Roaring '20s.)
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's been a music of considerable comfort and familiarity for millions of people who identify deeply with something that's distinctive of country music.
To find out just what that is, that thing specifically "country," and where it came from, and what it means, read on. We'll fill you in on 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.
Colin Escott, Lost Highway (2003)
Escott, who's also written a fine biography on Hank Williams, wrote this book to coincide with the production of a BBC series on the history of country. If you're only going to read one book on the subject and don't want to commit yourself to something as long and involved as Malone's account, this is the book to go for. It's clearly written, well told, and supplemented with fine photos.
Bill Malone, Country Music, U.S.A. (2002)
Originally published in 1968, Malone's book was the only game in town for a long time. Many other academic histories of country music have since been published, but this remains the gold standard and still probably the place to go if you want a one-stop, serious resource.
Bob Millard, Country Music: 75 Years of America's Favorite Music (1999)
Millard's book is a well-organized reference for the fan or researcher. He includes tons of performer bios, great photographs (some of which haven't been published anywhere else), solid interpretive essays, and a year by year timeline of notable releases and events.
Nick Tosches, Country: The Biggest Music in America (1977)
This is an odd and captivating book by a brilliant writer. Nobody writes about country with the style and fervor that Tosches brings to his work. Country is a rock and roll account of country music history, and Tosches has a clear affinity for the most rough-and-tumble aspects of that story. Particularly exhilirating is his section on Jerry Lee Lewis.
Kurt Wolff, The Rough Guide to Country Music (2000)
On one hand, the Rough Guide is a solid resource for information, a meatier, more nearly encyclopedic reference guide than Millard's. On the other, it may not be as clearly organized and isn't nearly as critically astute as Malone's or Tosches'. It will, however, answer a lot of simple questions of who is who, when, and where in the history of country music.
Patsy Cline, The Definitive Collection (2004)
Patsy Cline was one of the greatest country singers of all time, and she casts a long shadow over the women who have followed the trail she blazed in her short career. Cline collections come out at the rate of several per year, but this one is the best single-disc introduction to her remarkable voice and stylistic range. "Crazy," "Walking After Midnight," "I Fall to Pieces," and other highlights are here.
Hank Williams, The Ultimate Collection (2002)
He was a superstar at 25, and dead by 29, but there are literally dozens of Hank Williams albums. Such is the man's legend that his material is revisited, remastered, and reissued on a nearly annual basis. There are quite a few good collections out there, but this is the one to have. All of the essential tracks are included, and the sound has been scrubbed cleaner than on most any other compilation. This is the doomed honky-tonk icon— famously described as a mixture of whiskey, lamb's blood, and grave dirt—exhumed for a new generation.
Various Artists, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
The soundtrack to the Coen brothers' film of the same name, O Brother proved that there was still a potentially huge audience for traditional country and bluegrass. This was especially significant after a decade dominated by the new pop-country associated with Garth Brooks. Superproducer T-Bone Burnett brought bluegrass luminaries from the new and old schools together to record an album's worth of Depression-era material for the period film, and the results are fantastic.
Various Artists, Anthology of American Folk Music, (1997)
Originally released in 1952 as a six-LP set of dubious legality, musicologist Harry Smith's multi-disc collection remains, without a doubt, the greatest document of America's traditional music. Nothing else even comes close. For an idea of just how deep a heritage country continues to draw on, the Anthology is absolutely essential. The full 84-song collection includes a staggering variety of hillbilly, gospel, cajun, and blues, and showcases classic performers from musicians running full gamut from the lost to the legendary.
Various Artists, Wanted! The Outlaws (1996)
Originally released in 1976, this was the album that saw the industry recognize the new generation of post-Opry Nashville outsiders, the so-called "outlaws." Capitalizing on the recent success of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson releases, Wanted! compiled tracks by Jennings, Nelson, Tompall Glaser, and Jessi Colter into a well-packaged and well-timed album that sold over a million copies. While undeniably a bit of a derivative cash-in, Wanted! was—and remains—a decent introduction to some of the "outlaw" movement's biggest stars.
Various Artists, The Sun Records Collection (1994)
How closely does the DNA of country match that of rock and roll? Better than man and chimp, and at few times in the history of popular music was that clearer than during the heyday of Sam Phillips' seminal record label, Sun. Phillips basically owned the hybrid rockabilly style, and his label introduced the world to Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis, three figures that country and rock both have long claimed as their own. In the middle of the 20th century, the histories of these two incredible musical genres converged at Sun to produce some hugely influential records, and it's all here.
Bill Monroe, The Essential Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys (1945–1949) (1992)
One among many Monroe collections, this works as a great introduction to the history of bluegrass, the style Monroe invented, named, and dominated for decades. These definitive cuts are from the early days when the music was truly groundbreaking.
Various Artists, The Bristol Sessions, Vol. 1 (1991)
Johnny Cash once called Ralph Peer's 1927 recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee the "single most important event in the history of country music" (source). This disc presents an introduction—with good liner notes, to boot—to that epochal session and some of its principle figures. Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family—the two most important acts Peer recorded—are both well represented here in the musical context of their time and place. The transfer and remastering has been handled expertly on this disc as well.
Garth Brooks, No Fences (1990)
With No Fences, the first multi-platinum country record, Brooks opened a new era for country music. The album dominated the charts and spawned a string of ubiquitous singles. Brooks had digested decades of country songs and styles, and No Fences proved him more than capable of distilling them into a crossover smash. Brooks took country to a bigger audience than ever before, put on bigger and more elaborate shows than ever before, and with No Fences, ushered in what some have called—often derisively—"stadium" or "arena" country.
Uncle Tupelo, No Depression (1990)
Released the same year as Garth Brooks' No Fences, Uncle Tupelo's debut album took country in an entirely different direction. Tupelo, which was primarily Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar, brought the urgency and crunch of punk rock to the sensibilities and subjects of country, and No Depression—which takes its name from a Carter Family standard—kickstarted the alternative, or alt-country, movement. Over the next two decades, dozens of bands would follow Tupelo's path, and thousands of young, erstwhile rock and roll fans would find themselves listening to music that was decidedly country.
The Super Producer
Legendary A&R man Ralph Peer of Victor and Okeh Records.
Country's First Superstars
The stars of the seminal Bristol recording sessions: Jimmie Rodgers pictured with the Carter Family in 1931.
A Night at the Opry
A scene from the Grand Ole Opry, country music's most famous live "barn dance" program, in the 1930s.
Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, (center) and his Blue Grass Boys.
A major film by the late, great Robert Altman, Nashville follows a sprawling group of interrelated plots and characters that all have something to do with country music and something to communicate about American culture and politics in the 1970s. Real-life Nashville insiders were rumored to take offense at what they considered a negative take on their city and scene, but that takes nothing away from Altman's ability to find America reproduced, warts and all, within his fictional account of country music.
Coal Miner's Daughter (1980)
Loretta Lynn's almost impossibly rough backstory became part of American folklore with the publication of her autobiography. This is the film treatment with Sissy Spacek, famously of Carrie and The Shining, starring as country legend Lynn. Coal Miner's Daughter is like a country version of Eminem's story 8 Mile, if Eminem had been born a female, grown up in the Kentucky coal fields, married at 13, and had four kids by age 20. Who's tough?
Urban Cowboy (1980)
Urban Cowboy is the movie that made mechanical bulls famous. It also serves as a historically relevant document of country music culture in the 1980s in a way that's not unlike Pure Country for the 1990s. John Travolta stars as a country boy on the edge of the city, working days at an oil refinery and whiling away his nights at the Houston area honky-tonk club Gilley's, an actual institution. The film is mediocre itself but remarkable for its Travolta-driven popularizing of country western joints as the next big, post-disco thing in terms of nightlife—this endorsement coming from no less a disco personality than Mr. Saturday Night Fever, mind you.
Pure Country (1992)
Pure Country features country superstar George Strait as a country superstar, and make no mistake: it's not a great film. It is, however, an interesting one because of the dilemma Strait's character finds himself in. Hugely successful and playing elaborately staged mega-spectacle shows complete with lasers and all manner of gimmicks, the lonesome singer longs for simpler days, times when his act was just a man with a guitar. Coming out as it did in the early 1990s, Pure Country can be understood as not just a commentary on its character's career arc but on the state of country music in general. The early 1990s witnessed the rise of Garth Brooks and arena-style country shows, and although country music could count more fans and bigger sales than ever before, there were critics who felt the music had betrayed its humble roots. Over the next decade, that sentiment would spawn a renewed interest in traditional and revivalist country styles.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen tapped country super producer T-Bone Burnett to put together a period soundtrack for their comic, Depression-era riff on the Homeric tale of Odysseus. Supposedly, the Coen's were so impressed with Burnett's evocation of bluegrass and traditional classics that the film became something of a musical revue as well as a comic caper. The resulting movie is quirky and great, and the soundtrack is one of the best country soundtracks of all time.
Walk the Line (2005)
The list of musicians who receive the Hollywood, big budget biopic treatment isn't a long one. And the list of musician biopics that gross over $100 million domestically is even shorter. The fact that Walk the Line, a film about Johnny Cash, is on that list means that a whole lot of people who weren't born when Cash became famous went to the theater to see his story. Interest in Cash, whose last single was a cover of a Nine Inch Nails song, clearly spans generations. The story of country: what's old is new again.
For learning about popular music, the Pandora website is a huge development, and the site isn't too shabby on country music old and new. Far more instructive than simply reading about honky-tonk or the Bakersfield sound, spend a few hours plugged into the Hank Williams and Buck Owens channels to really get a feel for the music and be exposed to other performers of the same style. Try creating a station based on an exemplary performer from each style of country you can think of and put them into a mix. Accounts are free, so, why not?
Coupled with Pandora, the All Music website gives the musically curious the ultimate one-two punch. Listen to it on Pandora, and read about it—or buy it, even—off of All Music. The reviews are remarkably accurate and comprehensive, and like Pandora, it's a free resource. Audio clips are included with many reviews, but the sound quality may not be top-notch.
Country Music Television operates a site that includes an interactive timeline. Check out what happened on this day in country music history, or enter any other date to search their thorough event database.
"Y" Is for Yodel
Rare footage of Jimmie Rodgers doing his famous "blue yodel" on "T for Texas." Rodgers was one of country's first and most enduring stars.
Uncle Tupelo's Cover of the Carter Family's "No Depression" (1992)
Alt-country progenitors Uncle Tupelo performing their version of the Carter Family standard "No Depression" in 1992.
Johnny Cash, "I Walk the Line" (Live)
Johnny Cash performing "I Walk the Line," one of his signature hits recorded for the Sun label.
Bill Monroe & The Bluegrass Boys, "Blue Moon of Kentucky"
Here's Bill Monroe playing his bluegrass classic "Blue Moon of Kentucky."
Loretta Lynn, "You Ain't Woman Enough to Take My Man"
This is just one of Loretta Lynn's classics, "You Ain't Woman Enough to Take My Man."
The Outlaw Sound: Waylon Jennings, "Lonesome, On'ry, and Mean"
Here's Waylon Jennings' "Lonesome, On'ry, and Mean."
Patsy Cline, "Crazy"
Patsy Cline did "Crazy" like no one else.
In a document from around 1953, Ralph Peer remembers Jimmie Rodgers and how the two came together for the Bristol sessions nearly 30 years earlier.
In Her Own Words
Read the intro to Loretta Lynn's autobiography, Coal Miner's Daughter, for a peek into how she understands her remarkable life, a life that, to borrow a line from Jerry Lee Lewis, would make a great country song.