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Garth Brooks (1962–), despite being a staggeringly popular recording artist and performer is a strangely polarizing figure. Brooks, the first country singer to release a multi-platinum album, took country bigger than anyone ever had before, and his radio-ready, pop-country crossover hits absolutely dominated the country charts through the early 1990s.
This broad appeal, however, has brought Brooks plenty of detractors, mostly from the traditionalist or purist wing of the country-loving public. For them, Brooks' legendarily elaborate stage productions—dubbed "stadium" country—and slick crossover hits are symptomatic of a dilution of country's essence toward the end of the 20th century.
Patsy Cline (1932–1963) was arguably the most influential country musician of all time and certainly one of the style's greatest singers. Cline, who was born Virginia Hensley, began her career at a time when female performers were secondary to their male counterparts in terms of sales, success, and clout. Their careers and personas were relatively circumscribed.
Patsy Cline changed all of that. In a career that spanned only about a decade, she completely redefined the possibilities for women in country music and recorded a number of standards, "Crazy" and "I Fall to Pieces" being the most prominent. Cline died in 1963 in a plane crash, but her influence has been clear on subsequent generations of songwriters.
Bill Monroe (1911–1996) invented the bluegrass style. Monroe had gotten his start playing mandolin in a Chicago band with his brothers, but his great innovation was to revamp the Appalachian tunes of his Kentucky childhood with faster tempos and virtuosic soloing, a classic country pairing of something old with something new.
Monroe and his band, the Blue Grass Boys, became regulars on the radio barn dance program Grand Ole Opry in the 1940s. Bluegrass became a popular style of its own, and Monroe eventually was inducted into both the Country Music and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame. Monroe died in 1996, but bluegrass, his brainchild, has enjoyed a full-on 21st-century revival.
Ralph Peer (1892–1960) is often credited with creating the country music business. Peer was a New York-based artist and repertory man for Okeh and Victor records—two of the large early recording companies—in the '20s and '30s.
Peer's singular gift was for identifying music that was outside the popular mainstream but ripe for exposure to a market. On the suggestion of a local record dealer, Peer traveled to Atlanta to record Fidddlin' John Carson in 1923. After the Carson record became a regional hit, Peer was convinced that an untapped mass audience might exist for the music of the rural South and Appalachia.
In 1927, Peer held a recording session in Bristol, Tennessee that drew musicians from the surrounding area. That session turned out to be what many regard as the most important moment in the history of country music and introduced the nation to a handful of performers that would influence the development of country music for decades.
Elvis Presley (1935–1977) was such a pivotal figure in the history of popular music that in retrospect, he seems to have been destined to emerge when he did. Sun Records honcho Sam Phillips anticipated his coming anyway. In one of the most oft-repeated stories in American musical history, Phillips is reported to have said that he could make a fortune if he could find a white singer who could master the Black vocal style.
Elvis was that singer, and the rockabilly sides he cut for Sun in 1954 function as a kind of Rosetta stone for mid-century pop music. He was the point at which Black and white, urban and rural, and country and rock styles converged. His country tunes rocked, and his rock had country roots. Neither tradition was ever the same after Elvis.
Jimmie Rodgers (1897–1933) was the most influential performer in the early history of country music. Every singing cowboy, rambling man, and honky-tonk hero who has followed owes Rodgers a significant stylistic debt.
After working as a railroad brakeman and vaudeville performer from his teens, Rodgers got his break recording a pair of songs with Ralph Peer in Bristol, Tennessee in 1927. Along with the Carter Family, Rodgers was the biggest thing to come out of that storied meeting, and Rodgers quickly became the biggest star of the country scene. In the six years that remained to Rodgers before his death of tuberculosis, he crafted a catalogue that is still mined today. Although few singers have been able to match his distinctive "blue yodel."
Fred Rose (1898–1954) was one of the crucial figures in the process that centralized the country music industry in Nashville, Tennessee.
In 1942, Rose formed Acuff-Rose Publications with the musician Roy Acuff and began to relocate country music publishing away from the traditional centers of Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. Rose is perhaps equally famous for discovering Hank Williams.
Hank Williams (1923–1953) is the most legendary figure in the history of country music. For many, Williams is country music and his spare songwriting and expressive singing is its spirit and soul. He seemed to appear out of nowhere, a honky-tonk man who became famous overnight and lived his life—one of hard drinking and domestic woe—as a country archetype.
Williams, who hailed from Alabama, had actually been working on his singing career since age 16, but that didn't matter. In the last five years of his life, Williams became a star and rose and fell. He built a songbook that has been constantly revisited, and when he died in the back of his Cadillac at age 29, he passed from hard-living into legend.