Did you know that country music is now one of the most popular music genres around the world?
So, what is country music, you ask?
Just like every culture has its own folk music style that always tells a story, country music is nothing but one of the folk music styles of the United States of America, which reflects its history eloquently.
Typically, these songs are in the form of a ballad which tends to tell a story in an immersive musical way. Over the years, country music has been fused with other genres to be relevant and has adapted itself to Pop music and Rock and Roll to keep the sound fresh.
Here you will understand exactly what is country music and know about some of the greatest country music artists that you’ll love listening to!
1. What Is Country Music?
When America expanded westwards, different cultures and people mixed, and so did their music. Its origin can be traced to the Southern Appalachian Mountains, particularly in eastern Tennessee and southwest Virginia. The music from Ireland, Africa and the Mediterranean mixed to make what is country music now.
Country music started as a simple instrument style with fiddle and harmonica from Europe, banjo and washboard from Africa, and Zither from the Middle East along with other instruments. Country music flowered out of folk songs from Ireland, England, and Scotland, and Blues from Africa.
Country music is believed by many to be mainly an adult music genre filled with real-life experiences and struggles. There is also a general perception that it was centered around the white working class with rural songs, especially in areas with general hardships and not many sources of entertainment.
In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, country music was a primary source of entertainment for farmers and southern folks as they were easily playable and served as a respite from all the hardships. People used to dance together, and anyone with basic instruments could play it.
The commercial success of Eck Robertson’s music recording in 1922 kickstarted the inclusion of country music in popular culture, and he changed forever the perception of what is country music. He was an American fiddle player, born in Arkansas, and his father, grandfather, and uncles were fiddlers too who competed in local contests.
Then Jimmie Rodgers became famous with his “Blue Yodel Number 1,” which sold over 1 million copies and earned him the title “The father of country music.” Jimmie was born in Mississippi and was drawn to the entertainment world from a tender age. His first job was as a water boy on the railroad, where he further developed his musical skills.
The Carter Family (comprised of A.P. Carter, his wife, Sara Dougherty Carter, and A.P.’s sister-in-law, Maybelle Addington Carter) was country music’s first famous vocal group. Carter Family flourished in the late ‘20s after releasing their first collection of songs in 1927. Two of their earliest hit song, “Keep on the Sunny Side” and “Wildwood Flower,” are still ideal for country singers.
There were other country music styles around the United States, making it hard to define what is country music, like the Cajun and Creole music from Louisiana. There was the country western music cowboy style of country music from Texas and the New Mexico Area, which integrated guitars from Spain and Mexico.
Other instruments were also added later, and the guitar took center stage and revolutionized what is country music. Western swing first incorporated drums, and the eclectic musical mix included saxophones, pianos, and a Hawaiian instrument called the steel guitar. Bob Wills is attributed as the “King of Western Swing,” and Milton Brown is known as “The Father of Western Swing.”
Bluegrass music, a form of old-time mountain hillbilly music with its roots in Great Britain and western Africa, was another popular music style that got its name from Bill Monroe’s band – “the Blue grass boys.” Bill Monroe is credited with first popularizing bluegrass music and is referred to by most as the “Father of Bluegrass.”
In 1942, country artist Ernest Tubb and honky-tonk gained national prominence for his “Walking the Floor Over You” recording. In contrast to all other country music styles, honky-tonk has never been out of trend. You can still find a honky-tonk band on the bill in an establishment today with live country music.
In contrast to honky-tonk music, the Nashville Sound movement polished the country’s rougher edges by blending big band jazz and swing in the 50s and 60s. Also, in the 1950s, the Bakersfield Sound originated in the honky-tonk bars in and around Bakersfield, California. It drew on many aspects of rock and roll and rockabilly, predominately loud amp-up guitars. The prominent Bakersfield country artists included Buck Owens (the “Baron of Bakersfield”), Merle Haggard, and Webb Pierce.
Many frustrated and independent-minded artists in the mid-70s decided they would no longer follow the rules of Music City’s establishment and were hence known as “outlaws.” Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, David Allan Coe, and other outlaw country artists burned their suits, grew their hair, and sang whatever and however they felt.
The 1979 movie, Urban Cowboy, popularized a movement in the country that focused on easy-listening crossover success. Country artists like Johnny Lee, Dolly Parton, and Mickey Gilley scored significant hits on the country and pop charts. This era is known as the country’s disco era and is believed to be a dark period with disposable music.
1.1. Grand Ole Opry
“Welcome to the Grand ole opry, the capital of country music throughout the world…”
It’s amusing to know how an interest in radio led to the establishment of something as monumental as the Grand Ole Opry. One of the founders of National Life and Accident Insurance Company was fascinated with radio stations and convinced the company to build a small studio in its downtown Nashville office.
With this in place, WSM (“We shield millions” – National Life’s Slogan) went on air on October 5, 1925. This country radio station itself later gave birth to the Grand ole opry, attracting huge crowds of country fans, and new studios were built to accommodate these crowds. Currently owned and operated by Opry Entertainment, Grand Ole Opry is the longest-running radio broadcast in US history.
1.2. The Whitewashing of Black History
One might wonder what is country music and what is its black history? It’s obvious that white people make up the vast majority of top-charting country singers today and throughout history. Even for those who have no idea what is country music, artists such as Johnny Cash, Tim McGraw, and Carrie Underwood come to mind— all being “white.”
Only three African-Americans have been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, with Charley Pride becoming the first in 2000. There has been little outrage over this fact—most people have happily, perhaps unconsciously, accepted the notion that country music is only for white people.
Like most popular music genres, country music began in the United States, possibly with Black People. The story of what is country music, in particular, starts with the banjo. The modern banjo is a descendant of the Akonting, a West African gourd-based instrument. Banjos were considered exclusively black instruments, and it was unheard of for a white man to play the banjo.
Then in the 1850s, minstrel shows, satirical entertainment in which white people would dress in Blackface to mock Black people and Black culture, introduced the banjo to white audiences in such a way that white people quickly appropriated it. Thus, around the 1920s, the minstrel show laid the groundwork for the rise of hillbilly music.
Hillbilly music, later renamed country music, became the music of the south. Hillbilly music was not exclusively centered on the banjo, but the first hillbilly artists were inspired by slave spirituals, field songs, hymns, and the blues, which have black origins.
Following World War I, hillbilly music was rebranded and commercialized as country music. Big record labels wanted to sell country music but couldn’t if it was mixed in. As a result, previous famous Black artists received no recognition, and the covers were sold with white stand-ins. Country music was suddenly marketed as “white music.”
However, the African-American singers who helped shape country music into what it is today must not be overlooked. DeFord Bailey was the first to play the Grand Ole Opry, and succeeding Bailey was Charley Pride, the first black artist to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and is often referred to as “country music’s first Black superstar.”
Many lesser-known names have also played essential roles in shaping the genre. Gus Cannon was a Black musician who popularized jug bands (a precursor to country music) in the 1920s and went on to teach Johnny Cash. Furthermore, Black guitarist Leslie Riddle developed the guitar fingerpicking style that country singers widely use. The list of Black country artists who have made significant contributions to country music history continues, but many names go unnoticed.
2. Some Country Artists
2.1. Johnny Cash
Inside and outside of the country genre, Johnny Cash was one of the most influential vocalists, and he was ranked 31st among the 100 greatest artists of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. Johnny Cash became known worldwide as The Man in Black and stood out for his deep baritone voice. “God’s gonna cut you down,” “Hurt,” and others are some of his famous recorded songs.
2.2. George Strait
Strait is regarded as the “King of Country” and one of the most influential and well-known musical artists. He had a crucial role in the 1980s neo-traditionalist country movement and was known for his straightforward cowboy persona. Strait is among the best-selling musicians of all time, with over 100 million albums sold worldwide.
2.3. Hank Williams
Hank Williams is widely considered one of the most important and influential American singers and composers of the twentieth century; he has charted 55 singles in the top ten of the Billboard Country and Western Best Sellers lists, with 12 of them reaching No. 1. “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Hey, Good Lookin’,” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” were among the successes he wrote before he died at the young age of 29.
2.4. Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton is a country music singer-songwriter from the United States. “I Will Always Love You,” “Jolene,” “Coat of Many Colors,” and “9 to 5″ are among the roughly 3,000 songs she has written. She has also won 11 Grammy Awards and been nominated for 50 more, including the Lifetime Achievement Award. She is one of only seven female singers to win the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year Award. The Country Music Hall of Fame inducted Parton in 1999.
2.5. Conway Twitty
Conway Twitty was a singer and songwriter specializing in country music, rock and roll, R&B, and pop. Twitty won several Country Music Association honors for duets with Loretta Lynn between 1971 and 1976.
He was inducted into the Country Music and Rockabilly Halls of Fame. Twitty’s songs were noted for their romantic and melancholy themes. “Hello Darlin’,” “You’ve Never Been This Far Before,” and “Linda on My Mind” were all hit records for Twitty.
2.6. Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson is a singer, actor, and activist. He became one of country music’s most well-known musicians; he was a significant figure of outlaw country, a type of country music that arose in the late 1960s in response to the Nashville sound’s conservative constraints.
2.7. Charley Pride
Charley Frank Pride was an American singer and guitarist who rose to prominence during the early to mid-1970s as RCA Records’ best-selling performer. Pride is one of the Grand Ole Opry’s three African-American members (the other being DeFord Bailey and Darius Rucker). In 2000, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
3. Sub-Genres of Country Songs
Country music has many different sub-genres, and they collectively define what is country music and has been classified into numerous categories:
3.1. Traditional Country
Traditional country music roots can be found in rural American folk and blues, and it is a variation on the Blues, often inspired by personal heartbreak. Traditional Artists in style are less united by a typical sound, though twang in the voice and unmistakable pedal steel are standard identifiers.
“Blue Yodel No.1” by Jimmie Rodgers and “Wildwood Flowers” and “Keep on the Sunnyside” by The Carter family are some of the many country songs of this genre.
3.2. Cowboy Country
From the 1930s to the mid-1950s, the fascination with “Old Westerns” and singing cowboys gripped the United States, beginning primarily with the film Tumbling Tumbleweeds, which starred Gene Autry (also known as “America’s Favorite Cowboy”) and featured music by the Sons of the Pioneers, led by Roy Rogers.
The singing cowboys used harmonicas, acoustic guitars, fiddles, stand-up bass guitars, and steel guitars and sang with an accent, or ‘twang,’ while others yodeled in their recordings and performances.
3.3. Western Swing
Western Swing was a fusion of various musical cultures and instruments designed to get the audience on the dance floor. Milton Brown and Bob Wills, the two most well-known Western Swing artists, are credited with creating and popularizing Western Swing, respectively.
Bluegrass music originated in the Appalachian Mountains in the 1940s, with roots in the United Kingdom, primarily English, Scottish, and Irish dance tunes. It also drew inspiration from traditional African-American jazz and blues. The style of music was later developed by the guys who played in Monroe’s band, “the Bluegrass boys,” earning Monroe the title “father of bluegrass music.”
3.5. Honky-Tonk Music
The country music genre Honky Tonk is the most prevalent genre of all, refreshing country music to its roots from time to time. The basic honky tonk sound features acoustic and/or electric guitar, fiddle, string bass, and steel guitar. Honky tonk lyrics are emotionally straightforward, frequently expressing vulnerability and a sense of emotional release.
3.6. Nashville Sound
With the growth of popular rock ‘n’ roll music, the rough-edged sounds of fiddles and steel guitar started to decline in popularity. The Nashville-based music industry started to mix country music with many of the smoother sounds common to pop music and jazz at that time. String sections, backing vocals, and silky lead vocal styles took the place of steel guitars, fiddles, and rough-sounding singers.
3.7. Outlaw Country
With the triumph of the Nashville Sound in the 1950s and 1960s, it was practically impossible for new or unknown performers to be noticed, and those who did were not allowed to write their songs or recruit their band members.
Outlaws, a group of angry Nashville country musicians, felt compelled to overhaul the system. These outlaw country performers established a legacy of creative control and musical innovation that is now reflected in country music’s “bedrock musical ideals.”
Some outlaw country singers were Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson.
3.8. Alternative Country
Alternative country music, also known as alt-country or Americana, owes its origins to early country music singer-songwriters of the 1930s and 1940s, most notably Hank Williams Sr.
The rise of St. Louis-based Uncle Tupelo is credited with giving rise to the term “alternative country.” No Depression, the group’s 1990 debut, merged twangy country tropes with punk energy and distorted guitars.
4. Country Music vs. Folk Music
Now that you know what is country music, you might be wondering about the difference between country music and folk music. Since both originated from the same source, mainly European settlers in rural areas of America, these two are frequently mistaken as the same. Country music is included in folk music, among other genres, which is a more comprehensive word.
Country and folk songs resemble a Venn Diagram with more similarities than distinctions. Some argue that European immigrants’ music blended with the theme of free and enslaved Africans, resulting in the formation of American music over time.
5. Country Music vs. Rock Music
Country music is a uniquely American phenomenon with a devoted following in the southern states of the United States and a few other sections of the United States and Canada.
During its heyday in the 1960s and 1990s, rock music was far more ubiquitous and popular in many countries. The early 2000s saw the rock genre’s decline in popularity, while hip hop and electronic dance music (EDM) have grown exponentially, overtaking rock as the world’s most popular genre.
On the other hand, country music has maintained its popularity among core listeners, and certain cross-over performers (Taylor Swift, Shania Twain, and others) have merged pop and country to make it more popular and accessible to a broader audience.
Rock is a broad genre that encompasses jazz-rock, Country rock, Folk rock, Blue Grass rock, Blues-rock, Experimental / Avant-garde Rock, and alternative country-rock /Americana, as well as absorbing more adventurous sounds from other genres and countries.
No other musical genre effectively mixes so many varied sounds. One can choose to listen to rock music any time of the day.
6. Country Music vs. Pop Music
You now know what is country music. But due to the evolution of music over time and the blending of the edges between different genres, you might be confused about the difference between country music and pop music.
Pop music’s lyrics are more repetitive, with a lot of music playing in the background and no words breaking in and out between performers. Artists like Shawn Mendes, Katy Perry, and Ariana Grande are some of the residents of the pop world.
What is country music, then? Country music consists primarily of guitar playing and singers singing the song in a more ‘country’ tone. Billy Cyrus and the ‘old’ Taylor Swift can be called country artists.
Pop and country songs have been fused to make their subgenre, commonly known as Country-Pop. Hunter Hayes, Kesha (Ke$ha), and Dan and Shay are some of the country-pop artists and bands.
7. What’s New?
Incorporating R&B and hip-hop beats into mainstream country songs is one of the most striking current musical trends updating what is country music. The melodies and rhythms of songs like “Cruise” of Florida Georgia Line and “This Is How We Roll” demonstrate the hybrid that arises from blending R&B and hip-hop with modern country music.
With a few notable outliers like Kip Moore, Hardy, and Combs, male-fronted mainstream Country music has been rather bland in recent years. Women dominated the best music in 2020, with Ashley McBryde, Carly Pearce, Tenille Townes, Caylee Hammack, Cam, Ingrid Andress, Lindsey Ell, and Mickey Guyton all making unique, honest, and brave music that defied trends and rules.
With a nearly 100-year-long history and shifting trends, where multiple sub-genres arose and diverse genres interacted, one would wonder if one can definitively describe what is country music!