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History of Country & Western Music

Country music has had a loyal following for decades. Although country music's popularity has its roots in the 1920s, the genre started producing superstars in the 1950s with artists such as Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. More long-term careers were launched in the 1960s with Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton. Here are a few links to country playlists. This section will expand soon to include more eras.

Six Hour Country Playlist
1980s Country Ballads
1980s Country Dance


The roots of country music clearly trace back to folk music, particularly Irish folk music, in which fiddles and banjos were core instruments. Many Europeans migrated to the Appalachian Mountains and brought their folk sounds to the region. The banjo, which originally came from West Africa, became a key instrument in the Tennessee and Kentucky region by the 1920s. In fact, country music of this era mixed the ideas of African-American banjo players with traditional bluegrass fiddle players. Gospel music also had a heavy influence on early country music.

When radio went commercial in the 1920s and became the first electronic mass medium to attract large audiences, one of the first national radio shows was the Grand Ole Opry, a live country music show that originated from Nashville, although it was only a local program at first. The show debuted on WSM in November 1925 as "Barn Dance." The show mixed comedy and music, setting the stage for many music shows to come. The station's call letters stood for "We Shield Millons" because it was started by the National Life and Accidental Insurance Company as a way to advertise insurance policies. Its first program director was former Memphis news reporter George D. Hay, who had previously run a similar show on WLS in Chicago. In 1927 Hay changed the name of the show to the Grand Ole Opry.

In 1932 WSM increased its power to 50,000 watts, making it possible for the AM station to be heard across America and parts of Canada. The show was picked up by NBC Radio in 1939. In 1943 the Saturday night program moved to Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, where it stayed for over three decades. The show became the catalyst for many country stars such as the Carter Family, BIll Monroe and Kitty Wells. Country music steady became more popular in the 1940s with artists such as Tex Ritter, Eddy Arnold, Gene Autry, Spade Cooley and Bill Monroe.

Hank Williams, perhaps the most legendary figure in early country music, emerged in the early 1950s as the genre's top superstar. His mix of honky-tonk, blues and folk helped broaden the genre with songs such as "Movin' On Over," "Your Cheatin' Heart" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." His career was propelled by joining the Grand Ole Opry in the late 1940s. Sadly, he died on New Year's Day 1953 at the age of 29 due to overdosing on pills and alcohol. Other country stars who emerged in the 1950s included Tennessee Ernie Ford, Hank Snow, Conway Twitty, Webb Pierce, Ray Price and Marty Robbins. Even though Elvis Presley was crowned "King of Rock n' Roll" during this period, many of his hits crossed over to the country charts.

Country music of the sixties incorporated a wide mix of folk, blues, rock and novelty. Patsy Cline made a huge impact in the early sixties with the ballad "Crazy," written by future country star Willie Nelson. "Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash also crossed over to pop and helped broaden country music's appeal. Buck Owens, Roger Miller and George Jones were other big names of the era. One of the most popular country hits of the decade was the trucker song "Six Days on the Road" by Dave Dudley, which was covered by rock band the Flying Burrito Brothers. Country influenced rock just as much as rock influenced country. By the end of decade a new genre that blended the two styles known as "Southern Rock" began to emerge. The Byrds were one of the first rock bands to switch to country music in the late sixties after their Dylan and Beatles-inspired psychedelic pop had run its course. The Allman Brothers Band also helped develop the Southern Rock genre with a more rock and blues sound, crafted more for album rock radio.

By the 1970s the roster of well known country stars had grown pretty long. It included Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings, Lynn Anderson, Jerry Reed, Charley Pride, Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard, Tanya Tucker, Charlie Rich, Glen Campbell and Eddie Rabbitt. Certain pop stars such as John Denver, Anne Murray and Olivia Newton-John were considered borderline country artists for awhile. Kenny Rogers, whose huge crossover hits "Lucille" and "The Gambler" further blurred the lines between pop and country. The team of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings became very strong during that period as well. For awhile CB radio became a trend in America, spawning a series of spoken word trucking songs such as "Convoy" by C.W. McCall and "Teddy Bear" by Red Sovine.

The 1980s opened with huge films that brought country even deeper into the mainstream. The Urban Cowboy Soundtrack and 9 to 5 both spawned massive sales, leading to a string of country hits absorbed by the mainstream. The TV show Dukes of Hazzard became very popular as its theme song by Waylon Jennings proved to be a memorable hit. The ballad "Lady" by Kenny Rogers, written by r&b artist Lionel Richie, was a huge number one hit in 1980 as well. The decade became rich with country classics that have never really faded by artists such as Ronnie Milsap, The Judds, The Gatlin Brothers, Don Williams, Alabama, Randy Travis and Rickie Van Shelton. One of the top groups of the decade was Alabama whose "Mountain Music" is practically the theme song of the entire genre. Dwight Yoakam brought a more rock edge to the genre, especially with his cover of the Elvis hit "Little Sister" and a twangy rocker called "Long White Cadillac."

As popular as country became in the 80s, it soared even higher in the 90s as the best selling artists of the decade included Garth Brooks and Shania Twain. Since that time country music has continued to blossom, although critics have complained that it has merged too much with slick pop production. True country music is authentic and comes from the heart and is not meant to sound overly commercial. Even so, country fans still embrace newer artists alongside the legends of the 20th century.








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