Early Country Music

The roots of today's country music

Early country music. D. Corson/ClassicStock / Getty Images

How did country music begin? It seems like a simple enough question. But guess what? It's not.

Country music evolved slowly and wasn't even called country music until the '40s. It was able to make a cultural impact due to no small amount of luck, the advent of new broadcast and recording technologies, and of course a few singular musicians.


Early settlers in America brought their folk traditions from England, France, and Ireland. These European forms combined in the New World with the musical traditions -- and instruments -- of African slaves. Add Tin Pan Alley sheet music and minstrel shows, and you have the primordial ooze of country music.

The First Country Record

Fiddlin' John Carson's "The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane" is often called the first country music record. The tune is undoubtedly the first country hit; its huge success proved the hillbilly recordings could be commercially profitable and paved the way for future recordings.

Country Music Goes Country Wide

With the advent of radio and new recording technologies, country music became marketed in the early 1920s. Inexpensive 45 records and border radio helped spread hillbilly music far and wide in the '20s and '30s. It also gave rural performers the possibility to earn a living on their music, elusive though that often proved to be.

The Greatest Day in Country Music

Ralph Peer arrived in Bristol, Tennessee, to scout rural performers for Victor Records on August 1, 1927. That day, he recorded two of the most influential acts in country music: Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. These two groups would cause hillbilly music to explode into the mainstream. For this reason, the Bristol Sessions are sometimes called country music's big bang.

The Sound

The fiddle was the predominant instrument during the early years of country music. It was played in the home and at dances. With the popularity of Jimmie Rodgers, the six-string guitar became an essential instrument for solo performers. Later pedal-steel guitar replaced the violin as accompaniment. With the introduction of the Nashville sound, pedal-steel would gradually be replaced by backing vocal harmonies.

The Name Game

Country wasn't called country music until the 1940s. Before then, it was referred to as hillbilly music, old familiar music, and Old Timey music.

Early Influences on Country Music

  • Blues
  • Celtic music
  • Folk ballads
  • Gospel
  • Minstrel shows
  • Spirituals
  • Stephen Foster
  • Vaudeville

Recommended Early Country Recordings

  • Anthology of American Folk Music (Folkways Records, 1962) compare prices
    • Alan Lomax's collection of early American music influenced the folk revival of the 1960s. It's also a great assortment of the early musical American landscape of the '20s.
  • The Bristol Sessions: The Big Bang of Country Music 1927-1928 (Bear Family Records, 2011) compare prices
    • This awesome (but pricey!) boxed set offers a peek at some of the other acts that were recorded by Ralph Peer in his recording expedition to Bristol.
  • White Country Blues: 1926-1938 (Sony Records, 1993) compare prices
    • This is a fine double-disc collection of white blues performers that offers plenty of surprises.

Significant Early Country Artists

  • Uncle Dave Macon
  • Bradley Kincaid
  • DeFord Bailey
  • Charlie Poole
  • Emmett Miller
  • Roy Acuff

Early Country Music Playlist

Click the link to listen to the song on YouTube.

  1. Jimmie Rodgers - "T for Texas"
  2. Carter Family - "Will the Circle Be Unbroken"
  3. Frank Hutchison - "K.C. Blues"
  4. Roy Acuff - "Steel Guitar Blues"
  5. Emmett Miller - "Lovesick Blues"
  6. Shortbuckle Roark and Family - "I Truly Understand, You Love Another Man"
  7. Vernon Dalhart - "Wreck of the Old '97"