The History of Country Music

A Crooked Country Road From Jimmie Rodgers to Garth Brooks

The origins of country music can be found in recordings Southern Appalachian fiddle players made in the late 1910s. It wasn’t until the early ‘20s, however, that country music as a viable recorded genre took hold. The first commercial country record was made by Eck Robertson in 1922 on the Victor Records label. Vernon Dalhart had the first national country hit in 1924 with “Wreck of the Old ’97.” But most historians point to 1927, the year Victor Records signed Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family, as the true moment country music was born.

Jimmie Rodgers

Jimmie Rodgers

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Jimmie Rodgers, known as the "Father of Country Music," was an instant national success. He is credited with the first million-selling single, “Blue Yodel #1,” and his catalog of songs, all recorded between 1927 and 1933, established him as the first preeminent voice in country music. Rodgers died from complications of tuberculosis in 1933. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961.

The First Family of Country Music

The Carter Family
The Carter Family (L-R Maybelle Carter, Sarah Carter and A.P. Carter) poses for a portrait on the road circa 1930.

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The Carter Family was country music’s first famous vocal group. Comprised of A.P. Carter, his wife, Sara Dougherty Carter, and A.P.’s sister-in-law, Maybelle Addington Carter, the group flourished in the late ‘20s after the release of their first collection of songs in 1927. Different variations of The Carter Family continued recording and performing for decades. Two of their earliest hits, “Keep on the Sunny Side” and “Wildwood Flower” remain country standards to this day.

The Rise of Bob Wills and Western Swing

Bob Wills
Bob Wills.

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Originating in Texas and moving up through the Midwest in the late 1920s, western swing reached its peak in the early ‘40s. It blended the upbeat horn-driven sounds of the Big Band era with New Orleans jazz, blues, and Dixieland. Drums were first incorporated by western swing, and the eclectic musical mix included saxophones, pianos, and a Hawaiian instrument called the steel guitar. Prominent western swing figures included Bob Wills (the "King of Western Swing"), the Light Crust Doughboys, and Milton Brown (the “Father of Western Swing”).

Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys

Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys

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Dubbed the “Father of Bluegrass,” Bill Monroe is credited with first popularizing bluegrass, a form of old-time mountain hillbilly music with its origins in Great Britain and western Africa. Bluegrass got its name from Monroe’s band, the Blue Grass Boys, which eventually included future legends Lester Flatt (guitar) and Earl Scruggs (banjo). After six years, Flatt and Scruggs struck out on their own in 1949 to great success. Bill Monroe was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.

Hollywood Goes Country

Roy Rogers
Roy Rogers.

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The cowboy films of the 1930s and ‘40s contributed greatly to the evolution of country music. Stars like Roy Rogers (the “King of the Cowboys”) and Gene Autry parlayed their musical careers into very successful acting careers. Much of the great music from this era was actually written specifically for the movies. As these films flourished at the box office, their soundtracks were pressed to vinyl, and the buying public ate them up. Great cowboy stars of the era also included Rogers’ wife, Dale Evans, the Sons of the Pioneers, and Spade Cooley.

The Honky-Tonk Heroes

Hank Williams

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In 1942, Ernest Tubb's recording of “Walking the Floor Over You” made him an overnight sensation, which thrust his brand of country, honky-tonk, into national prominence. Hank Williams further popularized the genre with his emergence in the late ‘40s, while Lefty Frizzell ascended to almost Elvis-like popularity in country music circles in the ‘50s. Unlike all other styles of country music, honky-tonk has never taken a backseat to any new trend. Go into any establishment today with live country music, and you’re bound to find a honky-tonk band on the bill.

The Nashville Sound

Eddy Arnold
Eddy Arnold.

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In direct contrast to honky-tonk music, the Nashville Sound movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s polished up country’s rougher edges by blending big band jazz and swing with great storytelling. Lush orchestrations backed up the smooth crooning of stars like Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves, and Jim Ed Brown.

The Bakersfield Sound

Merle Haggard

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Developed in the mid-1950s, the Bakersfield Sound originated in the honky-tonk bars in and around Bakersfield, California. Grittier than the polished and highly produced music coming out of Nashville, Bakersfield country drew on many aspects of rock and roll and rockabilly, predominately loud amp-up guitars, usually twin Telecasters played through Fender amplifiers, and loud drums. The biggest Bakersfield stars of the day included Buck Owens (the “Baron of Bakersfield”), Merle Haggard, and Webb Pierce.

The Outlaw Movement

Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson.

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Fed up with the perceived “selling out” of most country performers in Nashville, a number of frustrated and independent-minded artists decided in the mid-‘70s they would no longer follow the rules of Music City’s establishment. Ne’er-do-wells like Willie Nelson, his good friend and frequent collaborator Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, David Allan Coe and a host of others “outlaws” burned their leisure suits, grew their hair out, and sang whatever and however they chose to. These Outlaws gave country music the timely kick in the pants it desperately needed.

Urban Cowboy

John Travolta and Debra Winger
John Travolta and Debra Winger talk in a scene from 'Urban Cowboy' circa 1980.

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The 1979 John Travolta movie, Urban Cowboy, popularized a movement in country that focused heavily on easy-listening crossover success. Artists like Johnny Lee, Dolly Parton, and Mickey Gilley scored major hits on both the country and pop charts, while the “outlaws” of the mid-‘70s saw their music wane in popularity. History has proven that much of the music from this era, referred to by some as country’s disco era, was quite disposable. However, a number of notable artists did emerge during this dark period to forge wonderful careers, including Alabama, George Strait, Reba McEntire, and Steve Wariner.

The Class of '89

Garth Brooks
Garth Brooks.

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The list of superstars who debuted in 1989 reads like a future Country Music Hall of Fame induction class: Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt, and Dwight Yoakam all scored their first country hits in 1989. They drastically altered the direction of country music by infusing a youthful vitality and rock-and-roll mentality into a genre that was quickly growing stale and predictable. The amazing Class of ’89 bridged the gap between 20th and 21st Century country music.