“You’ve got to have smelt a lot of manure before you can sing like a hillbilly.” –Hank Williams Sr.
Country music has become the subject of the quintessential ‘eyeroll’ of the 21st Century. It, as well as the South in general has become the pariah of the intellectual hipster and the urban Progressive. Those that have hung onto a respect or even downright like of country music are thought to be one of the following: either an unintelligent clueless mainstream suburbanite or an unintelligent inbreeding red neck yokel. Either way they have extremely bad taste and are not sophisticated!
They are not as cool as we.
What’s a travesty about all this is that Country music is a deeply American creation, E Pluribus Unum, that has influence from the Calvinist morals of the Puritans, the folk songs and ballads of the emigrating English, Scot and Irish settlers to the Appalachians, the Jazz, Gospel and Blues from the Black community, and Ranchera from the Mexican community. Country music always had history and heritage entrenched in its bones while navigating the rootlessness of the new frontier. It was one of the first genres of music to speak plain about death and suffering, especially around the Civil War, while music at that time was often too syrupy in its sentimentality. Country music embraced the rugged, drawing on the reverent. It was born out of a time of perseverance and fortitude. Life was not cozy and affluent as it is now. You worked hard and you barely got by but by the grace of God. Mourning was a very acute emotion. Death and suffering was a cloak over the rural working South.
My pocketbook is empty
And my heart is filled with pain
I’m a thousand miles away from home
Just waiting for a train.
As I said, Country music is one of the clearest examples of Southern working-class attitudes toward life and death. Evangelical hymns and sermons in the rural South fostered Country Music. The Protestants that founded America brought a deeply devout way of thinking that included Reformed Theology (Calvinism) advocating greater purity of worship and doctrine, as well as personal and group piety. They were archaic survivalists coming from State control in England, Lowland Scotland and Ulster Northern Ireland. They are familiar with being ostracized and believe in the strength of the family as a survivalist method but also as a deeply religious value. Southerners mourn in their songs. They mourn their wife, their lover, and their children, even their dog. In modern times this is heckled and laughed at but unlike the Northeast in the 19th Century who established institutions to avoid suffering and death, the South digested tragedy, mourned suffering, always looking to the afterlife, the eternal. To the struggling Southerner who was deeply poor with low mortality rates and a laborers stoicism death, if God wills it, was often a relief, for the Lord is on the other side. Interestingly, suicide rates in the South were strikingly low. There was an understanding of our status as human beings, fallen, in need of regeneration, of the love for community to shoulder the suffering together and to live with Godly dignity, not suppressing suffering but accepting it.
“Of emotions, of love, of breakup, of love and hate and death and dying, mama, apple pie, and the whole thing. It covers a lot of territory, country music does.” -Johnny Cash
Blues music, though that term was not coined yet, was born out of the black laborer slave community. The earliest blues-like music was a functional expression, rendered in a call-and-response style without accompaniment or harmony and unbounded by the formality of any particular musical structure that was rooted in the African American spirituals. It was later when the southern, black, ex-slave population was acculturated to a considerable degree by and among their Scots-Irish “redneck” neighbors. A common trait among Blues in the Black community and Country in the rural White community is both were generally regarded as poor people music, separate from the upper- and middle-classes. Which speaks to the bourgeoisie attitude, in fact prejudice, that still infects the intellectual and Progressive minds of today.
By the 1920’s broadcast radio made exposure for country music more available and the first country ‘hit’ was in 1923; Fiddlin’ John Carson’s album. By the late 20’s the fiddle and guitar began replacing the traditional banjo. The Appalachian dulcimer, mandolin, and harmonica also turned up on the scene. The Great Depression forced many rural whites into industrial areas where the genre was influenced by modern Blues and Gospel music with the sub-genre Boogie Woogie which was Blues with a dance beat focus.
In the 1930’s Texas-Oklahoma region Country started developing an influence from Swing-Jazz and came to feature the steel guitar. In the 1940’s Honky-Tonk music developed including a steel guitar-fiddle combination with its roots in Western Swing and the Ranchera music of Mexico. Also during the 1940’s Bluegrass emerged out of a nostalgic yearning to bring Country music back to its roots. Nashville was established as Country music’s studio city with the help of Hank Williams. The term “Country and Western music” (later shortened to “Country music”) was adopted by the recording industry in 1949 to replace the derogatory label “Hillbilly music” that was coined in 1925.
By the 50’s and 60’s Country music was a full blown commercial success with the advancement of Rockabilly that some describe as a combination of Country and Rhythm and Blues as others describe it as a blend of Bluegrass and Rock-n-roll of which Elvis Presley is the most notorious example.
The 1970’s saw Outlaw music rise up with music recorded outside the corporate Nashville sound from such artists as Willy Nelson. Southern Rock also established during this period blending Bluegrass and Boogie with Rock producing such artists as Lynyrd Skynyrd. The gap between Country music and Pop narrowed during this time as the electric guitar took prominence. By the 80’s and 90’s country went pop. Today there is a multi-genre diversity in Country music with inclusion of Pop, Rock, Hip hop, even Techno.
One can say Country music as it is today bares no resemblance to the Americana it evolved from but he would have to be intellectually honest about all genres of music as they stand today. Popular culture and commercial sales changed music. All music. Nothing is what it was but one could argue that the soul of the music still lingers in the unconscious backdrop of the Country song. What music more clearly shows its soul than Country in which you will still catch its artists singing of God, family, community, suffering, death and mourning, reverence and humility, and perseverance? And heck, modernity introduced into the music the luxury of fun, aint nothin’ wrong with that.