Old Time Country Music: A Guide for Beginners

Bill Monroe-Bill Monroe began his music career playing mandolin with his brother, Charlie, but found most of his success when he created the subgenre Bluegrass with bandmates Lester Flatt (guitar) and Earl Scruggs (banjo). (Lange 60, 131) The bluegrass style he created continued old-time traditions and also legitimatized country music as a modern, domestic form of music, alleviating many of the negative connotations that were associated with ‘hillbilly’ music. (Lange 60)

Bluegrass- Developed largely by Bill Monroe, Bluegrass is a sub-genre of country music which “resembled old-time string bands in (its) utilization of acoustic instruments and rural-derived lyrical repertoire, but differed greatly in (the) performance style.” (Lange 130) Bluegrass is characterized by its emphasis parts on the banjo and mandolin; vocal harmonies; high-pitched, bluesy vocals and fast, driving rhythm. (Lange 130-131) “Bluegrass rejuvenated country music and in the process kept the old-time traditions alive long after they disappeared from country’s commercial mainstream.” (Lange 130-131)

The Carter Family- Considered by many to be the first family of country music, the Carter family emerged from the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia to the nation country music scene in the late 1920’s. Their mournful, expressive music was popular throughout the depression and World War II and remained popular into the 1950s. (Lange 33)

“The Carter Family sang of an America that was gradually disappearing, an America whose values had seemed inextricably interrelated with rural or small town life.” (Lange 32)

Eddy Arnold- Eddy Arnold, the pioneer of the “Nashville Sound” is credited with popularizing country music by bringing country tunes onto pop charts. In doing so, he became “country music’s leading ambassador in the late 1940s and early 1950s.” (Lange 204)

Elvis Presley- Elvis Presley was instrumental in creating Rockabilly when Sam Phillips recorded first single, a cover of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” in a style which combined “R&B sensuality, gospel emotion, country earthiness and youthful angst.” (Lange 248)

Ernest Tubb- Associated with the sub-genre of Honky Tonk, Ernest Tubb was known for his sincere vocals, which established an immediate connection with listeners (Lange 86.)

Grand Ole Opry- The Grand Ole Opry is a country music institution that featured live radio shows of performers since the 1920s. In the early years of the Opry, country vocalists were rarely features, as the Opry favoured instrumental performances. In a tradition that began with Roy Acuff in 1938, the Opry began to feature performances from the leading country music stars. In 1939, the show (which was attended by large audiences weekly) was picked up by NBC’s radio station which broadcast the show nationally to over 140 MBC affiliates. The Grand Ole Opry continues to reign as a major icon in the country music culture today. (Lange 41, opry.com)

Hank Snow- Hank Snow was Canadian performer who began his career by landing a spot on the “Canadian Farm Hour” before later relocating to the US. His style of country music was a “refurbishment of Old-time music” that achieved success despite its inability to be classified as country pop or Honky-tonk, the genres which reigned country music during his career. (Lange 211)

Hank Williams- Hank Williams rose to fame in 1947 after being signed to MGM. one of country musics more tragic performers, Hank Williams haunting performances shed light onto his struggles with alcohol abuse and his tumultuous relationship with his wife. Despite his short life (he passed away on Jan 1, 1953,) Hank Williams remains an icon of country music for the way in which he “reasserted country music’s rural, southern roots at a time when urban and western influences were pulling it in a different direction.” (Lange 168)

Honky Tonk- Honky Tonk paired traditional country music instrumentation with electrical instruments, signalling a departure from old-time traditions and bringing a more modern edge to country music. Honk Tonk was very much a product of the post-war period, when more people were flocking to cities for work but still identified with the lifestyle of a rural environment. The lyricism of Honky Tonk also was a departure from Old-time; rather than being about God and the country landscape, Honky Tonk singers honestly approached “previously veiled issues of divorce, infidelity, and alcohol abuse with vocal styles that accentuated their listeners’ mindset and accommodated their newfound environment.” (Lange 175)

Hillbilly- Hillbilly was a term first put into use (as an adjective for music) by record companies in the 1920s as an attempt to describe what is now known as Country Music.

“(Record companies) didn’t know what music to include and what to exclude, and a number of appellations were applied by the early merchandisers ranging from ‘Old-time,’ ‘Old Time Tunes,’ ‘Old Familiar Tunes’ and ‘Hearth and Home’ to ‘Hill and Range,’ and Hillbilly and Western.'” (Peterson 4)

The most common descriptors used now are “Old Time” or “Hillbilly.”

Jimmie Rodgers- Jimmie Rodgers was discovered by Ralph Peer, the same man who discovered the Carter Family. He recorded and performed for six years (1927-1933) before dying of tuberculosis.(Peterson 42-43) Despite his relatively short recording career, he remained “the most widely copied country music artist up to World War II” (Peterson 55)

Johnny Cash- Johnny Cash, who’s musical career started on Sun Records (along with Elvis Presley,) initially was known as a rockabilly musician, however his loyalty to country music ensured the continuing popularity of the genre throughout his lifetime and even after his death. (Brown 83-84)

Kitty Wells- The “Queen of Country Music,” Kitty Wells was one of the first notable female performers on the country music radar. Her hit song “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” gave a voice to women and the double-standards that they were often faced with in their marriages. “The popularity of Wells’ lament about male victimization of women indicate(d) a conscious acknowledgment of women’s discontent in postwar America and an interest within the country audience in a dialogue about male-female behaviour.” (Lange 176)

Rockabilly- Rockabilly is a type of music that gained popularity in the mid 1950s by uniting African-American rhythm and blues with the traditions and inspiration of country music. Rockabilly, though not technically a sub-genre of country music, is important because of its role as a transition between old-time country music and rock an roll. Although rock and roll and country music continued to develop on very separate and distinct paths, rockabilly music shows that at its root, much of the music that is popular today is connected to the old-time country music of the past.

Roy Acuff- Roy Acuff gained popularity during the depression by appealing to those who were down on their luck. His impassioned, emotional voice was “the ultimate conduit for expressing the trials and tribulations of a generation of Americans besieged by economic depression and war.” (Lange 40)

Western Swing- Western Swing was created was popularized in the 1930s and 1940s by visionary Bob Wills, who fused country music with jazz to create a sub-genre of country which features piano alongside traditional instruments like the fiddle and guitar. This folksy music combined with a big-band feeling was popular in dance halls across the mid-west. Western Swing is considered more technically challenging than other forms of country music, and the development of Western Swing brought about a certain aspect of credibility that other genres of country had been lacking. (Brown 46)

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3 thoughts on “Old Time Country Music: A Guide for Beginners

  1. Hello Thewheelclub,
    Interesting Post, Hillbilly music, country, western music or country and western all refer to country music. This genre of music is diverse. Most modern country music artistes have developed their styles from earlier singers. Whether it is a classic or contemporary tune, for most who are new to country music it would be difficult to understand the different styles. A guide to country music offers comparisons that allow people to identify with inimitable performers. People may read guides to identify with the different instruments that are used to create the styles and rhythms. Since country music is a genre filled with many talented musicians, a number of guides offer details about upcoming artists. They are authentic and allow fans to understand and read about their idols.
    Cheers
    Henry

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