In late July 1927, as the music industry was in its infancy, famed record producer Ralph Peer gathered musicians from the Appalachian region into a State Street studio in Bristol, Tennessee. Over the next two weeks, Peer recorded more than a dozen musicians in what would be known as Bristol Sessions. This “hillbilly” music would later come to be called country or country-and-western music.
Among the artists recorded during these Bristol Sessions were future music legends like the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers (often called the father of country music). Years later, country superstar Johnny Cash would call the recordings the “single most important event in the history of country music.” Today, Bristol is considered the birthplace of country music, and country music has grown to rival rock and hip-hop music as the most popular music genre in the U.S. Replete with a wide range of subgenres, listeners often find that the best country songs are more about feeling and emotion than any particular type of country music.
1920s-1940s: Early Pioneers and Groundbreakers
Country music initially developed out of the fiddle music of the Scotch-Irish settlers in the southeastern U.S., mixing with African, Cajun, and Mexican folk music traditions. Instruments typically included guitars, banjos, mandolins, harmonicas, and, of course, fiddles, and lyrics often featured stories centered on rural life.
By the 1930s and 40s, “singing cowboys” such as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and the Sons of the Pioneers had become stars, with songs like “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds” and “Back in the Saddle Again” rising up the chats and featured in Hollywood westerns. At the same time, Kentucky mandolinist Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys— featuring future legends Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs — created a subgenre known as bluegrass music. This raucous mix of string instruments featured fast, virtuoso playing and what Monroe called “a high lonesome sound,” exemplified in songs such as “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
In Texas, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys combined country-and-western sounds with the swing music typified by the Big Band era of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman. “Western swing” found new fans in the dance halls of Los Angeles, where the many migrants who had fled the Dust Bowl for California appreciated the familiar steel guitar twang and country sounds — and where Hollywood beckoned. Throughout the 1940s, Wills and the Texas Playboys starred in a series of Western movies — “The Vigilantes Ride” and “Blazing the Western Trail” among them.
Alabama-born Hank Williams emerged out of the South’s honky-tonk saloons following World War II to become one of the century’s most influential singer-songwriters, writing such standards as “Hey, Good Lookin'” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” But the effects of alcoholism and drug abuse took their toll and Williams died of heart failure at 29 in 1953.
1950s-1960s: A New Generation Takes Root
With the death of Hank Williams, a void was left in the country music scene and once-big stars like Bob Wills saw their popularity wane as swing music declined. The void was filled by “Nashville Sound” which featured string-based background music and crooners at the mic like Jim Reeves had a smooth appeal. At the other end of the spectrum, rockabilly combined country and blues along with minimal instrumentation (often little more than a guitar, stand-up bass, and snare drum) for a wilder offshoot, exemplified by the music of names like Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and Johnny Cash. While Elvis would go on to become the first rock ‘n’ roll superstar and Holly would die in an airplane crash in 1959, Cash would develop into a country music legend. With his deep baritone and “Man in Black” persona, Cash dominated the charts with classic country sounds such as “I Walk the Line” and “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town.”
In response to the orchestral Nashville sound, musicians like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard established the “Bakersfield sound,” also known as “California country,” featuring a harder sound based on electric guitars. The Bakersfield sound would influence a generation of musicians, bleeding into the country rock sounds of Emmylou Harris, The Eagles, and Gram Parsons.
While most early county music stars were men, as the 50s turned into the 1960s, women began to establish themselves as strong creative forces in their own right. Singer Patsy Cline incorporated the lush Nashville sound to score hits with “Walkin’ After Midnight” in 1957 and “Crazy” (written by an up-and-coming singer-songwriter named Willie Nelson) in 1961. Following on her heels, Cline’s friend and protégé Loretta Lynn had hits including “Before I’m Over You” (1964) and “Blue Kentucky Girl” (1965) while the semi-autobiographical “Coal Miner’s Daughter” hit number one in 1970. Johnny Cash married June Carter, of the famed Carter Family, and together they had a number of popular duets, including the Bob Dylan-penned “It Ain’t Me, Babe” in 1964 and “Jackson” in 1967.
In 1968, Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” became a chart-topping smash, sitting for three straight weeks at number one on the country charts and reaching number 19 on the pop music charts.
1970s-1990s: Blazing New Trails
The following years continued country music’s expansion in both sound and audience. Singer-songwriter Willie Nelson abandoned the Nashville scene in 1971 and moved to Austin, Texas, intending to retire from the music industry. Instead, the hippie vibes of the college town reinvigorated him, and “outlaw country” was born. Musicians and friends including Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash created a rebellious image, standing against the standards and expectations of the Nashville-based industry. Nelson expanded the possibilities in country music with concept albums such as Red-Headed Stranger, which included his first number-one single, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”
Meanwhile, Tennessee-born Dolly Parton established herself as one to watch with hits “Jolene” (1973) and “I Will Always Love You” (1974), which would also become a monster hit for Whitney Houston decades later. Former folk superstar Bob Dylan released his own country album entitled Nashville Skyline in 1969. Shortly thereafter, acts like John Denver followed in kind with their own brand of folk-country. Denver’s hits “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (1971) and “Rocky Mountain High” (1972) combined soaring melodies and acoustic instrumentation, while his easy smile and friendly image had him starring alongside the Muppets in a series of shows and specials.
In the 1980s and ’90s, pop music had a greater influence on the genre, with polished production values and ornate instrumentation. This development inspired a back-to-roots movement, with artists such as Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakum, Reba McEntire and George Strait harking back to country’s honky-tonk beginnings with a rawer, less-produced sound. Ricky Skaggs likewise brought more roots-based bluegrass music back to prominence, with his 1982 album Highways & Heartaches reaching number one on the Billboard country charts. In contrast, Garth Brooks incorporated pop and rock elements into his music, allowing him to find new, more pop-oriented fans and a broader audience. And as alternative rock took hold in pop music in this era, a similar dynamic emerged in country, with many 90s country songs falling into subgenres like cowpunk and alt-country, led by bands such as The Handsome Family, Lyle Lovett, and Lone Justice.
2000s-2020s: Into the Future
In 2000, the soundtrack to the film O Brother, Where Art Thou became a surprise smash, filled with bluegrass and roots-country artists like Norman Blake and Alison Krauss and inspiring a new generation of country artists. Crossover between pop and country music became ever more common, with Darius Rucker of rock band Hootie & The Blowfish enjoying newfound country success, while Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift blended country with highly-produced pop, reaching new levels of popularity and finding themselves at the top of the billboard charts.
Today, there’s a country sound that’s right for just about anyone, and the genre continues to expand its reach, finding new fans in Europe, Australia, and around the globe. It’s a remarkable achievement for a style of music that started out in the backwoods of the American South, with some old country songs first recorded in a small studio in a tiny Tennessee town.