I bought a record today, that in and of itself is nothing new or earth moving since I buy a lot of music. What made this one special is that it was a recording that I had admired from a distance for a good long time, had listened to several times even though I didn’t own a copy (thanks to the digital age) and now I finally had it in my hands which is one of the appealing aspects of owning vinyl records, the tactile element. That record got me to thinking about the history of Country and Western music based on its title and its content. The record I bought today is a nice clean copy of Ray Charles landmark recording called Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music was actually done in 1962 and that got me to wondering what led up to this recording and what followed it. And thus the quest to connect the dots between landmarks in the history of Country and Western Music from some not so modern, to modern and beyond, into Metamodern. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list or a complete history lesson, it is a quick overview of country music in 10 albums.
1. Vernon Dalhart, now there is a name that doesn’t get thrown around much these days. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if you are scratching your head and asking who in the world Vernon Dalhart is and why am I starting my little history lesson with him. Well, Vernon Dalhart was the first million record seller and was the number one driving force behind hillbilly music gaining traction as a form of popular music. In the 1920’s and 30’s Vernon made over 5000 recordings under his own name as well as over 100 aliases. In fact, there are examples of him recording the same songs on different labels with different names. In 1924 Vernon recorded a song called the Wreck of the Old ’97 which became his best selling record with over 5 million copies sold. This paved the way for other hillbilly and mountain musicians but his popularity plummeted almost as fast as it rose. He died in obscurity in 1948 but left a lasting legacy as the first successful purveyor of what was to become Americana or Country and Western Music.
2. 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 catalogue of songs, all recorded between 1927 and 1933, established him as the first preeminent voice in country music. While Vernon Dalhart sang many railroad songs and ballads, Jimmie Rodgers was known as the Singing Brakeman due to the fact that he had actually worked on the rails and had an intimate knowledge of them. His first recording session was the famous Bristol Sessions which included the music of our third historical note, The Carter Family. Jimmie Rodgers was a great interpreter of songs and didn’t stick to a formula for his music. He included elements of other styles of music and even collaborated with Louis Armstrong at one point. Jimmie Rodgers music was hugely popular during his short life and had a lasting impression that reverberates to this day.
3. The Carter Family were Country and Western music’s first famous vocal group. A.P. Carter, his wife, Sara Dougherty Carter, and A.P.’s sister-in-law, Maybelle Addington Carter, the group flourished in the 1920s after recording the Bristol Sessions. The Carter Family continued recording and performing for decades with different family members and their legacy lives on through extended family and remakes of their hits such as “Keep on the Sunny Side” and “Wildwood Flower” which remain country standards to this day. In fact, one of A.P. Carters signature tunes went on to become the catch phrase of whole new movement in country music, No Depression. It was recorded by Uncle Tupelo, as well as many others, became the name of an alt-country news magazine in both print and digital formats and is synonymous with the alternative country movement. The Carter Family left an indelible impression on music and country music in particular.
4. While Country and Western music rose out of hillbilly and mountain music and became popularised through artists like Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family, there were other musical influences brewing in other parts of the world. Combining elements of jazz, big band, rural roots and blues music Bob Wills hit the dance floors of Texas with his big sound and almost single-handedly invented western swing. Taking the lessons he learned while playing fiddle for The Carter Family and The Light Crust Doughboys (yes, that is a real band name) Bob Wills brought a new level of energy to Country and Western music, an energy that influenced many and is still heard today through acts such as Asleep At The Wheel.
5. What can I say about Hank Williams that hasn’t already been said? No one has had as much influence or lasting impact on Country and Western music as Hank Williams, an influence that spread to other genres and continues to be felt. Hank Williams may have been a reluctant star, he suffered from low self-esteem among other things, but a bright star he became none the less. He is number 5 on our list a pivotal point in a count from 1 to 10 and Hank was a pivotal point in Country and Western music. He was immensely popular despite his self-destructive ways and he opened the doors for many other musicians to play on not just the Grand Ol Opry but on tours and promotional slots on local radio stations while on tour. The golden age of Country and Western music had arrived.
6. From the death of Hank Williams in 1953 and onward through the 50’s there were many, many outstanding Country and Western performers and since this is a brief history lesson and not a compendium I will not list them but I would encourage you to dig deeper for your own pleasure. I am going to jump ahead to 1962 and our next historical footnote in the history lesson. Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music by Ray Charles. Up to the release of this album Ray Charles had been a relatively successful soul and rhythm and blues artist, this album changed not only his career but also the face of Country and Western music. For one thing, Ray Charles was black and to break into what had, up to this point in time, been a predominantly white industry was significant in and of itself. The music contained within the album also marked a new era in county and western music because it contained elements of R&B, soul, blues and even jazz. This record broke the mould that had formed Country/Western music and liberated it to be more than 4/4 time hillbilly music. This is not to downplay the artists who came before because they all contributed to the mix, but after 1962 it was never quite the same again. Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music has been lauded by critics from the day it was released right up to the present day as one of the most significant albums ever recorded and also of the highest quality. It won a Grammy and the praise of many critics, consistently ranking very high on lists of the best records of all time. It is also one of my personal favourite listens.
6. The 1960’s continued to pour out consistently good country and western music and one of them was a Texan working out of Bakersfield California. Buck Owens championed a style of music called the Bakersfield sound, which is where Buck Owens lived and started his career in music. The Bakersfield sound actually started in the mid to late 1950’s as a reaction against the slick, overly orchestrated and over produced pop country that had made inroads. The Bakersfield sound stripped the music back to smaller combos and featured story songs, steel guitar and twangy guitar, hallmarks of Country and Western music. A landmark album that gives a really good perspective of the Bakersfield sound is Buck Owens and the Buckeroos, The Carnegie Hall Concert recorded in 1966. It is a well recorded live album and features the band at the height of their game, a good album to showcase not only a significant movement in the history of Country and Western music but also the Bakersfield sound.
7. We now jump forward to 1974, it seems that about every ten years there is a significant moment, artist or album in the timeline of Country and Western music. The Red Headed Stranger by Willie Nelson is another rebellion against the Nashville sound, much like Ray Charles and Buck Owens were. Willie Nelson became a prominent leader in the alternative country movement, what they called outlaw country. The album was a concept album that was a departure from the traditional Country and Western album and it was also very minimalist, with simple basic instrumentation and very little post production effects. Initial reaction from the white collars in Nashville and the record company was that is was too sparse but since Willie had negotiated for complete artistic freedom they had to honour that and what a great album it is. Willie Nelson went on to record many more great albums including a series of Outlaw albums with others artists of similar musical musings. The alternative country or outlaw country format had been formed and the Red Headed Stranger was at the forefront of the march.
8. We fast forward now to the 1980’s in the history of Country and Western music. Flashy outfits, lavish orchestration and heavy-handed production were not new to the Country and Western music scene, having had its fair share of artists that seemed to have more show than substance but a new level was about to unfold. It is probably best exemplified in Urban Cowboy, the soundtrack to the movie of the same name starring John Travolta. Pop-country, urban country, new country, or what have you, it was a new day in Country and Western music that featured music that easily crossed over from pop to country, worked well in bars that were competing with disco for dance space and was radio friendly. It was the age of the Rhinestone Cowboy at its peak. I featured artists such as Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, and the group Alabama. The Urban Cowboy trend was very influential as a crossover medium and can still be seen today in artists such as Garth Brooks who can sell out concerts in mega stadiums and compete with big name rock and roll acts in sales figures.
9. In 1990 a band named Uncle Tupelo released their first album to critical acclaim and quite good sales, 15,000 in the first year which is considered good for an independent release. The album gained in status over time and is now considered a seminal alt-country record and one of the most important Country and Western albums of all time. It is interesting to note that the western in Country and Western had pretty much been abandoned by now and the broad term for the genre was just Country music. Uncle Tupelo was very influential and the members of the band continue to make music with various other bands, notably Jeff Tweedy and Wilco as well as Jay Farrah and Son Volt; both of them hugely successful and influential. Uncle Tupelo may not have been the first but they were certainly one of the most influential early alternative new country bands and they spawned a whole sub-genre of alternative country music.
10. Fast forward to 2014, only 3 years ago as I write this, and Sturgill Simpson released an album called Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. An album that pays tribute to those who paved the way such as Ray Charles with Modern Sounds in Country Western Music as well as Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings from Outlaw country. It also paves the way for new experiences in country music through the way the music is presented and also through the lyrical content. Sturgill Simpson writes songs that incorporate stories, philosophy, ideology, theology and heartfelt emotions. Elements that have existed as long as there has been Country and Western music but presented in a new and fresh way. Welcome to the new sound of country music, Metamodern.
So there we have it, the history of country music in 10 albums. Yes, it misses a lot of really good artists as well as pickup truck full of really good albums. As I said before, this is not an encyclopaedia of country music, it is a quick overview that may serve as a starting point for someone who has never given the genre a good listen or it could be a good refresher for someone who hasn’t listened to country music for a while. Wherever you fit in I hope this provides some lovely listening my friends.
p.s. I just listened to Willie Nelson’s newest album; God’s Problem Child. I will have to update this to 11 albums I think.