What is country music? Dictionary.com describes country music as “a style and genre of largely string-accompanied American popular music having roots in the folk music of the Southeast and cowboy music of the West, usually vocalized, generally simple in form and harmony, and typified by romantic or melancholy ballads accompanied by acoustic or electric guitar, banjo, violin, and harmonica”. This is how we describe the genre today in simple terms, but what country music is can be better communicated by famous country artist and songwriter (21 Grammy’s), Vince Gill (2014 p.9), “For me, country music has always been connected to family. I remember falling in love with music as my grandmother played the piano and my mother blew on the harmonica. I remember tagging along with my father to local hoedowns. I remember my older brother helping me learn my first chords on the guitar. I cherish those memories like I cherish my family photo albums”.
Origins and History
Country Music has a diverse and rich history and many sub genres including Bluegrass, Cajun, Honky Tonk, Rockabilly, Country Folk and Bro-Country just to mention a few! Its evolution has encompassed almost 100 years which the Country Music Association of America (CMA), has broken down into six key generations. Originally the genre draws its direct roots from the folk music of the British Isles which was brought with the immigrants from this region as early as the 1700’s. During the early 20th century, the descendants of these early settlers began moving to the larger cities most notably from the Appalachian mountains (Tennessee – Virginia border), to find work in the ever industrialising world. Naturally, settling in a strange place far from their rural mountain homes they brought their music and instruments along with them to maintain their cultural identity.
As with most musical styles of the 20th century (before the advent of the internet), musical Genres were named, promoted and commercialised by the corporate record company entities and country music was no different. As Carlin (2002, p.x), notes “It took new technologies and the coming of mass marketing in the twentieth century to really launch country music”. The most important new technologies Carlin speaks of were in the recording space. The once heavy and cumbersome recording machines were in the
late 1920’s replaced by lighter and more transportable units capable of clearer fidelity
and a wider frequency range (courtesy of communication innovator Western Electric). This gave record companies who were losing sales of recorded music at an alarming rate (due to free to air radio), the ability to deploy talent scouts to smaller cities and discover new musicians to record and promote. This was key, as without these new technologies, the future ‘Outlaw’ country music stars I will be discussing in this blog like Cash, Nelson and Jennings would never have heard the first national country stars ‘The Carter Family‘ and Jimmie Rodgers (who would later be referred to as the ‘Father of Country Music’.
Country music continued to evolve into many different individual genres over the next 50 years (changing its name several times along the way), cross-pollinating with the other two music styles the record companies had begun pushing in the 1920’s; the predominately African immigrant genres of Blues and Jazz . Perhaps the ultimate early amalgamation of the three styles was Bluegrass, which despite having a heavy blues influence, contained similar vocal harmonic content as traditional country music featuring banjo, mandolin, and fiddle. One of the key elements of this musics melding with the Jazz of the times, was a strong theme of improvisation and an emphasis on syncopated rhythms. Follow this link to hear 10 essential bluegrass artists worth knowing!
The Nashville Sound
Nashville became the centre of country music after the second world war and is to this day considered its spiritual home. By the mid 50’s, major record labels had actually set up there head offices/studios in Nashville including the two labels who became synonymous for their promotion of the genre, Decca and RCA (Chet Atkins). Country music still had a bit of a stigma about it regarding its hillbilly roots and these labels believed that it should be regarded with the same respect as jazz and the growing pop music. They began steering artists away from the more traditional instruments used in the genre like the fiddles, banjos and steel guitars hoping the use of the newer electric guitar, bass guitar, piano and drums (which had not to this point really been used in country music), would promote their cause. They were quite successful as “By the mid-1960’s, there was little to distinguish country music from mainstream pop, which was the Nashville Sound’s ultimate triumph (or tragedy, depending on your point of view), (Carlin, 2002 p. xii).
This commercialisation and alignment with the mainstream was in fact the catalyst for the specific country sub-genre I will now discuss, ‘Outlaw Country’. Former Nashville stars Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and others who had in fact been made famous by the Nashville Sound, became disenchanted with the absolute control wielded by their labels who stifled any individual artist creativity, forcing them to adhere to the recipe they had concocted which had proven to sell and sell well.
The whole premise of the Outlaw Country movement was about artists wanting to protect the integrity of their art and produce their own music however they wanted. It was about breaking what they viewed to be the oppressive shackles the record labels had placed on their style and running free to be whatever they chose. “Although Michael Bane asserts that “‘outlaw’ meant resenting the way your record company hashed up your music, not that you’d knocked over a liquor store last Friday”, the Outlaws titillated the public with an aura of the Wild West (Ching 2000, p.203). In line with the romantic likeness of lone independent cowboys roaming the ranges pistol on hip, the name Outlaw Country seemed to fit the bill. The clean cut ‘pop image’ was replaced by a hard drinking, pot smoking, skirt chasing, law breaking renegade persona and many of the artists of this country music genre were really walking the talk. The suit and tie was gone, replaced by leather jackets, flannelette shirts and studded boots much more in line with the rock stars of the same period.
Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johhny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard and Tompall Glaser (founder of Hillbilly Records where many of the genre recorded), were some of the big names of the period and the latter two had actually been to prison (Cash had also been to San Quentin in 58′ but not as an inmate)! As Nelson recounts “We went around, you know, drinking and getting into scuffles, it wasn’t what you’d call romantic” (Noisy Productions, 2017). The music itself changed as well, Telecasters were taken up en masse and a decidedly harder rock inspired beat accompanied many of the tunes of the style. Bass lines became more prominent but much of the strings (although now electric), retained the classic country ‘twang’ that had become synonymous with the genre in the preceding years. Although becoming a little edgier, the memorable (usually heartbreaking), lyrical storytelling of the music remained the same. The straightforward chord progressions and simple but resonating choruses were retained as was the vocal lines positioned slightly behind the beat. An interesting adaption from traditional blues was the increased use of blue notes (altered 3rds, 4ths and 7ths), in some of the vocal melodies, particularly Nelson and Jennings. Another sub-genre that was adopting more rock influenced sound and recording techniques in the 70’s was ‘Country Rock‘. Many musical styles were continuing to meld during this period and ‘Southern Rock‘ (fusing country, blues and rock), featuring bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd was also gaining in popularity.
People began taking the Outlaws seriously after Willie Nelson released his debut solo album after returning to Texas from Nashville. ‘The Redheaded Stranger’s’ first single in 1975 hit no.1 on the Country Billboard charts and the album soon followed suit into the top spot. Willie now approached long time friend and fellow Texan Waylon Jennings to jump from the Nashville ship and so began a collaboration with Glason and Waylon’s new wife Jessie Colter to create what would become the first platinum country album in history ‘Wanted! The Outlaws’. After three number one albums (and a conviction for cocaine possession), for Jennings and a string of hits for Nelson, they again collaborated on ‘Waylon and Willie which again went Platinum with another chart topping single
‘Mamma don’t let your babies grow up to be Cowboys’. The album contained songs performed individually and also five duets, one track written by Stevie Nicks and two by fellow outlaw Kristofferson. Johnny Cash’s career also experienced a real resurgence due to the Outlaw Country genre and it is easy to see why, as Cash had always been the quintessential renegade in his career. Cash had actually lived with Jennings for a time during this period and he really hit the top again with his live recordings in Folsom and San Quentin prisons again matching perfectly the whole aesthetic of the Outlaw Country star movement. An inmate when Cash had performed his first gig within the walls of San Quentin prison (1958), Merle Haggard, would also after his release go on to be one of the most famous of the Outlaw Country genre.
This Country sub-genre was quite short lived and really only lasted 10 years with Ching (2000, p.209), noting “as early as 1978, Jennings was asking “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand”?” It will however remain cherished by country music fans as a time of real experimentation and a progressive new slant on the much loved American Country Music style. A return to the ‘real country’ was the feeling, however Country was borrowing more from the Rock and Roll genre at this stage than diehard fans would care to admit. The real irony is that the most successful albums of the era were still appearing on the big Nashville labels the Outlaws had originally defected from! In fact ‘Wanted! The Outlaws’ (RCA), became revered as a marketing template for Country Music recordings from that point forward. The relevance of the genre was fortified in 1985 when Cash, Nelson, Jennings and Kristofferson to form the Outlaw Country Supergroup ‘The Highwaymen‘ years after the genres popularity waned around 1980. The period was noteworthy from a recording perspective too with advances like 24 track recording, the first commercial digital audio recording system: Sony PCM-1 (1977), Hi-Fi cassette and car cassette decks, large scale live sound, the Fender Rhodes Stage Piano, digital delay and the Tascam Portastudio (1979).
Upon approaching this blog, I had little understanding of Country Music in general and less time for listening to it (well Johnny Cash is a notable exception)! My research has however given me a new appreciation to its relevance and importance to the music we enjoy today. I have included some of the favorites I have found from the Outlaw genre below. Enjoy…
Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard (The Hag): Pancho and Lefty
Waylon Jennings: Lonesome On’ry and Mean (Live Texas 1975)
Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash: Their Ain’t no good Chain Gang
Johnny Cash & Waylon Jennings: Folsom Prison Blues (Live at Farm Aid 1985)
Merle Haggard – The Bottle Let me Down
Willie Nelson: Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain (1975)
Featured title image courtesy of http://all-that-is-interesting.com/outlaw-country#2 Retrieved on 11/11/17
Definition courtesy of http://www.dictionary.com/browse/country-music Retrieved on 11/11/17
Encyclopedia of Country Music, Oxford University Press, USA, 2012.
Carlin, Richard. Country Music : A Biographical Dictionary, Taylor and Francis, 2002.
1920s Banjo photo courtesy of http://www.12fret.com/ngg_tag/tenor-2/ Retrieved on 14/11/17
First recording system picture courtesy of https://www.wired.com/2017/05/american-epic-return-of-the-lathe/ Retrieved 12/11/17
Carter Family portrait courtesy of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carter_Family Retrieved on 13/11/17
Nelson quote courtesy of ‘Under the Influence – How Outlaw Country Keeps the Renegade Independent Spirit Alive’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pARAtnP5KyE Retrieved 12/11/2017
Outlaw! album cover courtesy of https://eil.com/shop/moreinfo.asp?catalogid=392422 Retrieved on 13/11/17
Ching, Barbara. Wrong’s What I Do Best : Hard Country Music and Contemporary Culture, Oxford University Press, 2000.