Country music is a truly American form of music with a long and storied history. It is also known as Country and Western music because of it’s two main braches, Western or cowboy music and Southern and mountain folk music. Both these forms are based in the English and Scottish ballads which were brought here by our earliest settlers, but were adapted to the American scene through the use of guitars (a Spanish instrument), banjos (African) and fiddles (played in a different style than the violin).
So the show begins with a cowboy song (Back in the Saddle Again) to illustrate the Western part of the equation. The early country music that became a part of the American way came to us through the development of radio. Here was the very first immediate media, where people all over the country could actually listen to the same thing at the same time, and that lead to the development of our first Country Music stars, such as The Carter Family and Jimmy Rodgers. In the 1020’s and 1930’s, The Carter Family (A.P., his wife, Sara and her cousin Maybelle, who married A.P’s brother) were stars of the Grand Old Opry which could be heard every Saturday night from Nashville and helped put Nashville on the map as the Mecca of Country music.
In the 1040’s along came a young man named Hank Williams to set country music on it’s ear as he brought a new vitality and popularity to this genre. Hank was a great songwriter and performer but he came up against an ingrained Nashville system which tried to limit it’s artists and control all their artistic endeavors. Hank was blackballed from the Opry for his rebelliousness and also due to his unfortunate tendency to drink too much alcohol. He died at 29 years old in an alcoholic stupor in the front seat of his Cadillac, but not before he left us many great songs. He could write some of the happiest songs such as “Hey Good Lookin’” and “Jambalaya” as well as some true heart breakers such as “Cold, Cold Heart”.
Then in the 1950’s along came Johnny Cash. Johnny was part of the Sun Records stable of stars (known as the Million Dollar Quartet with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins) and he was the most truly country of that group. Johnny was a great songwriter as well and he gave us such classics as “I Still Miss Someone” and his signature song “I Walk the Line”. The 1950’s and early sixties gave us many great country stars such as Porter Waggoner with “Green, Green Grass of Home” and Don Gibson with “Sea of Heartbreak” to name just a few.
The late sixties saw the emergence of new country stars such as Waylon Jennings, Kris Kistofferson and Willie Nelson. Waylon had been around the music scene from the mid 50’s when he’d been part of Buddy Holly’s new band, but had become a force in country music in the 60’s. He, Willie, Kris and a few others were chaffing under the limitations of the “Nashville System” and so Waylon hired a lawyer from New York and sued the record companies in Nashville and broke up the nearly feudal system which did not allow them artistic freedom. The “Outlaws of Country’ took on the establishment and won, creating a whole new era of artistic expression in country music. Waylon wrote many great country songs in this era, and with the help of his friend Willie Nelson, wrote “Good Hearted Woman” for his wife, the country singer Jessie Colter. Now working out of Lubbock and Austin Texas, the Outlaws recorded many great songs including Willie Nelson’s “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” and “The Red- headed Stranger”.
In the 1970’s many rock groups started to play a rock version of country. Starting with “The Byrds”, then “The Eagles”, “Pure Prairie League”, “New Riders of the Purple Sage” and others, this marked a turning point in rock music and became a part of the “Back to the land” movement of the 70’s. Even “The Beatles” got on board when they recorded Buck Owens song “Act Naturally” with Ringo singing lead.
In the late 70’s and early 80’s, Kenny Rogers became a force on the country scene with his songs “Lucille” and his country-pop hit “The Gambler” Along with Dolly Parton, who had gotten her start singing in Porter Waggoner’s band, they became the dominant forces in country cross-over in this era. Dolly is one of the all time great country songwriters and it is said she has written over 10,000 songs. Wow! But this period also saw a move toward a much over-produced, watered-down country music which eventually lead to a resurgence of a more traditional sound with stripped down arrangements and acoustic instruments. This “New Traditionalist” movement really came to the fore with the “Class of 1989” which saw new stars such as Ricky Skaggs, from bluegrass, Emmy Lou Harris, George Strait, Randy Travis, Mary Chapin Carpenter and many more.
Having listened to country music on and off since the 1950’s, having been into Cowboy music as a little kid and then later listening to a lot of the 70’s country rock and finally the “New Traditionalists” of the late 80’s and early 90’s, I have been writing many songs in a country vein from the up-tempo “Willie’s Dream”, to the Bluegrass gospel “What Would Jesus Drive”, to the hard charging “Nashville Dream” and the tender love song “On My Knees”, and I will share one or two of those songs with the audience to close out the show.
One hour can hardly do justice to the world of country music, but I hope this show acts as an introduction to this wonderful world of a truly American musical art form.