Is Country Music Traditional? (part 1 of a little music-history reflection)

When I think about genres of music in America that are traditional, few genres come to mind that would outperform Country-western music on that specific characteristic.  Perhaps Blues, which traces its origins back to slaves singing old spirituals while working crops in the fields.  Otherwise I would think Country-western music is high on the list of traditional genres that American music listeners enjoy.  As a good American boy from Texas, it’s easy for me to think that country music has just sort of always been here. But lately, I’ve been learning some history that has caused my perspective to change.

Recently I have discovered audiobooks.  I spend a lot of time driving, so I figured, why not make myself smarter while I’m on the road.  Personality tests tell me that I’m a “learner”, so I really enjoy just being an information sponge.  The first audiobook that I purchased was “A Deeper Blue” by Robert Earl Hardy, which is a biography about the life of Townes Van Zandt.  Sometimes I think that us Texas musicians just nod our heads and say, “Oh ya man, I love Townes Van Zandt!” with pensive voices wishing that we actually could name a single Townes song other than “Pancho & Lefty”.  I wanted to remedy this problem by becoming a Townes scholar.  The book was really interesting and informative if you can get past the book reader (author) portraying every single character with an Alabama style southern drawl.  Back to my topic- in Townes’ story the author mentions that Van Zandt was impressed with the developing popularity of the guitar in modern music when he was a young teenager.  That caught my attention. Townes isn’t that historically old, right? I mean, he was alive during my lifetime.  Hasn’t the guitar always been around? Hasn’t country music always featured an acoustic guitar? Is it true that the acoustic guitar was becoming vogue in music just barely outside of my generation?

I’m really not an expert, but I’m also not an idiot when it comes to music history. I’ll confess that Intro to Music was one of the only academic classes in college where I received an A.  I was the son of a band director and music educator.  I read books. I learned. I know how to tell the difference between a Tchaikovsky composition in the Romantic era and a Classical/Baroque composition by Bach.  For some reason, that stuff just makes sense to me and sticks with me.  But I guess I just assumed that acoustic guitar and country western music were foundational to American culture as much as the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock.  Not so.

Acoustic guitar has been around for a while. Classical guitar has existed for centuries. But country western music and cowboy songs have not.  The old western movies began as early as the early 1900’s. They became more popular later in the 40’s and 50’s.  But those western movies were portraying an American landscape and culture that existed in the frontier times of the 1800’s.  This would lead a movie viewer to believe that singing cowboys graced the American plains in the 1800’s.  But acoustic guitar wasn’t even a popular instrument for mainstream music at that point. As a matter of fact, mainstream music didn’t really exist yet. Music was as varied as the culture of the region where you lived.  (This leads me to another point about how young radio is, and how our trauma regarding the dissolution of the music industry seems so severe and yet radio is less than a century old…but alas, that is for my next future blog)

In the early 1900’s some musicians began to see popularity as performers on acoustic guitars, specifically blues performers. “Popularity” became a bigger deal because of the invention of recording equipment and playback equipment such as phonographs and radio. Before these inventions, music had to be enjoyed live. For centuries. Live. No tapes. No CD’s. No vinyl. Live. If you could jettison your way into 100 years ago, just one century back, you would be hard-pressed to find any music to listen to within the comfort of your home. Music existed in theaters, on street corners, in beer joints, at houses of worship, but not at home.

Now back to country music. Most people would claim that Jimmie Rodgers was the original country western musician. Jimmie was born in the very late 1800’s, but didn’t see mainstream popularity until the 1950’s.  Most of us who listen to old country music don’t listen to anything that pre-dates Hank Williams. Hank was punching out his hits in the 1940’s and 50’s.  So a century ago, nobody other than his parents, really knew who Hank was.  By the time ole Hank was hitting it big, Americans were mostly listening to big band music like Count Basie’s orchestra.  This would explain why some of the earliest popular forms of country music were swing bands such as Spade Cooley and Bob Wills.  Most of Texans are well indoctrinated into thinking that Bob Wills is about as traditional of country music as country can get, what with his bouncy guitar strumming and long drawn melodic fiddles dancing around the lyrics.  But Bob Wills’ music was a direct knock-off of pop music at the time, made to suit a more rural audience.  His popularity was largely driven by the dance craze of swing music. To put this into perspective, if Bob Wills was just now inventing his music in today’s market, imagine him picking up his acoustic instruments to strum along to beats that mimicked Bruno Mars or Kendrick Lamar.  What you would wind up with would probably sound something like Sam Hunt. Now that should be interesting to all of us who hate on Sam Hunt as the epitome of country music destruction.

I write all of this because, when my blood pressure rises at the ridiculous sounding music I hear coming out of mainstream country radio stations (and despite my devil’s advocate portrayal, I really do think it is ridiculous), it helps me to put the music industry into perspective.  When your grandparents were alive, depending on your age, country music may not even have existed.  If it did exist, then it was evolving at a rate faster than any other musical era in history. Within barely more than a century, country music was born out of celtic instrumentation being used to sing old spirituals in the rural mountains (bluegrass music) into blues-infused guitar strumming used to tell old stories and sing gospel songs, to absorbing the dance music trends of pop bands, to beer-drinking blues songs, to incorporating electric guitars to borrow from the popular bebop rock of the 50’s and 60’s, and so-on & so-on.  Country music has been born and raised at the speed of light.  Knowing this makes it hard to really nail down what is so traditional about country music. It is hard to call something traditional that has been born around the same time as the automobile, and has changed decade over decade in drastic ways. When someone says they prefer “traditional country music” a legitimate follow-up question could easily be, “Okay, to which tradition are you referring?”

Now this little discussion is just to spark your curiosity regarding the short history of Country-western music. Things really get put into perspective when we zoom out and look at the music industry as a whole. So, check back soon as I share with you my thoughts regarding the small piece of history that modern music occupies in the big picture of performance history.




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