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Collection The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America


Country music encompasses everything from fiddler Eck Robertson to the arena-pop of Taylor Swift. The origins of country music can be traced to the 17th century, when European and African immigrants to North America brought their folktales, folk songs, favorite instruments, and musical traditions. Country music has seen various developments since the first commercial recordings, but whatever form it takes, country music speaks to particular American musical traditions and values.

The first commercial country music recordings date to the 1920s. In 1922, the Victor and Okeh recording companies recorded the first country music artists, among them fiddler Eck Robertson, who performed "Arkansas Traveler" and "Sallie Gooden" for Victor Records. Both were staples of the traditional repertoire, a status that was reinforced by the success of the recordings.

Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, 1931 Photo courtesy of the BCMA Museum

If tradition informed the music, commerce and technology, in the form of recordings and radio, helped it spread. Budding country artists of the 1920s could purchase musical instruments, as well as songbooks and printed music, through the Sears catalog. WLS Radio in Chicago introduced the National Barn Dance on April 19, 1924. The influential program was broadcast throughout the Midwest and ran in some form until 1968. It had many imitators, and directly led to the Nashville-based Grand Ole Opry.

In 1927, Ralph Peer of Victor Records held an audition for new talent in Bristol, Tennessee and discovered two defining and influential acts: The Carter Family, who made more than 250 recordings, many of them now standards, in the next fourteen years, and Jimmie Rodgers, an erstwhile railroad worker soon to gain fame as "The Singing Brakeman." Rodgers' career was cut short when he died in 1933 at the age of thirty-five, but his influence can be felt not just in modern country music but in modern pop music. In 1997 Bob Dylan assembled an all-star cast for The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers, a tribute album that included performances of Rodgers' songs by Dylan, Van Morrison, Bono, Jerry Garcia, Alison Krauss, Willie Nelson, and Dwight Yoakam.

With the arrival of talking pictures in the late 1920s, Hollywood westerns popularized the image of the cowboy as the face of country music. Gene Autry was known as "America's favorite singing cowboy," but he had competition in Roy Rogers and The Sons of the Pioneers.

In 1939, John Lomax and his wife, Ruby, began a recording tour through the South for the fledgling Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. The Lomaxes recorded hundreds of performances of ballads, blues, cowboy songs, field hollers, spirituals, and work songs in nine southern states. Ethnomusicologists consider the recordings made on this field trip to be among the most important in this genre.

The same year Lomax began his journey, the Grand Ole Opry, which had been airing on radio station WSM of Nashville since 1925, made its first nationwide network broadcast on NBC. The broadcasts brought country music to a wider audience and led to Nashville's stature as the home of country music.

The Grand Ole Opry's host at this time was fiddler and singer Roy Acuff. In 1942, Acuff, with Fred Rose, established Acuff-Rose Publishing, Nashville's first country music publishing company. Country music grew in national popularity in the 1940s, and absorbed many aspects of mainstream popular music. Acuff-Rose benefitted from this move to the mainstream, but also from the harder edged honky-tonk styles that were also gaining in popularity when they signed future country music legends like Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell.

Lyle Lovett performing at the Coolidge Auditorium, May 10, 2011. Photo by Patricio Padua.

During World War II, the Special Service Division of the military introduced hillbilly bands to a wide audience of soldiers in USO shows. Honky-tonk, bluegrass, and other country standards spread across the world along with the America soldiers, and as the music spread, so did its influences. Western and Cowboy Songs developed throughout the 1940s and 1950s and gave rise to major country artists like Hank Thompson, Lefty Frizzell and Floyd Tillman in the 1940s, and Buck Owens and Merle Haggard in the 1950s and 1960s. Read more about Western Swing and Cowboy songs here. Read about Bill Monroe and other Bluegrass artists here.

The rock 'n' roll era ushered in yet another development in country music, with rockabilly and crossover artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, and the Everly Brothers. Read more about Rockabilly here.

In the 1960s, country producers and artists continued to mix popular, more urban styles into their performances, and the resulting fusion was dubbed "Countrypolitan." It was in this era that female singers and songwriters came into their own as star performers. In the 1950s, Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline paved the way for Jean Shepard, Skeeter Davis, Dottie West, Connie Smith, Loretta Lynn, Barbara Mandrell, Tammy Wynette, and Dolly Parton. Country music is primarily thought of as a white rural music, but in 1964, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Charley Pride rose to the top of the country music charts as the first black performer to excel in the genre. Even as much of country music absorbed pop music influences, many country artists sang topical songs about contentious issues such as divorce, birth control, poverty and the war in Vietnam.

During the 1960s, California became the center for a West Coast country music style known as the Bakersfield Sound, led by southwestern migrants such as Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, which blended honky-tonk, western and rockabilly styles. Contemporary artists like Dwight Yoakum continue this style.

Westerner Willie Nelson's career in country music goes back to the 1950s, but it was in the 1970s that his outlaw persona brought him crossover acclaim from rock and pop audiences. In 1976, he and Waylon Jennings, Jessie Colter and Tompall Glaser appeared on an anthology called Wanted: The Outlaws, which epitomized and gave a name to the non-mainstream music and lyrics coming out of Austin, Texas. A variation on the cowboy persona of country music artists, musicians like Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and Hank Williams, Jr., also personified the country music outlaw in their 1970s recordings.

"Countrypolitan" artists enjoyed popularity into the 1980s, but elements of western swing and bluegrass came to the fore in mainstream country music as well. Artists like Asleep at the Wheel, George Strait and Reba McEntire personified this sound. Ricky Skaggs infused his New Country with driving bluegrass instrumentals, while Randy Travis used a more traditional "lonesome" vocal style influenced by Lefty Frizzell.

A new generation of country music television grew in the 1980s. The Nashville Network debuted in 1983. MTV Networks created CMT (Country Music Television) to air country programming, including news and music videos, in a twenty-four hour format.

In the 1990s, honky-tonk, bluegrass, pop, and new country contributed to crossover appeal on the pop charts. Country-rock artists like Emmylou Harris stayed close to their traditional roots, while breakout stars like Garth Brooks brought an arena-rock sound to country music.

Since 2010, the Library of Congress has hosted the annual Country Music Association Songwriters Series. This popular concert series features performances from contemporary country songwriters and performers like Jim Beavers, Clint Black, Brett James, Little Big Town, Patti Loveless, Lori McKenna, Ronnie Milsap, Lorrie Morgan, and Tim Nichols. View webcasts from previous CMA Songwriters Concerts here: 2010, 2011.

Modern country music artists have also performed at the Library in Congress in concerts celebrating the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). The 2010 ASCAP concert featured singer-songwriter Jessi Alexander and Nashville songwriter Wayland Holyfield, whose music has been recorded by Randy Travis, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Reba McEntire, Ernest Tubb, George Strait and George Jones. In 2011, the ASCAP concert included singer-songwriters Brett James and Lyle Lovett.