Country Music

  1. Home
  2. /
  3. Music Styles
  4. /
  5. Country Music

Country Music

Stylistic Origins:
Appalachian Folk Music, Blues, Spirituals and Anglo-Celtic Music
Cultural Origins:
Early 20th Century Appalachia, especially Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky
Typical Instruments:
Guitar – Steel Guitar – Dobro – Harmonica – Bass – Fiddle – Drums – Mandolin – Banjo
Mainstream Popularity:
Derivative Forms:

Bakersfield Sound – Bluegrass – Close Harmony – Country Folk – Honky Tonk – Jug Band Lubbock Sound – Nashville Sound – Neotraditional Country – Outlaw Country – Texas Country

Fusion Genres:

Alternative Country – Country Rock – Rockabilly – Country Rap – Country Pop

In popular music, country music, also called country and western music or country-western, is an amalgam of popular musical forms developed in the Southern United States, with roots in traditional folk music, Celtic music, blues, gospel music, and old-time music that began to develop rapidly in the 1920s. The term country music began to be widely applied to the music in the 1940s and was fully embraced in the 1970s while country and western declined in use.

However, country music is actually a catch-all category that embraces several different genres of music: Nashville sound (the pop-like music very popular in the 1960s); bluegrass, a fast mandolin, banjo and fiddle-based music popularized by Bill Monroe and by Flatt and Scruggs; Western, which encompasses traditional Western ballads and Hollywood cowboy music; Western swing, a sophisticated dance music popularized by Bob Wills; Bakersfield sound (popularized by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard); outlaw country; Cajun; zydeco; gospel; oldtime (generally pre-1930 folk music); honky tonk; Appalachian; rockabilly; neotraditional country and jug band.

Each style is unique in its execution, its use of rhythms, and its chord structures, though many songs have been adapted to the different country styles. One example is the tune “Milk Cow Blues”, an early blues tune Kokomo Arnold that has been performed in a wide variety of country styles by everyone from Aerosmith to Bob Wills to Willie Nelson, George Strait to Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley.


Vernon Dalhart was the first country singer to have a nationwide hit (May 1924, with “The Wreck of Old ’97”). Other important early recording artists were Riley Puckett, Don Richardson, Fiddling John Carson, Ernest Stoneman, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers and The Skillet Lickers.

The origins of modern country music can be traced to two seminal influences and a remarkable coincidence. Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family are widely considered to be the founders of country music, and their songs were first captured at an historic recording session in Bristol, Tennessee on August 1, 1927, where Ralph Peer was the talent scout and sound recorder. It is possible to categorize many country singers as being either from the Jimmie Rodgers strand or the Carter Family strand of country music:

Jimmie Rodgers’ influence

Jimmie Rodgers’ gift to country music was country folk. Building on the traditional ballads and musical influences of the South, Rodgers wrote and sang songs that ordinary people could relate to. He took the experiences of his own life in the Meridian, Mississippi, area and those of the people he met on the railroad, in bars and on the streets to create his lyrics. He used the musical influences of the traditional ballads and the folk to create his tunes. Since 1953, Meridian’s Jimmie Rodgers Memorial Festival has been held annually during May to honor the anniversary of Rodger’s death. The first festival was on May 26, 1953.

Pathos, humour, women, whiskey, murder, death, disease and destitution are all present in his lyrics and these themes have been carried forward and developed by his followers. People like Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Townes van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash have also suffered, and shared their suffering, bringing added dimensions to those themes. It would be fair to say that Jimmie Rodgers sang about life and death from a male perspective, and this viewpoint has dominated some areas of country music. It would also be fair to credit his influence for the development of honky tonk, rockabilly and the Bakersfield sound.

Hank Williams

Jimmie Rodgers is a major foundation stone in the structure of country music, but the most influential artist from the Jimmie Rodgers strand is undoubtedly Hank Williams, Sr. In his short career (he was only 29 when he died), he dominated the country scene and his songs have been covered by practically every other country artist, male and female. Some have even included him in their compositions (for example, Waylon Jennings and Alan Jackson). Hank had two personas: as Hank Williams he was a singer-songwriter and entertainer; as “Luke the Drifter”, he was a songwriting crusader. The complexity of his character was reflected in the introspective songs he wrote about heartbreak, happiness and love (e.g., “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”), and the more upbeat numbers about Cajun food (“Jambalaya”) or cigar store Indians(“Kaw-Liga”). He took the music to a different level and a wider audience.

Both Hank Williams, Jr. and his son Hank Williams III have been innovators within country music as well, Hank Jr. leading towards rock fusion and “outlaw country”.

The Carter Family’s influence

The other Ralph Peer discovery, the Carter family, consisted of A.P. Carter, his wife Sara and their sister-in-law Maybelle. They built a long recording career based on the sonorous bass of A.P., the beautiful singing of Sara and the unique guitar playing of Maybelle. A.P.’s main contribution was the collection of songs and ballads that he picked up in his expeditions into the hill country around their home in Maces Springs, Virginia. In addition, being a man, he made it possible for Sara and Maybelle to perform without stigma at that time. Sara and Maybelle arranged the songs that A.P. collected and wrote their own songs. They were the precursors of a line of talented female country singers like Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Skeeter Davis, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton and June Carter Cash, the daughter of Maybelle and the wife of Johnny Cash.


Bluegrass carries on the tradition of the old String Band Music and was invented, in its pure form, by Bill Monroe. The name “Bluegrass” was simply taken from Monroe’s band, the “Blue Grass Boys”. The first recording in the classic line-up was made in 1945: Bill Monroe on mandolin and vocals, Lester Flatt on guitar and vocals, Earl Scruggs on 5-String banjo, Chubby Wise on fiddle and Cedric Rainwater on upright bass. This band set the standard for all bluegrass bands to follow, most of the famous early Bluegrass musicians were one-time band members of the Bluegrass Boys, like Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin and Del McCoury, or played with Monroe occasionally, like Sonny Osborne, The Stanley Brothers and Don Reno. Monroe also influenced people like Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss and Sam Bush, who carry on the folk and ballad tradition in the bluegrass style.

The Nashville sound

During the 1960s, country music became a multi million dollar industry centered on Nashville, Tennessee. Under the direction of producers such as Chet Atkins, Owen Bradley, and later Billy Sherrill, the Nashville sound brought country music to a diverse audience. This sound was notable for borrowing from 1950s pop stylings: a prominent and ‘smooth’ vocal, backed by a string section and vocal chorus. Instrumental soloing was de-emphasised in favor of trademark ‘licks’. Leading artists in this genre included Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, and later Tammy Wynette and Charlie Rich. Although country music has great stylistic diversity, some critics say this diversity was strangled by the formulaic approach of the Nashville Sound producers. Others point to the commercial need to re-invent country in the face of the dominance of ’50s rock’n’roll and subsequent British Invasion. Even today the variety of country music is not usually well reflected in commercial radio airplay and the popular perception of country music is fraught with stereotypes of hillbillies and maudlin ballads.

Reaction to the Nashville sound

The supposedly “vanilla”-flavored sounds that emanated from Nashville led to a reaction among musicians outside Nashville, who saw that there was more to the genre than “the same old tunes, fiddle and guitar…” (Waylon Jennings).

California produced the Bakersfield sound, promoted by Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakam and is based on the work of the legendary Maddox Brothers and Rose, whose wild eclectic mix of old time country, hillbilly swing and gospel in the 1940s and 1950s was a feature of honky-tonks and dance halls in the state.

Within Nashville in the 1980s, Randy Travis, Ricky Skaggs and others brought a return to the traditional values. Their musicianship, songwriting and producing skills helped to revive the genre momentarily. However, even they, and such long-time greats as Jones, Cash, and Haggard, fell from popularity as the record companies again imposed their formulas and refused to promote established artists. Capitol Records made an almost wholesale clearance of their country artists in the 1960s.

Other developments

The two strands of country music have continued to develop since 1990s. The Jimmie Rodgers influence can be seen in a pronounced “working man” image promoted by singers like Brooks & Dunn and Garth Brooks. On the Carter Family side, singers like Iris Dement and Nanci Griffith have written on more traditional “folk” themes, albeit with a contemporary point of view.

In the 1990s a new form of country music emerged, called by some alternative country, neo traditional, or “insurgent country”. Performed by generally younger musicians and inspired by traditional country performers and the country reactionaries, it shunned the Nashville-dominated sound of mainstream country and borrowed more from punk and rock groups than the watered-down, pop-oriented sound of Nashville.

African-American country

Country music has had only a handful of Black stars, with Charley Pride and Deford Bailey being the most notable. Pride endured much open racism early in his career. Many TV audiences were shocked to realize that the songs they enjoyed were performed by a black man. Pride became the second black member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1993 (he had declined an invitation to join in 1968). He is considered a major influence on traditionalists today. Country music has also influenced the work of many black musicians
such as Ray Charles, Keb’ Mo’ and Cowboy Troy.

African-American influences in Country Music can be documented at least as far back as the 1920s. Harmonica ace, DeFord Bailey, appeared on the Grand Ole Opry stage in 1926. Whites and blacks in rural communities in the South played in string bands.

The Black Country Music Association, headed by Frankie Staton, and located in Nashville, provides a forum for and gives visibility to credible black artists. By assembling a network and building an infrastructure previously lacking, it gives African-American performers a place to turn to for advice and education in the music business.

“The Black Experience: From Where I Stand,” is an album that presents 52 black artists’ contributions to country music and includes not only African-American artists primarily known for their contributions to the blues, but those such as Charlie Pride and Cleve Francis, who identified themselves solely as country artists.


Below is a list of notable country performers alphabetically by period, with each listing followed by a description of the artists’ work.

Early innovators

  • Vernon Dalhart recorded hundreds of songs until 1931.
  • Jimmie Rodgers, first country superstar, the “Father of Country Music”,
  • The Carter Family, rural country-folk, known for hits like “Wildwood Flower”
  • Roy Acuff Grand Ole Opry star for 50 years, “King of Country Music”
  • Ernest Tubb Beloved Texas troubadour who helped scores become stars
  • Hank Snow Canadian-born Grand Ole Opry star famous for his traveling songs.
  • Hank Williams Sr, honky-tonk pioneer, singer, and songwriter, known for hits like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart”
  • Bill Monroe, father of bluegrass music
  • Grand Ole Opry, one of the oldest radio programs
  • Louvin Brothers, inspired the Everly Brothers
  • Little Jimmy Dickens 4-foot 11 inch star of the Grand Ole Opry.
  • Wilf Carter, the “yodeling” cowboy, aka Montana Slim.
  • Webb Pierce, classic honky-tonker who dominated ’50s country music
  • Kitty Wells, country’s first female superstar, called the “Queen of Country Music”

The golden age

  • Bill Anderson, singer who is still a major songwriter of new hits
  • Liz Anderson, as famous for her songwriting as her singing
  • Lynn Anderson, a California blonde who became a top country star
  • Eddy Arnold, the all-time hit leader by Joel Whitburn’s point system
  • The Browns, brother-sister trio who hit No. 1
  • Johnny Cash, a major influence on country music who died in 2003
  • Patsy Cline, immensely popular balladeer who died in 1963
  • Skeeter Davis, major female vocalist for decades
  • Jimmy Dean, singer and TV personality, former owner of Jimmy Dean Sausage Company
  • Roy Drusky, smooth-singing Opry star for 40 years
  • Jimmy Martin, The King of bluegrass
  • Lefty Frizzell, perhaps the greatest of the honky-tonkers
  • Don Gibson, wrote and recorded many standards
  • Merle Haggard, popularized the Bakersfield sound
  • Tom T. Hall, “The Storyteller”, wrote most of his many hits
  • Buddy Holly, an early country-rock’n’roll singer
  • Johnny Horton, made the story-song very popular about 1960
  • Jan Howard, pop-flavored female vocalist who sang pure country
  • Stonewall Jackson, honky-tonk icon
  • Sonny James, had a record 16 consecutive No. 1 hits
  • Wanda Jackson, honky-tonk female vocalist equally at home in rock and roll
  • Waylon Jennings, one of the leaders of the “outlaw” country sound
  • George Jones, widely considered “the greatest living country singer”, #1 in charted hits
  • Kris Kristofferson, songwriter and one of the leaders of the “outlaw” country sound
  • Loretta Lynn, arguably country music’s biggest star in the 1960s and 1970s
  • Roger Miller, a Grammy record breaker
  • Ronnie Milsap, country’s first blind superstar

  • Willie Nelson, songwriter and one of the leaders of the outlaw country sound
  • Norma Jean, gifted “hard country” vocalist
  • Buck Owens, pioneer innovator of the Bakersfield sound
  • Dolly Parton, began her career singing duets with Porter Wagoner
  • Ray Price, went from hard country to Las Vegas slick
  • Charley Pride, the first (and only) black country music star
  • Susan Raye, Buck Owens’ protege who became a solo star
  • Jim Reeves, crossover artist, invented Nashville Sound with Chet Atkins
  • Charlie Rich, ’50s rock star who enjoyed greatest success in ’70s country
  • Marty Robbins, another performer of story-songs who did well in the pop field
  • Jeannie C. Riley, sexy girl in a miniskirt who socked it to the pop charts
  • Kenny Rogers, unique-voiced storyteller who also recorded love ballads and more rock material. He defined what was known as country crossover and became one of the biggest artists in country and any music genre.
  • Jeannie Seely, known as “Miss Country Soul”
  • Connie Smith, known for her “big” voice
  • Billie Jo Spears, a hard-country vocalist with international popularity
  • Ray Stevens, comedy crossover artist, Branson businessman
  • Conway Twitty, honky-tonk traditionalist
  • Don Walser, yodeling Texas legend
  • Porter Wagoner, pioneer on country television
  • Dottie West, country glamour girl who had her biggest success 20 years into her career
  • The Wilburn Brothers, popular male duet for decades
  • Ginny Wright
  • Tammy Wynette, three-time CMA top female vocalist
  • Faron Young, a country chart topper for three decades

Country rock

  • The Allman Brothers Band, bluegrass-influenced jam band
  • The Band
  • Blackfoot
  • The Byrds, pioneers in the field
  • Sheryl Crow, multiple Grammy-winning singer/songwriter who hit the country charts with a duet with Kid Rock on “Picture” and solo with “The First Cut Is The Deepest”
  • Eagles, a very popular country rock band
  • The Everly Brothers, predated others in this category but important figures in the transition from rockabilly to country rock
  • Flying Burrito Brothers
  • Kinky Friedman
  • Gram Parsons, critical favorite of the country rock movement
  • Grateful Dead, extremely long-lived bluegrass and psychedelic band
  • Poco
  • Pure Prairie League (Vince Gill was the lead singer of this group on their biggest pop hit, 1980’s “Let Me Love You Tonight.”)
  • John Rich
  • Kid Rock, only part of his music is Country Rock; most notably, the music on the album Kid Rock
  • Linda Ronstadt, in 1978 Country Music Magazine put her on the cover with the title “Queen Of Country Rock”.
  • Lynyrd Skynyrd, for many, the archetypal country rock band

Contemporary country stars 1980-2006

  • Trace Adkins
  • Alabama
  • Jason Aldean
  • Jessica Andrews
  • Sherri Austin
  • Baillie & the Boys
  • Dierks Bentley
  • Bering Strait
  • Big & Rich
  • Clint Black
  • Suzy Bogguss
  • Paul Brandt
  • Brooks & Dunn
  • Garth Brooks
  • Jann Browne
  • Tracy Byrd
  • Chris Cagle
  • George Canyon
  • Mary Chapin Carpenter
  • Carlene Carter
  • Deana Carter
  • Johnny Cash
  • Rosanne Cash
  • Jeremy Castle
  • Kasey Chambers
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Mark Chesnutt
  • Terri Clark
  • Cowboy Troy
  • Rodney Crowell
  • Billy Currington
  • Linda Davis
  • Diamond Rio
  • The Dixie Chicks
  • Holly Dunn
  • Sara Evans
  • Shelly Fairchild
  • Steve Fox
  • Janie Fricke
  • Crystal Gayle
  • Vince Gill
  • Nanci Griffith
  • Emmylou Harris
  • Ty Herndon
  • Highway 101
  • Faith Hill
  • Steve Holy
  • Alan Jackson
  • Carolyn Dawn Johnson
  • Wynonna Judd
  • The Judds
  • Toby Keith
  • Sammy Kershaw
  • Alison Krauss
  • Miranda Lambert
  • K.D. Lang
  • Tracy Lawrence
  • Danni Leigh
  • Aaron Lines
  • Lonestar
  • Patty Loveless
  • Lyle Lovett
  • Shelby Lynne

  • Barbara Mandrell
  • Kathy Mattea
  • The Mavericks
  • Martina McBride
  • Lila McCann
  • Jason McCoy
  • Neal McCoy
  • Mindy McCready
  • Reba McEntire
  • Tim McGraw
  • Jo Dee Messina
  • John Michael Montgomery
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Allison Moorer
  • Craig Morgan
  • Lorrie Morgan
  • Anne Murray
  • Heather Myles
  • Joe Nichols
  • Nickel Creek
  • Jamie O’Neal
  • K.T. Oslin
  • Brad Paisley
  • Dolly Parton
  • Rachel Proctor
  • Rascal Flatts
  • Collin Raye
  • LeAnn Rimes
  • Julie Roberts
  • Kenny Rogers
  • Sawyer Brown
  • Steven Seagal
  • Shedaisy
  • Ricky Skaggs
  • George Strait
  • Bob Style
  • Sugarland
  • Sweethearts of the Rodeo
  • Pam Tillis
  • Randy Travis
  • Trick Pony
  • Travis Tritt
  • Tanya Tucker
  • Josh Turner
  • Shania Twain
  • Carrie Underwood
  • Keith Urban
  • Van Zant
  • Phil Vassar
  • Rhonda Vincent
  • Clay Walker
  • Steve Wariner
  • Brittany Wells
  • Lucinda Williams
  • Kelly Willis
  • Mark Wills
  • Gretchen Wilson
  • Lee Ann Womack
  • Darryl Worley
  • The Wreckers
  • Chely Wright
  • Michelle Wright
  • Trisha Yearwood
  • Dwight Yoakam

Television and radio shows of note

  • The Johnny Cash Show (1969-1971) on ABC Networks
  • Austin City Limits, PBS goes country
  • The Beverly Hillbillies, legendary situation comedy series that featured a country theme song and frequent appearances, by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs
  • The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, 1969 – 1972
  • Grand Ole Opry, broadcasting on WSM from Nashville since 1925
  • Hee Haw, featuring Buck Owens and Roy Clark and a pack of droll, cornball comedians, notably Junior Samples. Other artist of note, Archie Campbell, writer and on-air talent.
  • Lost Highway, a significant BBC documentary on the History of Country Music
  • Louisiana Hayride, featured Hank Williams in his early years
  • The Porter Wagoner Show, aired from 1960 to 1979 and featured a young Dolly Parton
  • That Good Ole Nashville Music, 1970 – 1985


President George H. W. Bush celebrated country music by declaring October, 1990 “Country Music Month”. The proclamation read:

“Encompassing a wide range of musical genres, from folk songs and religious hymns to rhythm and blues, country music reflects our Nation’s cultural diversity as well as the aspirations and ideals that unite us. It springs from the heart of America and speaks eloquently of our history, our faith in God, our devotion to family, and our appreciation for the value of freedom and hard work. With its simple melodies and timeless, universal themes, country music appeals to listeners of all ages and from all walks of life.”

Common elements

Many country songs are low-tempo ballads. Despite the fact that many country music fans square dance, only a handful of country songs are mid-to-high tempo. Also, country music has one of the highest ballad to non-ballad ratios for music super genres.

Steel guitars with special slides are often used, along with fiddles and harmonicas.

Further reading

  • In The Country of Country: A Journey to the Roots of American Music,
    Nicholas Dawidoff, Vintage Books, 1998, ISBN 0-375-70082-x
  • Are You Ready for the Country: Elvis, Dylan, Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock,
    Peter Dogget, Penguin Books, 2001, ISBN 0-140-26108-7
  • Roadkill on the Three-Chord Highway,
    Colin Escott, Routledge, 2002, ISBN 0-415-93783-3
  • Guitars & Cadillacs,
    Sabine Keevil, Thinking Dog Publishing, 2002, ISBN 0-968-99730-9
  • Country Music USA,
    Bill C. Malone, University of Texas Press, 1985, ISBN 0-292-71096-8, 2nd Rev ed, 2002, ISBN 0-292-75262-8
  • Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’: Country Music and the Southern Working Class (Music in American Life),
    Bill C. Malone, University of Illinois Press, 2002, ISBN 0-252-02678-0

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Document License
It uses material from the Wikipedia article – Country music