Although country music has been around for ages, Nashville, Tennessee really seems to be the epicenter of this genre of music today. As you’re probably aware, there’s a distinction between country and country-pop songs, but how did this all come about? Read on to find out more about the origin of country music in Nashville and why so many artists are currently migrating to that location in order to make it big.
On early country tours, traveling performers drove themselves from town to town, playing music on street corners and at parties for gas money. These road-weary musicians became known as honky-tonk angels, because many of them held full-time jobs during the day to keep food on their tables. Honky-tonk music originated out of these late night gigs where country singers were paid with drinks or small cash tips. At one honky-tonk on lower Broadway called Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, Johnny Cash got his start playing for tips. According to Cash’s daughter Rosanne, it was here that he first met June Carter and fell in love with her. The lounge is still open today and has become a tourist attraction. The history of country music is deeply intertwined with a culture of hard work, but never forget about honky-tonks – they give us a glimpse into what made Nashville special from the very beginning. They are an important part of country music’s history; without them, we wouldn’t have gotten our legendary artists like Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash. Honky-tonks were places people could gather together to bond over their love for drinking and enjoying each other’s company while listening to great live performances by talented entertainers.
The first country musicians, who were also some of America’s first blue-collar workers, are thought to have been African-American railroad workers. These men played fiddle and banjo in their free time and brought new music styles with them when they moved to Tennessee. They found work with local musicians in bars and taverns where patrons enjoyed drinking, dancing, and playing instruments. This gave birth to what would become known as country music. The acoustic sound of these railroad workers fit well with traditional songs from Ireland, Scotland, England and other European countries that had made their way over to America through travel or trade—the basis for most of today’s popular country music. But it was only once people started recording and selling these songs that country music hit its stride. Once commercial artists got hold of it, they decided it needed a little polishing. Around 1910 (later than many would like to admit), sheet music emerged, making publishing a much easier task than previously done by hand. Also around this time was jazz’s rise to popularity… [which] helped force established values such as harmony and melody into a secondary role… [and] transformed many unoriginal songwriters into commercial successes just by giving them a less original but more rhythmically creative approach toward lyrics. Soon after jazz came along, string bands became all the rage in New York City. Bands consisted of one guitarist, one bassist, one drummer and either a harmonica player or an accordionist. Unlike jazz ensembles, which primarily used improvisation and free association as main methods for creating music, string bands used more standardized jazz chord progressions within their songs so that singing could take place on top of already developed tracks. While typically viewed as simple folk music back then, we can now see how influential these early performers truly were. String band members eventually began calling themselves hillbilly because they believed they did not live in a place that conformed to mainstream ideals; however, even if they didn’t view themselves as different, others did. It wasn’t long before record producers saw potential in these entertainers; quickly following suit were radio stations broadcasting across East Coast states with Western swing hits on their playlists. In 1920 Jimmie Rodgers—considered to be The Father of Country Music due largely to his cultural impact—recorded four songs for Victor Records under his own name. He later released 15 singles under his own name and 11 more under pseudonyms. His first two were-numbers were popular, but sales rapidly declined. Then, on August 16, 1925 he auditioned for Okeh Records’s talent scout. He recorded Blue Yodel No. 4, using Hubert Parry’s tune called Yodeling Blues which was renamed as T for Texas. This record sold half a million copies in a few weeks and launched Rodgers’ career as one of America’s earliest great recording artists. A year or so later he became known as The Singing Brakeman because many cars at that time had tire swingers on their radio antennas; radios mounted on car dashboards came later. As technology improved, most swingers were replaced by longer antenna springs pushing buttons (called calls) into rubber discs on top of the dashboard. When people saw those antennas go up and down they asked what it meant: singing. When people heard him sing they said brakeman, referring to railroad brakemen who operated trains with hand-operated brakes rather than air brakes. One interesting aspect about old time country music is how there are very little lyrics explaining things. So when you hear a string band from yesteryear sing about Railroad Bill, you can’t know what exactly he did unless you’ve looked it up in an encyclopedia (which are usually at least twenty years old). Many members of string bands didn’t know either! Today if someone hears Railroad Bill played, she’ll say oh, he shot his wife. Well no, back then she would have thought I don’t have any idea! It has been said that only hillbillies knew what these songs were about. But even today if young kids ask older folk to explain some of these terms and songs like Cocaine Habit Blues all of them get looks on their faces like they’ve never heard such terminology before….they do…they just don’t want to tell you. Maybe they figure you’re better off not knowing….maybe your grandfather and grandmother could explain. Maybe they were just used to secrets. Maybe it’s better to try to figure out these things on your own, after having a discussion with grandparents. That’s why I researched and wrote…this book does give you topics for discussion! There will always be controversy about what certain songs mean, but you will learn as much as anyone can tell you as long as you use good judgement in trying to analyze them and putting two and two together. Sometimes my grandparents said well maybe he meant something else…you see…that was also part of life. And maybe he did mean something else, too….wouldn’t that have made sense? I believe it’s important to look at songs in a factual manner, too. For example, I’ve read several books about old time string bands and people have mentioned that cheating songs were among their favorites. Yes, I’m sure you can find dozens of classic cheating songs…but I’d be willing to bet (because my father worked for The Railroad for over 40 years and he heard just about every string band song ever written…as well as a lot of people talking about things going on between string band musicians and singer/songwriters), that lots of these cheating songs were really humorously written compositions where everyone got together and made up stories! And what did they call these humorous compilations? Hillbilly musicians were doing more than just entertaining others with their art. They were influencing others and setting trends that spread like wildfire across America. Soon, Oklahoma, California and Texas began to make a name for themselves within Nashville’s view of what country music should sound like. By 1920, String bands were performing live on stage instead of in saloons and small theaters on street corners as they had done previously. #12 – Name a popular song in your chosen genre and tell us how it made a difference in music history?
#13 – Write a professional summary of you band(s) bio. (200 words, no less!) Be specific! Tell us about your unique point of view as artists! Tell us about what inspires you and what themes are explored in your music! Tell us about where you’ve performed, both locally and nationally, or internationally, if that’s applicable. Use photos to show examples of your performances.
The word gypsy comes from Egyptian Arabic for traveling, but what is less widely known is that it also appears in Spain and France with exactly the same meaning. There’s no conclusive proof, but there are many who believe gypsies originally came from Egypt. Some of these nomadic folks eventually made their way to Europe, where they were not warmly received by their new neighbors. In fact, most Europeans viewed them as poor people in need of charity—and thus evolved a negative view of all gypsies across Europe. While it’s hard to generalize a single culture like gypsies (after all, there are several subgroups), one thing they have in common is a strong sense of community and family life. Regardless, despite centuries of persecution, today Europeans treat them with much more tolerance than ever before—though old stereotypes still persist throughout much of Europe. It might be hard to tell if you spend your time hanging out at tourist sites—but don’t let tourism fool you: Ethnic European gypsies are more integrated into mainstream European culture than ever before!
When Chet Atkins, a Grammy Award-winning guitar player, began making records at RCA’s Studio B in 1964, he wanted to bring more authenticity to country music by introducing black musicians. He found David Briggs, an African American producer and record label owner, who was able to create authentic recordings with black musicians that appealed to white audiences. This was groundbreaking for the time and inspired artists like Jerry Reed and Charlie Daniels to follow suit. However, there is still a long way to go for authentic representation of all minority groups; rural pop isn’t completely diverse either. Artists from urban areas are often stereotyped as too ‘urban’ and not able to appeal to a large segment of country music listeners outside of their hometowns. They aren’t given opportunities to perform at award shows or gain fame within other genres such as hip hop. It will be interesting to see how performers such as Tim McGraw and Shania Twain expand on what has already been accomplished thus far. Each year, there are more true musicians winning awards than ever before—and many don’t fit into established stereotypes about what it means to be country. As of now, six African Americans have won best new artist awards since 2000—and two were in 2017 alone! The competition is fierce and growing each year, so I can only imagine we’ll see even greater numbers soon enough!
The Smith Family
The story of country music begins with another family. The story has been told many times, but it goes something like this: In 1925, A.P. (Alvin Pleasant) and Clara Smith bought a struggling record company called Victor Talking Machine Company and changed its name to RCA Victor Records. A few years later, they were approached by George D. Hay (then vice president of WSM Radio), who asked if they would be interested in recording some regional talent that could perform live on his show, The Grand Ole Opry—which he sponsored on station WSM-AM. It wasn’t long before these artists became stars, paving the way for other country artists looking for a chance to get on stage. Among them were Roy Acuff, Uncle Dave Macon, Bill Monroe and Ernest Tubb; all of whom performed under contract at WSM radio during their early careers. From then on, Nashville was known as Music City USA, becoming one of America’s most musical cities.
The Bluebird Cafe
The historic Bluebird Cafe, located on Nashville’s Music Row, has been welcoming musicians since it opened its doors in 1982. In fact, a then-unknown songwriter named Taylor Swift was discovered at one of her early shows here! Today, aspiring singers and songwriters continue to flock to The Bluebird to take part in open mic nights—just like they have for decades. Most notably, Garth Brooks gave his first performance there when he moved to Nashville in 1989. He once said of his experience: After playing five songs that I hadn’t written, I felt like I’d run five miles … they were so good. I knew right then and there what kind of performer I wanted to be.