Honky tonk music originally developed in the 40’s in honky tonk bars near Texan oil fields. Honky tonk acts typically included drums, stand-up bass, fiddle, pedal steel guitar, and acoustic guitar, and the songs tended to be about pain, heartbreak, love, and loneliness.
People from a working-class background felt that they could relate to the lyrics, particularly from Hank Williams, who was considered the best singer-songwriter of the genre. Williams had an uneasy marriage, drank excessively, and died young at just 29 years of age. In his hard but short life, Williams wrote literally hundreds of songs that went on to be considered standards, such as Cold, Cold Heart and Lovesick Blues. Other artists who made an impression at the time included Jean Shepard, Lefty Frizzell, and Ernest Tubb. Honky tonk has often reappeared when country music fans felt that the genre was becoming too commercial. A style termed bluegrass appeared in the 50s. It was essentially a revival of old-fashioned country music, with the Blue Grass Boys and Boll Monroe leading the way. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was a hit in the 70s and since the 80s, Alison Krauss became the most well-known bluegrass artist.
Nashville record labels were falling behind souls and rock artist in the 50s. Nashville producers developed a style in response that would appeal to white adults who didn’t take to soul or rock but who weren’t typically inclined to buy country music, either. They brought on board singers with a smooth sound and had them perform ballads over choirs and strings. True country instruments, such as banjo, guitar, and fiddle, weren’t being used very often, and the plan proved to be a success. Nashville labels soon saw increased sales, especially for such artists as Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves.
Many artists, however, were unhappy about what was happening to country music in Nashville. These artists developed a new style in the 60s that combined a rockabilly attitude with the authentic honky tonk country sound. Some of the more significant artists from what we now know of as outlaw country were Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard.
Country rock to country pop
A style known as country rock developed in the 60s. Gram Parsons created some of the best earliest country rock by adding folk rock elements, rock guitar, and rock and roll piano to his band’s sound. The subgenre further developed when Parsons collaborated with the Flying Burrito Brothers and The Byrds. Another style that developed in the 60s was country pop. A singer who was once known for his involvement in the rockabilly scene, Roy Orbison, began to produce some of the best all-time pop songs by a country artist. In the 60s and 70s, we saw country pop artists like Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, and Glenn Campbell release hit record after hit record. More recently, female artists such as Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood have enjoyed mainstream success in the country pop genre.