Country music was among the earliest genres in American popular music, with the very earliest style being old-time music. It evolved in the American’s southeastern states as a combination of African American blues, church music, and folk music from the British Isles. It was performed on such instruments as the banjo, fiddle, autoharp, mandolin, and the acoustic guitar. Old-time music reared its head in the 1920’s, with Carter Family’s recordings being the most successful A.P. Carter not only collected folk songs, he also wrote them and sang them while his wife and sister-in-law played the guitar. They were country music’s first stars with songs like Wildwood Flower.
Yodelling and Grand Ole Opry
Jimmie Rodgers was another early star in the genre. He and the Carters recorded their music in the same sessions. African Americans taught Rodgers how to sing work chants and blessings and how to play guitar at the railroad where he worked. Having also heard folk music and old-time songs, he melded all of these styles into his own. He frequently opted for a style of singing known as yodelling. Blue Yodel, which was his first successful song, achieved close to 500,000 sales in 1927.
Before the advent of television, families in America frequently sat and listened to radio entertainment. Among the more popular shows was the Grand Ole Opry, a live variety show broadcast from Nashville, which had become to be the hub of all things country. Listeners not only heard old-time music but also a style termed Western music, which often featured lyrics about gun-toting outlaws and cowboys in-love, with horse-like rhythms.
Western music started to enjoy success in the 1930’s when Hollywood western movies began featuring singing cowboys. The likes of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry became well-known singing cowboys enjoying country music success. Music business moguls in Nashville decided that cowboys had an image that was a better fit than that of old-time music’s hillbilly image. The genre then became known as country and western music and the singers were dressed in cowboy clothes.
At the same time, a style of Western dance music termed Western swing began to become popular in California, Texas, and Oklahoma. Bands in the genre used such amplified instruments as the pedal steel guitar so that their music was sufficiently loud to be enjoyed in larger dance halls. The music was a combination of swinging jazz and Western country music.
Elvis and Johnny
When Western swing bands introduced R&B songs into their repertoire, along with country, a style termed rockabilly developed. When such singers as Elvis heard rockabilly music, they formed bands with acoustic and electric guitars, as well as drums and stand-up bass.
Elvis enjoyed success with rockabilly in the early part of his career. So did Johnny Cash, Caro Perkins, and Roy Orbison. Cash was one of the genre’s biggest stars in the 60’s when he offered up his combination of rockabilly and honky tonk. His chose to wear black clothes as opposed to the traditional singing cowboy image.