Country music is usually associated with the South, which has an identifiable culture that is usually quite separate from the rest of the country. It was originally referenced as “Hillbilly Music,” and came from folk music. Country music is filled with many real topics and tends to be filled with lots of emotion and sentiments. Topics for country songs include: love, nostalgia, and patriotism. This style of music tends to stand out due to very strong dialects and the use of different grammar rules. Lastly, country music usually uses string instruments, including the fiddle, banjo, guitar, and mandolin. As time passes on and different techniques are combined with the first wave of country music, more and more instruments (piano, saxophones, and trumpets) have been added to the typical country sound.
Jimmie Rodgers is frequently referred to as the father of country music. He was born in 1897 in Meridian, Mississippi and is very well known for his introduction to yodeling. Rodgers worked out on the railroads where he learned to play a guitar and listened to many of the workers chant songs and tunes. Once Rodgers was diagnosed with Tuberculosis, he quit working at the railroad and moved to Asheville where he did his first performance at a radio station. Rodgers was one of the first people to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961.
One of Rodgers biggest innovations would be the introduction of the blue yodel style of singing. Yodeling is distinct as it uses a long note that changes in pitch by switching back and forth between a high falsetto and the normally used pitch. The falsetto is when the voice goes higher than normal. Not only does the yodel have a vocal component, but it can also help signal the end of a stanza. He used his guitar to help accompany the yodeling. Most of his songs use the twelve bar blues form (AAB).
Many current-day stars have done covers of Rodgers work, including Lynyrd Skynyrd doing a cover of “Blue Yodel No. 1.” Bob Dylan also made a Jimmie Rodgers tribute album with many celebrities, including Bono and Willie Nelson, performing his songs. Rodgers has won countless awards and many people respect his influence and look up to him.
Another influential country musician is Hank Williams. Williams was born in 1923 in Mount Olive, Alabama. He was a storyteller and wrote about his own experiences. Williams brought about an image of a cowboy, with his band named the Drifting Cowboys and his symbolized cowboy outfit. The Drifting Cowboys often used the fiddle along with guitar, steel guitar, and bass. Sometimes Williams would employ a technique called the sobbing break in voice where his voice would crack during extremely emotional songs. This is extremely prevalent in the song “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Popular artists have also made a tribute album with Williams’ songs. Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, and The Rolling Stones have all mentioned Hank Williams as an influential person in their music career. Williams made his way into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961 and his legacy continues with his children and grandchildren. Williams’ music later paved the way for honky-tonk music.
Bob Dylan: “I became aware that in Hank’s recorded songs were the archetype rules of poetic songwriting. The architectural forms are like marble pillars” (New York Times, 2011).
Alan Jackson: “There’s a lot of magic still left in these songs” (New York Times, 2011).
Recently, a young boy has just made his claim to fame with a clip of him yodeling at Walmart. Mason Ramsey has risen to the top with his cover of Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues.” After Ramsey’s video went viral,”Lovesick Blues” soared to the top of the charts on Spotify and many of his older songs are being brought back into the spotlight. Williams has influenced people of all ages and his legacy continues to rise as more and more people continue the yodeling sound.
Other styles of country music have evolved. Honky-tonk was a style made for the new booming country industry, with louder and more dominant instruments. If one imagines downtown Nashville with the bright and loud bars, saloons, or even dance halls, you are probably imagining honky-tonk music. This style is very typical of bar music. Bob Wills is known for brining Western swing into the spotlight. Wills learned a lot about music from the men he worked with while in the cotton fields. Western swing was more or less a mixture of country and jazz. Major instruments used in this style were saxophones, drums, and trumpets. Bob Wills is very well known for his song “Cotton-eyed Joe,” which is mostly known as a square dance. Wills helped make the steel guitar a key factor in country music. Square dancing became very popular due to this music.