A brief history of Country Music

by Piero Scaruffi
A chapter of my History of Popular Music

TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.

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(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Popular Music")
Continued from Country Music

Post-war Country Music

The Nashville Sound

TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Chet Atkins' invention (the "Nashville sound", designed as much for the rural southern states as for the big northern cities) spawned the country-pop crossover of Eddy Arnold (I'll Hold You In My Heart, 1947; Bouquet of Roses, 1948), George Morgan (Candy Kisses, 1949); Jim Reeves (Mexican Joe, 1953; Four Walls, 1957; Joe Allison's He'll Have to Go, 1959), Carl Smith (Loose Talk, 1954), Faron Young Live Fast Love Hard Die Young, 1955; Willie Nelson's Hello Walls, 1961), "Sonny" James Loden (Young Love, 1956), Ferlin Husky (Gone, 1957), Stonewall Jackson (Waterloo, 1959), Roger Miller (Ray Price's Invitation to the Blues, 1958; Dang Me, 1964; his hobo song King of the Road, 1965; England Swings, 1965), Marty Robbins (Melvin Endsley's Singing the Blues, 1955; A White Sport Coat, 1956; El Paso, 1959), George Jones (JP Richardson's White Lightning, 1959; Darrell Edwards' Tender Years, 1961; Dickey "Lee" Lipscomb's She Thinks I Still Care, 1962; Walk Through This World With Me, 1967; Bobby Braddock's He Stopped Loving Her Today, 1980), pianist Charlie Rich (Lonely Weekends, 1960; Sittin' and Thinkin', 1962; Kenny O'Dell's Behind Closed Doors, 1973; The Most Beautiful Girl, 1973), Leroy Van Dyke (Kendall Hayes' Walk On By, 1961, the top selling country hit of all times), Porter Wagoner (Misery Loves Company, 1962; Bill Anderson's The Cold Hard Facts Of Life, 1967),, Jimmy Dean (Big Bad John, 1961), Dave Dudley (Six Days On the Road, 1963), who inaugurated the genre of "trucking songs", former rocker Harold Lloyd "Conway Twitty" Jenkins (It's Only Make Believe, 1958; Next in Line, 1968; Hello Darlin', 1970), David Houston (Almost Persuaded, 1966), Jack Greene (There Goes My Everything, 1967), Mac Davis (In The Ghetto, 1969; Baby Don't Get Hooked On Me, 1972), and Charley Pride, the first black star of Nashville (All I Have To Offer You Is Me, 1969).

Ray Price's operatic and throbbing Texan honky-tonk paid off after he formed the Cherokee Cowboys thanks to Ralph Mooney's Crazy Arms (1956), his own You Done Me Wrong (1956), Billy Walker's I've Got a New Heartache (1956), Bob Wills' My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You (1957), and Bill Anderson's City Lights (1958).

There had been female pop stars who had successfully recorded country material, such as yodeler Patsy Montana (Rubye Blevins) with I Wanna Be A Cowboy's Sweetheart (1935), the first million-seller by a female country singer, Molly O'Day with The Tramp On The Street (1949), Patti Page (Clara Fowler) with her version of Frank "Pee Wee" King's Tennessee Waltz (1950), one of country music's biggest hits, and Larry Coleman's Changing Partners (1953), but it was Kitty Wells (Muriel Deason) who legitimized female country singers with Jay Miller's It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels, 1952), and opened the doors of Nashville to: Patsy Cline (Virginia Hensley), whose hits included Don Hecht's Walking After Midnight (1957), Hank Cochran's I Fall To Pieces (1960), which marked her conversion to the pop ballad, Willie Nelson's Crazy (1961), Hank Cochran's She's Got You (1962), and Don Gibson's Sweet Dreams (1963), which became her signature song; Brenda "Lee" Tarpley (Ronnie Self's I'm Sorry, 1960); Skeeter Davis, one of the poppiest of Atkins' singers (I'm Falling Too, 1960; My Last Date, 1961; The End Of The World, 1963; I Can't Stay Mad At You, 1963); Loretta "Lynn" Webb (Success, 1962; Don't Come Home A-Drinkin, 1965; the autobiographical Coal Miner's Daughter, 1970); Tammy Wynette (Billy Sherrill's I Don't Wanna Play House, 1967; Stand By Your Man, 1968).

These were all song-oriented stars, with hardly anything to say other than their voice. The notable exception was Jean Shephard, whose album Songs Of A Love Affair (1956) was one of the first concept albums in the history of popular music.

Also an exception was Dolly Parton, equally adept at singing (Dumb Blonde, 1967; Joshua, 1970; Jolene, 1974; Mann & Weil's Here You Come Again, 1977; 9 To 5, 1980; Think About Love, 1985) and songwriting (My Tennessee Mountain Home, 1969; Coat Of Many Colors, 1971; I Will Always Love You, 1974; Wildflowers, 1987).

Properly speaking, the "Nashville sound" started in the mid 1950s.

The quintessence of the "Nashville sound" was embodied in the instrumentals cut by Atkins' studio pianist Floyd Cramer, such as Last Date (1960) and On The Rebound (1961), a style derived from a style that Los Angeles' pianist Don Robertson had pioneered with Hank Locklin's multi-million seller Please Help Me I'm Falling (1960).

Among session guitarists, Jerry Reed (Guitar Man, 1967) and Lenny Breau were perhaps the most influential.

Nashville Songwriters

Johnny Cash bridged the world of country music, rock'n'roll and the folk revival with the epic narratives of Folsom Prison Blues (1956), I Walk The Line (1956), which remained his signature song, Ballad Of The Teenage Queen (1958).

The Louvin Brothers were the main defenders of the old order, both musically (they harked back to the Appalachian sound) and morally (they sang of churches and domestic joys), but their songs, such as You're Running Wild (1956) and My Baby's Gone (1959), evolved the vocal harmonies of the Delmore Brothers towards the style of the Everly Brothers, and their album Tragic Songs of Life (1956) pioneered the intimate singer-songwriter style.

Don Gibson wrote three classics: Sweet Dreams (1955), Oh Lonesome Me (1958), and I Can't Stop Lovin You (1958).

John Loudermilk's million-sellers (for other artists), such as A Rose And A Babe Ruth (1956) for George Hamilton, Waterloo (1959), Sad Movies (1961), The Language Of Love (1961), Norman (1962), Abilene (1963) for George Hamilton, Tobacco Road (1964), and Indian Reservation (1971), ran the gamut from pop to folk, from rock to country.

Songwriter Bill Anderson rejuvinated country music with the realism of City Lights (1958), launched by Ray Price, and the romanticism of Mama Sang A Sad Song (1962), besides writing The Cold Hard Facts Of Life (1967) for Porter Wagoner, while Harlan Howard represented the conservative wing of Nashville with Pick Me Up On Your Way Down (1958) and Heartaches by the Number (1959), both written for Ray Price.

Shel Silverstein composed (with a self-parodying sense of humour) The Unicorn Song (1961), A Boy Named Sue (1969), Queen Of The Silver Dollar (1973), and recorded loony collections such as Freaking At the Freakers Ball (1979).

A genre within the genre was the "truck-driving song". Perhaps the most sophisticated were produced by Woodrow "Red" Sovine: Giddy up Go (1966), Phantom 309 (1967), Teddy Bear (1976).

Mickey Newbury was a songwriter specializing in heartbreaking stories, such as Just Dropped In (1968) and She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye (1969), who also crafted the historical saga of An American Trilogy (1971).

Even more sophisticated was Tom Hall, the dramatic poet of small-town America: Harper Valley PTA (1968) for Jeannie Riley, Ballad Of Forty Dollars (1968), A Week In A County Jail (1969), Salute To A Switchblade (1970), Kentucky Feb 27 1971 (1971), Trip To Hyden (1971), The Year That Clayton Delaney Died (1971), Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine (1973), Pamela Brown (1974). These detailed narrative songs emphasized the dignity of hillbillies.

Dallas Frazier, the author of the silly novelty Alley Oop (1960), credited to the Hollywood Argyles, was actually a serious storyteller whose ballads were bleak frescoes of ordinary hard lives: There Goes My Everything (1966), The Son Of Hickory Holler's Tramp (1968), California Cottonfields (1969).

Bob McDill was a specialist of gentle romantic country music, as proven by Amanda (1973), sung by Don Williams.

In Texas, country music coexisted shoulder to shoulder with "tex-mex", the music (accordion-driven, and based on polka and waltz) of the chicanos. Freddy Fender was the main chicano to cross over into country music, with Wasted Days And Wasted Nights (1959), and then pop music, with Before The Next Teardrop Falls (1975).

Bakersfield: Honky-tonk

However, the most exciting place to be (artistically, if not commercially, speaking) was Bakersfield, a California town northeast of Los Angeles, where two giants of country music founded a new school of (hard-edged) honky-tonk at a time when Nashville was selling out to orchestral pop.

The lively, cadenced sound of Buck Owens' songs straddled the border between country music and rock music because it was driven by two guitars, a country (slide) guitar and a rock (electric) guitar (Don Rich), the two pillars of his Buckaroos: Under Your Spell Again (1959), which sounded like soul music, Johnny Russell's Act Naturally (1963), which sounded like rock'n'roll, Under the Influence of Love (1961), Love's Gonna Live Here (1963), Tiger By The Tail (1964), Rich's Waiting in Your Welfare Line (1966), Tall Dark Stranger (1969).

Merle Haggard, a fan of Lefty Frizzell who grew up both an old-fashioned rambler and a modern juvenile delinquent (thus destined to bridge country music and rock music), adopted a similar two-guitar sound. From Wynn Stewart's Sing Me A Sad Song (1965) to Liz Anderson's existential dirges Strangers (1965) and I'm A Lonesome Fugitive (1966), from his first album of (mostly) original compositions, Swinging Doors (1966), containing The Bottle Let Me Down, from the transitional hits Sing Me Back Home (1967), I Threw Away the Rose (1967) and Today I Started Loving You Again (1968) to the mature social fresco of Hungry Eyes (1969), from the anti-hippie anthem Okie From Muskogee (1969) to the workers' lament of If We Make It Through December (1974), via the concept album Someday We'll Look Back (1971), Haggard paid tribute to his own depressing autobiography and to the even more depressing condition of the white working class.

Nashville: Country-pop

On the other side of the barricade, Kenny Rogers, a former member of the New Christy Minstrels, applied his slow, flowing baritone in mellow and bland story-ballads such as Mickey Newbury's Just Dropped In (1968), Mel Tillis' Ruby Don't Take Your Love To Town (1969), Lucille (1977), Don Schlitz's The Gambler (1978), Coward Of The County (1979). The string orchestra accompanied most of his romantic hits: She Believes In Me (1979), Lionel Richie's Lady (1980), Don't Fall In Love With A Dreamer (1980), Bob Seger's We`ve Got Tonight (1983), the Bee Gees' Islands In The Stream (1983).

The simple, laid-back mood of Glen Campbell was revealed by John Hartford's Gentle On My Mind (1967), and became the main vehicle for Jimmy Webb's songs.

Bobby Goldsboro, Roy Orbison's former guitarist, was the ultimate romantic of country music, with Bobby Russell's Honey (1968), Autumn of My Life (1968), Watching Scotty Grow (1970), With Pen In Hand (1972).

Ray "Stevens" Ragsdale was the main composer of novelty ditties, a subgenre that became extremely popular in the 1960s, such as Ahab The Arab (1962), Gitarzan (1969) and The Streak (1974), although his biggest hit was the social meditation of Everything Is Beautiful (1970).


Malone, Bill: "Country Music USA" (1968)

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