Introduction | Country

Country music has been euphemistically called ‘white man’s blues’ or ‘the poetry of the common man’. While both descriptions have elements of truth, neither is quite accurate. It is, in fact, a broad, nebulous, over-reaching category with no exact boundaries or parameters.

Over the decades country music has grown to encompass a greatly varied assortment of music styles and sub-styles. These include everything from the keening old-time hillbilly music of Roy Acuff and bluegrass king Bill Monroe (both long-time favourites on the Grand Ole Opry, broadcast from Nashville since 1925), and the electrified gut-bucket honky-tonk of Texans Ernest Tubb and Hank Thompson, to the ethnic strains of south Louisiana Cajun and south Texas-style conjunto/Tex Mex music, and the high-gloss country-pop of contemporary stars like Shania Twain and Faith Hill.

Also included under country’s catch-all umbrella are the great Texas and Oklahoma western swing bands of the 1930s and 1940s, the influential southern California country rock bands of the 1960s and 1970s and the progressive bluegrass artists of 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. All told, country music is a sprawling, ill-defined yet glorious 80-year-long amalgamation of many different styles, eras, phases and attitudes.

Country music – at least mainstream country music, which generally means the music that is played on commercial country radio stations, turns up in Billboard’s country charts and is mass media-friendly – is to some degree a popular American art form. Yet during the last half-century it has also become a numbers- and profit-driven commercial art form, as well – much like prime time television, for that matter. This owes much to the fact that music’s rise since the 1920s has been made possible by the for-profit radio and recording industries and, more recently, television, the printed media and mass media in general.

Because of this for-profit argument, there has been, through the decades, an enduring tension between the polarities of popular grassroots/creative innovation and the commercial realities of catering, and occasionally pandering, to changing public tastes in order to sell more records and increase market share. As a result, the country music industry has, when prevailing public tastes warranted it, chosen to celebrate and revive its rustic rural roots. At other times it has seemed embarrassed and commercially confined by these roots, so there have been resulting attempts to marginalize and minimize their presence in the music by adding sheens and layers of uptown pop or crossover embellishments.

Geography has, of course, played a major part in country music’s development and sense of identity, although it’s safe to say that today there are probably more country radio listeners living in large cities and their suburbs than on farms and in small towns. While Nashville, Tennessee – with its powerful record industry and the presence of the Grand Ole Opry, the most popular and enduring of the nation’s many live country music radio shows – has become synonymous with country music, other southern and southwestern states...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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