Introduction | Cowboys & Playboys | Country
It is ironic that western music – be it cowboy vocal balladry or ranch-house dance fiddling – began seriously to engage the imagination of the American public as the real West slipped further and further into the past and the country became increasingly urbanized and sophisticated.
This capturing of the public imagination was perhaps inevitable, too, not only because of the nostalgia for what was lost – and sometimes never was – but also because of the huge impact of new technologies such as the phonograph and, in particular, radio. These made the wide dissemination of music possible, while on a more practical level the introduction of microphones and electrical public-address systems allowed for – and even demanded – stylistic growth and facilitated the explosion of the music’s popularity in the 1930s. At the same time, improved road systems and cheaper and more reliable transportation further aided the music’s spread and evolution.
It is also ironic that while western music and offshoots such as western swing long ago ceased to be dominant musical styles in mainstream country music, the trappings of these styles – western dress and a certain mystique – have remained at the forefront. There are few modern male country stars, from Hank Williams to the cowboy hat-wearing young singers of recent generations far removed stylistically from anything remotely ‘western’, who don’t present themselves as cowboys – Stetson hat, boots and all. This lingering affectation is a testimony to the huge impact of western music and western swing from the 1930s to the early 1950s, and to the continuing attraction of a mythic West that had gripped the nation so strongly in these years.
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