Introduction | Early Years of Hillbilly | Country
In the nineteenth century, country music belonged to fireside and family, to the frontier town and the backwoods hamlet. Four decades into the twentieth, it was utterly transformed, driven headlong into the new world of the new century. First, fiddlers’ conventions and other public events provided a context of competition and offered the musician the chance of going professional.
Then radio and records carried the notes of old-time songs and fiddle tunes far beyond schoolroom and courthouse square. Musicians who seldom left their home town, and whose audiences were numbered in dozens or a few hundreds, could now be heard by tens of thousands in places they would never visit, might never even have been heard of. Rural singers and pickers gazed upon a vista of commercial possibility, a broad highway to fame and fortune.
That road would eventually lead to a pan-American country music, in which the rough edges of regional difference would be planed and smoothed to form a standardized product. But in the crucial decades of the 1920s and 1930s, there was still room for the variety of local styles and the idiosyncrasy of individual performers: for the blind street singer and the cowboy, the hoedown fiddler from Georgia and the waltz fiddler from Mississippi, the mountain banjo picker and the guitar-playing blue yodeller; for musicians as saltily distinct – both from each other and from the rest of the musical world – as Fiddlin’ John Carson and Roy Acuff, or Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family. Guided by style-setters like these and the innumerable artists who followed them, country music arrived at the end of the 1930s as a major player on radio, on record, on film and on the road. The poor relation of American music had come into its inheritance.
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