Styles & Forms | Early & Old-Time Country

There is no distinct boundary line between the early and old-time country era, when the music was still relatively unshaped by the American mainstream, and the modern age, when country music’s popularity and ubiquity have made it very much a part of the mass culture.

But it was in the 1920s, due to the emerging radio and recording industries, that the US’s varied regional and ethnic rural, grassroots musical forms began to find popularity beyond the isolated regions that spawned them. By the 1940s and early 1950s, as the commercial country radio and record industries gathered force, the music’s connections to its grassroots origins became a bit more tenuous, and the old-time era was beginning to come to an end.

Blue Yodellers And Family Values

Though many successful and noteworthy artists preceded him, Meridian, Mississippi-born Jimmie Rodgers is most often hailed as the ‘father of modern country music’ and one of its earliest national stars. Though Rodgers died of tuberculosis in 1933 aged 35, his ubiquitous influence was unrivaled until the emergence of Hank Williams in the late 1940s. Even 70 years after his death, his impact can still be heard in the music of latter-day stars such as Merle Haggard, Lefty Frizzell, George Jones, Gene Autry, Hank Snow and Ernest Tubb. With his warm, laconic, seemingly effortless vocal style (which included a thrilling falsetto and yodel), Rodgers brought to the country table a strong feel for black blues. Some of his classic recordings sold hundreds of thousands of copies – huge numbers for the time – and their sales were bolstered by his many live appearances on radio and in the vaudeville and tent shows that were popular throughout the southern US in the 1920s and early 1930s.

The Carter Family, often hailed as the ‘first family of country music’, came from Virginia. Like Rodgers before them, they were first captured on disk by pioneering record executive Ralph Peer in Bristol, Tennessee in 1927. While Jimmie Rodgers’ music was edgy and adventurous for its time, The Carter Family made music that was soothing, acoustic and heavily steeped in mountain traditions. Timeless recordings like ‘Keep On The Sunny Side’, ‘Wildwood Flower’ and ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ (a Tin Pan Alley tune that they rustically reinterpreted) often spoke of the comfort of home, hearth and the old ways. With these songs and others The Carter Family explored a wide variety of genres, including blues, gospel, traditional ballads and nineteenth-century parlour songs.

This emphasis on the family tradition continued from the 1930s to the 1950s, when there was a rise of various influential sibling harmony ensembles like The Delmore Brothers, The Blue Sky Boys and Charlie & Bill Monroe. Familial vocal harmonies were further popularized by The Bailes Brothers from west Virginia, The Allen Brothers, The Dixon Brothers and Johnnie (Edwards) & Jack (Anglin – Johnnie’s brother-in-law).

Showtime At The Grand Ole Opry

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


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