Styles & Forms | Mainstream Country Music

The names of this array of landmark artists whose music either straddled or transcended specific genres, – Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Conway Twitty, Charley Pride and Buck Owens among others – have become synonymous with country music.

During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, country’s popularity penetrated deeper into the American psyche and even won an international following. In 1953 there was only one full-time country music station in the US; by the late-1950s there was still only a handful, but by 1969 the scope of the ‘country explosion’ was such that the number of full-time country stations had risen to 606. Country music also found a handy vehicle in popular network musical variety TV shows like Hee Haw and The Johnny Cash Show.

The Top Dogs Of Country

Foremost among this era’s artists was Johnny Cash. Cash first emerged from the Memphis/Sun Records 1950s rockabilly stable with songs like ‘I Walk The Line’, but by the early 1960s he had embarked on an amazing four-decade country career, releasing such classics as ‘Ring Of Fire’ and ‘Folsom Prison Blues’. With his unmistakably gruff, sonorous voice and his incredible breadth as a writer and interpreter of songs, Cash delved masterfully into everything from historic Americana ballads to gut-bucket prison songs and politically charged, folk-style ballads.

Nearly as formidable a figure was Merle Haggard. He first emerged from the Bakersfield, California music scene as a Buck Owens protégé, but by the early 1970s, Haggard manifested nearly unparalleled creative and stylistic ambition. With his vivid songwriting, rich, fluid Lefty Frizzell-style baritone, accomplished lead guitar work and finesse as a country-jazz bandleader, Haggard became a dominant figure throughout the 1970s and 1980s. As a revivalist, he had a profound influence on the next generation of artists, with his masterful reprises of music by greats like Jimmie Rodgers, Lefty Frizzell and western swing king Bob Wills, as well as original material such as ‘The Fugitive’, ‘Okie From Muskogee’ and ‘I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink’.

Willie Nelson had a similarly pervasive impact. By the mid-1970s the vastly talented and musically adventurous singer-songwriter-guitarist transcended his spearhead role of the early 1970s outlaw movement to forge a remarkable career that has covered a panoply of styles – from hardcore honky-tonk and country rock to pop balladry and even inspired excursions into soft jazz and 1930s and 1940s show tunes.

Straddling these two extremes was Conway Twitty (‘Hello Darlin’’, ‘You’ve Never Been This Far Before’, ‘I’d Love To Lay You Down’). Though his instincts were more unerringly commercial than Cash’s or Haggard’s, Twitty (another Sun Records alumnus) would consistently top the charts from the late 1960s into the 1990s with everything from hardcore honky-tonk ballads to syrupy countrified remakes of pop and rock ballads. Other country stars, such as Ferlin Husky, Mac Davis, Ronnie Milsap, Glen Campbell, Kenny Rogers...

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


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