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Station Spotlight: Country
The main components of the modern country music style date back to music traditions throughout the Southern United States and the Southwestern United States, while its place in American popular music was established in the 1920s during the early days of music recording. Country music was “introduced to the world as a Southern phenomenon.”
Immigrants to the southern Appalachian Mountains, of the Southeastern United States, brought the folk music and instruments of Europe, Africa, and the Mediterranean Basin along with them for nearly 300 years, which developed into Appalachian music. As the country expanded westward, the Mississippi River and Louisiana became a crossroads for country music, giving rise to Cajun music. In the Southwestern United States, it was the Rocky Mountains, the American frontier, and Rio Grande that acted as a similar backdrop for Native American, Mexican, and cowboy ballads, which resulted in New Mexico music and the development of Western music, and its directly related Red Dirt, Texas country, and Tejano music styles.
Role of East Tennessee
The U.S. Congress has formally recognized Bristol, Tennessee as the “Birthplace of Country Music”, based on the historic Bristol recording sessions of 1927. Since 2014, the city has been home to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Historians have also noted the influence of the less-known Johnson City sessions of 1928 and 1929, and the Knoxville sessions of 1929 and 1930. In addition, the Mountain City Fiddlers Convention, held in 1925, helped to inspire modern country music. Before these, pioneer settlers, in the Great Smoky Mountains region, had developed a rich musical heritage.
The first commercial recordings of what was considered instrumental music in the traditional country style were “Arkansas Traveler” and “Turkey in the Straw” by fiddlers Henry Gilliland & A.C. (Eck) Robertson on June 30, 1922, for Victor Records and released in April 1923. Columbia Records began issuing records with “hillbilly” music (series 15000D “Old Familiar Tunes”) as early as 1924. The Carter Family, are a dynasty of country music and began with (left to right) A.P. Carter, wife Sara Carter and Maybelle Carter Jimmie Rodgers, country singer, yodeler, and pioneer, was the country’s first major star
The first commercial recording of what is widely considered to be the first country song featuring vocals and lyrics was Fiddlin’ John Carson with “Little Log Cabin in the Lane” for Okeh Records on June 14, 1923.
Vernon Dalhart was the first country singer to have a nationwide hit in May 1924 with “Wreck of the Old 97”. The flip side of the record was “Lonesome Road Blues”, which also became very popular. In April 1924, “Aunt” Samantha Bumgarner and Eva Davis became the first female musicians to record and release country songs. Many “hillbilly” musicians, such as Cliff Carlisle, recorded blues songs throughout the decade and into the 1930s. Other important early recording artists were Riley Puckett, Don Richardson, Fiddlin’ John Carson, Uncle Dave Macon, Al Hopkins, Ernest V. Stoneman, Blind Alfred Reed, Charlie Poole, and the North Carolina Ramblers and the Skillet Lickers. The steel guitar entered country music as early as 1922 when Jimmie Tarlton met famed Hawaiian guitarist Frank Ferera on the West Coast.
Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family are widely considered to be important early country musicians. From Scott County, Virginia, the Carters had learned sight-reading of hymnals and sheet music using solfege. Their songs were first captured at a historic recording session in Bristol, Tennessee, on August 1, 1927, where Ralph Peer was the talent scout and sound recordist. A scene in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? depicts a similar occurrence in the same timeframe. Rodgers fused hillbilly country, gospel, jazz, blues, pop, cowboy, and folk, and many of his best songs were his compositions, including “Blue Yodel”, which sold over a million records and established Rodgers as the premier singer of early country music. Beginning in 1927, and for the next 17 years, the Carters recorded some 300 old-time ballads, traditional tunes, country songs, and gospel hymns, all representative of America’s southeastern folklore and heritage.
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