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Rediscover the diversity and rich traditions of country music

As with all genres of music, country has a long, rich and complex history. Its roots are in the early Appalachian folk music and blues traditions of the American deep south. But through the decades, country music has evolved, incorporating pop, rock and alternative music to create a plethora of sub-genres in the country style.

What is country music?

Also once known as “country and western” and “hillbilly music,” country music today is loosely used as a catch-all to categorize and describe a wide variety of styles. Its origins can be traced back to the southern US in the early 1900s, and the folk songs, ballads and rhythmic fiddle styles brought to the Appalachian Mountains by European settlers from Ireland, Scotland and England.

The term “country music” actually gained mainstream popularity in the 1940s, replacing the previous and derogatory sounding “hillbilly” term. Country also came to encompass the “western music” genre eventually, as the two styles developed parallel and from the same sources.

The characteristics of country music

To achieve the particular “twangy” sound associated with country music, country songs typically feature instruments common to folk music, such as banjos, fiddles, steel guitars and mandolins. Traditional country songs use a simple three chord and a verse-chorus-verse structure, and weave narratives that tell stories with characters and plot twits featuring a mix of themes including redemption, love, loss, drinking, running from the law, the cowboy life and so on. Often, lyrics are spoken instead of being sung.

Notable early country music artists

You can’t talk about country music without speaking of “the Father of Country Music” Jimmie Rodgers. His song, “Blue Yodel #1” sold more than 1 million copies in 1927. Although he died a short time later in 1933, his influence on the genre was immeasurable and is still felt today. At the same time Rodgers was making a name for himself with his brand of country folk, a vocal group called The Carter Family was also making waves. The original group consisted of A.P. Carter, his wife Sara Carter, and his sister-in-law Maybelle Carter, and they were the first and most famous of the country vocal groups. A later addition to the group, June Carter, eventually married country legend Johnny Cash.

Country music hits the mainstream

Although the genre was once maligned for its poor, hillbilly roots, country music gained major popularity through the 1930s and 1940s when Hollywood movies featured cowboy films and country stars like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers (and Trigger the horse!).

Soon, instruments that were once shunned in country music, such as the drums were added to the mix, giving way to the Honky Tonk sounds of artists like Hank Williams. After World War II, the genre became more polished, with Nashville becoming the capital of country music in the 50s and 60s, and popular artists like Patsy Cline and Chet Atkins. And, who could forget that the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, started out crooning country ballads.

Modern country music

The 1970s saw the rise of the “Outlaw” country sound, with artists like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard singing darker tales of anti-heroes and rebels, as well as the emergence of top 40 mainstream “soft rock” country by artists like John Denver, Glen Campbell and Dolly Parton. However, by the 1980s country music again turned to themes of family, love and good times through major country recording artists such as Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, Alan Jackson and more.

Today, contemporary country music continues in popularity (and is actually the most listened to music for drive-time rush hour traffic in the US), encompassing diverse sub-genres ranging from bluegrass and alt-country, to rockabilly, “pop country” and beyond, and featuring much-loved artists including Faith Hill, Patty Loveless, Kenny Chesney, The Dixie Chicks and so many more.