Early Country Music
Country music lay buried in the mountains and flatlands of the Southeastern pocket of America until the early 1920s, when Ralph Peer (1892-1960), recording director for Okeh (the same recording director who captured so many of the early blues performances, see Chapter 12), began to roam around with his new-fangled equipment in search of folk performers. Francis Child and Cecil Sharp had studied and catalogued this Anglo-Celtic (Welsh, Irish Gaelic, and Scottish Gaelic) music, but Peer was not interested in scholarly investigations, and it is unlikely that he even knew about the work of Child and Sharp. Businessman Ralph Peer wanted to be sure that he got in on the new market for white folk music. A new market it was, indeed, and the flames of profit were being fanned by the new technologies of radio and recordings.
The Victor Talking Machine Company led the way, but soon the entire industry was involved. Victor had country fiddlers Eck Robertson and Henry Gilliland doing "The Arkansas Traveler" and "Sally Goodin"; Columbia had recorded a blind singer, Riley Puckett, doing "The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane" and "Rock All Our Babies to Sleep"; and Okeh had recorded the singer-fiddler John Carson doing "The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster's Going to Crow" with his treatment of "The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane" on the reverse side.
The record companies were not sure what to call this music. They suspected, correctly, that the word "hillbilly" had some negative resonance, so they coined "hill country tunes", "songs of the hills and plains", "old familiar tunes", "old-time music", and other self-conscious terms. John Edwards of Cremorne, Australia, the world's foremost scholar before his death in 1960, called these early days "The Golden Age of Hillbilly Music" (Malone 1968, 44). But even today, the word "hillbilly" brings a mixed reaction. It is used, occasionally, by real country music insiders as a term of endearment, but citified outsiders would be wise to be very selective about when and where they use the word.
Mainstream entertainers took notice. Wendell Hall, "the red-headed music maker" of vaudeville fame, accompanied himself on ukulele, and with his own text to an old folk melody, came up with giant hit, "It Ain't Gonna Rain No More". Light opera singer Marion Try Slaughter recorded under forty different pseudonyms for nineteen different labels before he hit it big using the name Vernon Dalhart (1883-1948). Taking the names of two towns in Texas (Vernon and Dalhart), he recorded hundreds of folk and quasi-folk tunes and became country music's first millionaire. Two of Vernon Dalhart's biggest hits were "The Death of Floyd Collins" and "The Prisoner's Song".
But it was in August of 1927, in Bristol, Tennessee, that country music history was to be made. After a few years of recording blues tracks for Okeh Records, Ralph Peer left the company and, formed his own publishing firm, Southern Music Publishing Company, and started lining up talent for the big record companies, mostly Victor, in return for copyright ownership of all the music recorded. He put advertisements in local newspapers, set up a temporary recording location, and "it worked like dynamite" (Malone 1968, 86). Peer was now one of the most successful talent scouts in the industry.
Lured by Peer's newspaper ads in the Bristol area, several dozen acts appeared, two of which became the most influential forces in early country music, and "provided it with two of its basic styles" (Malone 1968, 63).
The Carter Family produced a special kind of white folk music best described, perhaps, as "mountain music". Mountain music tended to be more conservative, relying on traditional songs and instruments, and it was performed in Appalachian high-nasal harmony. Today's bluegrass groups owe much to this tradition.
Alvin Pleasant "A. P." Carter (1891-1960) married Sara Dougherty (1898-1979) in 1915, and their home in Maces Spring, Virginia, soon became a neighborhood hangout for local music fans and performers. When Maybelle Addington (1909-1978) married A. P.'s brother, E. J. Carter, in 1926, she brought superb skills on autoharp, banjo, and guitar into the family. The Carter Family was well prepared to record when Ralph Peer arrived in Bristol, Tennessee (Malone 1968, 64).
Over the years they recorded some three hundred compositions on a dozen or more labels, becoming one of the most influential acts in country music history. Sara sang lead, Maybelle sang alto, and A. P. sang bass-baritone. That disposition of harmony parts is still common in "Southern Gospel" trios today. Maybelle's guitar style and some of her specific "licks" (short melodic motives) can be heard in almost any modern guitarist's version of "Wildwood Flower", one of the Carter Family's special numbers. Many of today's country guitarists, Chet Atkins among them, acknowledge indebtedness to Maybelle Carter's pioneer style.
A. P. Carter freely altered some of the modal lines in the many regional variants of the traditional folk songs they recorded so the three-way harmony felt more comfortable and up-to-date. He wrote a good number of tunes for the group, also, and, after they moved from Victor to Columbia and Decca, he secured copyrights on both his own works and the public domain traditional songs – many of which were deep fundamentalist Christian songs and the remainder of which were secular songs on topics of intense grief and despair. Those sad songs are still a big part of country music today – somebody-done-somebody-wrong songs, or "country weepers", as they are sometimes called.
In later years, Maybelle's three daughters Helen (1927-1998), June (1929-2003), and Anita (1933-1999) joined the Carter Family, and even after the elder Carters divorced, the group held together. After a while, Mother Maybelle and her three daughters continued on by themselves until Maybelle's death. June eventually became the second Mrs. Johnny Cash and the family music tradition continues with many Carter relatives in Virginia.
Jimmie Rodgers' style, simply called "country music", stressed more solo singing accompanied by instruments from the world of mainstream popular music, and he often drew on his early experience with black blues and work songs. Today's mainstream country industry has its historical roots here.
Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933), known and loved by all as the Father of Country Music, had a sad career in many ways. His mother died when he was four, and he was discovered to have tuberculosis in late adolescence. With no formal schooling, Jimmie followed his father around the railroad gangs from one job to another. It was here that he learned blues and work songs from the black railroad men, and learned to play banjo and guitar.
He worked as a railroad brakeman and part-time entertainer for fourteen years until his tuberculosis sapped his strength. In the final eight short years of his life, he established the single most important career in the entire history of country music.
He wrote many of his own tunes with the assistance of his sister-in-law, Elsie McWilliams, a trained musician and poet. His repertoire included railroad songs such as "The Southern Cannonball" and "Waiting for a Train", rounder tunes like "Frankie and Johnny" and "My Rough and Rowdy Ways", risqué numbers like "Pistol Packin' Papa", lullabies like "Sleep, Baby, Sleep", cowboy tunes like "When the Cactus Is In Bloom", hobo melodies like "Hobo Bill's Last Ride", and a large number of sentimental songs depicting semireligious, nostalgic, and romantic themes (Malone 1968, 96).
But it was for his blue yodels that he was idolized. In that mournful utterance at the end of stanzas, he somehow tapped the deepest regions of a collective country mentality. Scholars argue about the derivation of the yodel – a kind of cross between a Swiss yodel and a black field holler – but they agree on its profound effect. John Greenway goes so far as to claim that the whole history of country music in Australia is clearly attributable to Rodgers' compositions, themes, and styles. And one of Greenway's correspondents reported seeing a large collection of Jimmie Rodgers records in an Inuit hut near Point Barrow, Alaska (Malone 1968, 92).
Although he often posed in a cowboy suit or railroad brakeman's attire for pictures, he seldom appeared on stage that way. For performances, he usually wore a light tan suit and a straw hat. He would put his foot on a chair, cradle his guitar across his knee, and captivate his audiences with a selection of tunes taking no more than twenty minutes (Malone 1968, 93).
In a voice unmistakably southern, he kidded his audiences in a whimsical fashion and beguiled them with songs that seem to catalogue the varied memories, yearnings, and experiences of small-town and rural America: nostalgia for the departed mother or "the old southern town" of childhood; pathos for the homeless hobo dying in a boxcar or trying to bum a South-bound freight; unrequited memories of the sweetheart who proved unfaithful; laughter for the rakes and rogues who "loved and left them" in every town; and a variety of other experiences with which most people could identify (Malone 1968, 93-94).
His gentle guitar and rough nasal tenor gave his tunes a kind of plaintive sincerity that is mentioned by everyone he touched. Professional musician friends, railroad workers, truck drivers, laborers, farmers, and housewives all felt that he was one of their own, and that he was singing directly to them. It made the bleak early years of the Great Depression somehow more bearable.
At his peak, he made $100,000 per year, but spent it on extravagance and medical bills. During his last recording session, he was so weak that a cot was placed in the studio. He would sing a selection, then rest on the cot, then sing another selection. Two days later he died. His body was transported by train to his home in Meridian, Mississippi, where today there is a Jimmie Rodgers Museum of personal papers, music, and memorabilia.
A great many entertainers made it big in records. A surprising number of them were household names in the South, but almost completely unknown in the big cities of the North. Uncle Dave Macon, the masterful comedian and banjo picker, had a large crowd of faithful fans, as did Ernest "Pop" Stoneman and the Dixie Mountaineers, Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers, the Carolina Tar Heels, Byrd Moore and His Hotshots, Dr. Humphrey Bate and the Possum Hunters.
Record sales of the 78 rpms outdistanced anyone's wildest dream. It is said that rural folks would go to the general store to buy a loaf of bread, a pound of butter, and the latest Jimmie Rodgers recording. Sears, Roebuck, and Co. and several other big mail-order companies carried their own line of records, as did many of the "five-and-dime" stores such as the Woolworth and Grant national chains.
The major record companies came out with special series numbers and with subsidiary labels to handle certain areas of music. Back then also, as now, the companies were buying each other, consolidating or hiring new production teams, and stealing each other's executives, performing talent, and engineers.
Equally important to the sudden growth of country music in the 1920s was another new engineer's toy called radio. Experimental at best before World War I, radio soon captured the entertainment fancy of America, and moved into nearly every home by the end of the decade.
WSB in Atlanta, Georgia seems to be first to broadcast country music, followed soon by WBAP in Fort Worth, Texas, which enjoys a claim to being first in the production of a "barn dance" format. The broadcast power (wattage) of these early stations was unregulated, and their signals often traveled to Canada, New York, Haiti, and Hawaii.
The most important weekly barn dance program for a while was the National Barn Dance from WLS in Chicago. Owned by Sears, Roebuck, and Co., with call letters for the World's Largest Store, WLS broadcast its first group of country fiddlers from a small mezzanine in the Sherman Hotel, April 19, 1924, alternating with the popular Isham Jones dance band from the College Inn.
The surprising response pleased the station executives, and they quickly formed the WLS Barn Dance, which changed names shortly thereafter to National Barn Dance. Mixing pop entertainers with country music acts, the show grew to be a huge success, moving to Chicago's Eighth Street Theatre in 1932. It was picked up for national distribution by NBC in 1933. In addition to the regular country music stars, the National Barn Dance presented a number of personalities who went on to various careers in show business: Gene Autry, Correl and Gosden ("Amos 'n' Andy"), Jim and Marian Jordan ("Fibber McGee and Molly"), "Lonesome George" Gobel, and many others.
George D. Hay (1895-1968), journalist-turned-announcer, had been a strong member of the WLS team in Chicago, and he was hired away to be station director for WSM (We Save Millions), in Nashville, Tennessee, owned by the National Life and Accident Insurance Company. He created the WSM Barn Dance, and served as its announcer-host. Following Walter Damrosch's NBC Music Appreciation Hour, George D. Hay, "The Solemn Old Judge", announced one early Saturday evening in 1926, "For the past hour we've been listening to music taken largely from grand opera, but from now on we will present the 'Grand Ole Opry.'" The name caught everyone's imagination, and the program is still broadcast weekly, the oldest continuous radio program in media history.
To house the ever increasing number of performers, WSM constructed Studio A, and installed a large plate glass window so spectators could view the show. Then came permission for fifty people to be in the studio, then a small auditorium was built to hold five hundred, then later the Hillsboro Theater was rented. The show then moved to a large church in East Nashville, then to the War Memorial Stage, then to a converted tabernacle called Ryman Auditorium for thirty years or so, then to the Opryland theme park. Although Opryland closed in 1997 and was converted into a mall, the Grand Ole Opry building was separate and is still used today.
For a long time, an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry was absolutely essential for any credibility in the country music business, much like a Carnegie Hall debut for an aspiring classical musician. These days, however, the recording industry can create a big career separate from the Grand Ole Opry. It is still a strong emotional tie for the traditionalists, however.
Through radio and recordings, country music penetrated the urban-controlled popular music industry in the 1920's.