Country music history begins with the first British colonists who settled in America. Learn how this music evolved and gained popularity over the years.
Country music history has its roots in the folk and traditional music played by the first colonists to reach America. The British sang songs about the supernatural and hard times. Their music became entwined with folk music from the New World, which cut down on the violent themes and lyrics that were typical of British folk songs. Gospel and spiritual music from the South helped to influence country, as did the folk music of Irish immigrants in the 19th century. Country music was mostly played and sung in the rural heartland of America until the late part of the 20th century.
Country on the Radio
In the 1920s, the first country radio programs emerged, bringing country records into homes that had never heard this music. Country music of the 1920s talked about shipwrecks, train wrecks and "The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane." In the 1930s, the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression further shaped country music. During this time, songs about losing one's home and the image of the cowboy as a hard-working, lonesome American icon became popular. Country music came to embrace themes of sorrow and heartbreak that were seldom found in the popular music played in America's cities. As a generation headed West in search of opportunity, country music spread from hubs like Nashville across the American southwest.
In 1923, WBAP in Fort Worth, Texas, broadcast the first country music radio Barn Dance, a variety show aimed at rural audiences. Soon, radio stations like WSM in Nashville and WLS in Chicago WLS started airg the broadcast. By 1930, country music could be heard throughout America. Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family became major stars.
The Grand Ole Opry started out as the WSM Barn Dance in 1925. It was renamed The Grand Ole Opry in 1927. In 1939, NBC radio network broadcast a half hour of music from the WSM Barn Dance. It was sponsored by R. J. Reynolds and hosted by Roy Acuff. By 1946, the Grand Ole Opry was seating more than 4,000 people at each performance. Roy Acuff and Fred Rose also started Nashville's first country-music publishing firm. The star of the firm was Hank Williams, a country music great.
During the 1950s, country stars Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins rubbed shoulders with rock icons Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley at Sun Studios in Memphis. Artists like Presley and Lewis added country themes and sounds to their pop music, sparking a new interest across America.
Despite its popularity in many parts of America, few country songs ever made it to the top of the pop charts. Kenny Rogers had several hits in the 1980s, including "The Gambler" and "Coward of the County," as well as his duet with Dolly Parton, "Islands in the Stream." Juice Newton scored a hit with "Angel of the Morning." More often, however, pop artists found success with covers of country songs, such as Whitney Houston's version of "I Will Always Love You," a song originally written and recorded by Parton.
In 1992, country had a major resurgance in America in the wake of Billy Ray Cyrus' number-one hit, "Achy Breaky Heart." Country stations popped up in major cities from coast to coast, and many are still popular today.
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Need a country flair for your Christmas music mix? Looking for something low-key and relaxing? Try some of these favorites from the world of country Christmas music.