Country music is popular throughout the United States. In its roots and origins, it reaches back to the fiddle tunes and melodies in the glens and dales of Scotland, the folk ballads of the English, and the mournful spirituals of African-American slaves.
The history is vast and rich, but a vital part of the story of country music can be seen by simply looking at three phases that developed in Tennessee. Country music moved westward across Tennessee, enriching and enlarging this most American type of music.
Music was prevalent throughout rural America. From Gospel hymns to barn dance tunes, people played fiddles, banjos, and guitars, tapped their feet to the rhythms, sang along, or danced to music. Then along came the phonograph and the technology to record music. A Tennessee farmer named A. P. Carter took his wife Sarah and sister-in-law Maybelle to Bristol, Tennessee, to give this record-making idea a try. The year was 1927, and to some extent, country music began then and there.
The Carter Family, as this trio was known, created, developed, enriched, compiled, and defined country music. They were super-stars in their day, with an impact that has yet to be diminished. A. P. Carter traveled the countryside for years collecting songs folk songs, gospel tunes, and ballads. Sarah was a defining singer with a mournful voice that echoed the pain of her listeners. The most successful of the three, Maybelle Carter, developed a style of guitar picking known as “the Carter scratch.”
The original Carter Family fell apart after the breakup of A.P. and Sarah’s marriage, but the music continued as Mother Maybelle sang alongside her three daughters. In time, daughter June rescued and married a young singer named Johnny Cash.
Another giant puzzle piece in the Bristol, Tennessee, story is the recordings of the other super-star Jimmie Rogers. The Mississippi Blue Yodeler, fighting off a death sentence by tuberculosis, sang songs of home, trains, love, lust, and life that inspired every country singer for at least three generations. From Ernest Tubb in Texas to Hank Snow from Canada, young boys learned a few guitar chords, practiced yodeling, sought out listeners, and followed the pathway set out by Rogers. His short, troubled life of sorrow was a metaphor of the hardships of life—largely self-imposed—endured by many a country singer, and not very different from many of their fans.
From the records going back to the days of the Carters, Jimmie Rogers, the Delmore Brothers, Vernon Dalhart, and others, to the next phase of country music, the radio became the Internet, iTunes, and Spotify of the age. Barn dances had long been a part of rural life, but now the barn dance became the venue for set weekly entertainment. Across the country, and not just in the South, weekend performances of country, or as it was often termed “hillbilly,” music was heard on battery-powered radios at nights in the hills, hollers, and valleys across rural America. Even those who moved to the cities for better jobs found their yearning for home at least partially pacified by radio barn dance programs.
In time, one radio show eclipsed them all. It was a barn dance program on the 650 WSM radio station in Nashville, Tennessee, that was performed at an old church building known as the Ryman Auditorium. The announcer, Judge George D. Hay, began the show one night saying, “From the past hour, we have been listening to music taken from Grand Opera. From now on, we will be listening to the Grand Ole Opry.” The name stuck. Beginning on November 28, 1925, the Opry is the longest running radio program in America. It is still the “Mother Church of Country Music”; it is still the longed-for starting point for the careers of singers; it still defines a singer as true country.
Interstate Highway 40 between Memphis and Nashville is aptly termed “Music Highway.” That route links two vital cities and legacies of American music. Not only is Nashville a birthplace and definer of music, but Memphis has its own rich and varied story, actually many stories, about music. The history of Memphis is tied to the cotton culture of the old South; hence, it is more tied to slavery and the contours of the mixing of races and cultures in the South. Musically, the culture is revealed on Beale Street, where music still dominates the clubs and street every night of the week.
Memphis not only gave birth to the blues, but it changed the tempo and content of the country music rooted in Nashville. As music continued to expand from front porches, churches, and dance halls to the radio and record industry, the genres were not always clearly defined. The musical styles were as integrated as the society was segregated. The six strings of the guitar may have had as much to do with overcoming racial barriers than civil rights legislation.
Fittingly, the Memphis music scene produced both B.B. King and Elvis Presley. Appealing to a more youthful, less rural culture, the music became faster, edgier, louder, more suggestive, and more driving. These were still country boys strumming guitars or playing pianos, and there were still gospel tunes and folk ballads in the mix, but the music was breaking the molds of Bristol and Nashville. Sun Records, with its recording studio located on Beale Street, became the defining institution and force for a music that mixed country and blues roots, with new artists appealing beyond the farmers and factory workers who listened to the Opry on Saturday nights. Along with Elvis, there were other young guys such as John R. Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
From the eastern corner of Tennessee, on the edge of the Smoky Mountains, across to rolling hills of middle Tennessee, to the southwest corner on the rolling Mississippi River, country music reached across the state, and from there, across the nation and the world.