How Can I Learn to Appreciate Country Music?
By John Clifton
It sounds like you're someone who's trying to appreciate country music to adapt to a new setting. That is, I bet you either have a new boyfriend/girlfriend who wants to listen to country music, you started working somewhere that plays country music all day or you just moved South and want to understand what the heck these new people are listening to. Or maybe you just want to broaden your horizons and learn to appreciate something new. Whatever the case, let me try to help you.
I've noticed over the years that people, when they don't like or appreciate a type of music, they usually say, "All the songs sound the same to me." That's a natural reaction and an honest one. Learning to appreciate music is to learn what makes that music loved by those who do love the songs. So if you want to appreciate country music, think about why other people you know enjoy country songs.
Country music is first and foremost a story-telling music. So when you listen to country songs, you need to listen to the stories the songs are telling. One of the reasons people listen to country music is because the tunes involve sad stories or funny anecdotes which relate to their lives. Country music is by-and-large stories about living in smaller, agriculture-based American towns, even if the songs are often written by people who live in a city dominated by corporations and marketing firms.
It wasn't always that way, so if you want to appreciate modern country music, you should learn where country music started.
Appreciate Country Music By Learning Its Origins
If you find that modern country music seems mass-produced and plastic, try giving a listen to the country songs of the past. You might say this is getting back to the roots of country. Remember that "country music" started as folk music. In fact, country music is a blend of several kinds of folk music, which combined to form a distinctive new kind of folk genre.
Country music can be said to have first formed in the 1920's. Country songs of that era were largely written by the descendants of English and Irish immigrants to the American South. These people brought with them the folk songs and folk stories of their British heritage, and many of the country instruments and tunes have an origin in those folk traditions. These people lived in a society based on agriculture, far different than the culture of the American North, which was based around urban living and cosmopolitanism.
But the American South had another important, creative demographic that never existed in Old England and Old Ireland: the African-American population. African-American musical culture in the early 20th century was deeply influenced by the long culture of slavery and the lingering strains of segregation and poverty. Out of this mileau came music forms like the blues, which would have a tremendous impact on country music. Combine African-American blues with Irish and English folk songs and you start to have something that sounds like early country music.
Then remember that all these people, whether of African or European descent, were transplanted to an entirely different continent. All these people had in common small-town communities based on agriculture. Whether white or black, most Southerners lived hard-scrabble existences based on farming the land, and their music told tales of hardship, hard living (usually through strong drink) and self-reliance. Combine this with a fair amount of good humor to help soften the hard times, and this new folk music became rich with stories either humorous or sad, and sometimes both.
Country music quickly combined with "western music" to become "country & western". The western part of "country and western" came out of the American Old West, which was also based on agriculture, hard living and self-reliance. Because these people were settling an untamed continent, self-reliance and independence was a hallmark of this music. The cowboy had rightly or wrongly become the symbol of American self-reliance, and this found its way into the country & western music genre.
This became the basis for all subsequent country music, and it's the basis of country music today. As you can see, country music isn't nearly as homogeneous as you might suspect, despite the similarities of agriculture and small-town living.
Listening To Old Country Songs
Like any music genre, though, the early development of country music was heavily influenced by a handful of talented people. New art forms need legendary figures to build a new foundation on, and some of those figures are Bob Wills, Roy Acuff, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. These men appeared in the 1930's to help define country and western music for the American people.
"The Grand Ole Opry" is a weekly Nashville country music performance and radio show, and the oldest-running radio show in American history. Amazingly, the Grand Ole Opry has been heard weekly in the U.S. since 1925, and it has had a tremendous role in the careers of country music artists over nine decades. For the past five of those decades, country musicians who want to be considered "members" of the Grand Ole Opry must perform at least 26 weeks a year to maintain membership. Most of the biggest name acts in Nashville and country music history have played at the Grand Ole Opry, which has been located in several different venues in Nashville. This show is, in many ways, the common thread running through country music these many years.
Roy Acuff was known as the "King of Country Music", and did much to set the sound of country music in the 1930's, as well as influence later country musicians. Roy Rogers and Gene Autry were part of the "singing cowboys" phenomenon so popular in the 1930's, 1940's and 1950's. These men helped form the bond between country music and western cowboys, a conflating which continues to this day.
Bob Wills came out of Texas to help found "western swing" music in the 1930's, most famously in a band known as the "Texas Playboys". This style would eventually influence the "Bakersfield Sound" in country music and is a great entry into country music, because Western swing isn't exactly what you would expect to hear in a country song.
Hank Williams developed "honky-tonk music" in the 1940's. Despite dying in 1953 at the age of 30, the prodigious Hank Williams is one of the most influential country musicians ever. He was popular in the post-war years when country music was beginning to be noticed in the mass media, and Hank Williams blended many styles to make his distinct brand of country music.
"The Nashville Sound" came to characterize the country music songs produced in Nashville in the late-1950's and 1960's, championed by men like Chet Atkins. The Nashville Sound was influenced by the rising popularity of rock-and-roll, and sought to modernize and popularize country music's image from the honky-tonk sounds that dominated country at the time. The Nashville Sound used orchestral arrangements and slick production techniques to give country a more sophisticated sound, hoping to reach a mass audience like rock-n-roll did. The Nashville Sound influenced "country pop" of the 1970's and 1980's and beyond.
Those associated with the Nashville Sound are Chet Atkins, Owen Bradley, Bob Ferguson, and successful acts like Patsy Kline, Charlie Rich, Charlie Pride, Ray Price and Glen Campbell.
While the Nashville Sound was defining how Americans listened to country music, others were not happy with Nashville's definition of country music. "The Bakersfield Sound" referred to Bakersfield, California, which might seem like an odd place for a country music movement to start. But during the Dust Bowl of the late-1920's and 1930's, a migration of Oklahomans moved to California seeking work. These transplanted Southerners brought with them their musical traditions. A generation later, a musical scene formed in the agriculture-heavy oil town of Bakersfield, led by men such as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. This sound took country back to its roots and rejected what they considered the slick, corporate image of Nashville. This would not be the only reaction against the Nashville Sound, but it was the first to get major play on the country radio stations.
Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard (also of the Bakersfield Sound), Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson can each be grouped in the "outlaw country movement" of the 1960's and 1970's. Outlaw country was another reaction against the Nashville Sound, but it came almost a decade later than the Bakersfield Sound. This places the Outlaw movement in the late-1960's Vietnam Era, and many members of the Outlaw country movement included strong stances on social issues and the war with their decidedly rougher approach to country music.
Some of these artists had tried their hand in Nashville, and one or two had success there (Willie Nelson, for instance, wrote Patsy Kline's biggest hit, "Crazy"). But these artists found the Nashville approach to country music too restrictive for their artistic visions, so they found success with alternative approaches to country songs. Ironically, some of these men are among the biggest icons in country music today. Other important members of the Outlaw movement are David Allen Coe, Billy Joe Shaver and Kris Kristofferson. Hank Williams Jr. is another example of an outlaw country singer.
Today, the divide between Nashville and non-Nashville country music continues, with alternate country movements found in places like Austin, Texas. For those interested in appreciating country music, you might try the Austin sound if you don't like today's Nashville artists.
One artist who is an institution in country music is George Strait. George Strait has been consistently popular with country music fans for over 20 years, while occupying a unique place creatively and artistically. George Strait plays his own form of "western swing music", and therefore draws upon country musical traditions different than so many of the other mainstream (or anti-mainstream) country singers. While it's natural to think of someone as slick and popular as George Strait as part of the "country pop" scene, he actually combines western swing with honky-tonk to have fashioned a career writing what has been described as "bar-room ballads".
Country Pop Appreciation
"Country pop" became the standard Nashville musical product from the 1970's on. Country pop tries to wed elements of traditional country music to the mainstream American pop music to increase it's appreciation, and has had tremendous success in selling records over the past few decades. Some of the biggest and most notable country artists are country pop artists, and this music defines modern country, for better or worse. If you are asking "How Can I learn to Appreciate Country Music?", you're probably talking about country pop.
Artists who fall into this category are Glen Campbell, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Eddie Rabbit, Ronnie Milsap, Garth Brooks, Billy Ray Cyrus, Shania Twain, Leann Rhimes, Alabama, Reba McEntire, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, Rascal Flatts, Kenny Chesney, Big and Rich, Trace Adkins and Carrie Underwood. Just looking over these names should give you an indication of how phenomenally successful this sub-genre of country music is.
Of course, country pop has been criticized as getting too far away from its country roots, trying to become pop music or adult contemporary music at the cost of its integrity. Some country music fans believe that Nashville has become too influenced by corporate culture and greed, and they mass produce songs with only a tip of the hat to American country living. That's up for the listener to decide, but if you find you don't enjoy listening to country pop, consider listening to other genres described in this article.
With the richness of the country music tradition and nearly a century of country songs to draw from, you're likely to find a type of country music or a miscellaneous country music playlist of songs you appreciate and enjoy. There is a lot of great music in the country genre, though you have to know where to look sometimes. Once you find country music you can appreciate, you might find that you enjoy listening to other country tunes you didn't like so much the first time around. As they say down south, you'll have something to "hang your hat upon".
Either way, if you're trying to learn to appreciate country music, remember to listen to the stories. That's what country music is about: stories about people in small towns.