by Anna Sedivy-Thompson
Anna Sedivy-Thompson is a Computer Science and Economics major from Edmond, OK who wrote this essay in Tim Bradford’s Spring 2019 “From Spirituals to Hip-Hop” course.
Country music has gained a large following since its inception in the 1920s and is now a staple in American culture. From city folk in the American South to rural white communities across the nation, country music entertains listeners with songs featuring stories about heartbreak, religious devotion, substance abuse, the struggles of the working class, and the stereotypical pick-up trucks. While contemporary country music is now a distinct genre with its own discernible set of cultural norms and values, country music was not always the possession of the predominantly white rural inhabitants with whom it is often associated. In fact, country music developed out of the blues, a by and large Black genre. For this reason, country music is also known, affectionately or not, as “the white man’s blues” (Grissim). The statement that country music’s origins lie somewhere near the blues is relatively uncontroversial. However, growing up in a small Oklahoma town amongst largely conservative family and neighbors, I’ve seen that many country fans, and my own family in particular, might discredit the notion that country music originated directly out of a Black genre. Instead, they argue that country music was always an independent entity that simply borrowed elements and techniques as inspiration from existing genres like the blues. The problem with this view is that such an argument gives very little credit to Black artists and innovators of the blues and the history of hardships that ultimately lead to the emergence of the blues. Such erasure only reinforces the power imbalance between Black people and white people in the United States. On the flip side, country music is often subject to intense criticism for certain features, such as “unsophisticated” subject matter or instrumentation. If the blues and country music share history and key musical attributes, and music critics praise the blues for these elements, maybe the knocks against country music are undeserved. Given that country music was appropriated from the blues, acknowledging country music’s true roots might serve both genres by giving due credit to Black musicians and relieving country music listeners of “unjust” ridicule. I find it important to argue that, although country music is now its own distinct genre that has been expanded considerably from its original form, the relationship between blues and country music is far more direct than a simple borrowing of elements. Furthermore, country music’s close relationship to blues is still easily perceptible in contemporary country music.
Out of a rich African-American musical history came the blues: music sung for pleasure about the individual’s daily trials (Baraka 67). In the Jim Crow era, the blues were meant to be an artistic manifestation of how far Black people in the United States had come and how far they still had to go. A deeply personal genre, the blues were not designed to be sung in groups or in the context of a field like previous incarnations of Black music, such as spirituals and work songs. Rather, these were songs meant for the individual, and more specifically, the performer. The blues were being performed and recorded in the United States in an unprecedented manner, largely because of technological improvements that were occuring in the era. The shift from field to performance setting meant that the blues performers’ hands were now free. As a result, there was an upsurge in non-drum instrumental accompaniment for the first time in African-American musical history. The instruments included but were not limited to the piano, fiddle, harmonica, guitar, and banjo. Although the banjo was brought to the United States by Africans, its use by Black musicians was not common until after the Civil War. I stress the importance of the banjo’s African origins and use in African-American genres here because it will show up again in country music.
Evolving instrumentation, although characteristic of the blues, was not the blues’ only key identifiable feature. Another hallmark of the twelve-bar blues was the A-A-B line form, where two identical lines of melody or lyrics were followed by another line that was different. This format did not see its inception in the blues, as it can be traced to earlier genres of Black music, such as spirituals. However, this form is definitely a defining feature of the blues (O’Meally 11-18). Blues lyrics also saw content innovations. The lyrics moved away from the practicality and objective statement of fact about public life that was seen in earlier African-American genres. Instead, the new blues lyrics featured complex euphemisms about private encounters and discussions about topics that were previously not spoken about, either because they were forbidden by white slave owners or because those topics were considered socially inappropriate. Love, sexual encounters, self-sufficiency, sadness, and other deep feelings are some of the most popular blues topics (Evans 85). Bessie Smith, in particular, was famous for her raunchy lyrics and overflowing confidence, which was unprecedented for women and especially Black women at the time. I have no doubt that Bessie Smith and her other artistic colleagues lived many of the experiences they sang about, but the blues often showcased “an exaggerated or dramatized self” (Evans 84). This type of persona connects to a concept in Kevin Young’s The Grey Album called “storying.” Storying is a tradition often mistaken for lying, but rather than intending to deceive, Black people embellish or fabricate stories to reclaim agency, explain their origins, or convey a certain feeling or understanding (Young 17-18). Lastly, polyrhythms, which is the combination of two different rhythms simultaneously, and the “blue note”, which is a note that is played or sung at a non-standard or “in-between” pitch, were important features of the blues (Evans 86). In short, the blues packed quite a bit of history, a whole lot of substance, and a whopping dose of talent into each song.
It is no mystery why the blues became so popular and why so many future country artists wanted to borrow from it. Jimmie Rodgers is widely known as “the First True Country Star,” although he actually viewed himself as a blues singer back in the day (Wynne). He recorded the majority of his music in the late 1920s and early 1930s, including one of his first and most well-known sets of works, “The Blue Yodels.” As the name “The Blue Yodels” suggests, many of the song’s musical elements were taken directly from the blues. For example, blues-based chord progressions can be seen in each of the 13 songs. Furthermore, the yodeling technique that Rodgers popularizes in these songs is said to have been inspired by the “Black falsetto traditions” (Mississippi Blues Trail). The entire first song follows the blues’ A-A-B lyric form, with the memorable first lines saying “Give me a T for Texas, give me a T for Tennessee, Give me a T for Texas, give me a T for Tennessee, Give me a T for Thelma, woman made a fool out of me.” Although it is unclear which came first, these exact lines can also be seen in music by blues artists Frank Stokes and Jim Jackson (Wynne). “Blue Yodel No. 1” largely discusses disappointed love, a topic that was very much en vogue at the time but had only recently become socially acceptable to sing about in public with the advances of the blues. The other twelve “Blue Yodels” would cover a variety of melancholic subjects, from violence to death to more troubles with love. “The Blue Yodels” are considered to be country music’s first ever hits and they were the foundation upon which country music would ultimately be founded (Wynne, Russell 64). I believe that the direct link between blues and “The Blue Yodels,” along with other evidence I will present later, proves that country music was an offshoot of the blues, rather than being a pre-existing genre that borrowed a handful of elements from the blues.
Music companies first divided country music from the blues in the 1920s. The first country records in the early 1900s went by a variety of names, including “old familiar tunes” and “hill country tunes,” but in 1925, “hillbilly tunes” was the name that finally stuck. In the same way that race records indicated to the public that certain musical tracks were made for Black listeners, “hillbilly music” served as a commercial term that specified country music’s target audience. “Hillbilly music” was the term under which Jimmie Rodgers’ music was first sold. With this label, country music had been officially racialized and the split between the blues and country music soon became socially recognized. It is worth mentioning that “hillbilly” is a derogatory term that originally referred to southern backwoods inhabitants, so the group of people for which this genre of music was being created was not looked upon favorably (Malone 39-40). According to Bill Malone, whose book, Country Music U.S.A.: A Fifty-year History, is widely considered to be the most authoritative source on the history and evolution of country music, “the ambivalence Americans have shown towards country music and the terms used to describe it arises largely out of a similar love-hate relationship with rural life” (Malone 40). The ambivalence that Malone is talking about is omnipresent. Many people who grew up in the city, and even some of those who live in rural areas and simply do not care for country music and its values, express deep disdain for the genre and those who listen to it. However, these people still rely on the agricultural products produced by those living in rural areas. Others, known as agrarians, even believe that rural life is physically, socially, politically, morally, and spiritually ideal (Dalecki & Coughenour 48-51). Herein lies the “love-hate relationship with rural life” (Malone 40). On the flip side, many country music fans and rural residents are resentful of the hard lives they have to live simply to survive in a capitalist society, and as a result, when suppressed personal burdens are openly discussed in country music, it can trigger negative emotions towards the genre. Malone believes that this tense relationship actually contributed to the popularity of “hillbilly music” and helped mold it into the art form with which we are now familiar. In a similar way, hardships undergone by Black Americans shaped their artistic expression and consumption of the blues. I do not mean to suggest that the struggles of Black Americans, who faced systemic oppression of epic proportions, are in any way the same as the struggles faced by white Americans. However, many rural white Americans of working class backgrounds lived complex and arduous lives, wanted a stress release, and found that release in the form of music, just like Black Americans. In fact, this type of musical release and expression can be seen among most marginalized groups in America, whether their struggles be rooted in racism, classism, sexism, or any other power dynamic. The earliest advancements in young country music served to fit the developing demands of its new audience.
The next manifestation of Black music most relevant to the evolution from blues to modern-day country music was rhythm-and-blues (R & B) in the 1950s. Combined with early country music, R & B helped birth the style known as rock-’n’-roll, which would be referred to as “the furthest intrusion made by Negro styles into popular music” (Malone 246). Black and white artists, alike, would share the rock-’n’-roll stage. Believe it or not, this style momentarily saw some of the least segregated audiences and music charts in the U.S. (Wald 239). While previous genres were not strictly confined to the United States, rock-’n’-roll would leave national boundaries in a groundbreaking fashion. Recordings were widely consumed and produced internationally, even in countries such as Japan and Russia. Great Britain would become especially fond of rock-’n’-roll and the genres that quickly followed it, and would see bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones crop up in the years to come.
Rock-’n’-roll is important to country music’s evolution because of one of the earliest rock-’n’-roll subgenres, which was called “rockabilly.” Rockabilly was a temporary remarriage of “‘rocking’ Black music and ‘hillbilly’ music” (Malone 250). Artists like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, George Jones, and Bill Haley popularized the style, which was characterized by liveliness, strong rhythms, and its revolutionary ability to tap into, harness, and free the previously repressed hedonism of Southern youth (Malone 250). Hits of the time such as “Hound Dog” by Big Mama Thorton, which would later be popularized by “The King of Rock-‘n’-Roll”, Elvis Presley, and “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis both follow A-A-B or early rock’s brand new A-A-B-A format, respectively. Although no subject was off limits in rockabilly, some of the most common song topics were still love, sex, loss, rebellion, and other interpersonal interactions. Many of the encounters sung about were surely make-believe and exaggerated, but probably not to the extent of being considered storying in Kevin Young’s use of the term. Common instruments included acoustic guitar, drums, double bass, piano, saxophone, and the relatively new electric guitar. The blues note can still be seen in rockabilly and rock-’n’-roll, but the polyrhythm was slowly losing its stronghold in these genres. Rockabilly lasted only a short five or six years, and in the 1960s, rock would take over the music scene altogether.
The 1960s were a big decade for music as a whole, with the British Invasion and events like the Woodstock Music Festival. The decade was so focused on rock that country music sales were hurting. As a result, in the late 1950s, a smoother, slower music style, known as the Nashville Sound, was created in an effort to stimulate country music consumption (Malone 256). At this point, there is an audible deviation from the former blues-soaked hillbilly music texture. Utilizing the Nashville Sound, the 1970s saw the beginnings of Outlaw country, a more introspective and folk-based take on rockabilly and the first generation of country music that resembles the mainstream country music of the 2000s. Well-known Outlaws included Willie Nelson, Hank Williams Jr., Merle Haggard, Charlie Daniels, and Waylon Jennings. Typical instruments included the guitar, drums, bass, and banjo. Alcoholism, loss, rebellion, life trials, and love were still the favored topics in the genre. In addition to Outlaw country, the 1970s would also see the end of what was known as “truck-driving songs,” a category of modern-day work songs that started in the 1930s. This style would merge into the country genre and most likely explains the stereotype of songs about pick-up trucks in 2000s country music (Malone 320). Some notable titles would include Jerry Jeff Walker’s 1989 “Pickup Truck Song,” Luke Bryan’s 2007 “We Rode in Trucks,” and Lee Brice’s 2012 “I Drive Your Truck.” You would be hard-pressed to find a contemporary country rock or country pop song that does not at least mention a truck in some form or fashion. Given that work songs were originally a Black genre, the country music stereotype of “songs about trucks” is a very direct Black contribution to country music that occurred much more recently than the initial blues-country split. Black people’s influence on country music was not just a one-time event.
We can still see the influence of the blues on the country rock and country pop that came about in the 1970s. The innovations brought about by country rock and country pop would initiate the figurative wave that the U.S. would ride into mainstream 2000s country music. John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” and The Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” would all make their lasting impacts in this decade. In particular, songs like “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by The Charlie Daniels Band are good examples of modern country’s twist on storying. The song tells of a battle between good and evil as young fiddle virtuoso Johnny takes on Satan in a musical duel. The devil, intent on taking Johnny’s soul and thus dooming him, is ultimately beaten, fair-and-square, by fearless Johnny and his extraordinary fiddling talent. The story is clearly fictional, full of European mythological references and unrealistic events, but it is meant to entertain, prove a point, and as Young argues is one of the main purposes of storying, “provides a… vision of individual achievement and collective standards of excellence.” Another nod to the song’s blues roots, the melody of the song is borrowed from a tune called “Lonesome Fiddle Blues” by Vassar Clements. Going into the popular themes, frequently used forms, and common instruments is probably redundant at this point, considering they remain relatively unchanged. Unlike the previously discussed genres that quickly morphed and evolved into other styles, country rock and country pop never disappeared as the 1970s drew to a close. The two country subgenres are still developing and being performed now in the 2020s. Currently the most popular forms of country music, they will be the focus of the remainder of this paper.
Though they are much different in sound, country songs in the 2020s still reveal their blues roots. Turn on any 2000s country hits radio station and you will be bombarded with country rock and country pop songs that use a verse-verse-bridge-verse format, also known as the A-A-B-A form, which came about in the era of rock-’n’-roll as we previously saw. You will also probably hear twangy instrumentation and a singer with a Southern accent or Texas drawl, both of which were aspects of more recent blues tracks and are now two of the most crucial pieces in the stereotypical country music sound. A key instrument in that cliché country sound—the banjo—has been the recipient of songs written solely in its appreciation, like Rascal Flatts’ 2012 song, “Banjo”. Country music has a reputation for strengthening, showcasing, and taking pride in your roots (Morrow 24). In the case of “Banjo”, Rascal Flatts talks about going back to their physical roots, their rural upbringing, but they also inadvertently go back to country music’s roots, the blues, with their intense admiration for the banjo in the lyrics and their substantial use of the banjo in their instrumentation. The banjo was one of those instruments that stuck around, despite the ever-changing norms and approaches in the transformation from blues to modern country music and the instrument’s lack of popularity in mainstream pop music and American culture. On the other hand, storying was an element that, while it disappeared for some time, made its way back to the country music scene in the 2000s.
Another notable Rascal Flatts song, “Backwards”, which was first released in 2006 and then re-released in 2009 for Hannah Montana: The Movie, mocks the “loss” theme of country music. It does this by describing the assets that would be returned to the singer if someone were to play a typical country song in reverse. These assets include but are not limited to the singer’s best friend, his house, his truck, his wives, and his youthful appearance. There was most likely never an instance where a tearful young boy actually sat down next to Gary LeVox, the lead singer of Rascal Flatts, and told him he had played a country song backwards. Furthermore, playing a song backwards cannot make what you have lost magically reappear. This concocted event is precisely why this song is a prime example of country music’s take on storying. The song uses a fictitious story to entertain, acknowledge, and ultimately push back on a theme that is normally weaponized and used to dismiss and ridicule country music and its associated culture. Although there is no racial element to the storying of this country song, Rascal Flatts could be seen as reclaiming musical agency, another primary goal of storying as outlined by Kevin Young. While Rascal Flatts use “Backwards” to push back on detrimental stereotypes, modern country singers like Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood use country music to move away from timid damsel-in-distress gender roles and showcase their independent female personas in some of their most well-known songs, including “White Liar,” “Gunpowder and Lead,” “Dirty Laundry,” “Somethin’ Bad,” and “Before He Cheats.” In these tracks, their strong musical personalities are reminiscent of their legendary blues predecessor, Bessie Smith. Lambert and Underwood’s fierce character, and perhaps even their musical agency, would not have been achievable without standing on Smith’s shoulders.
While country music has maintained many key blues elements, some of the elements, like polyrhythms and the blue note, ultimately got left behind in the lengthy transition from the blues to country music. For this reason and many others, country music is, without a doubt, a unique, non-blues genre in the modern era. I would even go so far as to argue that the term “the white man’s blues” is no longer a fitting expression for describing country music, although it may have once been much earlier in country music’s evolution. However, even though the genre is now independent from the blues and is now associated with conservative white “rednecks,” a group of people on the complete other end of the political and power spectrum in the United States compared to the founders of country’s root genre, country music cannot help but nod its head to the blues and other Black genres with every new song it produces.
Country music in the 2000s is largely known to those who are not fans by its sound and stereotypes, including girls, beer, trucks, and gooey love ballads, among others. As we have followed through the evolution of country music in this paper, we have seen that those topics are not unique to country music, but rather originate in country music’s blues roots. Sure, country music can get repetitive or appear simplistic from a superficial perspective, but its seemingly ridiculous themes, forms, and sounds are actually an ode to America’s long history of musical expression by groups of people who were working towards achieving freedom and the infamous American Dream. Criticizing country music for these attributes does not seem fair since the blues are often lauded for having some of the exact same features. However, if country music listeners want to free themselves from the ridicule, they might want to consider acknowledging the history of country music more explicitly. With the exception of those elements in country music and culture that are racist, sexist, or otherwise hurtful, I want readers to keep in mind that it is not a sin to enjoy modern country music, to participate in the culture associated with country music, and to take pride in country music culture, especially since its now an independent genre and culture from that of the blues. However, it is very important that country music listeners remember that this genre that they love and care so much about was taken from the hardworking blues artists that were performing in this country nearly a century ago. Without the blues, there would be no country music.
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