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It’s the fastest-growing music in America. It’s a three-billion-dollar-plus industry. Cable stations devoted to it reach sixty-two million homes. And yet, says one passionate follower of country music past and present, its story is over.
November 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 7
Country music is one of those phenomena that remind us how much we’ve packed into the twentieth century, for it is younger than many of our parents. This is its story.
The term country music does not denote “rural people playing instruments and singing”; probably the last place it had this meaning was turn-of-the-century Britain. Country music is not folk music —the orally transmitted songs of a community—but something more complex, more dynamic. It is the product of a collision, some seventy years ago, between Northern businessmen and rural Southern white musicians—folk musicians, but changed by this encounter into a very different species: professionals. Country music , in this usage, means “ commercial country music,” America’s immensely profitable country-music business. Country music, says Robert Cantwell in his good book Bluegrass Breakdown , “has never been anything but entrepreneurial and commercial, prospering in the one commodity which in America is ever in short supply—the past.”
Until very recently country music was almost exclusively a working-class music. The crucial demographic fact of twentieth-century America was the stream of rural people into cities, and country music was a product ofthat migration: the emigrants’ elegiac look back at the old life and their anxious contemplation of the new. Country music was more realistic than its mainstream counterpart, the pop tunes of Tin Pan Alley. Whether the subject was a hated job, cheating on your spouse, or the urge to go out and get roaring drunk, country faithfully charted the vicissitudes of working-class life—“life’s little ups and downs,” as a well-known Charlie Rich song puts it.
The pioneer producer Ralph Peer hated Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “Little Log Cabin in the Lane” when he heard it, but the 1923 recording became country music’s first hit.
But country music has spread far beyond its original audience. Its path has taken it from margins to mainstream, from regional to national, from ridiculed stepchild to full legitimacy in the family of American popular music. Country is America’s fastest-growing music. But the price of acceptance has been the music’s pungency—more, its very identity. To write a history of country music in 1994 is, intriguingly but sadly, to write more than a mere history-up-to-now, with the present an arbitrary terminus; it means writing a self-enclosed chronicle, a story with an end. To the beginning . . .
As mythology would have it, country music was born one summer’s week in 1927, when Ralph S. Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company discovered Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. In fact, by 1927 country music was a hustline little business.
In 1920 America’s young phonograph industry was threatened by a new technology, radio. Record sales reached a high of one hundred million in 1922 and promptly plummeted. New audiences were essential, and they existed, untapped: the Southern blacks and whites who’d been flooding the cities since World War I, consumers for the first time. In 1920 Ralph Peer, a talent scout for Okeh Records, recorded “Crazy Blues” by the Negro singer Mamie Smith; the resulting blues craze helped the record business to its feet.
Peer would become the decade’s dominant country-music and blues entrepreneur. In 1923 he traveled to Atlanta in search of a rival for Columbia Records’ new star Bessie Smith. If Peer was after blues, Polk Brockman, Okeh’s Atlanta distributor, had something else in mind. Just before Peer’s Atlanta trip, Brockman had visited New York. As he sat in a Times Square movie theater watching a newsreel of a fiddlers’ competition, his memory of an Atlanta musician was kindled; in the theater’s darkness Brockman scribbled, “Fiddlin’ John Carson—local talent—let’s record.” So it was that Fiddlin’ John Carson, a performer with his roots deep in the nineteenth century, came to make country music’s first hit record, “Little Log Cabin in the Lane”/“The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Going to Crow.”