Country

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The author of “Cold Cold Heart” might be the only country-music artist to whom the term genius fully applies. Born in poverty, alcoholic since childhood, miserably married to a country-music Lady Macbeth, Hank Williams was a truly unhappy man. The hundred or so songs he dashed off before dying at twenty-nine are country’s most enduring canon, from terse distillations of misery—“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Your Cheating Heart”—to up-tempo celebrations like “Hey, Good Lookin,” “Jambalaya,” and “Settin’ the Woods on Fire.” No country musician is surrounded by a more intense mythology; more songs, probably, have been written about Hank than by him. His funeral, an orgy of public mourning, drew twenty-thousand weeping fans to Montgomery, Alabama. Though he could be an electrifying performer when he wasn’t drunk, it was as a writer, a supplier of songs to the pop mainstream, that Williams had his biggest impact. More than anyone else, he opened the New York-Nashville pipeline, and by the early fifties, Manhattan music publishers and record executives were flying regularly to Tennessee or opening Nashville branches, eagerly hunting new songs.

The immediate postwar years saw country’s greatest surge yet. In 1947 Ernest Tubb headlined the first country concert at Carnegie Hall. In 1949 Tubb convinced Decca Records to stop calling his music hillbilly and start calling it country; that same year Billboard retitled its “American Folk Tunes” record-sales chart “Country & Western.” “Ten years ago,” said Newsweek in 1949, “if a hillbilly record sold 10,000 copies, it was a hit; today a 50,000 sale is mediocre.” Between five and eight million Americans were tuning in “The Grand Ole Opry” every Saturday night, and in 1951 Billboard counted fourteen hundred radio shows playing a weekly average of eleven hours of country music. Roy Acuff found himself on Newsweek ’s cover in the summer of 1952; inside, the magazine put country’s share of the music business at 20 percent. In 1956, said the Wall Street Journal , Americans bought fifty million country-music records.

And that was as good as things got, for a while. Mid-fifties Nashville, like the rest of America, was shaken to its roots by rock ’n’ roll. Rock’s initial impact on country was disastrous. Radio stations dropped country in favor of the new sound, which in turn affected record sales. By 1957 country music was in a deep slump. Its struggle to recover took two paths.

The first was toward rockabilly. This was easy: Elvis himself had played the Opry, and rock was nothing more than a synthesis of country music and rhythm and blues. The Everly Brothers, Johnny Cash, Wanda Jackson, Marty Robbins, and Sonny James were country music’s answer to rock ’n’ roll. (Cash would go on to a longer, almost protean, career—a sixties to seventies superstar and a nineties icon.)

But Nashville, with its close supervision of artists, was infertile soil for a music as anarchic as rock. Far more appropriate to Nashville’s ethos was a second response to rock: the bland style known as countrypolitan, or what came to be dubbed the Nashville Sound. If country music were to survive, its executives reasoned, it needed to appeal to as broad a segment of America as possible. Since it couldn’t compete with rock for the new youth market, it would have to wean mainstream pop fans away from Dean Martin and Perry Como. As early as 1954 RCA Victor Records’ Nashville boss Steve Sholes prophesied, “I believe 1964 will find the country and western and pop fields of entertainment so closely allied that it will be impossible to tell the difference without a score card.”

Two Nashville producers, Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins, became country’s master sweeteners. Bradley oversaw Patsy Cline’s hits—“Sweet Dreams,” “Walking After Midnight,” “Crazy.” With their swirling strings and Cline’s rich voice, the records would have led Patsy to mainstream pop if she hadn’t died in a plane wreck in 1963, only thirty-one. Bradley told Billboard in 1961: “We’ve cut out the fiddle and steel guitar and added choruses to country music. But it can’t stop there. It has to always keep developing to keep fresh.” Ten years later he was having second thoughts. “We’re getting the music too pop,” he said in Look magazine. “I say, let’s keep it hillbilly.”