- Historic Sites
The old Confederacy got only as far north as Pennsylvania, but its great-grandchildren have captured America’s culture. Joshua Zeitz looks at sports, entertainment, and religion to show how.
August/September 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 4
The early success of hillbilly radio spurred the recording industry into action. While it’s not clear who the first country recording artist was, good money is on the duo of Alexander Campbell (“Eck”) Robertson, a fiddle player from Amarillo, Texas, and Henry Gilland, of Altus, Oklahoma, who on impulse traveled together to New York in June 1922 to cut a few tracks for Victor. The seminal moment in country recording came several years later, in August 1927, when a professional talent scout and producer, Ralph Peer, discovered and recorded modern country’s first two sensations, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.
Originally comprising Alvin Pleasant (“A.P.”) Carter, his wife, Sara, and his sister-in-law Maybelle, the Carters remained popular long after their joint singing career ended in the 1940s. Together they recorded over 300 songs for various labels. Their repertoire of new and traditional material, their trademark three-part harmony, and Maybelle’s unique thumb-brush method on lead guitar gained a wide following throughout the South. Long after hillbilly music had gone mainstream and invaded the North, so-called Carter Family songs, like “Keep on the Sunny Side” and “The Wabash Cannonball,” remained standard titles in the catalogues.
While the Carters gave the fledgling industry a down-home, family aura, Jimmie Rodgers, a native of Meridian, Mississippi, cultivated a somewhat different image as country music’s “singing brakeman.” He was the genre’s first self-styled rambling balladeer. In truth Rodgers’s railroad days were short-lived: He developed tuberculosis, which, coupled with his hard-living ways, drove him to an early grave in 1933. But in his few years of productive fame, his appealing blend of old and new music, his distinctive yodeling style, and his Western affectations brought him a level of renown unprecedented among country artists.
In the 1930s and early 1940s the evolving style that the Carters and Rodgers helped create became a national sensation, urged along by two unrelated phenomena: electrification and World War II.
Musicians and guitar makers had experimented with electrifying string instruments as early as the 1920s. The electric guitar made its country-music debut in Texas in 1934, and new models manufactured by Gibson, Rickenbacker, Bigsby, and Fender soon made it widely accessible to small-time musicians. In turn, electrification helped spur the decade’s “honky-tonk” sound, as small roadside bars throughout the Southwest featured a new form of country music that was both electrified and more rhythmic (so that customers could dance to it) than the usual hillbilly fare. These modern features helped make country more accessible to non-Southerners; World War II accelerated the process exponentially.
Since U.S. Army training camps were disproportionately located in Southern states, millions of Northern GIs heard their first licks of hillbilly music while sojourning in Dixie. Ferlin Husky, a popular country performer during the 1950s, recalled serving in the merchant marine with “lots of boys … who had never really heard country music before, and it was interesting to see how fast they acquired a taste for it.” So fast, it seems, that by 1945 GIs stationed in Munich, Germany, were debating the relative talents of Frank Sinatra and Roy Acuff. Well into the postwar period, the armed forces would continue to anchor the nation’s country-music obsession. In 1960 some 65 percent of all country record sales took place at base PX’s.
At the same time, war production catalyzed an exodus of Southern whites, and they took their music with them. In the 1950s the ABC Music Corporation, Chicago’s largest jukebox supplier, reported that of its 12 city routes, 2 were dominated by country music. The city’s largest record store, Hudson-Ross, found that in neighborhoods where Southern transplants were heavily concentrated, 30 percent of its sales volume was country and western. The trend had prompted Billboard to run headlines like HILLBILLY TUNES GAIN POPULARITY IN BALTIMORE , and HILLBILLY TUNES SCORE BIG HIT IN MOST DETROIT JUKES .
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Country was also making considerable headway in California, thanks to the influx of Dust Bowl migrants during the 1930s and defense-industry workers in the 1940s. By 1945 a music writer in the state’s East Bay region could report, “It hasn’t been so many years since Hillbilly and Western programs were a real scarcity out here.... Boy, OH BOY , it’s a different story now! Turn the dial just any hour of the day and you’ll get a good old time program of OUR KIND of music.” Even in so unlikely a place as New York City, the country sound was coming into its own. In 1947 “Grand Ole Opry” staged a two-night performance at Carnegie Hall and grossed $9,000.
Already enjoying a national profile, country music continued to evolve in the 1950s and 1960s in much the same way it had originally ambled onto the airwaves and 78s in the 1920s: by melding tradition and commercialism. As home to the “Opry,” Nashville attracted considerable recording talent. In the 1950s the city gave birth to what was termed the “Nashville sound” or the Chet Atkins Compromise, a highly electrified pop-country blend, made wildly popular by rising talents like Atkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jim Reeves, and Patsy Cline, the cowgirl sensation who always felt most comfortable with country music and never quite reconciled herself to performing pop hits like “Walking After Midnight,” “I Fall to Pieces,” and “Crazy.”