Like all forms of popular music in the twentieth century, country music has gone through many transitions and transformations. It is often unfairly pigeonholed as music that goes “twaaang,” or music for rednecks. However, there is far more to country music than these stereotypes.
Country music initially evolved from the folk and popular music of England, Ireland, and Scotland. Musicians in the South and mountainous regions of the United States played country music most frequently. During the 1920s radio broadcasts from the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville gave country music national exposure and increased the popularity of the genre.
Country music has always placed a high priority on vocals and lyrics. The messages of country tunes often focus on love, heartbreak, lonely hearts, or cheating hearts. Like most mainstream popular music in America, the harmonic progressions in country music have usually been relatively simple. Songs are often based on just a few chords and most of the harmonic interest in the music comes from the treatment of multiple vocal parts. In the earliest days of country the main instruments used were the fiddle and guitar. To this day, these two instruments can be heard in almost all of country. Also important were the banjo, dulcimer, harmonica, and mandolin. As time passed, country musicians added instruments that were common in other genres — instruments like the acoustic and electric bass, drums, and electric guitar.
Country music also has taken on aspects of the styles of other genres of music. When big band jazz grew in popularity in the 1930s Western swing developed, combining elements of jazz with traditional country styles. This music featured swinging, danceable rhythms that were unlike anything heard before in the country genre. Western swing (and many other styles of country) included the steel guitar (or slide guitar), an instrument that is largely responsible for the stereotype of the “twang” associated with country.
The music industry and the general public have given country music many different labels. Initially, the music was called “hillbilly” but was eventually officially termed “country and western.” Today there are numerous subgenres that fit under the general heading of country. Alternative country, progressive country, contemporary country, traditional country, rockabilly country, honky-tonk, and cowpunk are a few of the different brands of this music that are performed and recorded. They all have unique characteristics that distinguish them from one another.
As country music began taking on aspects of other forms of popular music in the 1940s, Bill Monroe formed a group called the Blue Grass Boys. Thus the genre bluegrass was born. They returned to the original country instrumentation of guitar, fiddle, banjo, and mandolin. They stayed away from popularjazz and dance rhythms but often played driving rhythms at fast tempos. Over the last fifty years bluegrass has branched off into several subgenres including traditional, progressive, contemporary, and new grass. Alison Krauss, with her beautiful voice and dazzling fiddle playing, has become one of the most popular bluegrass musicians today.
While bluegrass musicians stayed closer to the original roots of the genre, country musicians took their music in many different directions. Many contemporary country stars perform in a style that is often undistinguishable from mainstream popular music. Shania Twain and Faith Hill are among those who have crossed the country borders and gained popularity from fans of genres other than country.