country music

   Originally known as folk music, old time music, hillbilly or country and western, country music developed in the USA in the early 1920s. The folk music traditions of the UK were among the early influences of country music in the United States. The first country catalogue was issued in 1924 by Okeh in the USA. The music continued to follow two general strains. First, there was the traditional mountain music variety, which was responsible for the success of performers such as The Carter Family; in particular Maybelline Carter, whose influential guitar playing guaranteed her a regular spot at the Grand Ole Oprey for nearly two decades (1950– 67). Maybelline’s daughter eventually married Johnny Cash, after the family ‘adopted’ him when he was at a low point, just before the start of his successful career. The second strain of country music could be found in the more innovative style of Jimmie Rodgers, who popularized the combination of 12-bar blues with yodelling (a technique originally used by the blind guitarist Riley Puckett. Many see Puckett as the first major country singing star, having been the first to record a yodel at his first recording session in 1924).
   Country music was adopted on a large scale by a Nashville radio station in the mid-1920s, and barn dances were held, first locally, then nationally. These events proved so successful that the barn dance evolved into what is known today as The Grand Ole Oprey. Nashville became the international centre of country music publishing in the 1940s, and then for recording in the 1950s. The success of Hank Williams as a recording artist established the Grand Ole Oprey for good. Country music has always carried the burden of being portrayed as having a tendency towards rightwing or ‘redneck’ beliefs, so the arrival of k.d. lang onto the American country music scene in the 1980s apparently caused a great upset among the regular Nashville set, who were uncomfortable with her androgynous appearance and her active promotion of vegetarianism and non-Christian beliefs. Her records were played on various radio stations, but only with a certain amount of reluctance on the part of disc jockeys, who would inevitably comment upon her appearance. But with the appearance of k.d. lang there emerged a whole new appreciation of the country music scene. In the United Kingdom, a lesbian country and western scene was fast developing, of which k.d. lang’s music was a central part. Country music was being appropriated by this new British scene in a number of recently formed women-only clubs. In the Nashville version of country fashion, female performers dressed as feminine counterparts to their men, in the traditional cowboy/ cowgirl uniforms, but here, women were making a direct imitation of the male image in country music. Prior to the popular chicness of k.d. lang, there had emerged another new strain of country in Great Britain in the late 1970s. It involved a gynaecologist from London called Hank Wangford and Wes McGee, a veteran pub rocker from the 1960s. Wangford was first introduced to country music after a meeting with Gram Parsons, who had been instrumental in turning American folk-rock group The Byrds into a very country-oriented band in the late 1960s. Parsons himself was considered too weird for the Nashville scene, but had made a huge impact on The Rolling Stones after he befriended Keith Richards, and the country influence is evident on the Rolling Stones albums Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street. Wangford’s debut album for the Cow Pie label featured a host of top session musicians, notably Albert Lee, one of Britain’s foremost country guitarists. Lee had previously played with Chet Atkins, a leading American country musician, and had been a member of Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band. He had also played with Eric Clapton and the Everley Brothers. Albert Lee was also famous for writing the song Country Boy, which became a British country classic and was a hit for the American country star Ricky Skaggs. Wes McGee was a wellrespected country player, both in Britain and America. He was the first British performer to be signed to a Nashville publishing company.
   A surprise instalment in the history of British country music is that provided by Elvis Costello. Originally Costello, from Liverpool, was among the late 1970s new wave punks, with hits such as ‘Oliver’s Army’ and ‘I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down’, but in the late 1980s he emerged with a cool country album called Almost Blue, which consisted of classic country covers and was recorded in Nashville. To promote the album, he held a concert at The Royal Albert Hall and hired The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to perform, to wide acclaim. The Irish band U2 have also acknowledged the appeal of country music, inviting Wynona Judd of the American country duo The Judds to perform live on stage with them during their 1987 American tour of their Joshua Tree album. A mixing of various musical genres with country music has resulted in its popularity being carried through from 1920s America to 1990s Britain, with the emergence of styles such as cowpunk, alternative country, dark country and Irish countryfolk- rock. The old timers co-exist alongside the new, bringing country music to the attention of the youth market and generating a whole new audience.
   See also: jazz
   Further reading
    Vaughan, A. (1987) Who’s Who in New Country Music, London: Omnibus (with a foreword by Ricky Skaggs, a clear guide to the country music scene, both in Britain and America).
   ALICE BENNETT

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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