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Jul 14

Music Notes: The Real Roots of Country Music

Posted on July 14, 2017 at 10:37 AM by Elizabeth Land

Notes from the Music Staff logoStaff Note: Notes from the Music Staff is a series of posts discussing what the library offers music fans. From our widely varied collection of music CDs to our nonfiction and fiction books covering all aspects of music, we've got something for everyone and we want to share our love of music with you!

Let us go back before the days of Carrie Underwood, Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton, George Jones, and Johnny Cash—back to the beginning of what would eventually be deemed “country” music.

Like many things in the US, country music can trace its roots back to the arrival of immigrants, specifically the Scots, Irish, and English. When these groups came to America, they were drawn to Appalachia because it looked so much like home. Immigrants brought their traditional songs and instruments — fiddles, bagpipes, harps, and dulcimers, to name some examples — sharing music with their neighbors like they did in the old country. These songs were referred to as “Old-Time” music before they were recorded and promoted. Old-time, or what some demeaning people referred to as ‘mountain’ or ‘hillbilly’ music, incorporated over time cowboy music of the West (which is marked by the arrival of the guitar with the Spanish) and musical elements and styles from African slaves. Over the course of the 20th century, this music began to evolve into what is today recognized as country-western music as singers and groups experimented with elements of rock and gospel while modifying their sound through the use of new instruments like the electric guitar.

Commercially, country music began to take off in the early 1920s when traditional string-band music of the Southern mountains began to be commercially recorded. Polk Brockman of Okeh Records came to Atlanta searching for marketable talent and held open recording sessions. Winner of many Fiddlers’ Convention contests, Fiddlin' John Carson started out on Atlanta's WSB radio station in 1922. 

The Carter Family

In June 1923, the country-music recording industry was launched by Okeh when Carson made his first phonograph record cutting 2 sides, "The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane" and "The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster's going to Crow." The recording industry big wigs on Tin Pan Alley in New York City never dreamed this music would be popular or make money — what a surprise!

In addition to Carson, The Carter Family (at right) is also considered to be one of the progenitors to today’s country music. Their story begins when Alvin Pleasant Carter, a traveling fruit-tree salesman from Maces Spring, VA, realized he was actually a musician (not salesman or farmer). A.P. and an African-American musician from Kingsport, TN, named Lesley Riddle became ‘songcatchers’, travelling the hills and hollers together collecting music from old-timers. The Carter Family recorded many songs that Riddle composed or transmitted, including "Cannonball Blues," "Hello Stranger," Bear Creek Blues," and "Lonesome For You."

Their music eventually attracted hordes of listeners, leading to the Carter Family being the first group elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970. You can still hear Carter music from newer generations in Hiltons, VA.

Read more about Country Music

Now that you know about the roots of country music, visit our online catalog to request some tunes. Whether you prefer traditional "old-time" musicians, or if you prefer more recent country music, our extensive music collection has you covered.