Country Music: A Melodic Tapestry of Nationalism, Diversity, and Resilience
Country music is a genre of prominent music that originated in the rural southern parts of the United States of America. Throughout the years, country music has evolved and broadened its range of viewers. Country music is diverse and ever-changing. Artists can make songs that tell a beautiful story with a fairytale-like ending or songs that make you feel broken and emotional. Most importantly, country music has been a genre of music that shows both patriotism and nationalism here in the States.
The songs can deliver powerful messages in various ways. As I began to conduct my research on country music, I used primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. Through the use of my school’s library database search system and the help of the librarian, I was able to find a majority of reputable sources. For the interview section of my research, I interviewed my uncle’s stepson, who is a free-lance country music artist in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He is a graduate of the University of Wyoming with a music degree.
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Beginning in the early 1920s, country music began to make its debut in the Appalachian Mountains. Regarded as one of the first genres of contemporary American prominent music, county music was a blend of folk, British Isles, and blues music. To keep up with other genre’s popularity, like rock and roll, country music artists have developed new styles that blend authentic country music tunes with the unruly sounds of rock. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, country music is “music derived from or imitating the folk style of the Southern U.S. or of the Western cowboy.” During this time, American people were hit with a lot of changes and struggles. Americans were searching for the spark that would streamline their feelings and take them back to their true roots. Country music was the answer.
Slowly but surely, people started to catch on and become involved. From the beginning of its development and in recent months, country music has been receiving backlash for supporting certain political agendas, associations, and white Southerners. This is not a new dilemma country artists are facing; it is a reoccurring one. Modern-day artists are doing all they can to spread the true words of country music. Race or an individual’s political stance is important in country music. Predominantly found and played in the Southern parts of the United States, country music has greatly influenced American culture through its nationalistic, patriotic, and militaristic roots.
Born in the southern parts of the Appalachian Mountains, the area was first occupied by English and Scottish immigrants in the 1700s. These immigrants brought various instruments with them: guitars, fiddles, mandolins, and any other instrument that was easy to carry up the hills. During this time, music established upon remote English/Irish songs and church music was prominent. At the turn of the twentieth century, things began to change. The modern world began to spread its influence on the Appalachian community. New advancements such as railroads, steel, and oil fields were making their presence seen in the community.
Along with the new advancements came new influences on traditional music. The music became more about an individual’s deep internal feelings, struggles, and hardships. Written by Stuart Kallen, The History of Country Music is a novel that describes the origins and introduction to country music. Kallen states, “People began to sing about their common problems, such as longing for the old homestead, suffering from a broken heart, and working for low wages.” The most recent change to country music came upon the introduction of the technology (radio). Country music transformed from English/Scottish roots to incorporating various genres such as blues, gospel, Cajun, western cowboy, and even hints of jazz. Country music was no longer isolated in the Appalachian Mountains; it began to make its way around all of Western and Southern America. Being mocked as “hillbilly music,” country music was, in fact, true American heritage music, influenced by hardworking, patriotic Americans themselves.
Country music has evolved over the years and can be performed differently by various artists. Today, traditional country music is split up into different categories; for instance, bluegrass, the honky-tonk, and western swing are just a few. However, what all country music has alike is the originality in the lyrics and the tribute artists pay to the original forefathers of country music. Kallen also states that “While the top artists in the digital age sell millions of compact discs (CDs), music downloads, and cell phone ringtones, the sounds of contemporary country can be traced back several generations to the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s” (Kallen, 9). This shows that although modern country singers like Brad Paisley, Darius Rucker, Toby Keith, and many more are releasing albums left and right, people must realize that deep down in each song, there is a tribute to the original founders.
Viewed as being music predominantly sung and listened to by white people, country music is just the opposite. In fact, one of the top famous modern country music stars today is Darius Rucker. Darius Rucker is just one of many prominent African-American country music stars. They all take after one man, Charley Pride. Charley Pride became country music’s first esteemed African-American superstar. Selling millions of record albums and winning two Grammy awards, Pride revolutionized country music by incorporating new rhythms and diversity into the culture.
Performing for various presidents and being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Charley Pride continues to perform country music around the globe. Moreover, so much has been said about how the popularity of country music can be associated with conservative ideology. However, this claim does not account for the country music genre being intrinsically conservative. It is true that the bulk of the audience of country music is black, but according to the New York Times, “in recent years, black singers have become country stars…” Having been published over thirty years ago, the statistics for African-American artists and audience demographics have drastically increased in 2018.
Known as the Father of Country Music, Jimmie Rodgers sold over 1 million records of his hit song “Blue Yodel #1.” His singing career was cut extremely short due to his death in 1933. Although his presence was short-lived, his influence on country music and music in general is everlasting. His music has paved the way for the up-and-coming generation of new artists who quickly take after him. As important as Jimmie Rodgers was to the foundation of country music, the history of country music still cannot be fully explained without mentioning a specific family.
According to the novel Meeting Jimmie Rodgers by Barry Mazor, “The history of country music requires mention of The Carter Family, which was probably the most famous of all the vocal groups.” The Carter Family was made up of A.P Carter, his wife, and sister-in-law. They reached popular status around the same time Jimmie Rodgers was making his voice heard around the country. The Carter Family changed the perception of country music as being hillbilly music to more instrumental and vocal-based. It is said that without The Carter Family and their historic influence on other music, bluegrass would not have existed.
Born and raised in southern California, Aria Mesri (my uncle’s stepson) was always the different type. Being Persian, it was not considered the norm to be so involved in country music. Southern California has its own type of music, ranging from reggae to rock. However, Aria was different than the rest of the city. His passion for country music started when he was ten years old. It all started when his next-door neighbor had recently bought an old classic project truck. It was a 1966 Ford F100. Every weekend, his neighbor would bring out three things. His array of toolboxes, an old radio that somehow still worked, and a bottle of Coke. One day, Aria heard the music that was playing out on that old radio.
The lyrics were “Country roads, take me home. To the place, I belong. West Virginia, Mountain momma. Take me home, Country Roads”. He and his father walk over and ask their neighbor the song’s name. While fixing the exhaust under the truck, he hollers out, “It’s John Denver! Country Roads”. From that day on, Aria found his new genre of music. A genre that was rarely liked by people in a city full of giant company buildings and blinding lights. The music took him to the University of Wyoming, where he pursued a degree in music and is currently performing gigs at local bars and other venues.
To begin my interview, I wanted to know more about why he decided to move to Cheyenne, Wyoming, out of all places. “Wyoming had deep country roots, and it was an escape from all the lights and glamor that Los Angeles offered.” He wasn’t pleased with the rap, hip-hop, and rock genres in California at the time. Its lyrics didn’t seem to convey true meaning. Wyoming is home to famous country music festivals like Cheyenne Frontier Days and was the birthplace of many famous country music stars.
His neighbor, who was drinking Coke and fixing the old truck, was a native of Wyoming. He would tell him all about the great outdoors of the state. From the fishing to the hiking, all the way to its country hospitality. “I had to be there,” he said. When high school finished, he moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming, to live the county life. Years went by, and he decided to pursue a degree in music at the University of Wyoming to gain more knowledge about the history of country music and its impacts on American culture.
Next, I wanted to know who was his most influential country music artist and why. “My favorite artist would be John Denver, without a doubt. I mean, his song is what got me into this whole thing”. He continued saying how simple yet complex his songs were. The way they would make you feel. How his songs were among some of the best ever written. His music wasn’t the only reason why he liked John Denver. His being a Humanitarian was part of it. John was an important figurehead in the development of the Windstar Foundation. This foundation is aimed at the preservation of wildlife. President Jimmy Carter also made him part of the Commission on World and Domestic Hunger.
While doing my own research on country music, I stumbled upon various articles that talked about race being an issue in the country music community. I got mixed answers and wanted to know an individual’s non-biased point of view. He said, “I never saw race as a problem. If you have that classic country voice with a little spin of your own, people will embrace you and cheer you on”. He did agree that in the beginning of the birth of country music, some artists did hint at racist lyrics. However, those artists did not represent true country music.
You don’t have to be white to love and sing country. This genre of music is for all to get on that dance floor and start line dancing! Aria did agree that African Americans did receive a lot of backlash and hate for their involvement in country music because they looked and sounded different. “It’s not right to disregard someone’s music because they look and sound different,” he said. Discrimination of another person’s color of their skin has no place in our society, nor our music.
To conclude my interview with Aria, I had one remaining burning question to ask. Being Persian myself, I know firsthand that the Persian community has no favor or approval of country music and simply does not understand it. Not only did he pursue a degree in music, which is also quite odd for a Persian individual, but most shockingly was his decision to move to Wyoming. I wanted to know if he has ever received backlash for his enthusiasm and pursuit of country music. “Oh yeah! In a friendly way, friends would call me a wanna-be-cowboy. They would could me a redneck, different things. But I didn’t pay attention to it”. What I took away from his response is that people will criticize you for everything. But, you have to shield yourself from negativity.
Aria has been a great information source for my research on this topic because he offered a different side of the spectrum. Coming from a completely different background, neither white nor African American, Aria was able to speak on both issues of the spectrum. Aria was a good candidate for my interview because he has lived the country life for over 10 years now, is a graduate with a music degree, and has performed for various events and small-town country concerts. It was quite the experience to finally sit down and talk with him about his journey away from the normal Persian lifestyle to living on the rural country roads of Wyoming.
Music and Nationalism – Patriotic Music
In the wake of last year’s Las Vegas massacre that took place at a country music festival, many people have been looking at country music differently. Being accused of having ties with the National Rifle Association (NRA) and right-wing conservative spectrum, country music stars have found themselves in a stalemate. In reference to The New Yorker, “Some country stars have pleaded a kind of aphoristic neutrality (“Spread love!”), while others have been quietly distancing themselves from the Trump Administration” (Petrusich, 2017). From Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” to Randy Travis’s “America Will Always Stand,” country music has always been about nationalism/patriotism and its ties to the military.
Country music and nationalistic roots date back to the 1890s with the emergence of Tin Pan Alley and the production of songs supporting a war (Spanish-American War). During moments leading up to the Civil War and years after, artists began to perform songs about the unity of the North and South in support of America’s undertaking overseas. Country music singers saw this as an opportunity to unify the country, put away our differences, and focus on the growth of our nation.
Although country music does pay homage to the military and is strongly influenced by it, country music doesn’t necessarily follow a specific military theme. Dating back to the beginning of country music in the early 1920s, we see the development of what are known to be the first country music artists – people like John Carson. In the midst of World War I, he sang songs that paid tribute to the different divisions in the U.S. Army. However, it wasn’t until World War II that country music began incorporating patriotism in its lyrics. Popular songs like “There’s a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere” by Elton Britt began to steamroll through the country.
The song talks about how badly an individual wants to fight for his country despite being disabled. One of the lines in the song states: “Though I realize I’m crippled that is true Sir/Please don’t judge my courage by my twisted leg/Let me show my Uncle Sam what I can do Sir/Let me help to bring the Axis down a peg.” This individual doesn’t want any sympathy. He doesn’t want anyone’s tears. People feeling bad for him simply won’t help him. The only thing he wants to do is stand fearlessly and fight a war for his country. Nothing more, nothing less. All he wants is to stand in Arms by his brothers and sisters and bring the fight to the enemy!
Part of what country music does as a genre is it takes the experiences of working-class citizens, typically Southerners, and turns those experiences and struggles into a song. It was common for Southerners and the working class to be ridiculed in wars like Vietnam. Close to 30 percent of U.S. troops during the Vietnam War came from former confederacy states.
In addition to this, money spent on defense was the main economic booster for the region post-World War II. The growth of military installments and the emergence of defense contractors in agrarian communities in the South began to take place. Therefore, it is important to note that it is not that there is some deep-rooted inclination for nationalism among working-class Southerners. More so, it is important to state that when people think about why country music is so engrossed with the military, it is because it mirrors the experiences of its ever-growing audience.
Some may argue that behind the nationalistic lyrics in country music are hints of racism toward the African-American community. Country music is most freely correlated with a rural white southern demographic. This particular demographic is the most adamant in America’s history as a nation with plagued race relations. Although certain country music records were undoubtedly racist, we have to be cautious as to who and what we put the blame on. Looking back on the days of blackface and up through the 1940s, racism was a momentous part of American culture, a culture in which country music had no part. If it were not for the cultural exchange of white Southerners and African Americans in the South, country music would not have advanced as it did.
For many Americans, country music isn’t just another genre of music. It’s a way of life. From cruising in that old Chevrolet pick-up to dipping some good old Longhorn tobacco with your grandpa while reeling in some Bass, all the way to having an ice-cold bottle of Mountain Dew after a long day’s work, country music has engraved and paved itself into the hearts and minds of Americans. Dating back to its roots, country music serves as an emotional channel, allowing for companionship during an individual’s hardships in life.
Being among one of the top influential genres of music in the twentieth century, country music has paved the way for other genres of music we have today. Originating in the Appalachian Mountains in the early 1920’s, country music truly is an American homegrown art form. Welcoming with open arms and a large audience appeal has made country music the largest commercially acknowledged genre in America.
Before beginning my research on this genre of music, I had little to no knowledge of the topic and just believed whatever I saw on social media. Misconceptions of how country music is racially divided sparked my interest. However, after doing research and conducting an interview, I learned that despite being scrutinized for its controversial, over-the-top nationalistic, or possibly racial lyrics at times, country music is just the opposite. Its deep roots through American history, the expression of love for your country, and the expression of common struggles and perseverance are what makes country music so great and diverse.
- Kallen, S. (2012). The History of Country Music. Lucent Books.
- Merriman-Webster. (2018). Country Music. In Merriman-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/country%20music
- Palmer, R. R. (1981). The Sound of Culture: Blacks and Black Music in America. Pantheon Books.
- Petrusich, A. (2017). Country Music, Real Life, and the Media in The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/country-music-real-life-and-the-media
- Mazor, B. (2009). Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century. Oxford University Press.