As of last month, New York City has a country music station again. That’s great, but the country genre has a vast and rewarding back catalog that may be more appealing than some of the generic, classic rock-infused hits you’ll hear on the radio. Queens Library's catalog can offer a pretty decent road map.
You can go back to Alan Lomax’s field recordings to hear the rural music that became country & western in the early 20th century. It’s always been twangy, heavy on acoustic stringed instruments. Just like the blues, it’s steeped in themes of loneliness, despair and death.
“Western swing” was another subgenre of the early years, like Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. This was bouncy jazz music with a country twang. That music peaked in the 1940s, but it had a profound influence on later stars like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard.
Electric instruments increasingly made their way into country music recordings, and by the 1950s, rock ‘n’ roll was making its mark, too. Johnny Cash, who got his start alongside Elvis Presley at Sun Records in the mid-1950s, was practically a punk rocker by country standards. Listen to his fiery performances at Folsom or San Quentin prison for proof of that. He sped the songs up, playing with a guitarist, bassist and drummer, but no steel guitar or banjo. Of course, he went through mellower phases in his recording career, but his music retains the starkness of his Arkansas upbringing and the sneer of rock ‘n’ roll.
At the same time, Nashville was becoming the hub of the country record labels. Recordings became more lushly arranged, and studios kept teams of expert musicians ready for any country singers. It was also a hub for songwriters, who flocked there to make a living selling songs for “countrypolitan” artists to record. One of them was a young Texan named Willie Nelson, who wrote the Patsy Cline hit Crazy and Faron Young's classic Hello Walls. As he became disillusioned with the record company-imposed limitations on what the songs sounded like, Nelson helped form a rebellious subgenre called “outlaw country.” These artists tended to record with their own bands, often writing their own songs and arranging them however they pleased.
Nelson’s stunningly spare, tender 1975 version of Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain is clear evidence of how powerful outlaw country can be. He strips the song to the quiet desolation at its core — practically nothing but his acoustic guitar, a bass, and an accordion.
At the same time that Nashville was emerging in the 1950s, another school of country music was emerging in rural California. These artists also preferred electric instruments, relying heavily on the new solid-body electric guitars put out by Fender, along with drums, bass and steel guitar. The so-called Bakersfield sound had its champion in Buck Owens, who, along with his Buckaroos, recorded succinct, lively songs full of bright electric guitar parts and humorous wordplay. His first No. 1 hit, Act Naturally, was so catchy that Ringo Starr picked it up and the Beatles recorded it in 1965.
Owens’ successor in the 1960s was a young man who, unlike Johnny Cash, actually did time in California prison (where Cash's performances reportedly inspired him to pursue his own music). Merle Haggard and the Strangers took the Bakersfield sound and wedded it to darker, grittier lyrics about hard times and drinking.
As the ‘60s gave way to the ‘70s, rock ‘n’ roll began to pay more heed to country music. In 1968, the Byrds, famous for Bob Dylan covers and jangly folk-rock, brought on a new member whose deep love of country music drove them to record Sweetheart of the Rodeo, a sincere album of country covers and originals that holds up surprisingly well today. But the band was not a hit with country audiences, who did not know what to make of them when they played the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
At the same time, women performers and songwriters were coming to the fore. Dolly Parton’s 1971 album Coat of Many Colors is an all-time classic (she supposedly wrote the title song on the back of a dry cleaning receipt for the suit of her stage partner at the time, Porter Wagoner). Loretta Lynn brought her own hardnosed, working-class sensibility to the female perspective in country music songwriting (her 2004 collaboration with Jack White, Van Lear Rose, is also excellent).
Once we reach the 1990s, we find contemporary country—stuff with lots of classic-rock influences. Garth Brooks was a titan of this era. We’ll leave this section short because you can turn on the radio to hear these guys: Travis Tritt, Brooks & Dunn, Toby Keith, Brad Paisley and many more. Their music retains some of the puns and other wordplay that’s characteristic of country music, but to my ears, it lacks the sense of peril or desolation that underpinned those classic older tracks. Perhaps it’s because today’s recording artists aren’t from the era of the Great Depression, sharecroppers and unpaved roads. That’s certainly not their fault, but it gives their music a good-timey sheen that can’t match the depth of feeling in their predecessors’ work.