Traditional country music
Like acoustic blues, though it had existed for a long time already, country music only began to be recorded in the late 1920s. These phenomena are not separated. Record companies were discovering there was a market out there for records of mostly regional, rural, down home music that ordinary folk enjoyed hearing from their local performers.
Country music was a form that evolved out of Anglo-Saxon ballads brought over originally by the first Americans in the 17th century, and evolving over time. The Appalachians (West Virginia, southeastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia, eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina) was the primary region where this music evolved. Among isolated mountain folk, music became the prime entertainment, usually a family affair where each member of the family played an instrument (fiddle, piano) and sang in what came to be known as "Appalachian harmonies" (which have remained a part of country music: listen to the Everly Brothers, listen to Keith singing background on Tom Waits' country song Blind Love on 1985's Rain Dogs). The music often focused on sacred, religious hymns or grim, century-old tales of murder or other disasters that were often rewritten to comment on more recent events. The Carter Family, country music's first stars along with Jimmie Rodgers, represented this traditional music and all its characteristics more than anybody else.
Country music was first recorded when record company scouts set up a studio in Bristol, Tennessee (in the northwestern part of the state on the border of Virginia) and put ads out inviting local people to come and record. They came in droves and that's how the business got started. By the early 30s, wide broadcasting radio shows like the Grand Ole Opry (in Nashville, Tennessee) and the Louisiana Hayride (in Shreveport, Louisiana) were dedicated to broadcasting live performances by country artists and were hugely influential in getting the music known.
Though country music went through important changes through the years (the invention of bluegrass and honky tonk in the 1940s, many other later developments) and changed dramatically, the traditional qualities of the music's beginnings remained in many of these later developments. The popular brother harmony-singing duos of the 1930s, '40s and '50s in particular (the Delmore Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys, in the 1950s the extraordinary Louvin Brothers and even the Everly Brothers).
I don't say I could do it, but there's something
in hillbilly music from America that I particularly enjoy. It's got a lot
of heart to it.
- Charlie Watts, 1964, asked what he would play if it wasn't R&B
ROY ACUFF (1903-1992)
Roy Acuff was the next big country music star to succeed the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. His style brought together qualities of the two acts. He wrote songs about trains and so on (The Wabash Cannonball), but he never sang with Rodgers' melancholy and vagabond restlessness, and his themes were frequently sacred (The Great Speckled Bird, Wreck on the Highway) and celebrated the virtues of traditional country people. Born in Tennessee, Acuff was a failed baseball player who learned violin and harmonica and traveled with medicine shows with his band. He made it big in the late 1930s when he sang on the Grand Ole Opry. He thereafter became a mainstay of the show, its greatest representative and the towering figure of traditional country music throughout the 1940s. He was a tremendous influence on most of the succeeding country greats, including Hank Williams (who shared the same music publisher, Fred Rose) and George Jones. After the hits stopped, he continued performing and most of all was an incredibly respected and admired figure, the embodiment of traditional country music and the Grand Ole Opry until his death.
Acuff influenced the Stones indirectly, through his own influence on later country stars. But Bill Wyman, who was half a generation older than the others, was a fan of his early on, during his stint with the army stationed in Germany in the early 1950s.
When I got there I started listening to American broadcasts, which we used to pick up in the British sector. Suddenly I was hearing things like the Grand Ole Opry show when I'd never heard country music before. I used to really like waking up at 6:00 AM before we'd go on duty and lie in bed and listen to all the great singers like Roy Acuff and Flatt & Scruggs. I'm still a great collector of that kind of music.
JIMMIE RODGERS (1897-1933)
If you are a blues fan and can also appreciate country, you cannot possibly miss out on Jimmie Rodgers, one of the most important musicians in 20th century American popular music.
Born in Mississippi, guitarist and vocalist Rodgers was a white man who played the blues, vaudeville tunes as well as the burgeoning country music and created an original mix all his own. (Rodgers was not alone in this. In the same way, black blues artists like the acoustic blues players of the Delta and Piedmont styles of the same years played all these different styles when they performed to entertain people. Blues was what they happened to record.) He became country's first big star in the late 1920s, at the same time as the Carter Family. But whereas the Carter Family exemplified all of the virtues of traditional country music (family, moral rectitude, religious fervor), Rodgers was equally appreciated for something entirely new. A restless and mischievous man, Rodgers roamed all his life, working on the railroads, traveling the country and going from job to job while trying to make it in music. When he finally achieved success, Rodgers' image and music emphasized those qualities. He became known as the "Singing Brakeman", singing songs about his restlessness, life on the railroad and relationships gone sour with women, all with a frequent melancholy. His musical style blended both the blues and country, and he developed a unique trademark which was his yodeling, which was often also melancholic and which he would incorporate very tastefully in his recordings. Like Hank Williams in later years, in the six years that Rodgers recorded, he wrote and created an incredible number of classics in which a true poetry lives. Some of his most famous songs include Waiting for a Train, In the Jailhouse Now, My Rough and Rowdy Ways and his series of numbered Blue Yodels. He died of tuberculosis in the middle of the Depression at the age of 35, having left behind him an incredible legacy.
In the same way that the Stones (Mick and Keith especially) appreciated honky tonkers and later performers like Merle Haggard, they also knew and loved Jimmie Rodgers. Their song Country Honk, which lyrically is closest to a Hank Williams song, musically is actually closer to a Jimmie Rodgers tune.
On Let It Bleed, we put that other version of Honky Tonk Women on 'cause that's how the song was originally written, as a real Hank Williams / Jimmie Rodgers / '30s country song.
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