American Music pt 2
by Pril Stevenson
Before I tackle anything else, I’m going to delve into the genre that all us rockers love to hate. No, not rap, but that’ll be coming along.
Country music. Specifically, the old timey style that has a lot in common with bluegrass. The first “country” music record to be a nationwide hit was the hoary old “Wreck of the Old ‘97”, which was about a real train wreck. It was released in 1924 and performed by a man named Vernon Dalhart. It sold 300,000 copies.
How many copies it sold was sort of important. With the introduction of radio, people didn’t see why they should spend the money on a 78 when they could hear the radio for free. The record companies had to find a way to keep themselves afloat with the new technology (same old story, isn’t it?), and one of the ways they did it was by finding new things to record. Okeh did it in ’20 with the blues, and we’ll look at Okeh in other essays, because it’s considered a blues label and this is an essay about country music.
Anyway, the A&R reps descended on the south. The same guy who recorded that blues song by Mamie Smith for Okeh in ’20 hit paydirt in Bristol, TN in 1927. His name was Ralph Peer, by the way. And what he found in Tennessee was two branches of one of the roots of our beloved rock n roll. The Carter Family AND Jimmie Rodgers.
Jimmie absorbed all the music he heard and spit it back out as his own. He incorporated blues, picking, yodel songs and jazz. What?! Yodeling?! Yeah. You can hear that style in a lot of Hank Williams Sr. songs. It was a popular style, and later, in the ‘30s, the singing cowboys used it. That’s the Western part of Country & Western. But Jimmie spent his life experimenting with music and made it HUGE before he died in ’33.
The Carter family... well, there are fourth generation Carters making music still. The music plunked itself into their genes and has yet to be diluted by any means.
Country music veered off in a lot of different directions, and it was wild. Wild like you wouldn’t believe if you hear much modern country. There were cowboy singers and Texas Swing, which itself was a mishmash of other styles.
If you want a good starting point to the dirt, get a copy of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”. I recommend this because it glues together the root of country with the tree of rock n roll, and therefore is easy to digest by us who hate country music. It’s got some of the Grand Ol’ Opry greats on it. Those guys were working up to old when it was released in ‘72, and they were still playing and touring. Some of them are in their 80s and 90s now, and still get out and play once in a while, I think. You can hear some of the oldest country music there is on that album. I suppose I’m prejudiced, because this album was on our turntable all the time in the house I grew up in, but it’s a piece of music history worth listening to. I can still sing most of the songs from memory.
I love that album.
I love the country music it represents.
Hear “Wildwood Flower” here.
and Vernon Dalhart here.
and Jimmy Rodgers here.
(Credit given to the PBS series “American Roots Music”, from which a lot of this information was absorbed, as well as my Dad, and my Father, and the people I jam with, because I pick their brains all the time.)
Part 3 upcoming, The Blues.