Country music has origins in American roots

By Don McAlavy: County historian

In the beginning of the 20th Century the mere idea of an American Music Canon did not exist. The American scholars and music people looked to Europe where classical music thrived and folk music was standardized.

One hundred years later, American roots music and what came of it — pop music — made its sounds and styles the envy of the world.

What we lacked in a sophisticated, respectful classical music canon was more than made up for the sounds of banjo picking, gospel shouts, gut-bucket boogie, twang, swing, the most touching musical tales of love gained and lost, wayward souls, good times and bad, and above all, the American Dream.

The story of American roots music in the 20th century is, among other things, a colorful, wonderfully complex narrative of opposites, beginning in the early 1900s, it is the story of city and country, north and south, black and white, rich and poor, past and present, old and new.

On the surface, this soundscape seems impossibly confusing and incoherent. How could such contrasting elements ever come together to make the most basic sense? Fortunately for America, opposites attract, even in music.

The tug from one, then from the other, made for a beautiful creative tension that ran strong for most of the century.

Here is one sample of how it worked: During the 1940s when African-Americans from the rural South made their way to the urban industrial North, they bought with them the most acoustic sound of country blues.

Such a sound stood little chance of surviving except as nostalgic tears — in a metropolis like Chicago, a city whose African-Americans found greater economic opportunity then they did anywhere in Dixie.

But the new environment needed a new kind of music, one that touched the daily lives of these black transplants, more so as a man they called “Muddy Waters!” (His nickname!) The same thing happened to whites and country music or hillbilly, as it was called back then.

From the hollows of West Virginia, the hills of eastern Kentucky and the small farms of the Deep South came a high lonesome sound made by people close to the land and a long way from the sickness of a big city.

In the 1920s, Uncle Dave Macon was asked to perform on a new radio program called the “Grand Ole Opry,” and became one of the country music’s first celebrities. The defining sound in early country music and one of the most popular radio program in American history.

Before long hillbilly became country music and the sounds of the country grew and thrived in a city, Nashville, home of the Opry and the country music industry that grew up around it.

Music, to tell the truth, is the most uplifting sounds every heard by human ears. “Praise the Lord!”