Imagine this – you’re a country music scholar looking to answer the question, “what is country music?”
Is it the moan of the steel guitar that makes a country song? Do you have to be southern born and raised? Do you have to mention mama, trucks, trains and alcohol? You don’t really know, but you’re determined and well on your way to finding out.
Well, at least you were. On your quest you stumble upon Chet Atkins’ ghost. “Mr. Atkins, can YOU tell me what country music is?”
Would you believe this guy? All he does is grin at you, jingle around some change in his pocket (hey, ghosts can have pockets for all we know) and tells you “that’s country music right there.”
This isn’t entirely a fictitious story either. Atkins was asked by someone to define what the Nashville Sound was long ago, and that was his response (while still being alive obviously).
Let’s face it – country music loves its authenticity. If nothing else, it’s at least one element we know is essential to country music. Truthfully though, country music is a money-making enterprise and always has been.
The Early Years
In its earliest days, the American record companies built their business by making records that offered attempts to appeal to Italians, Jews and other ethnicities. Their goal was to make records that bridged the gap between cultural traditions and modern professionalism with the new technologies offered. Southern music, “hillbilly” music or whatever you want to call it didn’t really fit the mold.
It was only when business stagnated in the early 1920s that producers such as Ralph Peer and Frank Walker (of Okeh Records and Columbia respectively) created two new genre categories – “race records” (music associated with African-Americans) and “hillbilly,” a genre which focused on white musicians.
With “hillbilly” records, the two men expected the music to appeal to white Southerners with their fiddlers and mountain balladeers, but they soon discovered the music had a larger appeal. Blame it on a well-worn veil of southern pastoralism and American nostalgia.
Enter Eck Robertson, a thirty-four-year-old Southerner who made what historians consider to be the first country music recordings in Victor’s New York studios in June 1922. Nobody exactly rolled out the red carpet for him though.
While this tale comes attached with the tag of “legend has it,” when he traveled to New York City in 1922 with his friend Henry Gilliland, they were dressed in Confederate uniforms and demanded to be allowed to audition. The Victor people allowed it, but it was mostly just to get rid of them. They shelved the recordings that wouldn’t be seen for another year. Robertson himself said in later interviews though that the folks were mightily impressed at the time.
Whatever the true story is, Robertson recorded ten sides over two days from June 30 to July 1. His versions of “Sallie Gooden” and “Arkansas Traveler” released in March 1923 beat Fiddlin’ John Carson’s recordings to the market by four months.
Sure enough, the nasal vocal styles combined with the instrumental accompaniment (fiddle, banjo, guitar) and the mix of gospel and folk songs of other early country music recordings resonated with rural residents.
It’s unfortunate that Victor, despite being an early adopter of the hillbilly field, didn’t feel a need to commit to the music. Most of the earliest hillbilly artists were signed to Okeh, Columbia and Vocalion. By 1924, they caught back on though. New York based pop singer Vernon Dalhart had country music’s first million seller with “The Prisoner’s Song,” and soon, hillbilly records led to a boom in the recording industry.
During the Bristol Sessions in 1927, Peer helped launch the careers of two country music icons (arguably the first ones), the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. Despite Rodgers setting the template for future country artists to come, he was country music’s first modern figure. He, according to noted historian Richard Peterson, “established country music as something more than a romantic, backward looking ‘ethnic’ music primarily merchandised to rural white Southerners.”
It makes sense. After all, Rodgers appeared in promotional films, asserted an “outlaw” image by speaking freely of sex, drugs and disease and adapted the music of African-Americans into his own songs. The Carter Family on the other hand represented country’s links to spirituality, domesticity and tradition through their image (although Maybelle Carter was certainly progressive in her guitar playing).
The 1927 sessions conducted by Peer over a two-week period are some of the most legendary moments in country music history (they were the first recordings by the Carter Family and Rodgers).
Going back to Peer, as his experience with the hillbilly industry grew, he sought out singers who could both sing and write. He didn’t buy the copyright (a common practice then), but instead insisted on a publishers’s share of all royalties. To this day, this practice remains a cornerstone of the country music business.
In fact, Peer was so confident that instead of working for Victor for a salary, he worked for control of the copyrights he saw as valuable. It’s on this basis that he built the Southern Music Publishing Company, one of the largest country-oriented firms in the history of the entertainment business.
And Now Business Is Booming!
Well … sort of. The businessmen profited, but hillbilly artists didn’t exactly get rich. Record companies during this time failed to pay performers their earned royalties. Many record executives also bought performances outright with, according to Bill Ivey, “only a flat fee paid for recordings that could go on to generate thousands of dollars in sales.”
As such, royalties paid to writers for every record sold were as little as $.005 per disc. Thankfully, another alternative opened up for performers and writers.
The performance royalty accrues to a copyright whenever a song is performed in public (meaning radio, clubs, concerts … etc.). The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) collected and paid out performance royalties to writers.
Of course, none of that really mattered to hillbillies, mostly because they weren’t allowed to join ASCAP, meaning they received only the money from their record sales instead of performance money.
Then 1939 happened.
ASCAP had been charging radio stations fees based upon the stations’ rates for radio advertising. Stations with higher advertisement rates paid a higher flat fee, for which they could play any selection licensed by ASCAP.
Eventually broadcasters rebelled, forming their own licensing organization known as Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI). During this strike period, no ASCAP material was played on the airwaves. Gee, where did they turn for new music I wonder?
They had two options:
- They could play nineteenth-century standards not protected by copyright.
- They could seek out writers not affiliated with any licensing organizations.
While the rest of us are jumping up and down blue in the face saying “option two! Option two!!!” knowing that hillbilly music fit squarely into this category, stations went with option one. Thankfully, one BMI staff member set about to sign hillbilly and blues songwriters.
It can’t be stressed enough how much this event helped aid country music’s commercial success. Suddenly, radio was open to hearing blues, jazz and hillbilly, with BMI collecting money in performance royalties for the songwriters. The dawn of a new age for hillbilly music was beginning.
From Hillbilly To Country
At this point, I think I can switch from calling it “hillbilly” music to what we know it as now – country. After all, it was Ernest Tubb’s plea for a new term for the genre that made it take off in 1948. Tubb urged his record label Decca to come up with a new name since Tubb found the old term insulting and a reinforcement of the music’s stereotypical backwardness. Furthermore, he also didn’t feel it accurately captured the music’s growing commercial prominence and stylistic diversity. “Most of us are from the country – call it country music!”
And so it goes. Decca started marketing Tubbs as “country.” By the early ’50s, other record labels followed this lead as did radio stations and trade papers such as Billboard and Cashbox.
By calling it “country,” it presented the genre as something which Americans could connect to as an authentic past-time as well as something that embraced the changing dynamics of the present.
One key in this process was the series of pop covers of country music material that were commercially successful. Whether it was Patti Page’s take on “Tennessee Waltz” or Tony Bennett’s take on Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart,” these singers were taking country music and making it viable for a mainstream national audience. Despite the differing arrangements, there was certainly common ground between the originals and the pop covers. This common ground had arguably been in place ever since the aforementioned Vernon Dalhart performed “The Prisoner’s Song.”
Moving On Up … Not To The East Side, But To Music City
We still need to go back further a little bit though to talk about country music’s actual rise. The story of how Nashville became music city is worth another post all on its own (or two), but to give the briefest explanation possible, Nashville post-World War II was the foundation for the first commercial music business independent of WSM and the Grand Ole Opry.
I’m referring to Acuff-Rose Publications when I say that.
Fred Rose, a respectable pop-songwriter and pianist who was also responsible for country standards such as “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” and his partner, Roy Acuff, a country star, took advantage of what they had at their disposal. BMI’s presence surely helped, as both men provided a channel through which the earnings could flow to Opry-connected songwriters. It’s important to note these funds stayed in Nashville, in local writers’ hands and of course, with Acuff-Rose. Rose’s connection with industry leaders in New York certainly helped as well.
Those aforementioned crossover hits of “Tennessee Waltz” and “Cold, Cold Heart” were controlled by Acuff-Rose too. By virtue of that, Rose signed Hank Williams in the summer of 1946. Don’t think they wanted this ol’ hillbilly to stay content with his hillbilly triumphs though. An untold fact is that they had their eyes on the pop market with Williams.
As mentioned before, the pop covers and the country standards had common ground, and both men of Acuff-Rose saw this. Plus, with his background, Rose could easily recognize what would be a pop hit and what would be a country hit. The only problem was getting those songs in the hands of pop artists.
That’s where Rose’s connections came in handy. Mitch Miller, head of A&R for Columbia Records encouraged pop artists to cut those hillbilly songs (many of Williams’ hits were hits for other artists in the pop world).
Between this as well as Mercury Records becoming the first major record label to open an office in Nashville, this helped the city become known as the reputable music center it is today.
Mama Wants To Change That Nashville Sound
Then rock ‘n’ roll happened and all hell broke loose. Again, the rise of rock ‘n’ roll is worth another separate post in its own right, but let’s just say it threatened the powerful Nashville-based country music industry. Why listen to that outdated country stuff when you can dance and jive to the rhythms of the rock ‘n’ rollers?
Of course, it’s not like it didn’t help in a small part. It was in fact, RCA’s signing of Elvis Presley that enabled Steve Sholes to commit the label to the creation of a Nashville office. Artists such as Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Presley had major country hits and caused an uproar amongst older fans of the genre. Michael T. Bertrand said how “traditional fans protested that Presley was not ‘real country’ but instead ‘mongrel music’ that added too much black musical influence.” Of course, it’s unfair to divide the line between those two genres when pop crossovers were accepted, but the blurry lines of hypocrisy when it comes to genre lines are something that in this writer’s opinion needs a further study. Basically what I’m trying to say is, Nashville prospered from this, but country music didn’t.
Nevertheless, Nashville saw the dollar signs and ran with it, or rather held on for dear life. If you think certain stars were immune to it, think again. Here’s George Jones trying it out … or should I say Thumper Jones?
Performance royalties for radio airplay quickly vanished as stations abandoned country music. Everything the establishment had been working for up to that point had been crushed to nothing in the blink of an eye, and that’s not me speaking in hyperbole.
Heck, even the Tin Pan Alley pop music suffered from rock ‘n’ roll. Every segment of the industry tried to fight it off. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) and the Country Music Association (CMA) were all formed between 1957-58 as a way to stave the crisis.
This story diverges into two different directions that I feel are equally as important, so true to the sub-headline, let’s discuss the Nashville sound first.
Those connections akin to the Mitch Miller-Fred Rose one were also crucial for Nashville. The aforementioned Sholes, A&R director for RCA Victor, had signed guitarist Chet Atkins to the label in 1947. He initially began his association with RCA by making records as a singer who was groomed to be a rival for Merle Travis. This formed a bond between Sholes and Atkins.
Atkins was an architect of the Nashville Sound, a movement that as author Charles Hughes describes it, “was a sophisticated and expansive production strategy that characterized the next decade in country music and led to a broadened audience and approach for the Nashville-based industry.”
Its goal was two-pronged. The side that we as music fans are aware of is the musical side of it. String sections and background vocalists were presented in a clean-cut, professional fashion. On the business side, it was designed to increase business for Nashville studios, publishers, record companies and recording artists.
This is more or less how country music adopted its “adult” image. In 1966, Business Week reported that the Nashville Sound was the hottest thing around. Remember Atkins jiggling coins in his ghostly pockets? He wasn’t wrong. Most importantly though, the movement also continued the ongoing debate in country music of tradition versus reinvention. Of course, this movement is also worth another post in its own right, so let’s move on to the other side of the coin.
Taking The Country Back
Atkins wasn’t the only one responsible for trying to right country music’s course. Two men are responsible with converting what was left of the Country Music Disc Jockeys Association (CMDJA) into the Country Music Association – Wesley Rose (Fred’s son) and Connie B. Gay. While rivals within the CMA, they symbolized the union of publishing and radio that would bolster country’s growth during the ’60s and ’70s.
BMI’s opening of an office in Nashville in 1958 symbolized a commitment to the city itself. It helped to advance funds against anticipated earnings of publishers and songwriters. Through this, Nashville-based publishers acquired the capacity necessary for operations in the period before actual royalty income exceeded expenses. Acuff-Rose was joined by Tree and Cedarwood as well as other small publishing companies.
The CMA attempted to assuage radio programmers, radio and television advertisers with messages such as “country music is popular. It will sell your product. People will listen to your station if it is country. An endorsement by a country artist will sell laundry soap.” While full-time country radio stations in 1961 equated to a measly 81, there were 600 by the end of the ’60s.
If hearing about crossover hits and enhancing Nashville’s image is getting tiring, it’s not going to stop anytime soon.
Between country and pop hits such as “Harper Valley P.T.A.” and “King Of The Road” to well-known musicians such as Joan Baez and Bob Dylan coming to Nashville to record, country music proved it was capable of attracting an urban audience.
With economic success leading to greater independence and expansions of record labels, it’s not unfair to say country music had entered a boom period. This freedom allowed Nashville record divisions (who before had little autonomy) to have the final say in matters of album mix, cover art, artist development and signings (before, the say went to New York headquarters).
That freedom also gave rise to the outlaw movement, a movement that consisted of a group of artists rebelling against the (seeming) restrictions of the country music industry and the Nashville studio system.
Of course, the outlaws weren’t looking to destroy Nashville. When quoted in Country Music Reader, Tompall Glaser said that “there’s no reason country music can’t be just as big as rock music was.” Later on he said “when we started, people thought we were going to destory Nashville. Who wants to destroy Nashville? It’s a long way from my mind … but if he’s got a good, decent alternative, all he’s got to do is keep doing it, and pretty soon the whole fucking industry will be doing it, because there are too few people in this town that know what the fuck to do.”
In other words, the outlaws didn’t want to abandon the rule-book. They just wanted it bent their way. Greater creative autonomy and commercial reward were the ultimate goals for the outlaws (which again, the industry itself already had by this point). Despite the supposed resistance to Nashville itself, most (not all) outlaws still recorded in Nashville studios.
While I don’t want to dive too deep into the outlaw movement (that’s worth another po … oh forget it), I’d be remiss not to mention country music’s first million selling album, Wanted! The Outlaws.
It looks pretty, doesn’t it? The wanted poster design of the cover looks rough and tough. It’s only a product though. Executives were hoping to cash in on Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson’s success just as they have with anything else that works in the establishment.
Let it not be forgotten though that this was an era marked by freedom, meaning that even the pop-oriented material had a seat at the table. The embrace of artists such as John Denver and Olivia Newton-John from outside country music’s boundaries was cut from the same cloth as the creative approach that birthed the outlaws.
Trouble On The Line … Again
Beyond some confusing, complex legal battles that marked country music’s transition from the late ’70s to the early to mid ’80s (worth another po … alright! alright!), if country music is known for one phenomenon during this era, it’s the Urban Cowboy movement.
The film was based on a 1978 Esquire magazine article written about Texas oil workers who spent their time at Gilley’s – the world’s largest honky-tonk in Pasadena, Texas.
Culturally, the movie spawned a love for wearing cowboy and cowgirl clothing, trucks, mechanical bulls and of course, country music.
Commercially, the boom resulted in talk show appearances for Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson. Record labels increased budgets and expanded staffs to handle what they thought was an upcoming boom period in country music. Some very expensive deals were cut during these years, and many of these deals outlived the phenomenon, and soon enough, something had to give. Big-name artists found themselves without a record deal. Meanwhile Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton and Waylon Jennings all jumped ship toward new labels. The fact that sales still exceeded those of the pre-Urban Cowboy days was a small feat at best.
By 1986, total record sales had fallen to 9% of the market (they were around 10.5-12% during the ’70s). Yes, country music has in fact needed saving before, and not just once.
We’re Not Falling For That One Again …
Two classes of country music ushered in a renewal for country music, the class of ’86 and ’89. While the mid-80s had been marked by bad business deals, new artists were being ushered in who were more business-savvy and more importantly, knew what they wanted. With the pared-down A&R staff members, new ideas were more welcomed than they might have been otherwise. Business declines led toward musical experimentation in other words. Notice that the debut albums from Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle don’t sound like one another. So what’s our excuse in 2018?
Right, back on topic. Anyway, institutionally, country music was still strong. The CMA had expanded internationally and Jo Walker-Meador’s retirement in 1991 signaled an opportunity for change.
The Sweet, Sweet ’90s
In some ways, the ’90s are both a vilified and beloved time in country music. On one hand, it was the biggest era commercially the genre had ever seen. On the other hand, purists wondered if certain members of the new class (alright yes, Garth Brooks) represented a loss of country music’s authenticity (which if you haven’t figured out by now isn’t really easy to define either). Of course, an embrace to fuse the old with the new is what marked the Nashville Sound, and sure enough, Garth Brooks represented both sides of the coin. One side was the honky-tonkin’, working class man who sang songs like “Rodeo” and the other half was someone who incorporated rock and pop into his recordings and gave energetic live shows.
Whatever your opinion on Brooks is, it’s hard to call him the sole perpetrator for ushering in country music as the land of the damned (if that’s unfortunately what you call it today even if it couldn’t be farther from the truth in this writer’s opinion).
Brooks, along with other artists of the era, was among the first to benefit from the rise of music videos. With the rise of Country Music Television (CMT), record companies jumped on the opportunity like a cat with catnip (and hey, as mentioned before, even Jimmie Rodgers appeared in promotional films). Alongside this, the rise of line-dancing clubs led to a “remix” culture in country music that was seen in hip-hop and other genres and led to remixes and extended versions of popular songs.
Again, as evidenced below, no artist, not even a stalwart like Alan Jackson was safe from this (and keep in mind that while “Chattahoochee” still sounds like that “good ol’ country music,” the point is that it’s still a business maneuver).
In addition to all of this, the success of all of these artists during this time was aided by the advent of the Soundscan system in 1991. If the ASCAP ban was the most important thing for country music’s commercial viability, this has to be a close second. Basically its design was to offer a more accurate measure of record sales. Prior to this, Billboard and other trade papers regularly called a preselected group of record stores and distributors around the country and asked a manager or assistant manager what the top sellers in every category were. It wasn’t a matter of compiling actual sales figures. Country music always went under-reported seeing as how country music fans weren’t known to shop in traditional record stores. Most country music sales took place in discount retailers such as Wal-Mart which didn’t even provide sales reports to Billboard.
Brooks’ No Fences album jumped from No. 16 to No. 4 the week the program was instigated. His next album, Ropin’ The Wind would be the first country album to debut at No. 1 on the pop album charts. For the first time ever, a country music star was in the same league as Michael Jackson or Billy Joel. From the bars to barcodes, country music owes this boom to technology.
And of course, what does the industry do when something works really well, kids?
“Take off with it like it’s a football on fire, run like hell and run it into the ground!”
Very good! You have been paying attention!
In all seriousness, this was a rare moment in country music history that saw country music content with being … well, country. This was all part of a larger campaign to woo new listeners by convincing them country music was cool and more importantly, a genre for everyone.
Of course, it’s not like the pride didn’t come with a bit of an acknowledgement of the genre’s past. The CMA’s 2001 slogan was “Country. Admit it. You Love it,” as if despite its popularity, you still might feel insecure about liking *gulp* country music.
On the other side of the fence, the 1994 Grammy awards were noted for showcasing many aging pop-rockers, and many of the hits were coming from artists over forty. Country music simply entered at the right time in an age of new ideas and development.
Again, it’s not like artists like Brooks or Shania Twain were still any well-liked even though the boom was much bigger than them in the first place (and as evidenced now). According to Pamela Fox, “Garth Brooks and Shania Twain have become just as vilified as the earlier Crystal Gayle or Olivia Newton-John for catering to a base of ‘suburban moms’. ”
On the subject of Twain, her 2002 album, Up! was among the most extreme cases of marketing in country music, with three versions of the exact same album sold to various demographics (pop, country, international). On the other side of the coin, the Dixie Chicks had just released Home, a noticeably acoustic effort with bluegrass tinges which spawned the crossover hit in “Long Time Gone,” a song which decried country music’s break from tradition.
On a separate but still crucial note, the combined impact of both Twain and the Dixie Chicks accompanied a time of dominance for female artists in country music. In 1998, 52% of Billboard number-one country hits were performed by women. Despite Twain and the Dixie Chicks seeming like they’re from different worlds, Charles Hughes put it best when he said “both were hugely popular, ultimately controversial, and equally representative of the music’s historical push-pull remixed for a new century.”
I have chosen to stop here in our discussion. For one, this piece is already way longer than it should be, and truthfully the last ten years of the country music business is still something that awaits scholarly discussion. For now though, it’s well established that business has been crucial to country music’s emergence and survival despite being seen as the enemy to artists and writers alike. It was business acumen that saw the rise of hillbilly singers and a change in royalties contributed to country music being truly profitable. Of course too, names such as Acuff-Rose and Atkins are responsible for pulling country music from its roots into a place of prominence in American culture. In short, the recording industry, while not without its problems, has constructed the way we understand and appreciate country music.
This piece was written thanks to the following sources:
- Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity by Richard Peterson (2007).
- Country Music – The Rough Guide by Kurt Wolff (2000).
- Country: The Music and the Musicians by the Country Music Foundation (1994).
- Ernest Tubb: The Texas Troubadour by Ronnie Pugh (1996).
- How Nashville Became Music City U.S.A. by Micheal Kosser (2006).
- Natural Acts by Pamela Fox (2009)
- Reading Country Music edited by Cecelia Tichi (1998).
- Tompall Glaser’s quote comes from Michael Bane’s “The Outlaw Revolution in Country Music,” reprinted in Travis Stimeling’s Country Music Reader.
- The Oxford Handbook of Country Music edited by Travis Stimeling (2017).
- The Selling Sound: The Rise of the Country Music Industry by Diane Pecknold (2007).