Country Music

Returning to popular musical genres, today we shall take a brief look at the history and bigger styles of country music. Emerging out of Western American tradition and gaining traction around the time of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, country music has much to offer on its journey into the mainstream, with many big country artists now filling arenas around the world.

Traditional Country and Western

Country music originated in the 20th century and has roots based in the blues, American folk music and Western ‘cowboy’ styles. The formal introduction of the genre can be traced back to the 1920s with Fiddlin’ John Carson’s Little Log Cabin in the Lane (June, 1923). This marked the first phase of country music which, within a year, grew to popularity with Vernon Dahart’s hit Wreck of the Old 97 (May, 1924). Jimmie Rodgers went on to fuse various influences to great success, leading to him being recognised as one of the foremost early country singers. As the Great Depression hit, there was a diversification of country styles into the 1930s and 1940s marking the second phase of traditional country music. One of the styles that rose to prominence was cowboy/western country due to popularisation in Hollywood and radio airplay. This included figures such as Gene Autry who took on the role of the heroic American cowboy singing about the hardships and dangers of cowboy life. The other influential style that rose to prominence was honky tonk music. With roots in western swing and traditional Mexican music, honky tonk music was heavily present in barrooms. One particularly notable artist of this style was Hank Williams who proved very influential to rockabilly and, by extension, rock and roll. Traditional country music can often be typified by the use of string instruments such as banjos, acoustic guitars, dobros, fiddles and bass, as well as the harmonica.

Notable artists:

Hank Williams

Jimmie Rodgers

Ernest Tubb

Kitty Wells

Gene Autry

If you want to commission your own music in this style, or would like more information or help, please contact us.


Whilst the traditional western and honky tonk country styles were dominating the genre going into the 1950s, they had peaked in popularity by the mid-1950s. One of the primary styles that signified the third phase of country and launched the genre back to popularity was rockabilly with its combination of traditional country and rock and roll elements. Heading the movement was Bill Hayley, who was originally a tradition Western style singer, and his reformed band the Comets. By 1956 rockabilly was firmly established as a very popular genre, with songs by Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash all breaking the top 5 on Billboard’s charts. Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley particularly, continued to experience a high level of mainstream success throughout the rest of the decade. Rockabilly can be characterised mainly through the instruments used and some recording techniques. Bands typically include both electric and acoustic guitar, an upright bass and a vocalist. Drumming was less important as the nature of the music is highly rhythmic and upbeat. The vocal style is heavily blues based, as are the chord progressions used. Recording techniques such as echo, or more specifically slap-back echo, tape delay and reverb were very common in rockabilly songs.

Notable artists:

Carl Perkins

Elvis Presley

Johnny Cash

Bill Haley

Nashville Sound

During the 1950s, the music scene in Nashville, Tennessee established itself as heavily influential on the course of popular music and more specifically, country music. Earning itself the title of Nashville sound, this subgenre developed as a reaction to the decline of traditional country music in the face of the increasingly popular rockabilly and rock and roll styles. Many record producers began to infuse the country sound with softer elements. This involved replacing harsher sounds such as steel guitars, with softer sounds such smooth vocals and backing vocals, and string sections. The term ‘Nashville sound’ was first coined in an article in 1958 describing the music of Jim Reeves who had various hits in the 50s and 60s. Patsy Cline also developed her musical sound after moving to Nashville in 1958 where she combined country and pop elements to great success with hit singles such as I Fall to Pieces (1961). Unfortunately, the subsequent deaths of both these artists in plane crashes in 1963 and 1964 marked the decline of Nashville sound, however its influence permanently shaped the course of country music. Nashville sound music managed to appeal to a wider audience by not only changing its musical characteristics, but the lyrical content. Rather than the traditional Western country trend of focusing on working class problems and hardships, Nashville sound provided escapism, aided by crooning-style vocals.

Notable artists:

Patsy Cline

Jim Reeves

Chet Atkins

Skeeter Davis

Marty Robbins

Bakersfield Sound

In a different part of the country but also in the 1950s, Bakersfield, California was home to several artists pioneering a new sound based off the honky tonk tradition. Unlike in Nashville this was a more harsh, hardcore country sound relying on the twangy sound of the Fender Telecaster guitar. The style was less glossy and was instead more stripped-down and edgy. Bakersfield sound developed through oil workers preferring to spend time at honky tonk bars where artists such as Buck Owens and Wynn Stewart would play and were rejecting the more refined sound coming from Nashville, preferring a more barebones, raw style. Various artists pioneering the sound and went on to have hits in the 50s and 60s, such as Jean Shepard’s A Dear John Letter. This led to Bakersfield sound establishing itself as a distinct genre to rival Nashville sound. The music is characterised by combining traditional honky tonk influences with harsher electric instruments such as the telecaster guitar and pedal steel guitar. Drummers also utilised more rock-based drum-kit setups, on which they would play strong backbeats (accented 2nd and 4th beats of the bar).

Notable artists:

Buck Owens

Merle Haggard

Wynn Stewart

Jean Shepard

Tommy Collins

Country Pop

Country pop developed as a genre in the 70s following trends established by Nashville sound. Artists such as Glen Campbell and John Denver effectively blended elements of folk rock, country and pop. John Denver was particularly successful with many hits that combined country influences with his folk style such as Rocky Mountain High, Annie’s Song and Thank God I’m a Country Boy. A few years later in the mid-70s, Dolly Parton, who had roots in country music, began an extremely successful crossover into pop and Here You Come Again was highly popular. This success continued in the 80s when Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers released the duet, Islands in the Stream. Country pop perseveres in the mainstream to this day due to the likes of Shania Twain and Garth Brooks achieving success in the 90s. More recently, artists such as Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and Miley Cyrus all incorporate country elements and are among the leading popstars. Due to the relatively long time-span of country pop’s prevalence, and the ever-changing landscape of mainstream popular music, it is difficult to outline common characteristics within the genre however you can typically expect softer vocals and backing vocals, as well as more glossy, pop production.

Notable artists:

Shania Twain

Dolly Parton

Glen Campbell

Garth Brooks

Carrie Underwood