“I like my country music at the volume where I can’t hear you complaining about it.”
Whether you like country music or not, it’s undeniable that Nashville is a hub for both country music lovers and musicians. About 16.1 million cowboy boot-wearing tourists flock to Nashville each year to be at the epicenter of country music, and 37 percent of the nation’s radio stations play country music. People are loving country music, and the guitar has been at the center of it all.
Country music had been around in some form or another for hundreds of years. African, European and Mediterranean immigrants brought their version of country music (folk music) and their string instruments with them when they came over to the southeastern U.S. This style became known as Appalachian music. Guitars were expensive at this time, so most musicians played other, similar string instruments. As the country expanded and ethnicities began to cross paths, Appalachian music transformed to country music. The guitar slowly started to become more affordable and was a popular choice of instrument for the southern working class community.
Country music blended in with the blues and folk categories until it became its own genre in the 1920s with the Bristol recordings, which started the first generation of country music. The steel guitar was a prominent sound in country music during this time. Americans were just getting to know country music and record labels were being given out to a few musicians here and there, however a few lucky artists made it big. The Skillet Lickers was an extremely popular string band, Vernon Dalhart was the first country artist to have a nationwide hit song and Jimmie Rodgers got his start during this first generation.
The Great Depression marked the end of the first generation and the start of the second. The second generation is identified by high radio listeners, low record sales and the electric guitar. Gibson released the ES-150 six-string model in the late 30s and most country stars added this instrument to their lineup. There were also new techniques being developed like the drop thumb created by Maybelle Carter, and additions to country music subgenres such as bluegrass, honky tonk and hillbilly boogie. The Grand Ole Opry also got its start during this generation and, as we all know, is still going strong today.
The third generation emerged just as WWII was ending and rock ‘n’ roll was starting. Country music was heavily influenced by rock ‘n’ roll as we see with Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves. Fender introduced the solid body guitar (telecaster), which became the guitar-of-choice by many country musicians. This was also a period of firsts that included the first country music radio station in Texas and the start of the CMAs in the late 1950s.
The fourth generation (1970s) is when outlaw country music started to gain popularity. Willie Nelson was a popular outlaw musician during this time. Some other popular musicians include John Denver, Ray Price and Freddie Fender. We also can’t forget about Dolly Parton rising to her rightful place on the country music throne during this generation. The telecaster guitar remained a force to be reckoned with during this generation, as well.
The fifth generation of country music was where we saw a spike in popularity among listeners thanks to the FCC expanding FM radio networks. Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson and the Dixie Chicks became extremely popular during this generation.
We are now in the sixth generation of country music, which is heavily influenced by rock/pop music. Darius Rucker, Taylor Swift (in her early days), Carrier Underwood and Lady A are some big names during this time period.
It’s clear that country music is ever-evolving. Listen to all the big country hits throughout the six generations by checking out our “Country Through the Times” playlist on Spotify!