Country Music

By: Gary Hartman

Type: Overview Entry

Published: December 11, 2006

Updated: October 8, 2020

Country music is rooted in the folk music of the British Isles. English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh poetry, folklore, ballads, and sea chanteys form the basis for many of the earliest songs that came to be called country music in the United States. However, modern country music has been profoundly influenced by a variety of other regional and ethnic genres of music over the past few centuries. African Americans, Mexican Americans, German Americans, Polish Americans, French Americans, and several other groups all have had a major impact on the development of country music.

The origins of what we think of today as country music can be traced back in large part to the eighteenth-century American South, as large numbers of English-speaking settlers moved into the region. By the early nineteenth century, some of these Anglo pioneers had moved as far west as Texas. As a primarily rural, agrarian society, the South remained somewhat culturally isolated from the increasingly urbanized and industrialized North. Consequently, southerners tended to preserve the traditional folk music of their ancestral homelands. However, even though southern folk songs typically were based on traditional music from the British Isles, they underwent significant transformation according to the particular ethnic and social influences present in different parts of the South. By the mid-nineteenth century, "country" music included a wide variety of styles that differed dramatically from region to region across the South and elsewhere throughout the United States.

In Texas, country music developed its own unique characteristics. Beginning with Moses and Stephen Austin's agreement with the Mexican government to bring English-speaking settlers into the province of Tejas in the 1820s, tens of thousands of White southerners poured into Texas over the next two decades, bringing their southern folk culture with them. Many also brought black slaves, who would have a significant impact on the unique development of country music in Texas.

Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836, and, by the time it joined the United States in 1845, the original Native American and Hispanic inhabitants had been joined by an astounding array of other immigrant and ethnic groups, including Anglo, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, African, German, French, Czech, Polish, Jewish, and Italian. Partly because Texas was less strictly segregated than the Deep South, and partly because the rugged environment of the western frontier necessitated cooperation among traditionally disparate groups, people of different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds interacted somewhat more freely in Texas than in other parts of the South, exchanging musical ideas and influences in the process. This blending of a variety of rich musical traditions made Texas a fertile ground for the emergence of several new sub-genres of country music.

The great cattle drives from Texas up into the Midwest during the late 1800s made the cowboy a key player in the developing Texas economy and secured his status as an almost mythical figure within the folk culture of the Southwest. The music of the cowboys included traditional folksongs that were modified to fit the unique living and working conditions cowboys faced. "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie," for example, was based on the old English sailor's song "Ocean Burial." Other songs included humorous anecdotes or spoke of the lonely, difficult nature of life on the open range. Since nearly half of all Texas cowboys were Hispanic, black, Native-American, or of some other non-Anglo ancestry, the cowboy's repertoire also reflected lyrical, instrumental, and stylistic influences from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. In some cases, songs widely considered to be traditional cowboy ballads actually were written or modified years after the great cattle drives by songwriters hoping to recapture what they considered to be the romance and adventure of a bygone era. Such is the case with the classic tune "A Home on the Range," which probably originated as an authentic cowboy song, but was later updated and popularized by Texas composer David Guion during the early twentieth century.

By the 1920s the increasing availability of radios, phonographs, and moving pictures helped spread country music, which previously had been limited mainly to the South and Southwest, across the nation and even into international markets. The first known commercial recording of country music came in 1922, when Amarillo-based fiddler Eck Robertson, with fiddler Henry C. Gilliland, recorded "Arkansas Traveler" and "Sallie Gooden" for Victor Records. In 1924 Vernon Dalhart from Jefferson, Texas, released the first country record to sell over one million copies. Dalhart's phenomenal success with "The Wreck of the Old 97" (also known as "The Wreck on the Southern Old 97") convinced major record labels that there was a lucrative national market for country music. Soon, record companies and Hollywood film producers launched nationwide searches for marketable country singing stars. Among the most influential of these stars who were from or had lived in Texas were Gene Autry, Dale Evans, Tex Ritter, and Jimmie Rodgers. Rodgers, originally from Meridian, Mississippi, helped blend the Deep South country style of his native state with the western style of the Texas prairies to create the music that would come to be called "country and western." The tremendous popularity of such radio and movie singing personalities helped carry this musical genre to an international audience and made the cowboy and his music a permanent and powerful symbol of Texas history and culture.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Texas continued to contribute to the ongoing evolution of country music. Folksinger Woody Guthrie, who was born in Oklahoma but spent much of his early life in Texas, became an important spokesman for millions of Texans, Oklahomans, and Arkansans displaced by the great Dust Bowl. Also, during the 1930s, Bob Wills, born in Limestone County, Texas, and Milton Brown, born in Stephenville, Texas, joined with a variety of jazz and country musicians to create western swing, one of the most eclectic, exciting, and enduring forms of American music ever to appear. Western swing blended traditional ballads and country fiddle tunes with blues, jazz, ragtime, polkas, schottisches, waltzes, reels, and instrumental arrangements that reflected the influences of numerous musical styles, from mariachi to big band swing. The great versatility of these western swing groups was due in part to the love that Wills, Brown, and the others had for all types of music, regardless of their ethnic or geographical origins. However, economic considerations also played a part in shaping the diverse repertoire of these bands. In order to keep their jobs on radio during the Depression, entertainers had to be able to perform a broad array of musical styles that would appeal to a large and diverse audience. The end result was a new type of music, known as "Texas Swing" or "Western Swing," which introduced an astounding array of musical influences into mainstream country music.

The World War II era brought other important changes to country music. The rapid mobilization of the civilian population for the war effort resulted in a dramatic increase in urbanization and industrialization, as millions of Americans from rural backgrounds moved to the cities to work in factories and office buildings. This rapid transformation from an agrarian to an urban lifestyle was reflected in the emergence of a new type of country music called "honky-tonk." Although still based primarily on the musical structures and instrumentation of traditional country, honky-tonk dealt more candidly with the problems of an increasingly urbanized, industrialized, and morally permissive society. Issues such as alcoholism, infidelity, divorce, and other social problems, which formerly were not discussed openly in public, became common themes in honky-tonk songs.

Some of the most influential honky-tonk musicians of this period came from Texas. Ernest Tubb, the first country singer to perform at Carnegie Hall, helped pioneer the post-World War II honky-tonk era, along with Floyd Tillman, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Thompson, Ray Price, Moon Mullican, and George Jones. By the late 1950s, Texas artists were bridging the gap between country and pop, bringing country music increasingly into mainstream popular culture. For example, Johnny Horton's "Battle of New Orleans," Jim Reeves's "He'll Have to Go," Jimmy Dean's "Big Bad John," Roger Miller's "King of the Road," and Jeannie C. Riley's "Harper Valley P.T.A." all became major hits on both the country and pop charts. Texas-born Buck Owens even had one of his songs, "Act Naturally" (written by Mississippian Johnny Russell), recorded by pop superstars, the Beatles.

In the 1970s, Texas gave birth to yet another sub-genre of country music that forever altered the course of American music. Centered in Austin, the phenomenon known as "progressive country" sprang from an unlikely combination of traditional country music and the hippie counterculture of the late 1960s. Such Austin venues as the Armadillo World Headquarters and Soap Creek Saloon provided an environment in which cowboys, hippies, bikers, and college students could mingle freely and hear a wide variety of music, including blues, country, rock-and-roll, and conjunto. Texas singer-songwriters, such as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson, helped pioneer the progressive country movement, along with the somewhat edgier "outlaw" country movement.

Kris Kristofferson, born in Brownsville, Texas, on June 22, 1936, includes on his resumé such diverse occupations as janitor, Rhodes Scholar, and helicopter pilot. He became a successful songwriter and movie star, recording and performing with Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Barbra Streisand. Waylon Jennings, born in Littlefield, Texas, near Lubbock on June 15, 1937, played bass guitar for Buddy Holly before moving to Nashville to record for RCA Records. Willie Nelson, born on April 30, 1933, in Abbott, Texas, was raised by his grandparents. As a child, he began composing his own songs and by the 1960s had established a successful songwriting career in Nashville. Some of the biggest stars of country music turned Nelson's songs into top hits, including Ray Price with "Night Life," Patsy Cline with "Crazy," and Faron Young with "Hello Walls." However, by the early 1970s, Nelson had returned to Texas seeking greater creative freedom in his home state.

The phenomenal commercial success of such progressive country hits as "Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)" and "Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys," forced the Nashville establishment to acknowledge Nelson, Jennings, and other "outlaw" artists and to incorporate their unconventional musical style into the country mainstream. Soon, a flood of younger Texas performers, including Ray Wylie Hubbard, Billy Joe Shaver, Marcia Ball, Asleep at the Wheel, Guy Clark, Michael Martin Murphey, Rodney Crowell, Johnny Rodriguez, Tanya Tucker, B.J. Thomas, Freddy Fender, Billie Jo Spears, Townes Van Zandt, Don Williams, and transplanted Texan Jerry Jeff Walker, were riding the wave of a new and more eclectic country music market that embraced country, folk, blues, pop, rock, and western swing.

The 1980s brought further important developments in country music. While native Texans such as Kenny Rogers, born in Houston in 1938, Barbara Mandrell, born in Houston in 1948, and Larry Gatlin, born in Seminole in 1948, topped the charts with crossover pop-country hits, a group of college friends living in San Marcos was about to turn the country music world on its head. The Ace in the Hole Band, which included Mike Daily, Terry Hale, Tommy Foote, Ron Cabal, and a young, unknown singer named George Strait, exploded on the scene, inspiring a return to the roots of traditional country music. George Strait, born in Poteet, Texas, in 1952 and raised in nearby Pearsall, honed his singing skills during a stint in the United States Army and then went on to pursue a degree in agriculture at Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University). Between classes and local gigs, particularly at Kent Finlay's Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, Strait and the band developed a loyal following. In 1981 Strait signed on with MCA Records and quickly became a country superstar. With an emphasis on western swing and back-to-basics honky-tonk, his long string of Number 1 hits, which includes "Fool Hearted Memory," "Right or Wrong," "Amarillo By Morning," "Baby Blue," and "Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind?," spawned legions of imitators and reawakened an interest in more traditional-sounding country music. Strait was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006 and named Artist of the Decade by the Academy of Country Music in 2009. In 2014 he was named Entertainer of the Year by the Academy of Country Music. As of 2015 Strait's remarkable run included sixty Number-1 hit singles--a world record among music artists in any genre.

From the 1990s into the twenty-first century, such Texas artists as Lee Ann Womack, Clint Black, Lyle Lovett, LeAnn Rimes, Robert Earl Keen, Jr., Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, Pat Green, Randy Rogers, Kevin Fowler, Rick Treviño, the Dixie Chicks, and countless others have followed in the footsteps of these earlier pioneers to build successful careers of their own. Texan Jack Ingram won the Academy of Country Music’s Top New Male Vocalist in 2007. Newcomer Kacey Musgraves was named New Artist of the Year in 2013 by the Country Music Association and won a Grammy for Best Country Album in 2014. By 2015 Longview native Miranda Lambert had won numerous awards including Female Vocalist of the Year from the Academy of Country Music a staggering six consecutive times; she won five consecutive awards in that same category from the Country Music Association. These younger musicians appear committed to making sure that Texas will continue to have a profound and lasting impact on country music for many years to come.

Gregg Andrews, "It's the Music: Kent Finlay's Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, Texas," Journal of Texas Music History, Volume 5, Number 1, Spring 2005, 8–25. Richard Bauman and Roger D. Abrahams, eds., "And Other Neighborly Names": Social Process and Cultural Image in Texas Folklore, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981). Jean A. Boyd, "We're the Light Crust Doughboys from Burrus Mill": An Oral History (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003). Joe Carr and Alan Munde, Prairie Nights to Neon Lights: The Story of Country Music in West Texas (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1995). Fred Dellar, Alan Cackett, Roy Thompson, eds., The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music (London: Salamander Books, 1986). Alan B. Govenar and Jay F. Brakefield, Deep Ellum and Central Track: Where the Black and White Worlds of Dallas Converged (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1998). Gary Hartman, The History of Texas Music (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2008). Duncan McLean, Lone Star Swing: On the Trail of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys (New York: Norton, 1997). Bill C. Malone, Country Music U.S.A. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002). Steven Opdyke, Willie Nelson Sings America (Austin: Eakin Press, 1998). William A. Owens, Tell Me a Story, Sing Me A Song: A Texas Chronicle (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983). Texas Music Museum, Waltz Across Texas: An Introduction to the Country and Western Music of Texas (Austin, 1991). Charles R. Townsend, San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976).

  • Music

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Gary Hartman, “Country Music,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 16, 2022,

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December 11, 2006
October 8, 2020

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