American writing comes in many forms and we like to celebrate them all! Learn more about Country Music on today’s blog.
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
The diversity of America’s writers can only be matched by the number of forms and genres in which they write. Memorable and important writing can come in many ways, lengths, and mediums. A short story can capture the zeitgeist of the moment while a clever advertising tagline can become ingrained in our collective consciousness.
Last month, we investigated the mystery genre with detectives like Kinsey Millhone and C. Augste Dupin. As we continue our journey into new American forms and genres, we’ll learn the history and major players of a unique writing form each month. We’ll also highlight instances of the form in the museum and suggest contemporary pieces for you to explore. We hope you enjoy Many Writers, Many Forms.
Written by Matthew Masino
A genre that seems to continually reinvent itself, country music originated in the American Southwest in the early 20th century. Country music often consists of ballads and swinging dance tunes marked by folk lyrics, harmonies, and generally simple forms accompanied by string instruments like the banjo, electric and acoustic guitars, the fiddle, and the harmonica. The term country music was adopted by the recording industry in the late 1940s to replace the derogatory label hillbilly music.
Early country music was inspired by English ballads, Celtic and Irish fiddle songs, and music from local European immigrant communities. Often ignored in the history of country music is the influence of African American artists and instruments. For example, the banjo was based on instruments slaves brought with them from West Africa. Pamela Foster, author of My Country: The African Diaspora’s Country Music Heritage, explained in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, “In the antebellum South, banjos, fiddles and harmonicas were the dominant instruments played in black culture. Unfortunately, history has distorted these facts to make people believe jazz, blues and spirituals were the staples of black culture at that time when, in fact, it was country.”
Before the age of television, American families often gathered around the radio to listen to music programs like the “Grand Ole Opry,” a country-music variety show out of Nashville. The popularity of these radio programs, as well as the appearance of singing cowboys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers on the silver screen, led to the increased popularity of the genre and encouraged more recordings and appearances from country musicians on radio stations.
Since 2000, country music has mirrored the state of politics in a divided country, with two main sub-genres emerging. Aimed at conservative audiences, bro-country emerged for a primarily white, male audience who opposed gun-control, feminism, and the rights of minorities. On the progressive side, americana melded traditional country music with working-class folk music and expressed a variety of progressive views within a range of styles. Today, country music remains one of the most popular musical genres. In 2009, country music was the most listened to rush hour radio genre during the evening commute in the United States.
Writer Highlight: Willie Nelson
Born in 1933 in Abbott, Texas, Willie Nelson is one of the most popular country singer songwriters of the 20th century. He received his first guitar at the age of six while learning to play from his grandfather. As a child, he wrote poetry and music compositions while singing gospel songs at his local church. After graduating high school and serving in the U.S. Air Force, he moved to Nashville, where he signed a publishing contract with Pamper Music and joined Ray Price’s band as a bassist. He rose to popularity in the 1960s as part of the outlaw country subgenre. After signing with Atlantic Records in 1973, Nelson recorded his critically acclaimed albums Red Headed Stranger and Wanted! The Outlaws, as well as recording his hit song “On the Road Again.” In 1993, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and accepted a Kennedy Center Honor five years later. To this day, Nelson’s career is still going strong. On February 26, 2021, That’s Life, a tribute to Frank Sinatra, was released, marking his 71st studio album.
Writer Highlight: Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton was born in 1946 in Locust Ridge, Tennessee as the fourth of twelve siblings to a low-income family. As a child, she showed a passion for music at an early age and performed on local radio and television programs in the East Tennessee area. After graduating from high school, Parton moved to Nashville, where she became the protégée of Porter Wagoner, a country singer and star of Grand Ole Opry. She enjoyed enormous success after launching a solo career in 1974 with songs like “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You.” She was chosen as Female Singer of the Year in 1975 and 1976 by the Country Music Association. In the 1980s, Parton starred in several films including 9 to 5 (1980) and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982). Besides her music and screen career, Parton has also been involved in a wide array of other projects. In 1986 she opened Dollywood, now the 24th-most-popular theme park in the United States and in 2009 she was nominated for a Tony Award for her work on the score of 9 to 5: The Musical.
Dolly Parton’s contributions to the arts and culture of the United States have led to many awards and honors throughout her life. In 1999, she was inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame and was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress in 2004. She has 42 career top-10 albums and received 10 Grammy Awards and 50 Grammy Nominations. In 2015, a new species of fungus was found in the Appalachians was named Japewiella dollypartoniana in her honor. One of her initiatives that is very close to home for us is Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a book gifting program that mails free, high quality books from birth to age five regardless of income. Parton was recently in the news after donating $1 million towards vaccine research at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. In her 2012 book Dream More: Celebrate the Dreamer in You, she wrote, “I make a point to appreciate all the little things in my life. I go out and smell the air after a good, hard rain. These small actions help remind me that there are so many great, glorious pieces of good in the world.”
“Oh! Susanna” by Stephen Foster
Found in the museum’s Surprise Bookshelf exhibit, “Oh! Susanna” is considered the first-ever hit song in American musical history. Stephen Foster, often referred to as the Father of American Music, composed the music when he was only 21 years old, most likely for his local men’s social club. The song’s popularity led the publishing firm Firth, Pond & Company to offer him a royalty rate of two cents per copy, making Stephen Foster the first fully professional songwriter in US history. In its original version, the song included an incredibly racist verse about killing slaves. The song was often used in minstrel shows and was performed by singers in blackface.
Modern versions of the song no longer include the verse and now tell the story of a man traveling to New Orleans to see his beloved Susanna. As settlers expanded across the western United States, the song became a symbol of Westward Expansion and a popular song during the California Gold Rush. Today, “Oh! Susanna” remains one of the best-known songs in American history. It has been recorded by Bing Crosby, James Taylor, and The Byrds and has been used in many pieces of popular media, including The Muppets and various Bugs Bunny cartoons. Take a listen to “Oh! Susanna” performed by Johnny Cash and James Taylor by clicking here.
Past programs to watch and listen to.
Robbie Fulks: While our special exhibit Bob Dylan: Electric was open, we hosted a popular Singers & Songwriters series. For one of these programs we welcomed longtime Chicago musician Robbie Fulks for a fun talk about songwriting, the influence of Bob Dylan, and more. Of course, Fulks brought his acoustic guitar along with him and even played a few songs! Listen to him cover Bob Dylan’s “You’re No Good” here.
Ketch Secor: Another of our Singers & Songwriters programs featured Ketch Secor, co-founder of the band Old Crow Medicine Show. He had just published a children’s book, Lorraine, so we had a special storytime in which he read the book and sang along with some lucky kids! Secor even sang Old Crow Medicine Show’s hit song “Wagon Wheel,” which you can watch and listen to here.
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Since “Fiddlin” John Carson first put pen to sheet music, country music has maintained its dominance over the music industry. As we round out our exploration of the genre, we wanted to share some of our favorite country music songs with you. Click on the artist’s images below and you’ll be directed to YouTube, where you can listen to the song in full. Make sure to let us know your favorite country song in the comments and we’ll add it to our playlist!
Matthew Masino is the Social Media Coordinator for the AWM. He is also a content creator, writer, and theatre director based in Chicago, Illinois. He graduated with a B.F.A. in Theatre Directing from Columbia College Chicago in 2019. As a theatre artist, Matthew has worked with the International Voices Project, the Chicago Fringe Festival, and BYOT Productions. You can learn more by visiting his website www.matthewmasino.com.