From the pioneering string bands and old-time banjo maestros to country music’s first superstar Jimmie Rodgers, this Rough Guide features many of the trailblazing artists who paved the way for the country music explosion to come.
The term “country music” hadn’t even been conceived when these American folk pioneers recorded in the 1920s and early 30s. It wasn’t until the 1940s that it came into common parlance as an alternative for what was widely known as hillbilly music, something of an outdated and degrading description.
Loosely speaking, country music derives from a blend of popular musical forms originally found in the southern United States and Appalachian Mountains. Its true origins however are deep rooted in the cultures of the early European settlers in America who brought their old-world folk traditions with them, which over time incorporated other musical elements such as the African American traditions of gospel and blues.
Before the widespread fame of Jimmie Rodgers popularized the guitar as an essential instrument for solo performers, the fiddle was the predominant instrument, with the likes of Fiddlin’ John Carson and Eck Robertson being among the first to commercially record. Robertson is widely regarded as the finest fiddler of this era and an inspiration to a generation of fiddlers, as his wonderful bow work on the featured ‘Texas Wagoner’ bears testament to.
The banjo was another potent weapon of choice for some of old-time music’s seminal figures including Dock Boggs, whose music was a unique combination of Appalachian folk music and African-American blues, and Uncle Dave Macon. Born in 1870, Macon achieved regional fame as a vaudeville performer in the early 1920s before becoming the first star of the Grand Ole Opry in the latter half of the decade. His importance is rightly acknowledged by music historian Charles Wolfe who writes, "If people call yodelling Jimmie Rodgers 'the father of country music,' then Uncle Dave must certainly be 'the grandfather of country music'."
Long before the development of the trademark lap steel guitar had become a sound synonymous with country music, the slide entered the frame as early as 1922, when Jimmie Tarlton met famed Hawaiian guitarist Frank Ferera. He is joined by playing partner Tom Darby on ‘Sweet Sarah Blues’, a song which epitomises an era of musical cross fertilisation as Hawaiian guitar and blues styles meet native South Carolina folk. It was this willingness for musical exchange amongst these pioneering musicians which would lay the groundwork for popular country music as it is known today.
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