Although country music officially began in the 1920s in the American South, the
genre, according to many sources, dates back to the Appalachian music of the late
18th century – a music of traditional ballads and fiddle tunes played by Irish
and Scottish immigrants, combined with Baptist hymns and the blues. The result was
an antique form of country music commonly known as "hillbilly." The instruments
popularized during this period included the dulcimer, the guitar, the fiddle and
the five-string banjo – the iconic symbol of Appalachian culture, brought
to America by African slaves.
American fiddler Eck Robertson is credited with making the first
recording of country music in 1922. In 1925, singer Vernon Dalhart
scored its first big hit, titled Wreck of the Old ‘97, and two years
later, in Tennessee, talent scout Ralph Peer recorded Jimmie
Rodgers and the Carter Family – the two biggest
names in country music during the inter-war period.
This period also saw the genre benefit greatly from the advent of radio. Also in
1925, the popular program Grand Ole Opry hit the airwaves in Nashville,
helping to make the city the capital of country.
Western Swing and Bluegrass and Honky Tonk
In about 1935, country musician Bob Wills – the father of
western swing – took the bold step of integrating percussion; a few years
later, he was also among the first to feature an electric guitarist in his band.
After the end of Second World War, Bill Monroe popularized bluegrass
using only stringed instruments.
Texas, in the 1950s, gave birth to honky-tonk, a sub-genre of country music that
transformed rural hillbilly and appealed to a wider urban audience. Hank Williams
was its driving force (interesting to note is that some of Williams' songs,
like Move It On Over, were closer to rock and roll).
Country music also inspired the development of rockabilly, a rhythmic dance music
first heard in Memphis in about 1954. In 1956, Elvis Presley and
Johnny Cash scored monster hits with Heartbreak Hotel
and I Walk the Line, two of rockabilly's signature songs. Also popular
during this period was the gospel-inspired country of Red Foley.
Nashville: Home of Country Music
In the 1960s, the Nashville Sound transformed country music into a lucrative industry,
with producers such as Chet Atkins (also a guitar genius) and
Owen Bradley opting for a more commercial sound. The sixties were also
the heyday of such recording artists as Marty Robbins, Porter
Wagoner and Roger Miller.
By the mid-1960s, folk legends like Bob Dylan were descending on
Nashville to record with local session players. Dylan's Nashville Skyline,
released in 1969, was a blend of country and rock, as was Sweetheart of the Rodeo,
an album recorded a year earlier by The Byrds. By the 1970s the
country and western influence extended to such bands as The Eagles
Later in the decade, singers Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton
experienced superstardom with well-crafted, middle-of-the-road songs which owed
as much to pop music as they did to country music.
After a period of sharp decline, country music rebounded in the 1980s thanks, again,
to Nashville-based artists like Ricky Skaggs and Randy Travis.
Today, the likes of Alan Jackson, Faith Hill and
Garth Brooks have returned country music to its rightful place - back
in the saddle!
Québec has long had its own country music star system. In the 1940s,
Soldat Lebrun vaulted to success with L'adieu du soldat
and La complainte d'une mère, songs that dealt with the concerns
of soldiers and their loved ones. Also popular among Quebecers in the late 1940s
were Marcel Martel, father of Renée Martel, and Willie
Lamothe, aka "King of Country and Western." In a career spanning
35 years, Martel the elder sold close to 2 million records. English Canada
has also had its share of country music stars, among them Stompin' Tom Connors,
Anne Murray and, much later, Shania Twain.
Country Music at the Festival
A stalwart at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, jazz guitarist
has fostered a lifelong interest in folk and country. In 1997, the multi-instrumentalist
from Colorado gave a command performance highlighting his country roots. Alongside
Jerry Douglas on the dobro guitar, the inimitable Frisell
did not disappoint.
In 2009, legendary bassist
Charlie Haden appeared at the Festival with family and
friends, presenting songs from the album Rambling Boy, which saw Haden
return to his folk and country music roots.
The Kitchen Shakers
have also brought their festive brand of cajun country to the Festival, performing
in the same year as
The League of Extraordinary Country Gentlemen, a Québec-based
band made up of Alex Cattaneo, Rick Haworth and
Mario Légaré. The latter played a mixed bag of country
classics together with some lesser known country songs.