A Lost Debate: Country Music’s True Birth Date

How old is country music? To answer that, you’ll first have to ask yourself another question: What do you actually consider country music to be?

After all, with a deeply rooted foundation of old-timey lyrics and melodies, country music as just, well, music is old. Very old. It originated hundreds and even thousands of years ago, and the specific origin point isn’t as important as where it actually traveled throughout the generations. Many of those melodies and lyrics crossed the Atlantic via the mouths (and, by extension, hearts) of immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, England, Africa, and other nations. They’ve been passed down through traveling entertainers to common townsfolk, from friends to neighbors, and from family to family, an important part of many lineages akin to a prized heirloom, just without the material bindings to keep it from ever getting lost to time.

Ironically, however, it still wasn’t valued from a wider cultural perspective during those times. With the rare exception of early twentieth-century folk-song collectors like Cecil Sharp, no one cared to document and preserve this rare sort of magic. Maybe that’s why those lyrics and melodies have been altered throughout the generations. Regardless, it’s the foundation for music we still know and love today.

Related: Country Music’s Been Everywhere, Man

Well, somewhat. The thing is, what I just described is folk music, not country music – at least as far as semantics over term usages are considered. And in the southeastern United States in the 1920s, it wasn’t even called folk music. It was “old-time music,” or “fiddle and banjo music,” or whatever other decidedly uncool term could be used to describe it. With the advent of the phonograph at the turn of the decade along with the rise of radio, the potential for what people could do with those old-time lyrics and melodies grew bigger and bigger. No longer did musicians have to settle for performing at casual community gatherings to their closest friends and families – they could now reach much wider audiences. So, too, could non-musicians – the businessmen looking to capitalize off of a growing market. The stakes, then, both in terms of inspiration and motivation, were much higher.

Eck Robertson holding his fiddle
Eck Robertson, from the Country Music Hall of Fame

Going back to the original question, however, if we’re concerned with country music’s age as both a musical genre and a marketing term, it turned 100 years old last year. On June 30, 1922, the Victor Talking Machine Company became the first to record a southern rural white musician – champion Texas fiddler Eck Robertson. Over two days in New York City, he recorded twelve sides for the company, some of which were solo, and some of which were recorded with friend and fellow fiddler Henry Gilliland. “Sallie Gooden” may very well be the first commercial country song, depending on your definition.

To be clear, there were periodic examples of fiddle and banjo renditions of folk tunes on commercial recordings prior to this event, but they were never meant as anything more than occasional dabblings in the rural genre by popular vaudeville entertainers. This, on the other hand, was the first step in greasing the wheels toward a more expansive idea.

Let’s get technical for a moment: The recording industry had been in operation since the late 1800s, and the bulk of the songs that had made it onto wax cylinders and, later, 78 rpm discs, were classical compositions and popular Broadway, Tin Pan Alley, and dance-band tunes – all of which had been geared toward urban, middle-class audiences. The first jazz records were released in the late teen years, and the blues era began when the OKeh label released Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” in 1920, created as a way to market to Black people under the moniker of “race” records. Those aforementioned Robertson and Gilliland recordings, too, were mere ways of testing the metaphorical marketing waters, little more than rural curiosities to big-city company men.

Perhaps that’s why there’s still some debate over country music’s true 100-year birth date. Nothing ever actually became of those aforementioned recordings, and the same goes for two “audition” songs recorded in early 1923 by Virginia textile worker Henry Whitter, technically the second (or third) artist to record what we didn’t known then as commercial country music. OKeh did try again that same year, however, by marketing a Georgia-born fiddling contest champion named, appropriately enough, Fiddlin’ John Carson, whose recordings became the first to ever be marketed by a company for sale to a country (rural, southern, and white) audience. Producer and talent scout Ralph Peer, who traveled the South seeking to find and record rural artists, often receives the bulk of the credit for the find – and indeed, he will play a major role again later on in this piece – but it was the only at the behest of record store owner Polk Brockman that he decided to take a chance. And when Carson’s recordings of “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” and “The Old Hen Cackled And the Rooster’s Going to Crow” later quickly sold from Brockman’s store, OKeh advertised it even further in its own catalog, setting off a rural music trend.

So, then, technically the country music industry could turn 100 years old this year, on June 14. But it still doesn’t quite capture the genre as we’re familiar with it today, and we’re not finished with this story quite yet. The term “country” wouldn’t be a familiar moniker for the genre for another few decades, and during this time, record companies alternated between terms like “old-time,” “old-fashioned,” and “old familiar” songs to describe the music, as well as more grandiose terms like “Hill Country Tunes” and “Music From Dixie.” The term that stuck most for those first few decades, however, was “hillbilly,” coined after Uncle Dave Macon’s 1924 song “Hill Billie Blues,” as well as a Georgia group called George Daniell’s Hill Billies in 1925. Some artists and fans embraced the term; others despised it, feeling that it cheapened the music, the acts that made it, and the people who listened to it. Either way, it stuck.

But while the music itself found an audience, it hadn’t quite transcended it or beyond it. It lacked a solid direction and a legitimate “leader of the pack,” so to say, even despite success from a variety of early acts, including Vernon Dalhart’s pairing of “Wreck of the Old 97” and “The Prisoner’s Song,” which became country music’s first million-selling record. It wasn’t even really anything like we know it as today – it was mostly string-band instrumentals and maudlin old stage ballads.

Given how new the concept of marketable music was in general, however, this was understandable. Heads clashed even within the industry during this time, after all. Radio changed the landscape after World War I, bringing people of various social statuses and locales together in a way that hadn’t quite been managed before. It was modern, and it was a way of reaching out to an unknown world.

Fiddlin John Carson
Fiddlin’ John Carson, from Wikipedia

And country music owes its breakthrough not just to being able to feature hillbilly acts to perform live on daily radio programs, but also for the brief, unforeseen clash between radio and record sales. You see, early radio programs hardly ever featured records (because most came stamped with a warning not to broadcast them), and instead favored having live performances by acts. So with the rise of popularity in radio came a decline in recorded versions of what people could hear on the air anyway; the real thing is always better. But it’s also that decline that spurred phonograph companies to explore new horizons outside of a safe pop music market.

So the timing couldn’t have been better for Fiddlin’ John Carson’s recordings to inspire other hillbilly musicians to emerge from the woodwork – that being the hills, factories, and farms – whether it was to venture over to New York City (then, like it is now, one of the major recording centers) to audition and secure a contract … or, as the music caught on, stay closer to home as talent scouts sought out fresh acts in the south.

Which brings us back to Ralph Peer, who first worked for Okeh and Victor and later created a song-publishing empire, Southern Music Company and Peer International. In what’s became an unfortunate stain on the genre’s history, even despite white entertainers appropriating the banjo for hillbilly music – an instrument that came to America via African slaves – and even despite poor whites and blacks sharing a folk culture with a common body of songs, dances, and instruments that moved across a racial divide, the commercial hillbilly music of the ‘20s was most certainly white, at least in intention. And Peer, despite initially scouting for black artists, turned his attention distinctly toward rural white southerners after the aforementioned Carson’s success. Scouting usually involved a regional call for auditions, and artists who passed were then invited to record in a professional studio setting. Sometimes it meant a trek to New York City, but as time went on, more A&R people created temporary makeshift studios in southern cities (Atlanta being the most popular choice, though there were others).

And it’s here where, for many, country music’s story truly begins. One of Peer’s prospecting trips took him to an unlikely place – a small sleepy city on the Virginia-Tennessee state line called Bristol. In late July, 1927, he, his wife, and two engineers established a temporary studio on the second floor of an empty building near the railroad tracks. The idea was to “cattle call” prospecting musicians to come in and audition, and after a successful newspaper campaign detailed how one artist, Ernest Stoneman, was getting $200 a day for the sessions and had received $3,000 in royalties the year before, people came to Bristol from just about everywhere – by horseback, car, rail, you name it. Two weeks worth of work gave way to 19 recordings, two of which would be responsible for what’s been dubbed country music’s “big bang” period, and another strong argument for country music’s true birth date.

One of them was the Carter Family, comprised of husband and wife A.P. and Sara Carter, and Sara’s cousin, Maybelle Carter, who hailed from the aptly named Poor Valley, Virginia and traveled 32 miles for a chance to make music. Their simple but effective style of vocal harmony combined with Maybelle’s signature guitar style known today as the “Carter scratch” not only defined the way country guitar was played (until Merle Travis’ arrival in the 1940s, that is), but also established a model that singers even today are trying to emulate. During their first session, they recorded “Bury Me Undernearth the Weeping Willow,” “The Storms Are On the Ocean,” “Little Log Cabin by the Sea,” and “The Poor Orphan Child.” After their session, they drove home with $300 earned, and in early 1928, the Victor company released one of the songs sung during the session, “Single Girl.” A royalty check soon found its way to Poor Valley.

They weren’t here for a long time, and I don’t think they were really here for a good time, but their career that spanned over a decade included nearly 300 recordings for various labels, from gospel hits (“Can the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Keep On the Sunny Side”) to blues (“Coal Miner’s Blues,” Worried Man Blues”) and even some topical songs (“The Cyclone at Rye Cove,” “No Depression in Heaven”). And in 1938, they traveled to Del Rio, Texas, and began broadcasting over XERA, a far-reaching Mexican border stations that offered them a national following. Hillbilly music wasn’t just for southerners anymore. But it wasn’t meant to be: Sara and A.P. eventually separated, and Maybelle started her own band with her daughters. But the only other act who came close to dominating the 1920s and ‘30s like the Carter Family was another Bristol-bred musician, a singer from Asheville, North Carolina (though originally from Mississippi), Jimmie Rodgers.

Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family
Jimmie Rodgers (left) and the Carter Family (right – Maybelle, A.P., and Sara) both recorded at Bristol in 1927, though this iconic shot, taken in 1931, marks the first time both acts actually met.

Unlike the Carter Family, however, Rodgers’ big break didn’t really stem from the Bristol Sessions – it just planted the seeds for what would come. His two recordings of an old lullaby and ballad didn’t sell well, but when he went on his own to the Victor studio in Camden, New Jersey, to record “Blue Yodel” (T For Texas),” a star was born. But a star was also born to burn bright and fast. Rodgers contracted tuberculosis at age 27, in 1924, and prior to Bristol, he was a drifter who liked to hang around train yards. He wasn’t necessarily known for his lyricism, although one of the lines from “Blue Yodel” has gone on to be repeated by several artists, “I’m gonna shoot poor Thelma, just to see her jump and fall.” Poor Thelma, indeed.

No, it was his warm, low-key tone, falsetto yodel, and blues flair that turned him into the biggest star of the decade. Before his death in 1933, he recorded 12 more blues yodels and more than 100 songs. Yes, all of that in just six years.

In some ways, I think historians attribute country music’s birth less to the commercial success of the Carter Family and Rodgers, and more to what they represented – and continue to represent – on their own, even if they’re always presented as contradictions of one another: Rodgers was a solo artist, the Carter Family was a family act; Rodgers was lively and upbeat, the Carter Family was reserved and downbeat; Rodgers represents country music’s continued drive to always keep country music forward-looking, the Carter Family represents country music’s aim to never forget its roots as it journeys ahead. Really, at the end of the day, I see them as two sides of the same coin. Both acts were able to draw direct lines to real emotions and complemented each other more than anything, which shows in the ways artists have tried to imitate and emulate them throughout the years, enough to where the lines have blurred to show everything the music we know today as “country” can be.

And it is them we owe for not just bursts of success, but also the music’s continued longevity. Even during the Depression era, which left most acts forced to quit the business and return to something more lucrative and sustaining, the music survived. Radio prospered because it was free, and because most people had already invested in a radio set. Ironically, it was a great time for new and emerging artists, both to come into their own but also to carry forth what the Carter Family and Rodgers started. In acts like the Delmore Brothers and the Blue Sky Boys, for instance, you can hear tight harmony singing and simple acoustic instrumentation indebted to the former act. And later, through harder country flair evident in Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb, the ghost of the latter act haunted listeners once again.

I guess it doesn’t really matter how old the genre is, then. No matter how far time stretches, where the music goes next always remains the more interesting debate, because regardless, the circle remains unbroken.

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