Characteristics of Music: Country

The concept of “music” is massive and ever-changing. That’s probably why we like to break it up into individual genres; it’s easier to keep track of that way. And what an incredible rainbow of musical styles human beings have created!

Over the last couple of months, we’ve taken some time to explore what makes a handful of musical genres unique. We started our journey with a look at the genre that perhaps changes the most often: pop. From there we have branched out to explore the characteristics of jazz, rock and roll, punk, funk, R&B, reggae, and finally, swing.

This week we’re taking a stroll through another uniquely American style of music that has moved out to become a popular genre throughout the world: country music.

What is Country Music?

Although country music has evolved a lot over the years, at its heart it is still an American musical style that incorporates key aspects of folk, bluegrass, blues, and rural dance music. Most musical historians trace country’s earliest roots to the Appalachian Mountains in the late 1920s, especially eastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia.

Throughout the remainder of the 20th century, the genre enjoyed growth is all directions, particularly westward, which lead to the nickname “country-western” as it became associated with the prairies and cowboys.

Since its start, there have been strong country music scenes throughout the United States, from Bakersfield, California, to Boston, Massachusetts, and everywhere in between. That said, the modern hub of the country music universe is undoubtedly Nashville, Tennessee, the home of the Grande Ole Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and is the place where countless country singers go to make their chart-topping hits.

The Evolution of Country

Although country music first arose not too long ago in the 1920s in the mountain towns surrounding Bristol, Tennessee, it has evolved and changed a remarkable amount in its 100 year lifetime.

Local Radio

Country got its first taste of fame in the mid-‘20s when a syndicated radio show recorded in Nashville, called Grande Ole Opry, brought the genre to ears listening across the country.

Influenced by String Bands

Even in its earliest years, country boasted many virtuosic players on the guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and bass. And, as string bands were gaining in popularity throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s, country was poised to make a big splash.

Performing as bluegrass string bands, performers like Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson created new country hits that utilized a more dynamic style of play. These bands became stars in Appalachia, Texas, and all-over rural America after being heard on the radio and performing in local clubs known as “honky-tonks.”

Country Singers Dominate Rural Radio

During this same period throughout the 1930s and 40s, the concept of the “singing cowboy” hit the airwaves. Performers who fit this bill, like Gene Autry and Hank Williams would go on to help bring country music to the masses of America.

Late Century Growth

With artists like Gene Autry paving the way, the second half of the twentieth century saw an explosion of popularity for the country music genre. Stars like Johnny Cash emerged, and he and those who followed in his footsteps took to rejecting the commercial accouterments of mainstream country.

This new subgenre of country, pioneered by Cash and his peers would go on to become “outlaw country.” Some of this genre’s most prominent voices include Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Waylon Jennings.

Alt-Country and Indie Fans

“Outlaw country” is just one example of the alternative side country music has always had. Anchored by songwriters like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, the alt-country movement was born, and grew, throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, when artists like Drive-By Truckers and Jason Isbell helped bring country music to alternative and indie rock fans.

Top 40 Genre

Now, in the earliest part of the 21st century, mainstream country music rubs elbows with hip hop and dance-pop at the top of the Billboard charts. Singer-songwriters like Taylor Swift, Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton, Eric Church, Carrie Underwood, and Lady A have blurred the line between pop and country, and enjoy airplay on pop music channels.

5 Characteristics of Country Music

While it’s certainly true the music once played in Texas honky-tonks is vastly different from modern Taylor Swift, there are still a few characteristics that unify the genre.

Folk Harmonies

Most country music songs are based on traditional chord progressions built off of a major scale. In fact, non-diatonic chords are even less common in country than they are in other genres.

String Instruments

While lots of popular music today is moving away from physical instruments and more towards electronics, country is known for its use of the strings. In fact, most country groups base their entire instrumentation around their string instruments, like the guitar, bass, pedal steel, lap steel, banjo, and of course, the fiddle.

A Bit of “Twang”

Whether in the heart of Nashville, or northern Ontario, most country singers utilize a particular twang to their voice. This unique sound helps to differentiate modern country from other pop genres.

Meaningful Lyrics

One of the critical keys of country music is its lyrics. The vast majority of country songs take the form of ballads that tell a story. Most often these are tales of love, heartache, hard work, or personal pride.

Reliance on Duets

Since its creation, country music has always placed an emphasis on group singing, arguably more than any other modern, mainstream genre. Early acts, like the Carter Family, featured family members who would sing together. More recently, artists like Miranda Lambert have found success by teaming up with other vocalists for moving duets.

Have you always wanted to get in on the action? Maybe you’ve got a little one showing a budding love for music. No matter the age, it’s always the right time to start learning to play music!

The Music Studio offers a wide range of classes and programs for all ages. And now, many of them are available online! Check out all our exciting programs taught by professional musicians, and sign up to start your musical journey today!