New Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol

By Audrey C. Howell

For a thing which is now considered to be such a vital component of American culture, country music comes with an interesting history with regard to the idea of being \"mainstream.\" At its launch, commercial country music was thought nationally marketable precisely because of its regional specificity. The best early country music worked because it was so distinctive.

The blue yodel of Jimmie Rodgers as well as the mountain music of the Carter Family didn't sound like anybody else. These performers as well as the larger musical contexts that encased them were predicated on a variety of difference, an identity that was defined in opposition to something else.

The genre tag \"country\" comes from the Billboard chart designation of \"country & western,\" a sort of catch-all meant to somehow differentiate music coming from a more urban, citified sound-to acknowledge a stylistic and also geographic and cultural difference between the East (particularly the music publishing mainstays of Tin Pan Alley in New York) and also the rural South and West. Before \"country,\" the music was called \"old familiar\" or \"hillbilly,\" both of which get at a similar quality that is essential to country music. \"Old familiar\" ties the music to a sense of yesteryear, of a culture based upon tradition instead of on hit records.

And \"hillbilly\" likewise tags the music as homespun and undoubtedly rural in way that sets it aside from the sound of urban, industrial America.

On the plus side, country music always had its rogues, and fans have maintained their identification with outsiders. In the 1940s, Hank Williams, a superb songwriter and serious alcoholic, came to personify the rough and lean honky-tonk style (named for working-class, edge-of-town type Texas juke joints) that had been gaining notice with its bouncing rhythms and electric guitar leads. Williams cut just 66 songs under his own name, 37 of which you will find became hits. His spare, emotional style, troubled family life, and mysterious drink and drug-related death at age 29 have combined over time to create him probably the most iconic figure in all of country music. Williams is country music similarly that Kurt Cobain is 1990s grunge and for similar reasons.

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