The Development of Country Music From Its Appalachian Roots (Part One)

Country Music History

Taken at Charters Towers Qld.©2010 I retain copyright.

Being a country singer/songwriter, I was inspired to find out more about the roots of the music I love to perform. Having been raised around country and bluegrass music most of my life; I have found it to be a very descriptive form of music. Songs of tragedy, love, and happiness is usually the story of a listener in the audience, or a person who may be listening with the help of radio. Many who listen to country music today would probably not take the time to wonder where it came from, and how it developed into such a wide variety of styles. Today’s country music is dominated by the glitz and glamour of large production concerts, and artists being seen in music videos. The hype of how good the image of a country artist is overshadows what the music is actually trying to say.

The purpose of this article is to explain how country music came from the roots of Appalachian music, and how it has developed into the country music that we hear today. We will first look at how a large part of this development began in the late 1800’s, around the time the industrialization of Appalachia began, and how the concept of “Internal Colonization” and its “Politics of Culture” changed the culture of Appalachia and its music (Whisnant 5-16). Next the paper will also touch on the various styles of country music and how they developed throughout the century, and how the “Politics of Culture” has influenced that development.

Internal Colonization and it’s Politics of Culture

To have a better understanding of how country music developed over the past century, it is important to first understand the forces that caused this evolution to take place. During the years between 1880 and 1930 Appalachia was experiencing a major economic transition from a mostly agrarian economy to an industrial one (Eller xix). This transition had a major affect on the culture of Appalachia. Helen Lewis used the model of “Internal Colonization” to explain how Appalachia was affected by this industrial campaign (Walls and Billings17-18).  This model emphasizes that Appalachia was being dominated by outside industrial corporations, and any internal growth of businesses was being prohibited.  Once the outside companies had control of the economy of the area, they were able to control the prices to maximize major profits for the absentee corporations (Walls and Billings 18).

Economic control was also gained by the attempt to destroy the indigenous culture of Appalachia in order to maintain dominant control of the colonized group (Walls and Billings 18). David Whisnant confirms this in his book, All That is Native and Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region, by explaining, “culture provides a convenient mask for other agendas of change and throws a warm glow upon the cold realities of social dislocation” (260).  Whisnant also stated, “it was no doubt difficult for mountaineers to perceive the connection between Christmas trees and John C.C. Mayo or the Bethlehem Steel Company” (258).  These statements indicate that large corporations were involved in the attempt to change the Appalachian culture to benefit the need of the corporations that colonized the states of Appalachia.  Whisnant also mentions the missionary motive behind internal colonization, when he explains how the idea of the early Appalachian settlement schools came from England, and how the local elites supported the idea and offered money to get it started (21).  Whisnant then explains how the operators and others connected to the various settlement schools were trying to determine the value of the old mountain culture.  They were making decisions on what to keep and what to throw out of the cultural curriculum taught at the schools (Whisnant 32-33).  This explains the beginning of outside forces attempting to make decisions about what is real and what is not real when considering the true Appalachian culture. In reference to Whisnant’s quote about Christmas trees and corporations, it seems that one of the cultural changes that the Hindman Kentucky Settlement School attempted to make was a change in the mountain Christmas traditions by introducing Christmas trees and stockings to the celebration.

 “Politics of Culture” would attempt to interfere or change the culture of Appalachian music, and later change the styles of country music over the decades.  David Whisnant explained two basic characteristics of the politics of culture.  Whisnant stated that it was “the interaction of disparate cultural systems as systems, and the function of a fixation upon a romantically conceived ‘culture’ within the broader social, political, and economic history of the mountains” (13).  He explains more about these characteristics by emphasizing the notion of “systematic cultural intervention” (Whisnant 13).  Whisnant stated that a person or an institution could consciously take action within a culture with the intent of making a change that the intervener thinks is the right change to make (13).  Whisnant further explained that the intervention can be active or it can be passive.  Cultural intervention can also foster either negative or positive responses from the group that is being intervened upon.  He also explained that a negative effect could develop from a positive intent, and a positive effect from a negative one (Whisnant 14).  Whisnant also states, “cultural intervention is a complex process which has taken many forms and whose results are subject to a variety of interpretation” (15).  Whisnant’s statements explain that the outcome of the politics of culture can be unpredictable, and it would be difficult for any intervener to cause any one specific change to occur inside of a culture.

“Politics of Culture” is the part of the model of “Internal Colonization” that will be used in this article to explain how Appalachian music was affected by outside intervention, and how the music continued to be changed to develop into the country music that is listened to today.   The history of this musical evolution will explain how politics of culture exploited the mountain music and how the first record companies wanted to commercialize the music for their own benefit.  This in turn started a revolution in commercializing Appalachian music and forming stereotypes about it.

Readers of this blog article will have differing opinions as to whether or not the commercializing of Appalachian music was positive or negative. Even though I may express some of my own opinions, my intentions are to explore the history and development of country music and explain how Appalachian music was indeed the roots of this American musical icon.  The next part of this article will also explain how politics of culture continues to have an affect on country music today, and how it continues to change the musical style.

In the meantime if you are a fan of country music and would like to receive a free download from up and coming singer/songwriter Dwain Messer, go here and click “download“. Because Nashville Journalist Robert K. Oermann says that Dwain is the “Past, Present, and Future of Country Music.

( to be continued in Part 2)

(source bibliography will follow)

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