On The Roots of Country

The Steelers’ opening night victory brought much celebration in Pittsburgh. Since it was also the opening game of the NFL season, the spectacle was almost as big as the game, and country star Tim McGraw headlined a free concert for Steelers fans before the game. With all the talk about “America’s Favorite Sport” — and the debate over whether it’s baseball or football — I figured I’d give a little history on “America’s Favorite Music.”

According to a radio survey, more than 77 million American adults listen to country music on the radio every week. It is undoubtedly American, a part of the stereotypical American image here at home and overseas, and it has become “as American as apple pie,” despite the fact that the dessert has its origins in Europe. So how did it get this way? We owe a lot to one man: Ralph Peer.

In 1927, in Bristol, Tenn., Peer set up a recording studio in a barn and started running ads in newspapers and flyers looking for artists. Some people who had already recorded with or knew of Peer came first, then more people came as they began to hear about the kind of royalties his artists were getting ($3600 a year). Among the musicians who recorded were the famous Carter Family, the “First Family of Country,” and Jimmie Rodgers, the “Blue Yodeler.” Both acts found huge success, with Rodgers selling over half a million copies of his song “T is for Texas.” While so-called “hillbilly” recordings had sold fairly well earlier in the decade, these latest recordings were something new altogether. Blending secular ballads and gospel music with blues and a hint of jazz, along with a few good-time party and comedy songs, the music took off. The themes resounded even more during the Great Depression, and while most businessmen were out of luck and money on Wall Street, Peer continued to make large amounts of money simply from royalties.

The legacy of the Bristol recording sessions is beyond measure. Besides the debuts of two of the biggest country music stars, they gave country a new sound. Where before what was labeled country was a mixture of hick tunes and old ballads, the recordings gave old folk songs and gospel hymns a cleaner, more refined sound. Country became more successful and began to speak to a wider audience. This paved the way for stars like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.

So the next time you listen to any kind of country music, whether old or new, you can think back to a little barn in Bristol, Tenn., where it all got started.

-Tyler Alderson