Country Music as Reflection on the American Culture

Term Paper, 2005

15 Pages, Grade: 1,5


Table of Contents

1. Introduction to Country Music
1.1 Outline of the Paper
1.2 An Overview on the Development of Country Music

2. The Term Country Music and the Content of this Genre
2.1 The Origin of Country Music
2.2 The Instruments

3. The Content of Country Music
3.1 The Meaning of Home in Country Music
3.2 The Bakersfield sound - Nostalgia in American country music
3.3 Merle Haggard – The Nostalgic Star of Bakersfield

4. Why is Country Music so Popular in America?
4.1 The Settlement of the European Immigrants in America
4.2 America’s Fear of Urbanization
4.3 Country Music as Contradiction to the Urban Development of America

5. The Commercial Factor of Country Music
5.1 The Western Image
5.2 Nashville - Music City, U.S.A

6. Conclusion

7. Works Cited

1. Introduction to Country Music

1.1 Outline of the Paper

In my term paper I will examine the question “Why is Country Music in America so popular?” Therefore, I will concentrate on the development of country music from traditional folk music to commercial music. I will reflect on the influences of the immigrants who entered the USA to build a brave new world, different to the old world of Europe, which they assumed to be overpopulated and morally corrupt. On the basis of several selected books and articles, like those of Bill Malone, Seymor Martin Lipset and Rachel Rubin, I will emphasize the meaning of the most traditional music of America. Analyzing changes in the musical development, I will explain them as a consequence of the country’s changing social circumstances by using the example of the Bakersfield movement in the 1930s. I will furthermore outline the most important facts and events regarding the music, including the life and work of Merle Haggard, who perfectly represented the theme of nostalgia in country music. At the end, I will emphasize the commercial aspect of country music, its Western image and the high efficiency of the Nashville music publishing industry.

1.2 An Overview on the Development of Country Music

Country music has already existed since the 17th century. This kind of music, developed from traditional folk music elements of various European immigrants, has always been reflecting on the Melting Pot of the American society. Particularly with regard to the South of the USA, the early Country Music had been enriched by Afro-American, Hawaiian and also by German influences. It was the radio that established the first country stars during the Roaring Twenties, but by putting music under the pressure of the mainstream trend, the radio also limited the variety of country music from an immense diversity to only a few traditional styles, such as “Bluegrass” or “Cajun Music,” which have been sustained in its more or less native form. Due to this development, commercially oriented Country-Pop meanwhile has been established as a form of Mainstream Music with reorientation to several other musical styles so as to address the hugest possible audience. The counter-movement, the so-called Alternative Country, has developed from the traditional roots of country music at the end of the 1980s and differs from country-pop by using some elements and the acrimony of the punk movement as well as by returning to the original sobriety in arrangement. Despite all changes, country music has always created ageless songs and lyrics, such as the famous statement of the country lyric poet Kris Kristofferson: “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.“

2. The Term Country Music and the Content of the Music

2.1. The Origin of Country Music

The music that today we denominate as country music has an interesting history. While the commercial Tin Pan Alley[1] sound was the most popular form of music for “white , urban, literate, middle- and upper-class Americans” during the first three decades of the 20th century, the “millions of poor, white, rural Americans of English, Irish, and Scottish stock clustered in the South and scattered across the lower Midwest” enjoyed listening to traditional, hand-made music which then had been called hillbilly. (Hamm 43) Since immigrants, living in the rural Southern area of the USA, were assumed to be backwoodsmen, the term hillbilly had been used to describe their music in a rather derogatory way. Contrary to the professionally composed sheet music of Tin Pan Alley, the hillbilly music was oral-tradition music consisting of cultural assets of the particular immigrant’s homeland. Therefore, country historian Bill C. Malone depicted the multicultural influences which shaped the early country music.

The folk music of the South was a blending of cultural strains, British at its core, but overlain and intermingled with the musical contributions of other ethnic and racial groups…the Germans of the Great Valley of Virginia; the Indians of the backcountry; Spanish, French, and mixed-breed elements in the Mississippi Valley; the Mexicans of South Texas; and, of course, blacks everywhere. (Malone 1997 45)

Thus it appears that American country music is the musical conglomerate of the most important groups of immigrants. And these immigrants from Europe did also bring along their national instruments.

2.2. The Instruments

The hillbilly music, which was originally located in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, has developed into present-day country music by the adoption of other music genres and the influence of the persistent urbanization of the former rural America. According to Reebee Garofalo, scholar at the University of Massachusetts Boston, the two mainly used instruments in the hillbilly music before the 1920s were the fiddle and the banjo. (Garofalo 53) While the fiddle was brought to America by European immigrants, the banjo originated from the African culture. Later on, with the beginning of the twenties, the influence of other styles, such as jazz or blues, increased and also the musical variety broadened. Besides the classical instruments, “the influence of German and Swiss yodelers, Italian mandolin players, and Hawaiian string bands” marked the beginning of the “evolvement into a commercial enterprise” of country music. (Malone 1997 45) Moreover, instruments as the accordion, the piano and the mouth organ enriched the musical diversity and the first immigrants were even using the autoharp and the steel guitar, which are generetic only for this genre. (Wikipedia “Country Muisc”) In recent years, “drums, horns and the electric guitar” have increasingly gained importance as used instruments which scholar Rachel Rubin assumes to be “distinctly urban.” (Rubin 98) This variety of influences has ensured that this traditional music consists of all elements which are also represented by the people who settled there. Malone explaines that by “absorbing influences from other musical sources, country music eventually emerged as a force strong enough to survive, and even thrive, in an urban-industrial society” (Malone 1985 1) into which America had already turned at the beginning of the 20th century.

3. The Content of Country Music

3.1 The Meaning of Home in Country Music

However, what all variations of the music have more or less in common and what, at the same time, separates country music from almost every other music genre is the equality of music and lyrics. It’s not only the instruments that make a song a good folk song, but the story which is thereby told. The folk singer Bill Monroe once claimed that, “it’s plain music that tells a good story,” while the soulful country star Hank Williams is quoted as saying,”A song ain’t nothin’ in the world but a story just wrote with music to it.” (Tichi 7) Storytelling therefore is the most appealing reason for people to listen to country music, especially when the stories comply with their personal experience. One of the most dominant themes which run through almost every country ballad is the desire for home, either imaginary or real. To mention just a few very popular songs: “Take me Home, Country Road” by John Denver, “Home, Sweet Home” by Ernest “Pop” Stoneman, or “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. In countless numbers of songs home stands for the Southern area of the USA and serves as a kind of symbol for an old-fashioned, no longer existing domestic paradise in an increasingly progressive America. The song writer always refers to natural beauty, to the rural country and to a warm-hearted family circle, idealized and almost vanished in recent days of urban development, avarice and hurry. As Tichi puts it, country music is a “sentimental yearning for a simplistic America” and it often represents a rather nostalgic and whistful view on earlier frontier life, which actually was hard and uncomfortable. Songs of nostalgia furthermore deny any problems of home life, such as violence, divorce or poverty. Home is supposed to mean “nurturance, shelter, and the protection given by those who bring children into the world and are responsible for their upbringing.” (Tichi 21) According to Cecelia Tichi, the South represents the whole nation. Its figurative power is used to describe an image of cabins, hills and animals, of living on a farm. In wider terms it also means the entire state with its cultural progress, but the South is easier to imagine an agrarian area where the ideal home is set. The critical American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson defines home through having good companions and a marriage, no matter under which circumstances one lives. He claimed that “the real history of the world …[would only be found] in the dwelling-house.” (Tichi 27) Furthermore, the French social critic J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur is seen as the “forefather of the country music ‘home’ song,” which had its beginning already in pre-Revolutionary America. In 1782, Crèvecoeur wrote his famous “Letter from an American Farmer” (Tichi 23) about the value of agrarian home. Hence, farmers are the “American heroes,” who have built the United States with their own hands as it were “axes and plows that made this country.” (Tichi 32) The idealized home song therefore is not only one of the oldest themes in folk music, but also one of the most significant ones refering to the sustainment of the American national identity.


[1] Tin Pan Alley was the center of the American music industry from about 1900 to 1930. Located in Manhattan, New York, publishing companies engaged composers and songwriters to create popular songs which were published as so-called sheet music. (

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Country Music as Reflection on the American Culture
Dresden Technical University  (Unstitut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Readings in North American Cultural Studies
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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510 KB
Country, Music, Reflection, American, Culture, Readings, North, American, Cultural, Studies
Quote paper
Juliane Hanka (Author), 2005, Country Music as Reflection on the American Culture, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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