Adam P. Newton recently became a father for the first time, so he has decided to explain the entirety of post-WWII Western pop music to his new daughter, “Fig”… one genre at a time.
Hello there, Fig! I hope you’re enjoying this historical jaunt as much as I am. Country music grew out of traditional folk music, though as we’ll learn, many folks on this list took great inspiration from the blues, spirituals and other African-American musical forms. And although country and folk music share plenty of the same textures, aesthetics and melodic structures, one key difference between the two is the subject matter. While folk troubadours often sang about hard times of the sociopolitical variety, country musicians were attuned to matters of the heart.
In fact, most of the songs on this list discuss fidelity, infidelity or some other form of romantic conflict — some of them more brazenly than others. And because these artists sang so honestly and truthfully about their affairs of the heart, many of them begin to experience wider popularity, effectively bringing country music out of the dusty honky-tonks and into mainstream recognition. Sometimes, all it takes is a broken heart, acoustic guitar and sincere voice to make your mark on the world.
Known as the “Father of Country Music,” Rodgers was known for his prominent yodel and for popularizing the fusion of blues and folk music that would eventually become Country & Western. With an affected intonation that influenced generations of singers, “Blue Yodel No. 1” (better known as “T for Texas”) featured the subtle picking style, warbled chorus, and lament about a lost love that would become standout attributes of the genre for generations.
On the flip side of Rodgers’ short 35 years on earth stands Roy Acuff, known as the “King of Country Music.” A personally ambitious artist, Acuff championed the growth of country music for decades at the Grand Old Opry and through the Acuff-Rose publishing house. “The Great Speckled Bird” maintains its popularity to this day as both a gospel and country track — in the former, because of the highly religious overtones; with the latter, your ears are treated to Acuff’s warm tenor, palm-muted major-chord guitar strums, and the whistling slide guitar. It’s an altogether joyful song.
Along with his Texas Playboys, this “King of Western Swing” combined folk crooning with jazz-inflected arrangements and big-band-quality string sections to rollicking success. With a musical impact that continues on through bands like Asleep at the Wheel, Bob Wills found a way to class up country music with his influences while keeping a dancehall rocking. On “Faded Love,” Wills intones a paean to an old lover atop a delicious blend of guitar, fiddle, mandolin and three-part harmonies. Such a lovely tune.
A direct musical descendent of Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Tubb (referred to as the “Texas Troubadour”) crafted much of what we know today to be “honky-tonk." Tubb’s flat, yet sincere singing voice endeared him to fans because he came across as a real person — and it certainly didn’t hurt that he managed to gather stellar musicians around him throughout his career. With “Walking the Floor Over You,” we return to that common lyrical thread in country music: the forlorn singer lamenting missteps in a busted relationship, while the crisp pedal steel of Buddy Emmons and smooth lead-guitar licks of Leon Rhodes kept the melody rocking.
HANK WILLIAMS SR.
Another founder of country music who passed away too soon (at the age of 29 in this case), Hank Williams Sr. still made a lasting impact upon popular music. Even with a career cut drastically short because of alcohol and drug abuse, much of his catalog is still performed to this day by artists across genres - proving that good songwriting and heartfelt lyrics will always endure. And on one of his most popular songs, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” Williams combines his plaintive, hurting tenor with a mournful guitar strum with upright bass and wailing fiddle to powerful effect.
Here’s the truth – without “The Man in Black,” I’m not sure I would have ever returned to country music in my early twenties. I loved his entire aesthetic: raw emotion, intense dedication to the outcast and downtrodden, and the fact that he was a survivor. He’s also revered across musical genres for being a stellar songwriter and general badass in life. And while several tracks were up for consideration, “Walk the Line” best encapsulates his career with the baritone croon, declaration of love, shuffling rockabilly beat, and the distinctive picking style of Luther Perkins.
Though her impact transcends country music, Patsy Cline was always a country artist at heart. Her soaring alto knew just when to belt, warble and drop to a whisper for dramatic effect. Sadly, she passed away far too young in a plane crash, but she is revered to this day. I thought about choosing “Crazy” — the track that broke her into the mainstream — but I felt “Walking After Midnight” more effectively captured her essence. You can’t help but believe the lonesome pain in her voice as Cline laments losing the love of her life.
The reason Loretta Lynn has always shone brightly in my estimation is how she transcended a country cliche to become a paragon of strength and success. This coal miner’s daughter used her own rocky marriage as grist for her songwriting mill, giving attention to the plights faced by the working-class women who typically fall into the country music demographic. As you hear on “You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man),” she stands up for her own integrity and self-respect to both the woman her husband cheats with and her husband’s philandering ways. It doesn’t hurt that she has a stellar voice and writes a fantastic hook.
Lucky for country-music fans, “The Possum” managed to live longer than the man who most directly impacted his career (Hank Williams Sr.), but he also battled the bottle for much of his life. Sonically, Jones bridged the gap between the burgeoning rockabilly sound and crooner country with a voice that projected the deepest pathos. While his early catalog was marked by upbeat hits like “White Lightning,” it’s tracks like “He Stopped Loving Her Today” that are most memorable. His mournful voice speaks of a love that will never come back with a deep sincerity and finality that is downright heartbreaking.
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Often referred to as the “First Lady of Country Music,” Tammy Wynette actually stands on her own as a classic country icon. Much like Loretta Lynn, much of her canon speaks to the pain and heartbreak of infidelity, divorce and marital strife. “Stand By Your Man” might be her biggest hit — as her aching, clear alto intones her message of sticking with your husband in the darkest of times — but Wynette racked up 23 No. 1 songs at the height of her career.
THE CARTER SISTERS
With the family band, we come full circle. Once the Carter Family stopped actively touring, Maybelle Carter created a singing troupe with her daughters. The sisters recorded primarily old Carter Family songs and other traditional bluegrass and folk tunes, and they built a resilient career through live performances, the occasional solo project, and reminding country fans of the ‘70s and ‘80s of the genre’s roots. “Wildwood Flower” is a keen example of this, as you can hear the pitch and intonation of those early folk records, complete with more traditional instrumentation, harmonies, and arrangements.
Next: A Few Decades of Big Band, Swing & Jazz.