Painting that depicts the cultural influences of Country music

Anthropology: The Evolution of Country Music

Country music, just like any music, has its own culture. The country music following in the United States has had its ups and downs in the mainstream culture, but has its own constant subcultural following. Music in general is a large part of every culture. Music and musicians influence other aspects of the culture around them, like fashion. A song or generation of songs can be looked at as a time capsule. As a reflection of the world around them, songs or music can be a gateway to understanding what was taking place in the world during the time it was written.

Early Country – The 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s

Country music roots share a similar structure to folk tales. This would be in the sense of the performances typically being live, so it was something that had a deep oral history. It also resembled folk tale history because the songs and instrumentation varied greatly depending on location. It was a very personal genre that allowed the listener to learn about the history and culture of the area the songwriter or performer was from. This made it difficult to be relatable or accessible on a large scale. Eventually, artists who studied and drew upon the traditional country music tunes created fusions between the different regional styles. It was not until the 1920s that country musicians got to record their music and the success of this music laid the groundwork for the popularity of country music today. Westerns became one of the most popular film genres in Hollywood in the 1930s. There was a strongly romanticized version of the wild west depicted in popular culture that captured the imagination of Americans. The history of country music up to this point is tied very closely to film. Country music did not only take many influences from westerns, but it scored many of them as well. The music not from television or film were usually ballads that told their own heroic cowboy stories. In the 1940s, rock and roll had an explosion of popularity. Even country music started to get inspiration from high-energy rock music. This new style of rough and raw country music became known as “Honky Tonk.” Honky Tonk music would go on to inspire the future of country music despite not having great popularity at the time. Even though country music did not have major popularity at that time, artists like Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, and Kitty Wells are still thought of as inspirations to those in country music.

Ernest Tubb in the 1940s.

The 1950s and 1960s

The 1950s was considered the feel-good era in America, but country music was dominated by its melancholy songs in the first portion of the decade. Hank Williams was unmatched by his ability to hit on heartache and tragedy. With his songs like “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” earned him the title of “Hillbilly Shakespeare.” Even though country did not have great success in the 1940s and early 1950s, people still saw potential in the genre. A group of producers and record companies in Nashville like Columbia Records, RCA Records, and Decca Records created a new style of country that focused on smoothness and polish. It took America by storm with performers who excelled at creating the new mellow sound. Patsy Cline emerged as a clear example of the polished subgenre of country from Nashville that dominated the radio in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Some of her major hits include “Crazy” and “Sweet Dreams.” She is still one of the genre’s most recognizable voices. Producer Chet Atkins played a huge role in putting Nashville on the map. Working behind the scenes, he strove to create something that was a compromise between the traditional country sound and the commercially appealing sound of pop music. The Nashville sound was the traditionalist’s response to the rock and roll infused country. Porter Wagoner was a Grand Ole Opry fixture who hosted a variety show that celebrated traditional styles of country music. The Porter Wagoner Show launched the career of the one and only Dolly Parton, who started an era of country music queens in the 1970s. A fusion of rhythm-and-blues music and “hillbilly” music was gaining popularity among a younger generation of audiences. In the early 1960s, this style contrasting the Nashville sound was known as “the Bakersfield sound.” The Bakersfield sound captured the character and emotion of honky-tonk bars. This produced an electrified track with a noticeable backbeat. Country-rock artists like Elvis Presley received criticism from those in the Nashville sound. An artist signed under the same label as The King captured the attention of country and rock and roll fans alike. Johnny Cash released his first major hit “I Walk the Line” in 1964 and bridged the gap between the two genres of rock and country. Many of Johnny’s songs were topical. The Man in Black wrote songs about significant issues that made national headlines at the time. The “story” songs were back again, but this time the protagonists of the songs were not like the old typical heroes. These songs were about the anti-hero who is not necessarily a bad guy.

Johnny Cash in the 1960s.

The 1970s

A trifecta of talented women emerged in country music in the 1970s: Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Tammy Wynette. After getting her start on The Porter Wagoner Show, Dolly established herself as a strong and dynamic artist. Within the ten years of the seventies, Dolly had ten number one singles, including hits like “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You.” Loretta Lynn was also gathering her share of attention during this time with her singles “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” and “Fist City.” Her autobiographical film “Coal Miner’s Daughter” resonated deeply with the public when it was released in 1970. She became the first woman to receive the Entertainer of the Year Award from the Country Music Association in 1972. Tammy Wynette also captured the life of women through her songs, but her approach was a little softer than Loretta Lynn’s. In the late 1960s, she had hits like “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “Stand by Your Man” that made her a country music icon in the 1970s. At the same time, there was a group of artists who wanted to break free from the Nashville sound and became known as the “Outlaws.” Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson were part of a rugged country music scene that found a home in Texas. The three of them experimented with creating a new sound that blended folk, rock, country, and honk-tonk music. The Outlaw movement eventually spread out to other artists like Johnny Cash, Tanya Tucker, and Hank Williams Jr. The Lone Star State provided an open-minded community for country music artists seeking a place away from the politics and expectations of Nashville.

Dolly Parton in the 1970s.

The 1980s

Country music had a moment in the 1970s and the rest of the public began to take note of the genre’s superstars. In the 1980s, country music bands began to rise in popularity. Bands like The Oak Ridge Boys and Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers had many chart-topping singles, but Alabama changed the game. With the perfect blend of country, rock, and the Outlaw sound, Alabama created a new type of music. Between the years of 1980 and 1987, the band had twenty-one number one songs. This is a record no other country music act has come close to breaking. Pop-country became mainstream at the beginning of the decade. Hollywood even developed a fascination with the music genre, producing the films 9 to 5 and Urban Cowboy. The cinematic obsession did not last long and, in the second half of the decade, emerged the new era of neo-traditionalism. This style of country music emphasizes instrumental background with a traditional vocal style. These artists often dressed in the fashion of the 1940s and 1950s country music artists. At the forefront of this subgenre were artists like Randy Travis, Reba McEntire, and George Strait. The neo-traditionalists of the 1980s generated life in the genre and influenced the music to come in the 1990s.

The band Alabama in the 1980s.

The 1990s

Country music had a lot to celebrate in the 1990s, with the genre experiencing record-level commercial success. A group of artists known as “hat acts” experienced a great level of success during this time. The phrase “hat acts” was used to describe the group of male singers who wore cowboy hats and shared a sound that did not conform to the traditional sound of country music. Some of these men would go on to create some of the most respected careers in country music. Among these men was artist Garth Brooks. Brooks broke more than just a few records during the course of his career. With his blend of country and rock, he created hits like “Friends in Low Places” and “Thunder Rolls.” He even holds the title of the United States best-selling solo artist of all time. The New Country movement was also led by women artists like Faith Hill, Martina McBride, and Shania Twain. Now called “The Queen of Country Pop,” Shania Twain had her first number one single with “Any Man of Mine” in the year 1995. Her popularity grew so much that by her fourth album in 2002, she released three versions of the album in three different genres. As country pop began to grow, artists like Alan Jackson upheld the stylistic and lyrical traditions that country music was founded on. His hits like “Midnight in Montgomery” and “Chattahoochee” honor the traditional country sound.

Garth Brooks in the 1990s.

The 2000s to Present

The great revival of country music in the 1990s gave the genre room to grow and expand in the years to come. In 2005, Carrie Underwood was the first country singer to win American Idol. Soon after, she was the first country singer to debut at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 with her first single, “Inside Your Heaven.” Establishing herself in 2003, Miranda Lambert became known for her rebellious lyrics, which can be seen in her hit songs “Gunpowder and Lead” and “The House That Built Me.” Winning CMA Female Vocalist of the Year every year from 2010 to 2015 proved her mark on country music. Taylor Swift changed the game in country music crossover. Her first single “Tim McGraw” in 2006 was just the beginning of her hits to come. Her sophomore album, Fearless, had thirteen songs that appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, which was a new record. That was just the beginning of her experimentation of country pop before transitioning to fully pop in the years to come. Artists like Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Dierks Bentley, Blake Shelton, and Toby Keith all started their careers in the early 2000s and went on to have an influence on the genre. Country groups like Sugarland and Lady Antebellum, now known as Lady A, had their debut albums in the 2000s. Today, country music has many different types of sounds within the genre. Country pop is still very relevant within the genre and probably the most popular type. With its mainstream appeal, country music in general has evolved to please the masses. When most people think of popular country music artists today, they will think of an artist who does country pop music. Artists like Dan + Shay, Morgan Wallen, Kelsea Ballerini, Thomas Rhett, and Sam Hunt are popular in the country pop category. Another type of country music popular today is known as bro-country. This style of country takes elements of hip-hop, rock, and electronica music and infuses it with the country sound. The songs are typically about women, partying, or drinking alcohol. It is a sort of criticized style because of the song topics but is popular, nonetheless. Popular artists that participate in this style are Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and Kane Brown. A more typical country sound can be heard by artists like Luke Combs and Chris Stapleton. They both can have pop or rock influences, but they also encompass the older country music qualities as well.

Carrie Underwood at the Grand Ole Opry in 2018.


Individuals who study music use an anthropological approach to better understand the people and the culture. Country music, just like other kinds of music, is a reflection of the people involved. A song’s popularity speaks to its relatability to the public. Always changing and adjusting to the desires of the people, music is something created that fits the culture around it. Country music, just like every genre of music, not only has its own culture but also influences the culture around it. Music not only speaks the feelings of the songwriter, but it has the chance to have an effect on an audience. The art of music is an outlet that has a way of expressing the feelings of a whole group of people.

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