The Beginning of Country Music
One thing that has always baffled me is the fact that whilst country music is one of the most popular genres of music in the United States, outside of the country it is not as well regarded. In fact, if you head on over to the United Kingdom you will find that it is an incredibly niche genre. Why is this baffling to me? Well, it is because country music history can be traced back to the Irish, who of course are very close to the United Kingdom (just a couple of miles over the water in fact, with half of Ireland considered part of the United Kingdom). On this page I want to take a little look at the its roots. This is before any music recordings or the like. This was when music was a form of entertainment and not just a way to make money.
Country Music, in the form that we know it, has been going strong for over three hundred years in the Southern part of North America. It was not until the 1920s that it started to gain traction though. So, where did it all begin? It began with a group of Irish immigrants who decided to settle in the Appalachian Mountains. Obviously North America is an incredibly long distance from Ireland. The boat journey was horrendous to start with and of course, space was limited. Those that headed to America could only take their most prized possessions with them. Everything else was left at home. Many Irish cherished their instruments and it was those that they took on this boat journey.
The Irish preferred to use the fiddle, the sounds of which are heard in country music to this very day. The reason why they loved the fiddle so much was because it had such a dynamic range. One second you could be playing the most upbeat music possible, and the next second you could be creating something that was almost mournful. In its history it was not just the Irish fiddle that played a roll though. The banjo got in there (from West Africa), the Mandolin (Italy) and even the Dulcimer (Germany). You got a nice blend of instruments.
It was sort of born out of a clash of cultures. Many people do not realize this, but it has a number of its roots in African music. It was born out of the white and black musicians in the southern areas of the country starting to play together. In fact, country music history shows us that back then Country Music tended to be a great deal more ‘African’ influenced than European influenced. The style has meshed too much nowadays to really tell though. It just grew from here. As the music style started to spread around the area more and more people started to introduce new elements into it. This is a constantly evolving form of music. What we regarded as country all those years ago is nothing close to what is regarded as country music right now. That is why it is so exciting. We never know where the music is going to take us next.
The Early Recordings
Country Music has been played throughout the southern part of the United States for over three hundred years now. However, it was not always as popular as it is today (where it is one of the most popular music genres in the United States). In fact, up until the 1920s very few people outside of the Appalachian area had even heard of this music style. This all changed pretty quickly though.
It was the booming industry in Atlanta which kicked started country music history in recordings. During the early days of Atlanta many people who lived in the Appalachian area started to work in the cotton mills. Just like their ancestors had done all of those years ago, they took their instruments on their travels. This means that country music started to hit Atlanta.
In the 1920s the recorded music industry was just getting started. It was particularly popular in Atlanta. In fact, Atlanta was the hub for a lot of recorded music for over twenty years. The recordings sadly started to die down in the 1950s.
Anyway, during the 1920s everybody was looking to make money with commercial music. However, nobody thought that country music would sell. Many people, including Fiddlin’ John Carson tried to get their music recorded. They were turned down by record company after record company. This was until somebody discovered that country music was actually marketable. In fact, these marketing geniuses believed that it would resonate particularly well amongst those that worked in agriculture. What a brain wave this was. It was this very idea that kicked off country music history as we know it today.
Around this time, country music was a blend of styles. It really had no definition. People just played it how they wanted. One of the first recordings launched which was regarded as country came from Henry Gilliland and A.C. Robertson. They released ‘Turkey in the Straw’ and ‘Arkansas Traveller’. Both of these musicians were fiddlers. This is a far cry from the country music that we know nowadays which tends to be dominated by guitar players.
It was the high sales of these records which really got the country music ball rolling. Fiddlin’ John Carson, previously turned down by all of those record labels was signed by Okeh Records. He released his much beloved song ‘Little Log Cabin in the Lane’ in 1923. Vernon Dalhart was the first country singer to take the country by storm though. His hit, Wreck of the Old 97, released in 1927, was absolutely fantastic. It really pushed the commercial value of country music.
Nobody had such an impact in the 1920s as the Carter Family though. Their music style was unique. Over the course of 17 years they went on to released 300 different songs. Many of which people sing to this very day. In fact, the music that the Carter Family released was meant to showcase this history of Southern America. As you can probably guess, they sold millions of records.
This is just a very brief introduction to country music history in 1920s. As you know, the style evolved from there. What we know as country though originated in these recordings. It was distinctly different to the music from three hundred years ago (although built on the same principles). It really would be interesting to see where country music takes us from here on out.
The Evolution of Travis Picking
I do not know whether you have attempted to learn guitar before. However, if you have then you will notice that there are a number of techniques that you need to get down if you want to start any hope of actually being able to play a song that another person wrote, let alone write one yourself. One of the most important techniques for a guitarist is that of ‘finger picking’. Now, there are a number of different ‘finger picking’ styles out there. The one that I want to focus on though is Travis Picking. This is because it has its roots in country music history.
Before we dive into what Travis Picking is all about, I want to discuss a little bit about where it stands in the context of country music history. As you may know, country music never really started to get a grip on popular culture until the 1920s. However, people were starting to develop their style a long time before that. One of those people was Arnold Shultz, an African-American musician who was born in Ohio County, Kentucky.
Arnold was very much surrounded by music for much of his life. In fact, his family were touring country musicians. As they went from location to location he met a number of famous musicians. He also began to develop his own style. His own style was something that had not really been heard before in country music. It was a very jazzy sound with deep base notes (sadly he was never recorded so we do not know what he done exactly). The style that he developed became firmly rooted in Kentucky Style country music. In fact, his performances had a massive influence on one Merle Travis through a country musician known as Kennedy Jones.
It was Merle Travis who began to develop the idea of Travis picking in greater depth. So, what is Travis Picking? Well, it is a thumb picking technique. It is very hard to explain if you have never played the guitar before. Basically, it is a style which involves the thumb of a finger playing the bass notes on the guitar (the top three strings). This creates a deep bass note. The other fingers then play the lower strings to add a touch of melody. As you can probably guess, absolutely no guitar picks are used here.
Nowadays, many musicians blend Travis picking into their music. In fact, I am sure that you will find elements of Travis picking in pretty much every genre out there. Even ‘rock’ musicians do it from time to time, particularly on their slower numbers. This is one of a few ‘country music’ styles which seems to have escaped the confines of country music history and worked its way into other forms of music. It really does go to show the reach that this genre of music actually as. If you want to hear a good example of Travis picking outside of Country Music then I suggest that you pay a listen to Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Boxer’.