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Country music came from humble origins. It came to America in pieces of folk tradition from England and on slave ships from Africa. It grew up poor and isolated in the mountains of Appalachia, and it grew up sun baked and worn down in the rural South. It blew across the plains and deserts of Texas, and it rode the rails from coast to coast. The music sounded a little different from place to place, but it was decidedly rural and tied to the past wherever you went. It was tradition.
Then in 1923, tradition went into business. A record company man with an ear for talent and a head for new markets recorded a champion fiddler down in Georgia on the suggestion of a local enthusiast. "Little Log Cabin in the Lane" by Fiddlin' John Carson became a regional hit for Okeh records, and Okeh's A&R (artist and repertory) man Ralph Peer became convinced that a market for "hillbilly" music existed. Peer made it his work over the next decade to find and record this music, and he deserves considerable credit for introducing several of the greatest talents of country's early commercial period.
Peer's field recording work was complemented by the rise of the radio and the hugely successful radio "barn dance" programs, of which Nashville's Grand Ole Opry is the most famous. As America pitched into the Great Depression in the early '30s, radio sustained the still-young country music industry and strengthening signals carried the barn dance programs to listeners and fans across the country. The '40s, then, proved to be a pivotal period in shaping the future of the music and the business for decades to follow. Power and profits shifted to Nashville, already home of the Opry, with the founding of country music's great publishing company, Acuff-Rose, in 1942. A country music establishment of sorts (think insiders, a stable of local talent, and even a fledgling style that would become the heralded "Nashville Sound") began to coalesce in the town. Bluegrass came into its own, and country's greatest icon, the doomed legend Hank Williams, arrived in Nashville in those years.
The post-war story of country music, in many ways, is the story of post-war America recast. There were years of tremendous growth and prosperity, spiked, and arguably seasoned, with the turbulence of an ongoing cultural revolution. Rock and roll, in the form of Elvis Presely of course, swept in, and women asserted themselves as powerful commercial draws and creative personalities in the industry, if not as equal partners, then at least forces to be reckoned with. Like other young Americans, some country performers came to question the dominant power structures in their world. In the parallel world of country music, this meant Nashville, and the 1960s and '70s witnessed the flourishing of an outsider vein of country. A decidedly rock and roll-influenced, guitar-driven sound throbbed out of Bakersfield, California to rival the slick Nashville productions of the time, and independent (and sometimes rougher edged) performers like Waylon Jennings spawned a movement that became known as "outlaw" country.
The independent strains of country that developed in the '60s and '70s have continued on in one form or another into the present, always offering a counterpoint to whatever rules the market (middle-of-the-road pop country in the 1980s and bloated arena-rock style "stadium" country in the 1990s). The Uncle Tupelos of the world have made sure that Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus never go unchallenged. This presence of a fresh blood alternative is one of two things that have kept country vital. The other is country music's unique willingness to return to the well of its past and drink deeply.
As long as it is able to balance that openness to new influences with a reverence for past traditions, country will have a claim to the title of America's music and just might reflect what Americans like best about themselves.