We don’t make no party out of lovin’
We like holdin’ hands and pitchin’ woo
We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy
Like the hippies out in San Francisco do.
Oakie from Muskokie by Merle Haggard, 1969
Hillbilly, Rockabilly, Western, Bluegrass, Folk, Honky Tonk, Cajun, Nashville Sound, Bakersfield Sound, Country Rock, Outlaw Country, Country Pop.
Will the real Country Music please stand up?
It may mean different things to different people but, paraphrasing a Supreme Court Justice on how to identify pornography: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I hear it.”
Before the 1950s, it was called “hillbilly,” commonly heard with fiddles and twangy drawls. Twenty years later it was becoming America’s music. Baby boomers couldn’t get enough of the beat and it turned into the most listened to pop culture radio format from coast to coast.
What in tarnation happened? The so-called Nashville Sound fine-tuned the country beat into big business with a shotgun marriage between pop and poignant story-telling. The likes of Johnny Cash and Tammy Wynette became superstar celebrities, building on the early honk tonk wailing of Hank Williams, who was beating on the mainstream door with hits like Your Cheatin’ Heart.
Country music was a creative tsunami that swept over virtually every type of baby boomer music. America ended up with a musical melting pot peppered with a good dose of possum stew and black eyed peas. There was so much “cross-over” it became more of cross-pollination. How do you categorize the Allman Brothers or Alabama? Elvis or John Denver? In 1974, Australian Olivia Newton John, not exactly a country gal, was dubbed Female Vocalist of the Year by the Country Music Association.
The lyrics are conservative, traditional, and patriotic, focusing on the drama of everyday working class love and life. It transitioned well into the more cautious and inward looking boomer post-hippie years where women were urged to Stand By Your Man and Merle Haggard proved there was a little Okie from Muskogee in all of us.
Muskogee is a real town in Oklahoma.
What to call the music was a dilemma. “Hillbilly” was too…hillbilly, even when combined with rock and roll to produce “rockabilly.” The Weavers regarded themselves “folk” singers and even Hank Williams used the label. When the Weavers lead Pete If I Had a Hammer Seeger and “folk” singers were tainted with “Communism,” a jittery industry settled on “country and western,” and finally “country” as the official name of the sound.