Early Commercial Country: "Hillbilly Music"
- In the early 1920s the commercial music industry was dominated by New York
music publishing companies who had no interest in "race records,"
"hillbilly music," or any other alternative to the popular music
of the time.
- The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Performers ensured the
payment of royalties to member publishers and composers for the use of
their material; they were also effective in excluding the works of non-members
from the major music halls. Virtually all country, blues, and jazz composers
were excluded from membership until the 1940s.
- The American Federation of Musicians, which had contracts with most
major performance venues that permitted only members to perform, used
sight-reading tests to effectively bar most country music performers from
membership. In the South and Southwest regions, howver, the union had
less control and country performers could more easily find work.
- Performance opportunities for country performers included community
dances, fiddling contests, "street-corner" musicians, and social
and political events, and as an attraction for salesmen (most typically
the sellers of patent medicine).
- American popular music was urban-oriented, with marketing directed toward
areas of greatest accesibility and highest population density, and (presumably,
at least) people with the most disposable income.
- Decisions about what constituted the "country" market had yet to be
made. Interestingly, however, record company executives made the strategic
decision to market white and African American recordings separately.
- Although distinctions were made between "rural" and "urban" preferences,
the South was not identified as a separate region in terms of marketing
or musical influences. Some researchers are critical of the notion of
the "Southernness" of early country, although the music quickly became
identified with the South.
- The rapid growth of radio as a means of entertainment and information exchange,
particularly for rural areas, radically trnsformed the entertainment industry.
- Although the lowest percentage of radio ownership overall was found in
the South, it still fared better than the phonograph as a source of cheap
and abundant entertainment. Moreover, live music broadcast over the radio
sounded better than phonograph records of the period.
- The first radio station to feature the emerging music was WSB in Atlanta,
which began broadcasting March 16, 1922.
- Much of the programming on early country stations centered around live
performances. Programs were not necessarily aired at consistant times.
- the Radio Barn Dance:
- January 4, 1923, WBAP in Fort Worth featured a 90-minute program of
square-dance music. This was the first of the radio barn dances, and it
most likely triggered the wave of such programs.
- Chicago station WLS aired a show beginning around April 19, 1924 that
eventually became Radio Barn Dance, the first such show to gain
national recognition. Its repertory was broader than most shows in the
barn dance format, however.
- George Hay moved from Chicago and Radio Barn Dance to Nashville
and the new station WSM. He started a program called WSM Barn Dance;
its first show on November 28, 1925 featured Uncle Jimmy Thompson and
his niece, Eva Thompson Jones. Two years later Hay renamed the show the
Grand Ole Opry. Until Roy Acuff joiuned the Opry, Uncle Dave Macon
was the star vocalist on the program.
- Radio provided an outlet for country artists to promote their music to
- The recording industry suffered temporary setbacks in the early 1920s and
were forced to increase their efforts to find new markets.
- According to Malone, the recording of early "rustic" talent was at least
partly a byproduct of the search for African American talent to meet the
demand for "race" records.
- Mamie Smith's recording of "Crazy Blues" prompted a search by Ralph
Peer and others for "native singers in their own habitats."
- The white "hillbilly" recording industry resulted partly from this search.
Claims for the earliest country recording might include:
- Fiddlin' John Carson's recording from mid-June 1923. Although the record
executive from New York considered the result "Aweful," he agreed to a
pressing of 500 copies, and then a thousand more, for sale in the Atlanta
- Alexander Campbell "Eck" Robertson and Henry Gilliland, while playing
at a Civil War veteran's reunion in mid-June 1922, travelled to New York
to audition for the Victor company. Although recorded before Carson, this
recording may have been released later. Robertson's rendition of "Sallie
Gooden" is still considered a classic.
- Concerning the term "hillbilly:"
- Varying sources for the word have been advanced. Its first known use in
American print comes from The New York Journal, April 23.1900. A
"Hill-Billie" was described as "a free and untrammelled white citizen of
Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he
can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off
his revolver as the fancy takes him."
- It may have its origins as a Scottish colloquialism, combining "hill-folk,"
a derogatory term reflecting religious/political differences, and "billie"
as a synonym for "companion" or "comrade."
- Its attachment to the music is at least partly due to the term's inclusion
in the names of two bands:
- In January 1925, a Al and Joe Hopkins, Tony Alderman, and John Rector
recorded for Okeh. Ralph Peer christened the group "The Hill Billies"
based on an off-hand comment by Al Hopkins.
- According to Wayne Daniel, a group known as "George Daniell's Hill Billies"
deserves priority for the name because of an early (probably Feb. 18,
1925) appearance on WSB.
Some important figures include:
- Ralph Peer.
- Fiddlin' John Carson (see Malone, p. 37-8).
- "Eck" Robertson.
- Uncle Dave Macon.
- Vernon Dalhart.
- the Skillet Lickers (see Malone, p. 52-3).
- Bradley Kincaid (see Malone, p. 55).
- The issue of "authenticity" in early country music: was hillbilly music
"constructed" by the radio and recording industries, or did it merely reflect
the rustic music of the time?
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