Country music was born in the 1920s in the Southern United States of America. The style is a development of American folk and also shares similarities to blues and Western music. The typical country songbook consists largely of ballads and songs for dance, traditionally performed on a variety of instruments such as the banjo, electric and acoustic guitars, double bass, steel guitar, fiddle (violin), vocals and harmonicas.
Initially dubbed ‘hillbilly’ music, ‘country’ became a term that generally encompassed this style and Western music; today the term is a general umbrella name for a variety of sub-genres which share similar sensibilities. Beyond its roots in American folk, it often includes elements of Celtic folk, cowboy songs and other traditional music from European immigrant communities. This is due to its place as the music of the working-class white man in the early and mid-1900s.
Country and western music is the single biggest radio listenership in the US and among the most famous exponents of country are Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and more recently Taylor Swift, whose background in the genre heavily influences her popular style.
Improvising in the style
When thinking about how to improvise in a country style, it’s important to consider some typical musical features and aspects. In general, country songs are usually written to tell some sort of story. For this reason, many of the musical features are kept simple and delivered with clarity. Therefore, it’s important to try to stick to this mindset when improvising an accompaniment or melody in the style.
When thinking about melodies, most country songs (particularly in the chorus) have highly memorable, catchy tunes. Try to create something similar when improvising, or perhaps find a catchy phrase which you can repeat, develop and paraphrase throughout the performance.
On the clarity front, it is useful to think about the sound you are creating through your voice or instrument. Country songs tend use clean, clear tones on the guitar, vocals or whichever instrument is playing.
As a vocalist, if you choose to improvise lyrics you may wish to mention journeys, animals or cowboys, if you want to stick to basic generalisations of the genre. Meanwhile, a drummer’s role in this style is usually a background one, with the aim of keeping a simple, clear and concise beat with a laid-back feel. Try not to push the beat or create too much tension.
Watch videos with session musician and Rock & Pop examiner Tom Fleming and session musicians Harry the Piano and Sam Edgington:
Arguably the most legendary name of country music is Johnny Cash. Known for his deep baritone vocals and lazy-sounding, dark tone with themes of sorrow and moral torment, Cash had a more bluesy element to his style. With studio album releases from the 1950s, all the way through to the 1990s, his biggest hits include ‘I Walk the Line’ and ‘Ring of Fire’.
Dolly Parton is widely recognised as a huge part of the country music lineage. Born in 1946, she is still active today with a career now spanning into seven decades. In the late 1950s she began as a child performer (aged just 13) with radio singles, but it was later in 1967 that she rose to fame as a featured performer on Porter Wagoner’s weekly TV programme. She went on to perform in several partnerships with various other country artists, before becoming a well-known act as a solo performer. Her more classic country style of voice with heavy Southern accent is easily recognisable in hits such as ‘I Will Always Love You’ (covered later by Whitney Houston) and ‘Jolene’.
More recently, Taylor Swift has found great success in the UK, US and worldwide charts with her country-pop crossover hits such as ‘Love Story’, ‘You Belong With Me’ and ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’. Having moved to Nashville, Tennessee aged just 14 to pursue a career in country music, she later added pop elements to her style which has seen her rise to fame in the late 2000s. Yet much of her music retains elements of her country music roots, including instrumentation, song forms and simple, catchy melodies.
Examples of country songs in the syllabus include:
‘I Walk The Line’ by Johnny Cash (guitar), ‘Stand By Your Man’ by Tammy Wynette (vocals), ‘Can’t Fight The Moonlight’ by LeAnn Rimes (vocals), ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’ by Michael Buble (vocals) and ‘Love Story’ by Taylor Swift (vocals).
Blog post written by: JJ Wheeler, Trinity Rock & Pop Examiner