Over the years, country music has gone pop, stolen from jazz, and riffed on the blues. This list offers an easy entryway into the various genres of country music, from the 1920s to the present.
It's not easy to define country music. Called hillbilly music, early country songs mixed British folk ballads with New World forms like blues and jazz. They were typically based around the fiddle rather than the guitar. With the help of radio, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers were among the first acts to make a national impact.
Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys pioneered this country style. Its instrumental core is a mix of banjo, mandolin, fiddle, bass, and six-string guitar. When a singer is added, he cuts through the musical bedlam with strained, "high lonesome" vocals. Influential bluegrass artists include Flatts & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers.
In the 1940s, "hillbilly music" became known as "country music." This was when artists like Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell broke into the mainstream, reaching a wide audience through 45 records, jukeboxes, and border radio.
This amalgam of big band jazz, rockabilly, and country music is best represented in the work of Bob Wills. As the name suggests, Western swing was most often performed in dance halls. Its popularity was short-lived (roughly from 1930 to the mid-'50s), but later artists such as Asleep at the Wheel carried the torch.
In the late 1950s, Nashville producers began incorporating background singers and a glossy production style that shaved off the hard edges of honky-tonk. Key specimens of this prevailing style were Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley, who worked as producers, as well as singers Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, and Eddy Arnold.
Bakersfield was put on the map in the 1960s thanks to a run of #1 hits by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Their Stratocaster-heavy music made such a dent on the charts that the California city was briefly dubbed Nashville West. Although the Bakersfield sound proved short-lived, it was enormously influential.
In the 1980s, young musicians like George Strait and Dwight Yoakam took country music back to its roots. Their albums sported a modern sound that drew influence from traditional country, and were warmly received by pop-weary country listeners.
Garth Brooks ushered in a new era of country music based on big sales and broad appeal. Along with Shania Twain, these artists aimed for crossover success, an ambition that continues to the present day. Artists such as Lady Antebellum, Taylor Swift, and Sugarland often draw as much inspiration from '70s pop as traditional country.