Theoretically Speaking S2|E2:

What Makes Country, Country ?

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Music Theory For Non-Musicians

…if there was ever an art where breaking the rules is one of the rules, it’s music.

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This occasional series is about how music is made, and it’s for people who don’t already make music. It’s part music appreciation and part music theory.
I hope to cover rhythm, melody, intervals, chords, inversions, genres, and more. Maybe we’ll get into extended chords and modes. Let’s see!


S2:E2 – What Makes Country, Country?

At about the same time that poor black people in the South were inventing the blues, poor white people in Appalachia were inventing country music.

The mountains, previously populated by native people, were settled by English, Scottish, and Irish immigrants. They brought their music with them but it evolved over the generations.

In the same way that Australia evolved animals that exist nowhere else because it’s an island, the music changed in the isolation of those mountains into something different from the jigs and reels of the British Isles, and different from music anywhere else.

It does share some things with other folk music from around the world. It’s simple music, using only major and minor chords (and sometimes their 7th variations) that anyone can play. I think folk music of all stripes is simple because it wasn’t initially played by professional musicians.

If someone in the family had a guitar, they could spend evenings singing traditional, or soon to be traditional, songs.

Later, some of those singers decided to take it on the road. Playing at church functions and other events would lead the more popular musicians to play live on small radio stations. That’s how the country scene grew and solidified into its own genre.

Like the blues, country often uses only three chords.

Country music is three chords and the truth.

Songwriter Harlan Howard

Unlike the blues, it didn’t use the 12 bar blues structure, at least initially. There was some cross-pollination ,and country uses the 12 bar structure here and there.

Consider Hank William’s classic Hey Good Lookin’ and its simple chord structure.

I’ll have what Hank’s having.

It’s in the key of C major and the three chords are the 1, 2, and 5 chords. However, it doesn’t follow the rules of the music theory created by the great composers of earlier centuries. If it did, the D7 chords would be D minor 7s. The notes in a D7 chord are D, F#, A, and C. That F# is not in the C major scale. (It’s a black key on the piano and the key of C major uses only the white keys.)

In western music theory, it should be an F which would make the chord a D minor 7.

So why did Hank Williams write the song using the “wrong” chord? There are two possibilities.

The first is that he intentionally broke accepted music theory rules to create the atmosphere he intended. That’s something a trained classical or jazz composer would do.

It’s more likely that he was monkeying around with various chords and decided he liked the D7. We know Williams couldn’t read or write music, so he may have been unfamiliar with theory, too. However, musicians who learn through oral tradition have their own kind of intelligence and ingenuity. The ability to write or hear songs and be able to play back takes a kind of talent that doesn’t come from formal education. That, after all, is how music was passed down from one generation to the next for thousands of years.

So what makes country different from any other folk music? As the satirical country act Doyle and Debbie sang, “Whine whine, twang twang.”

https://doyleanddebbie.com/project-gallery

A lot of it is the limited instrumentation. It’s mostly string instruments: guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle (never call it a violin), upright bass, and a few others. Piano and drums are common, too. Brass and woodwinds are rare, and there won’t be a synthesizer unless it’s used to sound like a traditional instrument.

Tradition is important.

In the 1950s and 60s, electric instruments were added. Electric guitars and pedal steels became popular. The Fender Telecaster became the go-to guitar for country players, partly because it was one of the first affordable electric guitars available and partly because, with its pickup close to the bridge, it really twangs. 

A 1954 Fender Telecaster.

As an example, here’s Brett Mason and Chuck Ward chicken pickin’ their way through Hot Wired on Telecasters.

Fender and their competitors made another contribution to country music by manufacturing console steel guitars. These were an update of the lap steel guitars which were held, naturally, on the player’s lap. The lap steel is an acoustic instrument and it’s not very loud. The console version was amplified, had legs and could have multiple sets of strings, with each set tuned differently.

Lap steels and pedal steels are played with a slide, which is a rounded piece of metal. While it looks like the “necks” have frets like a guitar, they’re just visual placemarkers. The strings never touch the fretboard. The player moves the slide up and down the length of the strings, and the distance from the bridge to wherever the slide is determines the pitch being played. Additionally, the foot and knee pedals raise or lower the pitch of certain strings, thus creating new chords. 

Like the Telecaster, it twangs like all get out. A few rock musicians, like David Gilmore from Pink Floyd and Steve Howe from Yes, play the pedal steel, but it’s primarily a country instrument. Here’s the pedal steel played by Barbara Mandrell in 1975.

It’s worth noting that while country and bluegrass have the same roots and are very similar, bluegrass will never have drums or electric instruments. It also has an emphasis on virtuosity. So much so that bluegrass musicians sometimes play with classical or jazz players. For example, check out Chris Thile’s collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma.

While there are many virtuosic country instrumentalists – Chet Atkins, Brad Paisley, Vince Gill, and Roy Clark come to mind – simple songs are usually the key. Performers may impress us, but first and foremost they have to be relatable. The performers have to be ordinary people and not too highfalutin. The songs have to, or appear to, understand our lives and our problems.

The exception to this rule is the costuming and hair. If you’re going to be on stage, give ‘em something to see.

Rhinestone, sequins, and enormous hair and wigs are de rigueur.

tnocs.com contributing author and fashion plate bill bois

A lot of what makes country country is in the vocals. While singers in other cultures sing with an open throat, creating a full, round sound, country singers are much more nasal. These voices twang like the Telecaster. 

This is only my conjecture and I can’t find any evidence to support or disprove it, but maybe that twangy nasality carried better than an open sound through the hills. If you need someone on the next mountain over, a sound that cuts through the trees and doesn’t sound like birds might work better. Perhaps that’s why country music favors twang.

Part of the twang is singing a little flat and then sliding up to the note. The same thing happens on pedal steel, fiddle, and lead guitar parts. Sometimes this technique sounds off-key to fans of other styles of music, and it drives them crazy.

When vocal harmonies are used, which is often, they are close harmonies. That means all the voices sing notes within an octave of each other. The only exception I can think of is when there’s a low bass voice. He might sing an octave or more lower than everyone else, as heard in Elvira by the Oak Ridge Boys.

Lyrically, country is again similar to the blues:

  • Things are bad, we’re poor. We’re being held down by an unfair system.
    You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt.”
    Sixteen Tons written by Merle Travis, popularized by Tennessee Ernie Ford.
  • Love fades. “We’ve been thinking about Jackson ever since the fire went out.”
    Jackson written by Billy Edd Wheeler and Jerry Leber, popularized by Johnny Cash and June Carter.
  • Life is short. “Don’t blink, you just might miss your babies growing up like mine did.”
    Don’t Blink written by Casey Beathard and Chris Wallin, popularized by Kenny Chesney.

Though some story songs may be fiction, the themes are always about real life. There are no country songs about octopus’s gardens, starship troopers, or the darkest depths of Mordor.

” I am a Nazgûl for the county…

However, where the blues offers hope, country usually offers only commiseration. Your life is hard? So’s mine. If the Good Lord’s willing, we’ll live to see another day. We can complain… but nothing’s going to change.

That’s the message. Whine whine, twang twang, indeed.

Having said that, other important elements are humor and wordplay. They don’t always get used, but country audiences appreciate clever wording.

You’ll note that in the three examples above, the songs were written by someone other than the performers. This is how the recording industry was from Tin Pan Alley up until the 1960s. There were professional songwriters and professional singers, and rarely were they the same people. For example, of the hundreds of songs Frank Sinatra recorded, he only co-wrote seven. 

The Beatles came along and changed all that by, eventually, writing their own material.

Almost all rock performers followed suit, but that change didn’t make it over to country music.

There are still professional country songwriters who don’t perform in public. 

I live in Nashville and have met a few songwriters with huge hits to their credits. They only get on stage for a writer’s night, or have only been in recording studios to make demos. The guy in the AC/DC t-shirt ahead of me in the Kroger check out line may have written a top ten country hit or two. You never can tell.

“…And, so, I just told him, straight out:
“No, no, no. Angus: ‘Highway To Mordor’ just doesn’t work.
He agreed. And the rest is history…

That’s a little different from how country started, as family entertainment in the hills far from town. It’s become a huge industry, cranking out product in the same way for decades. In 2013, Tom Petty said current country music is “bad rock with a fiddle,” but he was talking about the major label form of country. There’s a healthy independent country music scene, and you can still find people playing country on their porches and at county fairs, singing honest songs about life’s ups and downs.

Whether it’s homegrown or manufactured, country music is about what the audience, mostly rural white people, have in common.

And it twangs.


Suggested Listening:

Carter Family – Can The Circle Be Unbroken (1935)

Hank Williams- I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (1949)

Johnny Cash – I Walk The Line (1936)

Dolly Parton – Jolene (1973)

George Jones – He Stopped Loving Her Today (1980)

Brad Paisley Ticks (2007)

Kacey Musgraves – Follow Your Arrow (2013)

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Bill Bois

Bill Bois - bassist, pie fan, aging gentleman punk, keeper of the TNOCS spreadsheet:
https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/138BvuV84ZH7ugcwR1HVtH6HmOHiZIDAGMIegPPAXc-I/edit#gid=0

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cstolliver
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September 2, 2022 5:12 am

I’m really enjoying these genre explorations, Bill. I look forward to seeing what you’ve got coming up! Question for you regarding the relationship between genre and race, insofar as country goes.

I know that, while black artists in country have been few and far between, there have been notable examples from Charley Pride in the ’60s through ’90s to pop expat Darius Rucker in the early ’00s and more recently folks as varied as Mickey Guyton, Rhiannon Giddens, Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen.

What I’m wondering is, beyond the race/cultural background of the performer, is it the twang in the vocals, the spare instrumentation or other factors that distinguish these artists’ work as country from, say, the similarly acoustic work of other black artists such as Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” or Babyface’s “When Can I See You”?

(I guess this could be applied to white artists as well, thinking about songs like James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.”)

It’s sometimes hard to see (or rather, hear) the distinctions between country, pop and rhythm and blues.

thegue
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September 2, 2022 9:39 am
Reply to  cstolliver

If you get a chance, read the 1619 Project essay on music by Wesley Morris. It’s a great read.

ArchieLeech
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September 2, 2022 11:59 am
Reply to  cstolliver

You and Bill are referring to some of what I would call the roots of my tastes. “Fire and Rain” is the first song I remember hearing on the radio and thinking, “That’s what I like.” The bluesy sound, with Taylor’s terse guitar lyrics, were just my thing, much like Ray Charles’s version of “It Makes No Difference Now,” from Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music – a favorite of my parents, it’s in my car right now. Charles’s recording could be catergorized as country, blues, jazz, soul, or pop. Or it can just be enjoyed.

My favorite country music figure is Jimmie Rodgers, a frail little guy who worked the train lines until TB caught him. Turning to music, he developed something called the “blue yodel,” which sounds old-fashioned now, but at the time was transgressive and extremely popular. Young cotton field worker Chester Burnett loved Rodgers’s records and tried to sing them, but he frightened everybody, so he developed his own style and called himself Howlin’ Wolf.

Rodgers collaborated with acts from various genres, including the Carters, jazz bands, and Hawaiian combos – Hawaiian music was in vogue in the 30s (think of It’s a Wonderful Life), and it lead to country’s legacy of lap steel guitar. Here he is with Louie and Lil Armstrong – “You’ll find my name on the tail of my shirt/I’m a Tennessee hustler, I don’t have to work.” Country, blues, and jazz, together again.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EA9Y9FkxJZo

Last edited 3 months ago by ArchieLeech
ArchieLeech
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September 2, 2022 12:58 pm
Reply to  cstolliver

I forgot to mention – some of my favorite soul singers have definite country undertones. Bobby “Blue” Bland started as B.B. King’s chauffer, became an early soul pioneer, and never lost his admiration for Charlie Rich, who admired him right back. They covered each other’s songs. Another favorite is William Bell, the pipe-smoking Stax stalwart whose “You Don’t Miss Your Water” was covered by the Byrds on their ground-breaking country-rock album Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

cappiethedog
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September 2, 2022 11:34 pm
Reply to  cstolliver

No disrespect to Francesco Turrisi, but I want another “Just Rhiannon” album like the great Freedom Highway. This is one example as to why I don’t read Pitchfork religiously like I used to. Why is this a 7.6, and not an 8+? I kept asking myself. And why am I still annoyed about this five years later?

Phylum of Alexandria
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September 2, 2022 7:52 am

A few weeks ago, Cuzitt had some extended comments on the mothersite trying to figure out what made country country. I think from the 1980s onward, what really made the genre were all of the stylistic signifiers: the twang, the steel guitar, and the cowboy hats!

I guess that’s reflective of a more general trend in popular music, when one genre gets absorbed into something bigger. Certainly jazz by the early 70s was starting to resemble a lot of rock and funk from the time, and by the 80’s it was basically just pop with sax solos.

In the early days of recording, to me the difference between country and early guitar blues really does seem to be the chords played. They can even play the same gospel songs, just slightly differently.

One thing I learned recently is that the “Travis-style” of guitar picking in country and bluegrass came not from Merle Travis, but from a former slave and guitarist/fiddler named Arnold Schultz. Schultz also turned bluegrass legend Bill Monroe onto the blues, who then incorporated blues tunes into his repertoire.

Add to all that the fact that the banjo came from Africa via the slaves, and it’s pretty clear that even in early music traditions, there was a bunch of cultural mixing going on in America.

To that effect, one of my favorite country trends was the adoption of boogie woogie for guitar:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NkjRDaoF39w

thegue
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September 2, 2022 9:37 am

Bill,

What a fantastic read, and it explains all the reasons (I think) on why I don’t really care for country music.*

  1. Speaking of your nasal theory, I read a wonderful book on history and how Columbus came to discover America. In short, he was the summation of a couple centuries of European navigators understanding the Atlantic, and venturing farther and farther into the ocean. In the 1400s, the Spanish conquered the Guanches, who inhabited the Canary Islands. It was devastating, and little remains of their culture, but one of the more fascinating aspects we still have remnants of is their ‘whistling’ language, used to carry across the valleys and mountains on the islands.
  2. That nasally singing is what I really don’t like. I mean, besides the instrumentation. And the lyrics. Speaking of which (WARNING: JOKE AHEAD), now that we are close to self-driving cars, how soon will a country music singer lament his truck leaving him?
  3. Love the video clips above, especially Hank Williams’ song which my dad used to sing all the time when I was a kid. Thanks for the memories.

*Jolene is an 11/10.

JJ Live At Leeds
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September 2, 2022 4:48 pm

Interesting read. Unlike pop, rock, jazz, and more its a genre that doesn’t travel so well. I’d not really considered that it evolved from traditional English / Scottish / Irish folk but it seems obvious now you’ve said it. Folk music has continued to evolve over here and is still going strong despite the innovation of electric instrumention and popular music (as in the charts) going off in different directions. Whereas I don’t think country music has really filtered back over here.

There’s the odd well known country star like Dolly and Johnny Cash but since the 70s it hasn’t really impacted on the mainstream. Garth Brooks had a bit of a moment in the 90s and Billy Ray Cyrus got to #3 with Achy Breaky Heart but for many that just cemented its position as a novelty genre. Although a theme such as love fades is universal the way its presented, that image and sound is just so alien to life here that its never really got a foothold. Others like things are bad, we’re poor would, i think, be more likely to be expressed with anger.

Pauly Steyreen
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September 2, 2022 8:57 pm

Thanks Bill. I grew up close to Nashville. While I was never a country music fan, it was always the background music of life. And thus, particularly the country of the 70’s and 80’s holds a deep nostalgic connection for me. I listen to songs by Alabama or Ronnie Milsap or Juice Newton or… (long list, fill in the blank) and it still hits me.

I did go through a hard core bluegrass phase when I was in grad school. Funny enough, I grew up in Kentucky, but hardly ever heard bluegrass there — the state is 100% all-in for mainstream country. But once I discovered Bill Monroe, Seldom Scene, Jim and Jesse, … (again, long list), I was hooked. Been to a bunch of bluegrass shows. There are two types: outdoor shows full of young hippies and indoor show full of old timers. I’ve been to and enjoyed them all.

Bluegrass is definitely related, but a separate genre. High pitched, upbeat tempo, virtuosity… it is a genre for music lovers, not for music likers.

Check out Sam Bush’s rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country.” It’s still a great song but in Sam’s hands, it’s a different vibe entirely.

https://youtu.be/ES8tUHUgjLQ

Pauly Steyreen
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September 3, 2022 4:11 am
Reply to  Virgindog

Never heard of Sierra Hull but she got good chops. I’m kind of out of the loop with bluegrass now, probably since Chris Thile was Sierra’s age…

Thanks for sharing dog!

cappiethedog
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September 2, 2022 11:38 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

What do Nashville residents think about Lambchop?

Pauly Steyreen
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September 3, 2022 4:07 am
Reply to  cappiethedog

I’ll ask Paul Niehaus and get back with you. I imagine they have a local following but their sound isn’t targeting the widest swath of the population.

cappiethedog
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September 3, 2022 6:17 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

Was(Not Was) was who Lambchop reminded me of, aesthetically, when I first played How I Quit Smoking. The music sounded traditional(what I would later learn as being influenced by Bill Sherill), but the lyrics were not the stuff of your traditional country fare. I played “We Never Argue” obsessively. Favorite couplet: “International I see you international babe of mine/International police international calling card.”

dutchg8r
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September 5, 2022 4:15 pm

Finally got the chance to read this post all the way through – fantastic stuff VDog, and really sums up what country is so well. I mean, that was a really awesome read, and listen!!!

Nom-nom-nom….

Here’s my theory on the reason for the ‘twang’ – it seems a bit easier on the vocal chords, so you can sing longer if need be. Not to mention with its roots in Appalachia, the regional accent just naturally carried through to the singing. I have a cousin born and raised SE of Pittsburgh, and his accent is about as strong as you can get for Appalachia; most people figured he was from Texas.

I equate country twang to rap’s generic New Yawk intonation, even the West Coast rappers.

LinkCrawford
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September 20, 2022 12:37 pm

I think this was my favorite of your features that I’ve read so far. You’re making summarizing complete music genres into a 5 minute read look easy!

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