A Little Bit Country, A Little Bit Rock ‘N Roll

If you are of a certain age you may recall the title is from a song used by Donny & Marie Osmond on their TV show in the mid 70’s. It was originally written as a love song by Marty Cooper, however after some editing it became the signature song for the brother and sister.

Today I am not talking about the song, or any member of the talented Osmond Family for that matter but the title seemed to fit. When I started to write this post the song title just came to me, as I am talking about the relationship between Country Music and Rock Music, I could not have come up with a better title. First, I will discuss a very brief overview of each genres history and then some of the many early connections between the two. Just a reminder that you can check out my past posts on The History of Rock and Roll, The Delta Blues and many others for more connections.

Country Music

Most will know that Country Music, as defined is the genre that developed in the Southern United States around 1920, and not necessarily music from a particular Country. However, European and American Folk Music has it’s connections to Country Music as well. We of course have to acknowledge the music brought over by European immigrants. Looking back at the history and I think on that evolutionary line, we also have the song “Ragtime Cowboy Joe” sung by Bob Roberts with Orchestra from 1912.

However, it’s generally accepted that songs from the Appalachia and the Southeast is where it all started. Although there are earlier recordings we can point to songs that ended up on what is named The Bristol Sessions from 1927. This, from a recording perspective gives us a good beginning. Here we need to talk about an important cog in the wagon wheel of Country Music. Ralph Peer was a talent scout and recording engineer and was also the supervisor for the very first Blues recording by Mamie Smith in 1920. During a (field) trip to the South he recorded many musicians and singers from the Blues and Folk Genre, mostly outside of a studio with his portable equipment. He was the first to record the Father of Country Music, Jimmie Rodgers, Fiddlin’ John Carson and The Carter Family. These particular tapes come from the now designated Birth of Country Music, Bristol, Tennessee. There is a strong bit of what was called Hillbilly Music, some Folk as well. which evolved into an amalgamation with Western and Cowboy Music to give us Country & Western (C&W). The Western part has now become a subgenre and was dropped for good some time in the 1970’s to give us the plain Country. Cowboy and Hillbilly music are also some of the many dozens of subgenre. The origins of Bluegrass can also be traced here. For all of this music some of the pioneers came from African/Caribbean American artists. We can certainly trace the origins of the Banjo via the Caribbean and there are significant early guitar influences in techniques from Blind Blake, John Hurt, Robert Johnson and Arnold Shultz among others.

The Carter Family were a part of the Bristol recordings in 1927 and are referred to as The First Family of Country Music.

The part of Country Music that is most associated with it’s younger cousin of Rock & Roll is what is referred to as the third generation that spans the early 1940’s through to the mid 1950’s. It is where the various forms related to ‘Country’ such as The Cowboy songs, Bluegrass and Western Swing had made their way into the mainstream. Songs coming from any of these areas, be it from Gene Autry, Bill Monroe or Bob Wills were now getting pushed under the same umbrella of C&W. We were also seeing the influence of Northern Mexico and the development of Tejano Music. Listen to Marty Robbins or the intro to “Ring of Fire”(1963) and you will hear it. I will stop here with the history stuff as I beleive what happens next in the evolution of Country music is less directly associated with Rock and Roll.

Rock & Roll

It seems the origins of this genre is a topic of a bit more debate, for instance a lot time is spent on discussing which is the first Rock and Roll song. I’ve researched this area quite a bit and have come to the conclusion there is no such thing as the first song, or artist for that matter. But hey we all have an opinion so I will just forge ahead with what I have read and try and connect the dots. There is not a debate however, that Rhythm & Blues is key in the early development. First off most Rock and Roll songs are based on the 12 Bar Blues chord progression. The history of that comes from the Black experience of work songs and oral tradition. Thanks to W.C. Handy it was first put to paper around 1909 and he based it on what heard from traveling through the Mississippi Delta, visiting Plantations and listening to Black Americans playing instruments and singing. This also gives as a starting point for Jazz music but I will leave that for another day.

Based on this musical structure Rock and Roll was, as Country Music had become, an amalgam of styles that were placed under the same moniker. We know Alan Freed began using the phrase “Rock and Roll” on his radio program in the early 50’s. He used this to describe the music he was playing because it wasn’t fitting into the genres available at the time, namely R&B, Blues or Country and Western. This name caught on and soon music from R&B artists such as William Moore and his “We’re Gonna Rock” released in 1948 (Reportedly the first song played by Alan Freed on his radio show) were mixed in for example, with the New Orleans style of Fats Domino and Lloyd Price. Soon we had Elvis Presley and Bill Haley. We also had the already ‘labelled’ genre of harmonizing Doo Wop songs like “Earth Angel” by the Penguins (1954) which peaked at #8 as did the Crew-Cuts cover version. In fact other songs such as “When You Dance” by the Turbans (1955) were now being called Rock and Roll and covers of these more ballad like songs by White singers made numerous appearances in the top 20 throughout 1955. The only true Rock and Roll act to hit the top 20 in 1955 (until Chuck Berry did in August) was Bill Haley.

This Philadelphia group had a regional hit with this ‘B’ side song that soon became a national sensation hitting #3 on the R&B chart and #33 on the Pop chart.

Speaking of Haley, “Rock Around the Clock” was written for him, but originally recorded and released by Sonny Dae and His Knights. It was released by Haley just two months later in May of 1954 but it was not a hit and did not chart. When Canadian (ok his family moved to the US when he was six) Actor Glenn Ford was looking for music to put in his new movie Blackboard Jungle (1955) he turned to his son Peter for advice. The film is based on a group of Juvenile Delinquent High School Students and Peter felt “Rock Around The Clock” from his record collection was the best fit. The song was re-released in May of 1955 and the rest as they say, is Rock and Roll history.

Chuck Berry would write, perform and then release “Maybellene” in July of 1955. This song gives us a key Country connection (as acknowledged by Berry) as it is adapted from the Western Swing song “Ida Red” (recorded by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys) in 1938. I should mention it is also an adaptation of the same song from the ‘Fiddlin’ Powers & Family’ recorded in 1925. Sorry about the rabbit hole here but it’s also based on the 1878 popular song written by Frederick W. Root, “Sunday Night”. Root is best known for “”Battle Cry of Freedom” and “There’s Music in the Air”. So it’s a long story about song credits on this one (I’ll save you from that). However I did read that Berry was going to call the song “Ida Red”, but Leonard Chess (founder and part owner of Chess Records in Chicago) spontaneously renamed it after looking at a box of Maybelline cosmetics someone had left behind in the studio. Hence the odd spelling to avoid a lawsuit.

Country Music and Rock and Roll

At this time you are likely thinking I should get to the point, and so here it is. The two biggest connections to early Rock and Roll are as noted above, Rhythm and Blues (R&B) and Country Music which is my focus for today. I mentioned earlier the evolution of Hillbilly music into Country Music. With that in mind, just a reminder that some of the early Rock and Roll pioneers, and I have to say, White singers, and to repeat myself, namely Presley, Cash, Lewis, Perkins and others were closely connected to Country Music in many ways. Bill Haley for example was a Country and Western act before he became a Rock and Roll star. Elvis toured with a Country star for his first big stage performances and sang several Country songs. Jerry Lee Lewis was singing Evangelical songs as a teen and first performed alongside a Country band, Johnny Cash had first pitched Sam Phillips with Country songs. Carl Perkins early ‘signature song’ was a version of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky“.

For the most part Southern Country music was and much of it still is a Christian genre with many songs embraced by the Church going crowd. So it needs to be said that those roots, other than the education in music, are not connected directly to the development of Rock and Roll. From the perspective of a timeline I would put it something like this:

Hillbilly-Country-Country Boogie-Rockabilly-Rock and Roll

So the bridge from Hillbilly to Rock and Roll would, for the most part come via Country Boogie, which was an identifiable genre in the mid to late 1940’s to the early 50’s. Many of the songs came from artists that you would find in other genre such as Honky Tonk or Country Blues and most would come from another ‘feeder’ genre called Texas Swing. The main man was Bob Wills (The King of Western Swing) with tunes like Bob Wills Boogie from 1947. However songs from Hank Williams (Fly Trouble), Tennessee Ernie Ford (Smokey Mountain Boogie) and Grand Ole Opry Star Red Foley had a #1 hit in 1950 with “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy”(1949), all fit the category.

Another early song with big influence on Rockabilly/Rock and Roll was “Guitar Boogie” by The Rambler Trio featuring Arthur Smith, written by Arthur Smith and recorded in 1946. The clip is the re-released version from 1948 which became a hit, although not actually re-recorded it was also re-labeled as Arthur Smith and His Cracker-Jacks. If the Boogie part seems familiar here we have borrowing from African American music, Boogie Woogie was developed as early as 1870 but popularized in the 1920’s. Here is a clip from pioneer Wilbur Sweatman with “Down Home Rag“(1911). It’s a variation on the 12 Bar Blues and as the next clip shows it’s not just for the piano.

Many of the pioneers of Rockabilly and Rock and Roll were of the Christian faith, but it was the real (and perceived) sins and the sinners that got the Church upset. This was early White Rock and Roll and along with Chuck Berry (raised Baptist), Little Richard (raised Pentecostal) and many R&B artists, it was thought by many to be the downfall of the American youth and civilised society. This is a well documented subject that I won’t get into today. While there is much of the R&B influence in some of their music, for example Elvis covering Arthur Crudup’s “That’s Alright” or Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog”, in the early 1950’s these singers were doing some hopped up Hillbilly Country. Elvis described himself as a Hillbilly Cat, and when Johnny Cash did some “sinning” as Sam Phillips had suggested he wrote the Rockabilly tunes of “Hey Porter” and “Cry, Cry, Cry“, followed by “Get Rhythm” which was the ‘B’ side of “I Walk the Line” and that #1 hit is in a class of its own.

Songs from these Country connected artists were creeping up the Billboard Weekly Singles (Pop) chart, which is kind of my go-to as there were nine weekly Pop charts at the time. In truth they were not substantively different. We know there were many Rock and Roll songs, all low on the charts in 1954 and I’ve talked about those in prior posts. Again, I am repeating song references but by way of comparison, when “Rock Around the Clock” hit #1 on July 9, 1955 (for it’s first of nine weeks), everything changed. On the Billboard R&B chart that same week it was Fats Domino with “Ain’t it a Shame” at #1 for its second of eight non consecutive weeks. Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” would knock that off the #1 spot in September and stay for 11 straight weeks. Meanwhile on the Pop charts, Rock and Roll once again took a back seat with a cover by Mitch Miller of the 1927 song “Yellow Rose of Texas”. It knocked Bill Haley off of #1. With the exception of a Doo Wop original, “The Great Pretender” by The Platters hitting for two weeks in February, we would not see another Rock and Roll song hit #1 again until May 5, 1956.

This was the week we see the Rockabilly artists become pop stars. First at #1 “Heartbreak Hotel” by Elvis Presley, followed by Carl Perkins at #4 with the original “Blue Suede Shoes”. Later that year genre pioneer Gene Vincent would enter the top 10 with “Be Bop A Lula”. For more Country connections we have Music DJ, songwriter and singer Jim Lowe who would hit #1 with a Pop Rock song called “Green Door” for three weeks. He actually knocked “Don’t Be Cruel” out of #1. Johnny Cash had “I Walk the Line” hit #19 for three weeks.

To help solidify my assertions, I found that many of these songs perhaps first or sometimes only appeared on the Country charts. Initially no one was exactly sure where they belonged, but they sold records and the artists packed venues across the South and soon the Nation and beyond. Billboard had three different Country and Western charts that preceded the Hot 100 Country Songs that started in 1958 as did the Billboard Hot 100 Pop chart. It was in 1956 that non-traditional singers first appeared on the Top 50 C&W charts. So for 1956, the Year End Top 50 charts (I looked at all three) show Elvis with five songs in the top 10 and three more in the top 50, Johnny Cash had one in the top 10, plus two more and Carl Perkins had a plus one and Gene Vincent with just the one appearance.

In 1956 Elvis had his (and the first) #1 Country hit with “I Forgot to Remember to Forget” the week of February 25, followed by “Heartbreak Hotel” the week of April 7. This was one month before the latter reached #1 on the Pop chart. “I Want You, I Need You” was #1 in July and it later peaked at #3 on the Pop chart, “Don’t Be Cruel hit September 14 and it was #1 on the Pop Chart for seven weeks starting September 15. “Hound Dog” hit at the same time but peaked at #2 on October 6. Carl Perkins “Blue Suede Shoes” hit #1 the week of April 14 but peaked at #4 on the Pop Chart during its 14 weeks in the top 20. His “Boppin’ the Blues” would appear on the C&W year end chart as well. “I Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash was #1 on two of the charts, first on August 18, 1956, it would peak at #19 in November on the Pop chart. Vincent’s “Be Bop A Lula” peaked at #9 the week of August 4, though it did not make #1 it finished at #20 on the C&W Year End chart. While all of these songs crossed over to the Pop charts, they first gained popularity on the C&W charts.

As I talked about in my posts on Buddy Holly (with a Part 3 soon to follow), he was another artist that was singing Country Music before turning to Rockabilly and while he was releasing songs in 1956, his first hits arrived one year later in 1957. For a bit more on Rockabilly you can check out my post here.

I have tried to show that there was a significant relationship between Country and Rock, though I have left out a lot of artists and songs. Eventually the two genre would birth Country Rock. That post (Country Rock) that I published in the summer of 2019 remains one of my most popular and was the impetus to take a look at more connections.

References: 1. 2. 3, 4

12 thoughts on “A Little Bit Country, A Little Bit Rock ‘N Roll

  1. I always love reading your blogs, so much research and fun facts coupled with the nuanced connections between genres of music and artists. Keep them coming!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, that was interesting. You are very knowledgeable about music. I am not a big country fan but, occasionally I will listen. It is interesting that some rock songs first appeared on country charts. Who would’ve thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for checking it out. I have to say it’s more my ability to do research and connect the dots as I’m fond of saying. Your compliment is appreciated however! I actually didn’t realize how significant the country charts were until I went through them song by song.

      Like

  3. What a wonderful post Randy… a great bit of writing there.
    I can see the relationship between country and rock…it’s Folk that I have a hard time separating sometimes from country music. I have to wonder what would have happened if Hank Williams would have lived…what would he evolve to? Would he stay in country or mix folk, country, and a little rock and blues?
    You made a great timeline there….makes me appreciate what it took to get to where we are.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I hadn’t overly thought the emergence of rock as other than a fully fledged genre. It had to find its place, it had to twist and evolve from somewhere, and your post puts the transition nicely. I mean, nowadays there are charts for EverYthinG, but when a new genre takes flight, as in the trad staid early Fifties, where did/do you put it? Country? Jazz? Polka? I mean, Elvis and Lawrence Welk might have both sold by the bucketful, but to wildly different audiences. Hard enough to place them on the charts together, never mind share a stage!
    But, if it sells, you have to place it on some kinda charts, because the music stores want to make sure they don’t sell out. As always, money made the world go round.
    Sorry, Randy, this started as a foot note, turned into a wide-ranging ramble!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Tremendous job with this, Randy! Kudos! I always love reading histories dedicated to specific topics in music, and origin stories like this are always among my favorites – especially when it comes to how it’s all connected. Country, pop, rock … it’s really all one big melting pot at the end of the day, and there are more similarities than people sometimes realize!

    Liked by 1 person

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