June 2021 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Will the Circle Be Unbroken? A Personal Commentary on the Cycle of Various Changes in Country Music

For some, country music appears to be a genre that hasn’t changed much over time – too often, there is a perception of it being pretty much the same, no matter what song or artist is on the playlist. But over the years, it really has changed – from the subjects of the songs to the styles to the variety and diversity of its influences. We’ve seen the “big bang” of early commercial country music at the 1927 Bristol Sessions with artists like Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, honky-tonk blues, the Nashville sound, outlaw country, traditionalists, and so much more.

Over the past decade or so, it feels like we’ve seen a conforming era in the sound of country music. As a country music fan, I can’t count how many times I’ve said or heard the words: “I don’t like new country music, only old country music.” When Taylor Swift emerged as a country artist, I was right there for it. I burned “Our Song,” “Tim McGraw,” and the Fearless album onto a CD as quick as I could. But after a while, Taylor Swift wasn’t so country anymore – and she wasn’t the only one. And so soon, I fell away from new artists because I felt like they were clinging too much to pop music, or really over-doing the country sound.

Within the last five years, however, I’ve once again started listening more and more to new country. Artists like Luke Combs, Kacey Musgraves, and most notably, Tyler Childers have become especially popular in country music. These artists seem to be moving towards a revival of that country sound I’ve been craving. They haven’t necessarily strayed away from a pop sound, but they don’t sing solely about the stereotypical boots, tractors, beer, and women either. For me, it feels like they’ve brought back the country sound with real emotion – from “Dime Store Cowgirl” and “Whitehouse Road” to “When It Rains It Pours.”

When I listen to these artists, I definitely feel the connection to 1990s country, which was a very successful decade for the genre. We saw unforgettable artists like Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, the Chicks, and many more come to the stage, and their legacy and music is still insanely popular almost 30 years later. Not only did the 1990s see these successful and “modernizing” artists, but there was also a roots revival in country music where some musicians hearkened back to earlier bluegrass and hillbilly stars and took a step away from a commercialized sound.

While we have seen numerous waves between the popularity of country-pop and traditional country, we can connect our dear fondness of that old-time sound to the 1927 Bristol Sessions and other early recording sessions of “hillbilly music.” The Bristol Sessions led to the mainstream commercialization of the traditional sound we’ve now been listening to for almost 100 years. When we’re relaxing outside on a hot summer day to the embrace of fiddles, tangy harmonies, and the sounds of music floating through the air, we must give credit to that foundational moment at the Bristol Sessions.

The box set cover has the title "The Bristol Sessions: The Big Bang of Country Music, 1927-1928 at the top with an image of the Bristol sign and State Street, probably in the 1930s or 1940s.
Cover of The Bristol Sessions box set from Bear Family Records.

So, how does this compare to what we are experiencing today in country music? While I think we do find ourselves within the roots revival and traditional influences of the genre, we also have to look at how society is today – we naturally have major divisions in the genre over the sound that is created and viewed as “country,” but now we also have divisions within politics and social activism that are also being expressed through music. We also have greater technological advances that allow the industry to produce many different styles of country music, even some we might not have heard before.

And so, for me, I think as the cycle continues to go on, we will never see exact repeats and can never exactly compare one cycle to a previous one, but we will always have the influence of country music’s history as part of this wonderful musical story.

* Title images: The Carter Family (courtesy of Dale Jett); Garth Brooks (Fatherspoon); Kacey Musgraves (BruceC007)

Caitlyn Carter is an honors student and psychology major at Western Carolina University. She is a fan of country music and enjoys exploring different trends of the genre between decades.

June Carter Cash: A Life in Country Music

Today – June 23 – is June Carter Cash’s birthday. At the age of 10, Valerie June Carter stepped in front of the mic for the first time with The Carter Family, and from there her role and legacy in the musical realm only grew stronger.

This image shows a senior class spread from a yearbook. June Carter is seen on the right-hand page in the bottom right of four student photographs. She is wearing a light colored top or dress. At the bottom of the picture is her autograph, which reads: "Luck, June Carter / Valerie June Carter Cash." To the left of the four photographs are the names of the students with their activities listed below their names.
Before she became a full-time performer and country music icon, June was your typical high school senior. This yearbook hinted at her musical career in the clubs and activities she participated in, including girls’ chorus and choir, but also in the later autograph she wrote on her senior portrait photograph after she was famous!

June Carter was born into the “first family of country music,” as one of three daughters of Ezra and Maybelle Carter, and she came into this world just two years after the famous 1927 Bristol Sessions, where The Carter Family recorded for the very first time. June lived the majority of her life in the spotlight – after the original Carter Family disbanded in 1943, she (at the age of 14), along with sisters Helen and Anita, began singing as part of the family’s professional act, Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. Even though they gained a lot of popularity under that name, Maybelle changed the band’s name to The Carter Family two years after A. P. Carter died in 1960. They released their first album, The Carter Family Album, on Liberty Records soon after. June also got a solo deal while preforming with the Carter Sisters.

The Carter Family Album cover is a reddish-orange color with a leather bound, old photograph album shown in the center. The photograph album is labeled with the record's title "The Carter Family Album" and has an oval picture of Mother Maybelle, June, Anita, and Helen in the center.

The cover of The Carter Family Album has the look of an old family photograph album.

June played many instruments including the harmonica, banjo, guitar, and autoharp. Not only did she have a solo career and a career with her family group, but she also had a career with her third husband, Johnny Cash. Together they won a Grammy in 1967 and 1970, and June also won three Grammys of her own, two of which she won after she passed away in 2003. That same year Country Music Television (CMT) included June on their “40 Greatest Women of Country Music” list.

June’s marriages connected to important musical legacies. Her first marriage was to Carl Smith, one of the most successful male country artists in the 1950s. Before June and Carl got divorced, they had one daughter, Rebecca Carlene, together. Today Carlene Carter is a singer-songwriter who is continuing the county music family legacy – her most recent album Carter Girl, is filled with three generations of Carter Family music. Carlene performed at the grand opening of the museum in 2014 too! You can read Carlene’s tribute to her mother on the blog here.

June married Johnny Cash, the “man in black” himself, in 1968, and they were together until June’s death in May 2003. June and Johnny were introduced to each other backstage at the Grand Ole Opry in 1965, though each of them was aware of the other through their music. In the years before they got married, June and Johnny performed and recorded together several times. June co-wrote “Ring of Fire,” which became one of Johnny’s most famous songs and topped the charts for seven weeks. Together Johnny and June had one son, John Carter Cash, who is also continuing the country music legacy of his family as a record producer and singer-songwriter.

Unlike her first and last unions, June’s second marriage – to Edwin “Rip” Nix – was not a marriage of two musical stars. Nix was a football player, racecar driver, and police officer, but their daughter Rosie also became a singer-songwriter. Sadly, she passed away in 2003, the same year as her mother, from carbon monoxide poisoning.

From the beginnings of the original Carter Family with Maybelle, Sara, and A. P. to June’s career as a country music icon to June’s children following in her and their grandmother’s footsteps, the lineage of Carter country musicians has strong roots and branches – a family born into, raised by, and innovating country music.

Julia Underkoffler is a summer intern at the Birthplace of Country Music. She is a rising senior at Shepherd University in West Virginia, majoring in historic preservation and public history and minoring in gender and women’s studies.

Radio Bristol Book Club: Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers

Welcome to Radio Bristol Book Club where readers from BCM and the Bristol Public Library come together each month to celebrate and explore books inspired by our region’s rich Appalachian cultural and musical heritage! We invite you to read along and then listen to Radio Bristol on the fourth Thursday of each month at 12:00 noon when we dig deep into the themes and questions raised by the books, learn more about the authors, and celebrate the joys of being a bookworm!

June’s book, Satan is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers, is a memoir written by Charlie Louvin with Benjamin Whitmer and with a moving foreword by Kris Kristofferson. This is the incredible story of a musical career started by two brothers, Charlie and Ira, who were born in the Appalachian mountains of Alabama. The brothers learned their harmony-style singing through the “Sacred Harp” tradition of the Baptist Church. They both started out singing gospel music, but added secular music into their repertoire later in their career.

The cover of the book is iconic because it is also the cover art from an album they released in 1959 of the same name. It features the figure of Satan made of plywood and paint and created by the brothers themselves; the Louvins are singing in the foreground with fire raging all around them. This cover is metaphor, reflecting some of the things the brothers must have really felt in their lives – Ira dealt with several demons during his life including alcohol and depression, and while Charlie surely fought with some of his own demons too, he was considered a “God-fearing and church-going” man. One fine example of what this book has to offer along those lines is the story about the attempted murder of Ira; his wife shot him six times after he tried to strangle her with a telephone cord, and he survived. Ira’s wife told the police “if that sonofabitch isn’t dead, I’ll shoot him again.” Music, mayhem, mandolins, and a very talented brother duo – what’s not to like?

The book cover shows a tall grinning Satan figure in the background, surrounded by fire, with the two Louvin Brothers in white suits and black ties singing in the foreground.

Charlie Louvin was born July 7, 1927 in Henagar, Alabama. As a teen, he began to sing with his brother Ira as part of a local radio program in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The brothers sang a mix of traditional and gospel music in a style that they had learned while in their church choir, blending rich harmonies together. After Charlie served for a brief time in World War II, he and Ira moved from Knoxville to Memphis working as postal clerks during the day and making musical appearances in the evenings. Once again, Charlie left to serve in the military, this time in the Korean War, and the brothers then relocated to Birmingham, Alabama.

The Louvins were gospel musicians, but they were later convinced by one of their sponsors that “you can’t sell tobacco with gospel music,” and they began to add secular music into their sets. They made appearances at the Grand Ole Opry and became official members in 1955. The Louvins released several singles, and over 20 of these reached the country music charts. Their harmonic style served to influence future artists such as Emmylou Harris (whom Charlie later played alongside in September 2010) and The Byrds. The brothers split up in 1963, and Ira died of a car crash in 1965. In 2001 the Louvin Brothers were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Charlie Louvin worked on rebuilding his career in the early 2000s working on classic songs, a new song that was a tribute to Ira, and gospel numbers. Charlie continued to make music and appearances until he underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer. Louvin died from complications six months after surgery in his Wartrace, Tennessee, home on January 26, 2011. He was 83 years old.

 Charlie Louvin sings at a mic labeled WSM/Grand Ole Opry at center stage with other musicians and equipment around and behind him. He is wearing grey pants, a white shirt and Stetson, and a blue blazer.
Charlie Louvin performing on the Grand Ole Opry stage. Image from Wikimedia Commons, author: Cliff

Please make plans to join us on Thursday, June 24 at 12:00pm for the Radio Bristol Book Club readers’ reactions to Satan is Real, which will be followed with an interview with Brett Steele, Charlie Louvin’s former manager! You can find us on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app. The book is available at the Bristol Public Library so be sure to pick up a copy and read it ahead of time. The librarians will be happy to help you find the book. We look forward to sharing our discussion on this fascinating memoir. And if you have thoughts or questions about this book that you would like to share with our readers – and our listeners – you can email info@birthplaceofcountrymusic.org (Subject line: Radio Bristol Book Club), and your book insights might appear on air with us!

Looking ahead: Our book pick for July is Sharyn McCrumb’s Appalachia by Sharyn McCrumb; we’ll be discussing it on Thursday, July 22. Check out our full list of 2021 Radio Bristol Book Club picks here, where you can also listen to archived shows!