I Walk the Line

On August 4, 1927, Jimmie Rodgers—free of his entanglement with the Tenneva Ramblers—made his first recording as a solo act.  Commercial country music, which had been born, unheralded and unnoticed, on August 1, when the Carter Family made their first recordings, came into focus at that moment.  (The Tenneva Ramblers—free of their entanglement with Jimmie Rodgers—also made their first recordings that day; the future of country music was not affected.)

This new genre would be known as “folk” or “hillbilly” for its first 20 years and then, for 13 years, as “country and western,” before it finally settled in as “country music” in 1962.  As of July 31, 1927, though, it wasn’t at all clear what it was going to be, or even that it was going to be a genre of its own.

As of August 4, however, the parameters were there, even if nobody—not even Ralph Peer, who was midwifing a genre that he himself could see only in the most general terms—could discern them so soon.  The marketplace had yet to be heard from, and it was only after the Victor recordings from the Sessions were in record stores across the country; only after the sales figures came in to attest that the Carter Family and (especially) Jimmie Rodgers were going to be stars and (say) the Stoneman Family and Henry Whitter were not; and only after follow-up recordings by the Carters and Rodgers proved that neither was to be a flash in the pan, that the shape of country music would begin to become clear.

That shape, as it turned out, would be a line.  On August 1 the Carters had defined a point, and on August 4 Rodgers defined a second point.  The line between those two points would constitute a continuum, and that continuum would be called “country music.”

Many people, including myself, have wasted ink on attempting to define country music.  One working definition would be this:  If it’s anywhere on the continuum between Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, it’s country.  If it isn’t, it ain’t.


A Continuum Made Flesh:  Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family in 1931.

The breadth and richness of country music, from the late 1920s to the present day, is attributable to the fact that Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family were, in most ways that mattered, very different people.  On most of the key questions that would define country music in years to come, they came up with different answers—and, therefore, provided room enough between them to hold a whole genre of music.  If the breakout stars of the Bristol Sessions had been Rodgers and the Tenneva Ramblers, the differences between them would have been small and, at best, their kind of music would have constituted a niche.  Given a continuum, there was room between them for everyone from Roy Acuff to Taylor Swift, from Johnny Cash to Minnie Pearl.

It didn’t take a trained musicologist to realize that Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family were cut from different patterns.  Rodgers was a smoker, a drinker and a preening peacock who loved expensive suits, fast cars, beautiful women and elegant living; the Carters were abstemious, hard-working country people who would show up for a concert or a recording session wearing the same clothes they wore all the time.  Rodgers was glib, fast-talking and prone to exaggeration and hype; the Carters were quiet to the point of being curt, with only Maybelle ever learning anything like the art of publicity.  Rodgers strutted into his audition with Peer, dapper in an up-to-date suit and a jaunty boater, while the Carters went up the back fire escape at the Taylor-Christian Hat Company–according to Peer, because they didn’t want the city people in Bristol to see their old, plain clothes, though just as likely they wanted to avoid the crowd of wannabe recording stars gathered in front of the Taylor-Christian building.

It was those very differences, in their personalities and in their music, that constituted the continuum that would define country music.

Most obviously, the continuum between the Carters and Rodgers runs from country to pop.  The Carters started out singing old-time mountain ballads and blues songs, and they never strayed far from that.  They knew who they were, and didn’t concern themselves much with the competition.

Rodgers, on the other hand, never thought of himself as a country singer.  He sang some old songs at Bristol because that was what Peer was looking for, but he saw himself as competing with Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson and Rudy Vallee—with mainstream pop singers—not with Ernest V. Stoneman or the Carter Family.  Popular songs had been a big part of his repertoire before Bristol, and they stayed that way after Bristol.  The Carter Family would never have recorded the suggestive “Everybody Does It in Hawaii” (1929), for instance, but it fit right in with Rodgers’ broader repertoire.  Country was going to hear the siren song of pop music for generations to come, but it wouldn’t have to abandon the Rodgers legacy to move in that direction.

Another aspect of the continuum is from amateur to professional.  Other than Maybelle in her later years with Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, the Carters never acquired the veneer of show business.  Unlike most singers from poor backgrounds—for example, Jimmie Rodgers—they didn’t desert their roots and move to a posh new home.  The Carters had more money than they’d had earlier, but they stayed where they had always lived, dressed the way they’d always dressed and spent their time doing the things they’d always done.  They were simple country people who, now, took periodic breaks to be pop stars.

When Rodgers encountered them in 1931 at a recording session in Louisville, Kentucky, he must have been baffled.  Here he was in his natty suit and gleaming-gold jewelry, driving his latest top-of-the-line roadster, and here were the Carters looking like they still hadn’t made it to the Taylor-Christian Hat Company.

Professionalism is more than a lifestyle, however, and in terms of musicianship the Carters and Rodgers switched places on the spectrum.  Peer found Rodgers chaotic and unprepared, and would continue to do so until the singer’s death.  The Carters, on the other hand, were immaculately prepared, and always would be.  The tight, focused sound of their last recordings in 1941 is equally evident in their first recordings at Bristol.

“My father always said that what amazed him was that they were good,” Ralph Peer II recalled, “but they didn’t seem to know how good they were.”

Another obvious aspect of the continuum is from sacred to secular.  The Carters were church-going people whose records included scores of religious songs, while Rodgers’ 108 recorded songs include only one that mentions Jesus: a duet with the Carter Family.

Want more?  How about from male to female?  Sure, A.P. Carter was there, but he skipped 1/3 of the songs at Bristol and is absent from dozens of the other songs the Carters recorded over the next 14 years.  There are only a handful in which Sara and Maybelle aren’t heard.  Sara was the lead singer, and she and Maybelle were the heart of the only major female-centered act in country’s first quarter-century.  As for Jimmie Rodgers, well, weird yodel notwithstanding, there weren’t many country artists more masculine in their songs and their style.

Sincerity is another index of the continuum.  The Carters very occasionally sang a humorous song, but almost always their material was sober and serious to the point of gloom.  Even their upbeat theme song, “Keep on the Sunny Side” (1928), tells us, “Though the storm in its fury break today,/crushing hopes that we cherish so dear.”  Rodgers, by contrast, recorded plenty of comic songs, and there’s a jauntiness to even his most despairing songs that brings a smile to the listener’s face.

If it seems like, on most versions of the continuum, country music has moved in Rodgers’ direction, that’s true and not too surprising.  He’s not called “The Father of Country Music” for nothing.  For every one Roy Acuff who drew primarily on the Carter legacy, there were three Ernest Tubbs, Hank Snows and Hank Williamses for whom Jimmie Rodgers was the ideal.  By the early 1950s, as country basked in its so-called Golden Age, it was a professionalized, secular, male-centered genre which was already being pulled toward pop music as if by a magnet.  By the end of the decade, the Nashville Sound was rendering country unrecognizable, and those who revered the Carters’ legacy had dropped off the bandwagon and were listening to something called the folk revival.

However, while country has moved steadily toward Rodgers’ end of the continuum, the Carter end has retained its appeal to many of country’s biggest names, including Johnny Cash, Flatt & Scruggs, Emmylou Harris, Iris Dement and Alison Krauss.  It helped inspire the outlaw-country movement of the 1970s and 1980s, which was primarily a back-to-basics backlash against the poppified “Nashville Sound” country of the 1960s and 1970s.  It remains a commercial and aesthetic challenge to the forces that would pull country into the realm of pop, in the same way that the Rodgers legacy helps prevent country from becoming a musty, sentimental museum of its own past.

If the Carter Family alone, or if Jimmie Rodgers alone, had emerged from the Bristol Sessions into stardom, country would have been a niche in the broader realm of pop, as indeed it had been prior to the Sessions.  With two such different acts, working with the same producer and the same record label, country was clearly something different, something bigger.  Peer’s greatest discovery in Bristol, though he couldn’t know it at the time, was neither Rodgers nor the Carters, but rather the continuum between them.


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