'Hillbilly' Music: Billboard Debuted Country Hits For The First Time
Today's country and rock music owe their beginnings to "hillbilly" music. (Photo by D. Corson/ClassicStock/Getty Images)
For a long time, country music (or "hillbilly" music, as it was originally called) was stereotyped as a lower art form, but the "hillbilly" sound signified a rich culture that birthed some of the world's best songwriters and musicians. That's why, on this day in 1939, Billboard debuted its "Hillbilly Hits" chart, highlighting the smash singles of the genre. Let's look at the origins of "hillbilly" music and how it moved from the porches of Appalachia to mainstream America after it hit the Billboard charts.
What Is A Hillbilly?
The term "hillbilly" dates back to at least 1892, originating as a derogatory word for a person from a certain region of the American South who was assumed to be impoverished and uneducated. The "hill" part of the term was a nod to the hilly regions of Appalachia and the Ozarks, while the "billy" was most likely added because it was a generic name that conveniently rhymed. According to one reference from 1900, a hillbilly was a Southerner who "had no means to speak of, dressed how he could, talked how he pleased, drank whiskey whenever he wanted, and fired his gun whenever the fancy took him." The term became widespread after the well-publicized feud between the Hatfields and McCoys in the late 1800s informed the rest of the country about the lifestyles of rural hill people.
Entertainment Born Of Isolation
Many areas of rural Appalachia were settled by immigrants from Scotland. In their isolated communities, they entertained each other by performing folk music from their native land, which was usually played on fiddles as well as improvised instruments like washboards and banjos. As more tunes were written to capture the realities of life in these early American communities, this style of music grew and evolved in relative isolation, without too many influences from other musical genres (a notable exception being the blues of the Deep South).
Hillbilly And The Radio
The widespread popularity of radio was the single most important factor in introducing the rest of the country to the unique sounds of hillbilly music. In the 1920s, radio stations were eager to fill the airways with content, especially content that would attract listeners and advertising dollars. They looked at alternative sources of music to broadcast on their stations, and the hillbilly music of the South caught their attention.
Fiddlin' John Carson
Fiddlin' John Carson (not to be confused with Johnny Carson of The Tonight Show fame) emerged as a leader of the hillbilly genre in the 1920s. He is credited with recording the genre's first hit record, which included "The Little Log Cabin in the Lane" on one side and "The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster's Going to Crow" on the other, back in June 1923. The tunes were an instant hit, so he followed them up with "You Will Never Miss Your Mother Until She Is Gone" and "Old Joe Clark." Carson couldn't read music—in fact, he couldn't read at all—but he penned and recorded more than 150 songs in the 1920s and 1930s.
The Rise Of Hillbilly Music
Hillbilly music garnered a growing fan base in the 1920s and 1930s. In large Southern cities and even in the Midwest, radio stations dedicated to hillbilly music started popping up like crickets at a cookout. Others broadcast regular programs featuring live performances of many of the top hillbilly music artists of the time. Two of these radio programs—the Grand Ole Opry, which started in Nashville in 1925, and National Barn Dance, which started in Chicago in 1924—reached national audiences through syndication. The Carter Family, Jimmy Rodgers, and the Virginia Reelers were among the more popular acts.
Hillbilly Music and the Great Migration
During the Great Depression, many of the poor rural people of the South migrated to the industrial cities of the North, bringing with them their favorite music. As hillbilly musicians became exposed to popular Northern music (such as jazz) for the first time, their sound began to evolve, and the lyrics of this new hybrid sound reflected the new lifestyles of the city dwellers and factory workers.
The Rockabilly Sound
According to music legend, Arthur Smith's Hot Quintet was goofing around in the recording student one day in 1945 and ended up recording "Guitar Boogie," a fun, new, upbeat sound performed on the guitar. The accidental tune was a hit and inspired more guitar-based hillbilly style songs. Other musicians—such as Merle Travis, the Delmore Brothers, and Browns Ferry Four—further developed the sound that would influence Elvis Presley, Ike Turner, Hank Williams, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Hillbilly Gets Rebranded
Until 1949, a list of the top "Hillbilly Records" was released on a monthly basics by Billboard Magazine, but artists pushed to change the name of their genre from the derogatory "hillbilly" to the more accurate and less offensive "country and western." The name of the list was changed again to "Hot Country Singles" in 1962, allowing us to describe the music of Dolly Parton in terms that are both succinct and flattering enough to befit her.
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