Country music has evolved over its history, incorporating other genres of music such as folk, pop, and rock. Much of country music centers around guitars and strong vocals. Country songs range from bluesy ballads to upbeat tunes that are great for the dance floor.
This article explores the origins of country music and some of its most popular songs and singers.
Definition: What Is Country Music?
It is challenging to have a succinct country music definition since country music encompasses so many sub-genres. This style of music ranges from bluegrass to country pop to rockabilly.
While country music has changed since its early days, narrative structure has always been a crucial element. Country songs tell a story and create empathy in the listener.
Country Music Characteristics
Country music often includes the banjo, steel guitar, fiddles, and harmonicas as the primary instruments. The music uses repetition, simple chord structures, and lyrics that are easy to remember. Many country songs have a catchy chorus, and some singers are known for their twangy singing voices that come from Southern accents.
Storytelling is an elementary feature of country music, and the lyrics are often about everyday life, love, and loss. Many songs are about working-class or blue-collar jobs and related concerns inspired by the musician’s real life or people they know. There is an emotional and personal feeling to country music, which is why it resonates with so many people.
9 Examples of Country Music
The wide range of country music styles provides something for everyone to choose from. Some listeners prefer the country music of the 1940s, such as Hank Williams, while others prefer more modern pop-country like Kacey Musgraves.
This list will introduce you to some popular songs and different types of country music.
1. “Before He Cheats” by Carrie Underwood
This song by Carrie Underwood is a fun example of a pop-country song. “Before He Cheats” came out in 2006 and won a Grammy Award for Best Country Song in 2008. Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins wrote the song.
The lyrics talk about Underwood imagining her partner at a bar with another woman. She mocks both of them, singing about how the woman can’t handle her liquor and the man uses cheap bathroom cologne.
She decides to take revenge on him for cheating by destroying his vehicle. Underwood sings about keying his car and smashing his headlights. At the end of the song, she notes that if he cheats again, it won’t be on her.
“Before He Cheats” has all the elements of a great pop-country song. It has a catchy tune, memorable lyrics, and is excellent for karaoke!
2. “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” by Waylon Jenning and Willie Nelson
This 1978 song is a classic country tune written by husband and wife team Ed and Patsy Bruce. It won a Grammy Award for the Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group in 1979.
The duo sings about how mothers should not allow their little boys to become cowboys when they are older. Jennings and Nelson explain in the song how challenging that lifestyle can be.
The lyrics include references to loneliness, money woes, and always being on the road. It suggests that perhaps boys could choose a professional career that would offer them a better life.
This song has elements that are common to country music, such as the lyrics being easy to remember. The listener also feels empathy and puts themself in the position of the singer.
3. “Friends in Low Places” by Garth Brooks
Lee Earl Bud and Blackwell Dewayne wrote this popular country song. It is from Garth Brooks’ album No Fences. It won the Academy of Country Music Award for Single of the Year in 1990.
At the beginning of the song, Brooks sings about showing up at a fancy event that his ex is at with her new beau. The title is a play on the expression “friends in high places,” which refers to the elite.
Brooks sings that he doesn’t need her or her rich friends and that he’ll be just fine with his own friends. The song is about a blue-collar man not fitting in with the more exclusive crowd and being okay with that. After leaving the event, the man goes to a bar and drinks away memories about his ex.
4. “Take Me Home Country Roads” by John Denver
This folk-country song by John Denver came out in 1971. The song’s composition began with husband and wife Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert. They came up with an idea for the song while driving along country roads.
Denver was involved with the writing of the song as well. He sings and plays guitar, while Danoff and Nivert provide backing vocals for the single.
Just as the title suggests, this song is about traveling home or the desire to return home. It’s about the feeling that your hometown has, the comfort that it brings, and the memories that it holds.
The lyrics reference West Virginia in particular; however, the thoughts and emotions of the song can all apply to any place you can get to along country roads. The song refers to West Virginia in the opening lyrics as “almost heaven,” which speaks to how strongly the writers felt about this place.
“Take Me Home Country Roads” talks about a feeling of belonging, which is common in many country songs. Many country music lyrics are about returning home after being away or being on the road.
5. “Tennessee Whiskey” by Chris Stapleton
Linda Hargrove and Dean Dillon wrote the country-blues song “Tennessee Whiskey.” It was first recorded in the 1980s by singer David Allan Coe, followed later by George Jones. In 2015, Chris Stapleton released his version of the song on his album Traveller.
At the Country Music Association Awards in 2015, Stapleton performed the song as a duet with Justin Timberlake. This was perhaps the most popular version of the song ever done.
This ballad is about a man who used to spend all of his time drinking at the bar. The lyrics explain that alcohol was the only thing that brought him any comfort in his life. He was alone and had no hope for his future.
The song goes on to say that he met a woman who changed his life. The lyrics imply that he no longer seeks out comfort from alcohol because she provides everything he needs. He compares her to the positive attributes that alcohol held for him.
6. “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash
One of Johnny Cash’s most popular songs, “Folsom Prison Blues,” is an excellent example of outlaw country music. Cash was inspired to write this song after watching a film about Folsom Prison in 1953. Though Cash never stayed at Folsom specifically, he did spend some time in jail.
He originally released the song in 1955, but it was his live 1968 version that was a big hit. He performed live at Folsom Prison to a group of inmates that you can hear in the background.
In the lyrics, a man is sitting in prison and can hear the sound of a train going by. He imagines people enjoying themselves on the train, while he is stuck inside the prison. He states that he killed a man, and thus, he knows that he isn’t free to do the things he would like to.
7. “Lyin’ Eyes” by The Eagles
This classic country song by The Eagles is from their album One of These Nights. Glenn Frey and Don Henley wrote it in 1975.
The song is about a married woman who is unhappy with her marriage. She wed when she was young and seems to have married for wealth. The lyrics explain how she lies to her husband and goes to see another man on the other side of town.
The woman in the song regrets the choices she made when she was young. She wants more from a relationship than what her husband can offer–she is looking for love and passion, which she tries to find with another man.
Many country songs are about relationships and infidelity, and “Lyin’ Eyes” is just one example of this topic.
8. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams
Hank Williams originally recorded this song in 1949, and it is said to be one of the saddest country songs ever written. Many fans believe that the lyrics were written by Williams, but some people dispute this claim. There are claims that someone named Paul Gilley wrote the song and sold it to Williams.
Williams’ relationship with his wife Audrey may have also inspired the song, but this is up for debate just as much as the other theories about the song’s origin. They married in 1944 and had a rocky and unstable relationship until they divorced in 1952, which is why some fans think Williams was unhappy enough to write a song about the experience.
The song lyrics are intensely emotional and reference loneliness and a lack of hope. Listeners can hear the sadness and feelings of loss in Williams’ voice as he sings.
9. “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” by Soggy Bottom Boys
Originally written by Dick Burnett in 1913, this song is an excellent example of a country-folk song. The lyrics have changed in various covers of the song over the years. Bob Dylan recorded it in the 1960s, and it became popular again in 2000. The song was also on the soundtrack for the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou.
The film features the fictional group Soggy Bottom Boys, but Dan Tyminski is the one who actually performs it. Harley Allen and Pat Enright provided backup vocals for the song.
Some people say that the lyrics take inspiration from the epic poem The Odyssey, which was written by the ancient Greek poet Homer. The song talks about the suffering and misfortune that the man is experiencing throughout his life.
As he endures these trials, he looks forward to the promise of a reunion with his lover in the next world. While much of the content of the lyrics is depressing, the tune of the song is rather catchy and upbeat.
5 Top Country Music Musicians
Country music has seen several stars emerge every decade since the 1920s. Let’s take a look at five of the best country music musicians of all time.
1. Garth Brooks
With over 170 million albums sold, Garth Brooks is one of the best-selling country artists of all time. His ability to incorporate both pop and rock into his country music brought him great popularity in the 1990s.
Top hits by Garth Brooks include “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” “Unanswered Prayers,” “The Thunder Rolls,” and “The Dance.” His best-selling album was No Fences, released in 1990.
He has won 17 American Music Awards and two Grammy Awards over the course of his career. Brooks was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2012.
2. Alan Jackson
His famous honky tonk style makes Alan Jackson one of the most popular singers in country music. He reached the height of his fame during the 1990s.
His top album was released in 1992, entitled A Lot About Livin’ and a Little ‘Bout Love. Jackson’s hits include “Remember When,” “Chattahoochee,” “Gone Country,” and “Livin’ on Love.”
He has sold over 75 million albums, won two Grammy Awards, and received 16 Country Music Association Awards. In 2017, Jackson was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
3. Willie Nelson
Considered by some to be the face of outlaw country music, Willie Nelson’s career has spanned an incredible five decades.
Popular songs by Nelson include “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “On the Road Again,” “Always on My Mind,” and “Good Hearted Woman.” He rose to fame in the 1970s with his albums Shotgun Willie and Red Headed Stranger.
Nelson has sold over 40 million albums in the United States alone. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1993.
4. Randy Travis
Rising to fame during the 1980s, Randy Travis is known for his country music as well as his gospel tunes.
Some of his most popular hits include “Forever and Ever Amen,” “Deeper Than the Holler,” “On the Other Hand,” and “Three Wooden Crosses.” His best-selling albums included the 1986 Storms of Life and 1987’s Always & Forever.
Travis was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2016. He has won 11 Academy of Country Music Awards, seven Grammy Awards, and six Country Music Association Awards.
5. Reba McEntire
Called the Queen of Country, Reba McEntire is one of the top female country music artists. She has won the American Music Award for Favorite Country Female Artist a total of 12 times.
Her hits included “Does He Love You,” “Fancy,” “Is There Life Out There,” and “The Greatest Man I Never Knew.” One of her most popular albums was released in 1991, entitled For My Broken Heart.
In 2011, McEntire was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. She has been nominated for more Country Music Association Awards than any other female artist.
The History of Country Music
Country music has its beginnings in gospel, blues music, traditional western music, and cowboy songs. In the 1920s, country music began to emerge in many parts of the southern United States, including Texas, Alabama, and Louisiana.
During this time, one prominent artist was Jimmie Rodgers. In addition to playing the banjo and guitar, Rodgers was also a yodeler. James Gideon Tanner was another popular artist in the 1920s. He played the fiddle in a string band in Georgia. The Carter Family was a country band that started recording in the late 1920s. The band consisted of husband and wife A.P. and Sara, along with A.P.’s sister Maybelle.
In 1925, the Grand Ole Opry began, though at that time it was called the WSM Barn Dance. The Opry offered a way of showcasing country music artists on the radio as well as in live performances. The 1930s saw Gene Autry emerge as the “Singing Cowboy,” bringing more popularity to this style of music through his appearance in films.
The 1950s saw the emergence of the country music industry in Nashville, Tennessee. Nicknamed the Music City, Nashville is home to the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame. Many prominent country music artists got their start in the city and are celebrated each year at the Country Music Association Festival.
During the 1950s and 1960s, country music began to incorporate rock and roll into its style, resulting in what people called “rockabilly.” Elvis Presley was perhaps the most famous artist at this time, along with Johnny Cash. Other rockabilly artists included Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, and Roy Orbison.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, outlaw country artists became popular. Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson were some of the country stars of this era. In the 1990s, popular country music singers included Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and the Dixie Chicks.
Since the 2000s, country-pop has become a favorite subgenre of music, with stars like Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift appealing to a broad audience. We have also seen artists like Cowboy Troy, Ryan Upchurch, and Moonshine Bandits merge hip hop with country.
What is Country Music? Final Thoughts
From blues and gospel to pop and rock, country music incorporates a range of music styles to create something unique. With such a wide variety of country music available, there is something to suit everyone’s taste.