Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Southern white rural music, subsequently called "hillbilly" in the 1920s and "country" in the late 1940s, evolved from the reservoir of folk music brought to North America by Anglo-Celtic immigrants and West African slaves. In its embryonic stages the music was marked by several vocal and instrumental characteristics that had been transplanted to colonial America. A large part of the early country music repertoire was derived from the vast body of Anglo-Scottish-Irish ballads that existed during the colonial period. Compilations of ballads that indicate many of them diffused westward to the Great Plains include John A. Lomax's Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (1910) and William A. Owens's Texas Folk Songs (1950).

Historically associated with the Great Plains are two major country music instruments: fiddle and guitar. The fiddle probably entered the Great Plains with the Lewis and Clark expedition. It was an ideal frontier instrument and, in fact, was often referred to in the nineteenth century as the "royal instrument of the frontier." People moving westward into the Great Plains states carried the small, compact fiddle in their wagons or in their saddlebags. The fiddler could generally be heard anywhere a crowd gathered, including political rallies, militia musters, housewarmings, barn raisings, and fiddle contests.

Fiddlin' Eck Robertson from Amarillo, Texas, who recorded in the 1920s, was one of the first country musicians. Robertson, long known for his fiddling prowess at Texas fiddle contests, recorded "Sally Goodin" for the Victor Company of New York in 1923. Robertson played the song on the WBAP radio barn dance program in Fort Worth about a year later. The WBAP Barn Dance lays claim to having produced one of the first radio barn dance programs in the United States, about a year before the WLS (Chicago) National Barn Dance and almost three years before the WSM(Nashville) Grand Ole Opry.

Most musicologists agree that the guitar filtered northward from Mexico into Texas, where rural blacks mastered the instrument. Long associated with country blues, the guitar spread from the Texas cotton fields eastward to other sections of the Lowland South, especially with the increased migrations of freed blacks following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.

Seven substyles of country music emerged during the twentieth century. Four of these originated in the Great Plains states of Texas and Oklahoma: singing cowboy, western swing, honky-tonk, and country rock. The first singing cowboy song to draw national attention was "Home on the Range," created in Kansas in 1873 by Dr. Brewster Higley, a homesteader in Smith County who wrote the words, and Dan Kelly, who lived near Harlan in the same county and composed the music. The first of the singing cowboy stylists were Carl T. Sprague, Goebel Reeves, and Jules Verne Allen, all from Texas. The songs they performed were based on numerous ballads written in the nineteenth century by authentic cowboys while they sat around the campfire or rested in the bunkhouse. Examples include "When the Work's All Done This Fall," "The Cowboy's Prayer," and "Following the Cow Trail." Texas also produced the singing cowboy performers who made the substyle nationally popular— Gene Autry and Woodward Maurice Ritter, better known as "Tex."

Western swing began to evolve in the late 1920s, when Bob Wills (from Kosse, Texas) organized the Wills Fiddle Band and Milton Brown (from Stephenville, Texas) developed the Musical Brownies, both in Fort Worth. The city soon gained a reputation as the "cradle of western swing" because the musicians were from the vicinity and local radio stations were promoting the new sound. After moving to Tulsa in the mid-1930s, Wills made country music history by adding reeds and brass to his band, which then numbered from fifteen to eighteen pieces. Other distinctive instrumental ingredients included multiple fiddles playing harmony; a strong rhythm section composed of drums, bass, and tenor banjo; and the jazzlike improvisation of the steel guitar. Wills created western swing for dancing, and it became the big band sound of the 1930s applied to country music.

After the repeal of Prohibition, hundreds of rural musicians found employment in the bars, roadhouses, and taverns of Texas and Oklahoma. These social institutions, collectively referred to as honky-tonks, were frequented by farmers, truck drivers, and oil field roustabouts who gathered to relax, drink beer, and release their frustration with a round of "hell raising." These activities were coupled with listening and dancing to music. To prevail over the rowdy clientele, the music became louder, and a steady, heavy beat was necessary for dancing. Although many honky-tonkers danced, the substyle was essentially lyric oriented and aimed at working-class listeners. Lyrical content typically dealt with the listener's problems, including drink, illicit love, and divorce. Frequently termed "cryin' in your beer" or "tear in your beer" music, honkytonk titles included "Divorce Me C.O.D.," "Honky Tonk Blues," and "It Makes No Difference Now." Texans, including Al Dexter, Ted Daffan, Moon Mullican, and preeminently Ernest Tubb, were in the forefront in legitimizing honky-tonk in the 1930s. Later, honky-tonk was further popularized by Texans such as Ray Price, George Jones, and Lefty Frizzell.

Country rock, also known as "redneck rock," "country counterculture," and "progressive country," was first centered in Austin, Texas, especially at the Armadillo World Headquarters, founded in 1970 in an old National Guard armory. It increasingly featured country entertainers, especially Texas musicians, who appealed to both country and rock audiences, including Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys, Frieda and the Firedogs, and Asleep at the Wheel. Two native-born Texans, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, returned to Austin in the 1970s to lead the "Austin Sound" movement. Because of their laid-back lifestyle and exposure to a number of musical cultures, both Waylon and Willie were receptive to the rock forms and musicians already on the Austin scene.

Oklahoma and Texas have been the most prolific Great Plains states in the production of country music performers and composers. According to recent biographical data, Texas ranks first in total production, with more than 100 artists, while Oklahoma has spawned more than 60, ranking it fourth after Texas, Kentucky, and Tennessee in terms of per capita output.

One of the major pioneers in country music vocals was Vernon Dalhart (Marion Slaughter) from Jefferson, Texas. Slaughter, in searching for a stage name, took the names of two Texas towns. Dalhart is noted for recording the first country music megahit in 1924, "The Prisoner's Song" and "Wreck of the Old '97," which became the biggest selling record (estimated at six million)for the Victor Company during the preelectric recording period. In addition to the Texans who contributed to the singing cowboy, western swing, honky-tonk, and country rock genres of country music, the list of Texas country artists is impressive, including Mickey Gilley, Kris Kristofferson, Kenny Rogers, Barbara and Louise Mandrell, Jim Reeves, Buck Owens, Hank Thompson, Tanya Tucker, Don Williams, Johnny Rodriguez, Larry Gatlin, and Janie Fricke.

Moreover, the state continues to produce new talent such as Ronnie Dunn of Brooks and Dunn, Collin Raye, Lee Roy Parnell, Ty Herndon, Tracy Byrd, Junior Brown, Clay Walker, LeAnn Rimes, Lyle Lovett, Neal McCoy, Tracy Lawrence, Mark Chestnutt, George Strait, and Clint Black.

Overlooked country music artists born in Oklahoma include Spade Cooley, known as the King of Western Swing, who reportedly fronted the largest band ever assembled in country music; Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys, one of the most important groups in the commercialization of country music; and two African American performers and songwriters, Big Al Downing and Stoney Edwards. Several Oklahoma-born women vied for the title of Queen of Country Music during the 1960s, when women were finally beginning to achieve equal status with males: Molly Bee, Wanda Jackson, Norma Jean, Bonnie Owens, and Jeanie Shepherd. In addition to the recent megastars Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, and Reba McEntire, Oklahoma has produced a cadre of new artists such as Joe Diffie, Wade Hayes, Toby Keith, and Bryan White.

Kansas-born country artists include Carson J. Robison (Oswego), one of the pioneer songwriters of the 1920s. His compositions include "My Blue Ridge Mountain Home," "The Wreck of the Number Nine," and "Naomi Wise." Robison's lifelong career in the songwriting business culminated in the 1948 hit, "Life Gets Teejus Don't It." Border radio station entrepreneur and bogus physician Dr. John Richard Brinkley started his first radio station in Milford, Kansas, in 1923. Brinkley's major contribution to country music was his employment of several hillbilly music performers on his station such as Uncle Bob Larkin as well as the use of a hillbilly band in his races for governor of Kansas in 1930 and 1932. Wendell Hall of St. George was one of the first hillbilly singers to sell a million records with his 1923 recording of "It Ain't Gonna Rain No More." Coffeyville's Rodney Lay is best known for his songwriting talents with compositions such as "He's Got a Way with Women," "Seven Days Come Sunday," and "You Could've Heard a Heartbreak." Harry "Hap" Peebles was born in Anthony and promoted artists such as Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, and Dolly Parton, served on the Country Music Association CMA board of directors for sixteen years, and received the first Promoter of the Year Award from the CMA. The newest country artist from Kansas is Martina McBride from Sharon. Her 1990s hits include "My Baby Loves Me" and "Independence Day."

Tompall and the Glaser Brothers, a family group from Spalding that operated off and on from the 1950s to the 1980s, is the best-known country act from Nebraska. Beginning their career on local radio and television stations in Hastings and Holdredge, the group first appeared on the Grand Ole Opry in 1960. In 1968 the brothers opened their own recording studio in Nashville, which became the unofficial headquarters for the flourishing outlaw music movement. Named vocal group of the year in 1971 by the CMA and vocal group of the decade in 1974 by Record World, they scored their biggest success in 1981 with "Lovin' Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'fll Ever Do Again)."

Grand Forks, North Dakota, boasts one of the most celebrated female country artists of the 1970s. Lynn Anderson's "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden" (1970) topped both country and pop charts and won her the title of best female vocalist in 1971 by the CMA. This Grammy Award winner was voted country artist of the decade by Record World magazine for her string of number one hits in the 1970s, including the aforementioned "Rose Garden," "You're My Man" (1971), "How Can I Unlove You" (1972), "Keep Me in Mind" (1974), and "What a Man, My Man Is" (1975).

Montana is the birthplace of two wellknown female country performers: Jana Jae of Great Falls and Nicolette Larson of Helena. Jae, often described as the First Lady of Country Fiddle, joined Buck Owens and the Buckaroos in the early 1970s and starred with her blue fiddle on the television show Hee Haw during the mid-1970s. Larson is best known for her duet with Steve Wariner on "That's How You Know When Love's Right," which won them vocal duet of the year in 1986 from both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music, and for her work with Neil Young.

Of the Canadian Great Plains provinces, Alberta has produced the only notable country music artists: k. d. lang and George Fox. Kathryn Dawn Lang, born in Consort, Alberta, was named the Canadian Country Music Association entertainer of the year in 1987, 1988, and 1989. Moreover, in 1987, 1988, and 1990 she was honored as the country female vocalist of the year with Juno Awards. Her album Shadowland (produced by the legendary Owen Bradley) went gold in 1988 and platinum in 1989 in Canada and gold in the United States in 1992. She has captured Grammy Awards in 1988 ("Crying") and 1990 Absolute Torch and Twang). A talented songwriter and vocalist, k. d. lang has played a major role in linking rock and country in a manner that has made country music more accessible to wider audiences. Fox, a native of Cochrane, Alberta, launched his career in country music in the late 1980s and early 1990s with hits such as "Long Distance," "Angelina," and "I Fell in Love & I Can't Get Out." During this time, he was the recipient of the Vista Rising Star Award, composer of the year, male vocalist of the year, and country artist of the year, all given by the Canadian Country Music Association. His albums include George Fox (1988),With All My Might (1989, Spice of Life(1991), and Mustang Heart (1993). As this full accounting shows, the Great Plains has long been a heartland of country music.

George O. Carney

Oklahoma State University

Carney, George O. "Country Music and the South: A Cultural Geography Perspective." Journal of Cultural Geography 1 (1980): 16–33.

Koster, Rick. Texas Music. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Malone, Bill C. Country Music, U.S.A. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985.

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