"There's a Contest Coming
and a Ticket to Nashville":
Hillbillies on the Radio


Traditional rural music was first recorded and marketed in 1923 in Atlanta, GA and was not known as "Country and Western" until the '30s and '40s. At the time, record companies were looking to diversify their offerings to compete with radio stations, which played the same popular music that the companies were selling for free. As more stations opened, the companies sought to record alternatives to the popular and sentimental songs. Polk Brockman at Okeh Records in Atlanta saw a new market in the poor blacks and whites rural refugees moving to the city. He had worked for his family's furniture store (radios were being sold there at that time) and had realized that as jazz and blues records were released more poor blacks were purchasing phonographs, which did not run on electricity, and sought to capitalize on their white counterparts. In 1923, Brockman first recorded Fiddlin' John Carson, who performed regularly on Atlanta's WSB (the first high power station in the South); Brockman declared that the songs were "awful" and only pressed 500 copies. When they sold out in a matter of days, he released 1000 more copies which also sold in a few days. Brockman had the engineers at Okeh build portable recording devices so that he and his sometime partner Ralph Peer could scour the backwoods for new talent (Peer eventually left for Victor RCA and signed both Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family). At the same time, Southern radio stations were showing interest because fiddlers like Carson were flexible and could play for as long or as little as was necessary between set shows, and they were not unionized so they did not have to be paid. WSB never developed a regular show around old-time music; the first radio Barn Dance was on Dallas, TX's WBAP in 1923.

"Old-time" or "hillbilly" music would not have been popularized without the attention of record companies and the radio. At the time, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) and the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) which controlled the music publishing houses and the live music industry, respectively, barred rural, blues, and jazz musicians from membership, effectively keeping them from performing or publishing their works professionally. Consequently most old-time performers were semi-professionals who combined performing at barn-dances, medicine shows, music contests, political rallies, etc. with whatever sort of work they could find.

When Brockman made his discovery, he began to transform the way traditional music was thought of. Most rural performers collected melodies and pieces of songs and made them their own, simply by knowing and playing them. As songs were recorded and copyrighted, executives began to encourage their acts to write new "old-sounding" songs so that they would not have to pay to use copyrighted material; these ballads could also be recorded by popular artists and the companies could collect those royalties too. They also began to commission songs, especially topical "story songs" tragedies. One of Brockman's biggest finds here was Andrew Jenkins, a blind newsboy, who wrote "The Death of Floyd Collins" for Brockman who had both Joe Carson and a popular crooner record it.

By 1925, Brockman's tiny empire was falling apart. He relied on a combination of air-play, barn-storming, and records for publicity, but a greater emphasis was being placed on recording and his talent could not produce enough original material. To obtain a copyright, songs had to fit a certain structure and therefore extended fiddle breakdowns could not be copyrighted. Traditional songs had also been strip-mined, and so there was more of a demand for new compositions. By 1929 about 3500 "old-time" records had been released; between 1925-31

The Carter Family

out of Columbia Records' "Familiar Tunes- Old and New" catalogue about half the old-time records released were traditional songs, but the number of original compositions doubled from 12% to 24%. Carson, especially, was used to learning a few songs and could not adjust to new material quickly. Carson and the others were being replaced by the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and Vernon Dalhart, a classically trained singer who recorded crooner pop hits, "Negro dialect" songs, and old-time songs. These new performers were able to write new material that sounded traditional and were able to quickly pick up new songs and initialize them.

Ralph Peer had quit Okeh Records and in 1925 went to work for Victor RCA for $1 a year on the condition that he could retain the copyright to all the works he recorded. He built the company around royalties, refusing to pay for material; he shared the copyright with the artist, paid them a performance fee, and split the royalties with them. He also forged an alliance with sheet music publishers, who though disdainful of old-time music preferred its ballads and love songs to jazz dance songs which could not be published. In 1927, he traveled to Bristol, TN where he signed and recorded both the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, the two most successful old-time performers of the '20s. The Carters and Rodgers continued to sell well into the '30s, but when the Depression hit record sales fell from $75 million in 1929 to $6 million in 1933 old-time music. Radio re-emerged as the primary vehicle for old-time music.

Uncle Jimmy Thompson on WSM

The first radio barn dance began in 1923, but it was Nashville's WSM's Grand Ole Opry and Chicago's WLS's National Barn Dance that really transformed the old-time style into Country & Western. WLS began what would be there National Barn Dance in 1924, and in 1925, WSM began a regular Saturday-evening show featuring the fiddler Uncle Jimmy Thompson, but his unadorned fiddling did not play well over the air-waves. WLS's program originally had just a string band and a square dance caller, but by 1926 WLS had adopted the "barn dance" name, but little of the music would have been heard at a true barn dance; the program was a rustic variety show. In 1933, the National Barn Dance began broadcasting nationally on NBC's Blue Channel featuring a mixture of traditional ballads, sentimental songs, a ballroom dance orchestra, and performers like Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, and Olaf the Swede, who sang popular tunes with a Swedish accent. George Hay came to WSM from WLS to produce the Grand Ole Opry, and in 1928 WSM was assigned a national clear channel so they could be heard across the country. At that time, the Grand Ole Opry placed a greater emphasis on old-time string bands than their rival, but through the '30s they began to include more pop vocalists, comedy teams, and western swing bands. These types of shows pushed old-time music away from the loud, nasal vocals of Roy Acuff and added an emphasis on popular crooning because the crooning sounded better coming through the microphones- mixing the hard-core and soft-shell styles we now associate with Country & Western. The variety shows also encouraged acts to specialize and do only one sort of song, making it easier to sequence the show.


Hillbillies on the Radio | Country & Western | A National Culture?

The Carter Family | Bill Monroe | Roy Acuff | Woody Guthrie