Hillbilly Records & Early Country Music


In the 1920s and ‘30s, a number of factors came together to indelibly shape American popular music. From the work of folk music collectors searching for traditional music and record executives scouting for marketable talent in the rural South and West, a new category of music – Hillbilly Records – emerged. The various influences on hillbilly music, including diverse musical styles, had lasting effects on later country music and folk revivals.


            Many scholars and musicians consider the beginning of country music to have started in July-August 1927, in Bristol, Tennessee (on the Virginia border), when record executive Ralph Peer spent two weeks scouting and recording local talent for Victor Records. Out of these Bristol Sessions, the Carter Family (from the Clinch Mountains of Virginia) and Jimmie Rodgers (originally from Meridian, Mississippi) became superstars, with many subsequent country musicians imitating their style and furthering their legacy.
            However, the roots of country can be traced earlier, with a variety of musical and non-musical influences. “Hillbilly Records” – music that was marketed to rural, white southern audiences – had emerged as early as 1923, when Ralph Peer recorded Fiddlin’ John Carson of Georgia for Okeh Records. Record companies as well as radio stations, such as WSM Nashville with their Grand Ole Opry program, scouted for and promoted this music, which reached audiences not only in the south but across the country.
            Musical influences on hillbilly music were many and varied, ranging from 19th century popular songs, minstrelsy, religious hymns and African-American blues to traditional British ballads. In fact, folk song collectors such as Cecil Sharp and John Lomax helped to associate this music with the cradle of American folk music, as they identified traditional music in remote areas of the Appalachian Mountains and among cowboys of the southwest.
            In spite of the Great Depression, the popularity of hillbilly music continued through the 1930s, especially on radio, and by the 1940s the genre was called Country and Western. Musicians continued to innovate new sounds based on southern and western musical cultures, as heard in the cowboy music of Gene Autry, Bill Monroe and bluegrass, and country stars up to the present day. The roots of country also became the basis of the folk revival movement, stemming from Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and others.

Exploration Questions

  • In what ways is hillbilly or early country music a musical hybrid? What were some streams of musical influence?
  • How did the Carter’s Family musical style, repertoire and image represent elements of home and family?
  • How was Jimmie Rodgers and his music depicted? What were some of the musical characteristics of his Blue Yodels?
  • Who were some hillbilly or early country musicians after Bristol, and what directions did their music take?

Reflective Questions

  • In what ways did record companies or folk music scholars create the image of the Hillbilly musician? How did the commercial music labels further socio-economic and racial stereotypes?
  • How did the roots of country music help shape the rolk revival of the 1950s and 1960s? Or other musical genres and styles, such as rock n’ roll?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading & Listening

  • Malone, Bill C. and Tracey E. W. Laird. Country Music, U.S.A.: 50th Anniversary Edition.
    Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018. 768 pages. First published in 1968, this history traces American country music from folk roots in the rural South, early recordings and radio, and into the present day.
    Click here to order
  • MacMahon, Bernard and Allison McGourty (with Elijah Wald). American Epic: When
    Music Gave America Her Voice. New York: Touchstone, 2017. 288 pages. This is the companion book to the PBS and BBC documentary series about American roots music, and includes archival photos, interviews with musicians, and other historical recollections.
    Click here to order