The Country Roots of American Music

A double blessing: Rick Bragg’s writing with Jerry Lee Lewis as the subject.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.  I did not write to him, but he wrote to me last week.  He doesn’t necessarily know when I am sleeping or know when I am awake.  He does not necessarily base giving on whether we have been bad or good.  He gives graciously and kindly and unexpectedly.

My Christmas list was short and changing. Every time it rained, I asked for a new left windshield wiper.  Doubting Santa’s existence or maybe just his perception, I went ahead and bought the windshield wiper.  (It didn’t help at all, until I had my son Nate actually install it.)  The other item on my list was Rick Bragg’s new book.  Enough said.  Since I read All Over But the Shoutin’  a few years back, I have been hooked.

Rick Bragg, born just a few years after me, grew up rich.  Only it looked poor, really poor.  His mostly single mom, the subject of All Over But the Shoutin”, labored in the cotton fields and scrimped and struggled to raise her boys.  If being from a broken home or a rough environment qualifies a person for government aid and explains a life of crime, Rick Bragg would be bucking for parole about now.

But as Merle Haggard sings, “Mamma Tried.”  But in this case, a good and godly mom, along with good grandparents, and a heritage of surviving against odds resulted in the best writer in the South today.   The result is Rick Bragg and his all too short list of book titles and his delightful monthly article at the back of Southern Living magazine.  For manly readers shy of flipping through Southern Living, seeing Bragg in that magazine is kind of like attending a Sunday school class taught by William Faulkner.

In this case, Bragg steps out beyond, but not away from, family and writes about the legendary singer Jerry Lee Lewis.  The point being that poor, rural, struggling country folk of the South have their bards telling their stories, singing their hopes, fears, and failures, and reaching levels of success only dreamed of and depths of failure ever all too near.

By the way, Santa doesn’t live at the North Pole.  He lives in Franklin, Tennessee.  He loves God, family, church, and books, probably in that order.  So, I received an autographed copy of Rick Bragg’s Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story more than a month before Christmas and in time to make Thanksgiving even better.  Thanks Jason Parolini, a.k.a., Santa Claus.  (Strange to think of St. Nick having Italian heritage.)

Rick Bragg signs a copy of his new book, just like he did my copy!


Before I begin reading this book, which I am saving for the Christmas break, I want to survey the topic of country music and its growth from east to west across Tennessee.  This is not a complete analysis of country music’s growth and development, but it might unlock a key or two to understanding.  There will be three points, like Dickens’ three ghosts, to unveil the story.

East Tennessee:  “Carry Me Back to The Mountains”

Historians always keep finding deeper and deeper roots to events.  There is no complete explanation of country music without crossing back over the pond and trailing up through the glens and dales of Scotland.  Take my word for it and fast forward to Bristol, Tennessee in 1927.

Look to the upper right hand side of the state to find Bristol, the birthplace of country music.

Music was prevalent throughout rural America.  From Gospel hymns to barn dance tunes, people played fiddles, banjos, and guitars, tapped their feet to the rhythms, sang along, or danced to music.  Then came the development of recording devices.     A. P. Carter took his wife Sarah and sister-in-law Maybelle to Bristol to give this record making idea a try.  This trio created, developed, enriched, compiled, and defined country music.  They were super-stars in their day, with an impact that has yet to be diminished.  A. P. Carter traveled the countryside collecting songs.  Sarah was a defining singer with a mournful voice that echoed the pain of her listeners.  The most successful of the three, Maybelle Carter, developed a style of guitar picking known as “the Carter scratch.”  She re-organized the Carter family after Sarah, to use a term from the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, “runn-oft” and A. P. retired, depressed over his estranged wife.

Maybelle (seated left), A.P. (center), and Sarah Carter (seated right).


Mother Maybelle sang alongside her daughters.  In time, daughter June rescued and married Johnny Cash.  Hence the story goes on.

Another giant puzzle piece in the Bristol, Tennessee story is the recordings of the other super-star Jimmie Rogers.  The Mississippi Blue Yodeler, fighting off a death sentence by tuberculosis, sang songs of home, trains, love, lust, and life that inspired every country singer for at least 2 to 3 generations.  From Ernest Tubb in Texas to Hank Snow from Canada, young boys bought guitars, practiced yodeling, and plotted how to follow the pathways of the legend and hero, Jimmie Rogers.  His short, troubled life of sorrow was a metaphor of the hardships of life, largely self-imposed, endured by many a country singer, and not all that different from many of those who listened to the records.

Jimmie Rogers, the Singing Brakeman.


Middle Tennessee:  “There’s a Grand Ole Opry Show Playing Somewhere”

From the records going back to the days of the Carters, Jimmie Rogers, the Delmore Brothers, Vernon Dalhart, and others, to the next phase of country music, the radio became the Internet, iTunes, and Spotify of the age.  Barn dances went from being occasions to being set venues for entertainment.  Across the country, and not just in the south, weekend performances of country, or as it was often termed “hillbilly,” music was heard by many a battery-powered radio at nights in the hills, hollers, and valleys across rural America.  Even those who had gone to the city in search of better jobs found that yearning for home at least partially pacified by radio barn dance programs.

so much depends upon a red brick building echoing voices with ancient tones beside the star spangled WSM banners


In time, one show became the most famous of all.  It was a barn dance program on WSM in Nashville, Tennessee, that was performed at an old church building that was called the Ryman Auditorium.  The announcer, Judge George D. Hay, said one night at the beginning, “You have been listening to the Grand Opera, now stay tuned to listen to the Grand Ole Opry.”  The name stuck.  A legend began on November 28, 1925.  The Opry is the longest running radio program in America.  It is still the “Mother Church of Country Music”; it is still the longed-for starting point for the careers of singers;  it still defines a singer as truly country.  Many a singer pays homage to the Opry, even if only on occasion.

Memphis:  “Take That Night Train to Memphis”

Interstate Highway 40 between Memphis and Nashville is aptly term “Music Highway.”  You can’t travel that road without sensing the music legacy permeating that area.  (Honestly, can you pass the Carrol County sign without thinking of Porter Wagoner’s song?)  Memphis has its own rich and varied story about music.  Or its many stories.  The history of Memphis is more tied to the cotton culture of the old South; hence, it is more tied to slavery and the contours of the mixing of races and cultures in the South.  Just southeast of Memphis, in nearly Oxford, Mississippi, William Faulkner explored that interaction of races again and again.  Musically it manifested itself on Beale Street.

Memphis gave birth to the blues and to varieties of country music.  B.B. King and Elvis Presley are patron saints in the shrines in that town.  And then there was Sun Records.  It was here that musical careers, styles, and legends were begun.  Sun Records was where recording sessions were held featuring some young guys named Elvis, John R. Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley (seated at the piano), and Johnny Cash.


Thus my pre-review of Rick Bragg’s new book.



4 thoughts on “The Country Roots of American Music

  1. I was just given a copy of the new Bragg book–so, I too am looking forward to some great Christmas break reading. I may also have to bring out for rereading Donald Davidson’s novel about the origins of country music: “The Big Ballad Jamboree.”

  2. Ben,

    No, Santa Claus is not from Italy and the Reformation never made it there either, a land forsaken and forlorn. Not sure how I got here.
    Except to say, by the sovereign mercy of Almighty God who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. And now here I stand in the breadbasket of my beloved Tennessee, unwittingly smack dab in the middle of your tail of country music. Not sure how that happened either.

    Merry Christmas – Advent 2014


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