Occasionally, you still hear someone say County & Western in reference to a music type. And, in a broad sense, that’s probably true.
Well past the 1960s and 1970s, it was common to hear C&W applied to a genre that was mostly performed with stringed instruments. Realistically, the split and attempts at distinction began sometime in the 1950s. Rock-n-Roll had a lot to do with that. There were some segments of C&W that sought to meld part of the R&R sound into country.
Pure Western music aficionados balked at that, opting for the true cowboy on the range sound as opposed to their perception of “real” country music being “hillbilly.” Much of the public felt the same way at that time.
While I grew up with the Grand Ole Opry and country music with generous helpings of gospel, my boyhood fixation with cowboys like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry linked me to the Western music. At some point I began to distinguish between them as my untrained yet discerning ear picked up obvious differences.
Some of my high school friends found out that I listened to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights and teased me, calling me “hillbilly.” The country genre was known, particularly among blue bloods and snobs, as hillbilly, because of the scooping lilts in the tunes. That sound was natural and from the hill folks of Ireland and Scotland that formed much of the basis for country music as we now know it.
The emergence of Nashville into the national mind brought new definition and recognition to country music. Then Nashville went Hollywood as record producers realized there was a giant untapped gold mine in songs with origins in the hills and mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee.
Of course, Hollywood underestimated some of the old country “heads” and folks like Chet Atkins, Roy Acuff and some lesser knowns established a strong recording presence in the country music capital. That move pushed the Western “away” from Country, branding it a purely Nashville invention and the country music entrepreneurs, including some big name artists, took over the recording and marketing end of the business.
Folks like singing cowboy movie legends Rogers and Autry were respected but pretty much ignored as forces in “country music.”
A side note: In the 1950s, the famed Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, booked big name C&W music stars to headline their show and to help promote it. One year it was Autry, a millionaire several times over through movies, music and investments. Autry had a propensity to drink a little whiskey and when he led the parade to open the Houston show, he fell off Champion, his “faithful” horse of the movies. That year, in its annual Press Capades show, the Houston Press Club had a guy do an impression of Autry and his theme song, “I’m Back in the Saddle Again,” with the slight title and lyrics change to “I’m Back on the Bottle Again.”
Texas developed its own brand of Country and/or Western with the “outlaw” movement from Nashville to Austin by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Steve Fromholz, Emmy Lou Harris and Alvin Crow among others. Their venue there was the famed Armadillo World Headquarters.
Some popular groups brought their own unique sound to C or W: Sons of the Pioneers, Riders in the Sky and the Oak Ridge Boys, to name a few.
While I cut my musical teeth on country and gospel, in high school choir I happily adapted to some contemporary music as well as “high” church choral music and a strong sampling of pop and show tunes, including a dash of R&R.
Music is or can be a rich heritage. If it makes me smile and tap my toes, any genre will fill the bill.
Willis Webb is a retired community newspaper editor-publisher of more than 50 years experience. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.