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The History of Country Piano Music

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Piano’s Place in Country Music

The importance of the piano’s role in country music cannot be overstated. Although it is typically not the primary instrument being used in most cases, an understated piano riff can add just the right touch that elevates a country song above the rest. This article will present a brief history of this beloved instrument and its use in country music.

The Early Days of Country

Country music as we know it had its roots from the Southeastern genre of folk music and Western music. It originated in Atlanta in the 1920s. It gained immense popularity in a relatively short period of time, and before long, record labels such as RCA Victor, Okeh, and Columbia were cashing in on the “Hillbilly” genre.  Nashville’s WSM began broadcasting from The Grand Ole Opry, a show that continues to this day.

The earliest performances and recordings of country music used string instruments almost exclusively. Guitars, fiddles, banjos and harmonicas were relatively portable and inexpensive when compared to pianos. Piano wasn’t completely absent, however; one early country piano recording was done in 1927, when Virginia's Shelor Family String Band was recorded by Ralph Peer at the legendary Bristol Sessions (which also saw the first records by Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family).

The Second Wave: Piano Emerges

Country artists and producers were not initially fond of the piano. Early country star Charlie Poole was ejected from a recording studio for insisting on using a piano on one of his songs.  But as the 1930s and 1940s wore on, more and more piano players were being used in the studio and on the road. Moon Mullican was one of the first prominent country pianists, although he played in other genres as well.   The legendary Bob Wills formed the country swing big band the Texas Playboys, which prominently featured Al Stricklin on piano.

A strain of piano music that soon made its way into country music was the “Honky-Tonk” style, which emphasized rhythm over melody. Honky-Tonk got its start in the working-class bars of Oklahoma and Texas.

The 1950s and 1960s

Cowboy or Western Music became popular in the 1950s, and found itself blended in with country during that era. A new strain of county called Rockabilly emerged in the 1950s as well. Artists such as piano player Jerry Lee Lewis became prominent. Lewis was known for his wild antics and playing style, and he would continue to be a respected country artist after his rock career faltered.

One of Lewis’ contemporaries was Charlie Rich, a masterful songwriter, soulful singer, and talented piano player who had a long and successful career in country.

The Nashville Sound (featuring strings and other “Pop” touches) and the Bakersfield Sound (a harder, “traditional” approach as a reaction to the Nashville Sound) both became popular during this era. One of the architects of the Nashville sound was Floyd Cramer, who worked both as a session player and an artist in his own right. The Bakersfield sound, exemplified by Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and others, featured piano prominently.

1970s-today

Country music has continued to go through many permutations over the last few decades. Outlaw country, countrypolitan, country rock, and many other sub-genres have made their way into this most American of music styles. Artists such as Ronnie Milsap, Mickey Gilley, and Gary Stewart are current piano players who are keeping country music evolving.

It Keeps On Playing

Throughout country’s history, the piano has played an important role. It will continue to do so for the genre’s future.

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