Honky Tonks, Hymns and the Blues
Series Chronicles American Music, from Back Roads to Big City
In the summer of 2005, NPR revisits this series with two hour-long specials hosted by Paul Brown. The first hour traces the meteoric rise of the Carter Family and Jimmy Rodgers. In the second hour, America's country music electrifies, diversifies and teaches its strings to swing with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Flaco Jimenez and more.
» Visit the 'Honky Tonks, Hymns and the Blues' Web site
» Explore a Web-only feature on 'border radio' and the Carters, the First Family of country music.
'Mother' Maybelle Carter at the Smithsonian
'Foggy Mountain Top'
'The Sun's Gonna Shine in My Back Door Someday'
"Mother" Maybelle Carter of the original Carter Family (guitar, autoharp, vocals)
Helen Carter Jones (guitar, vocal) (Maybelle's daughter)
David Jones (guitar, bass) (Helen's son, Maybelle's grandson)
Ralph Rinzler, director of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival (interviewer, mandolin)
Mike Seeger (guitar)
Recorded by John A. Long, produced by Steve Rathe for NPR's "Folk Festival USA," December 1975.
» Music Primer
View a listing of essential recordings. Each represents a milestone in the development of American rural music.
Music samples from 'Honky Tonks, Hymns and the Blues'
'Spoonful' - Charley Patton (1929)
'If You See My Savior, Tell Him that You Saw Me' - Thomas A. Dorsey, (1932)
'Peach Pickin' Time in Georgia' - Jimmie Rodgers (1932)
'I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes' - Carter Family (1939)
'Viva Seguin' - Santiago Jimenez Sr. (1942)
'Home in San Antone' - Bob Wills (1942)
'George's Playhouse Boogie' - Maddox Brothers and Rose
'My Wedding Ring' - Jean Shepard (1953)
'Sam McGee Stomp' - Sam McGee (1970)
'I'll Fly Away' - Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss (2000)
Singer Mahalia Jackson practices with gospel legend Thomas A. Dorsey.
Bob Wills, the king of Western Swing, in a publicity photo from the late 1940s.
The Coon Creek Girls were one of the first all-female string bands.
Credit: Courtesy Paul Brown
Accordion virtuoso Santiago Jimenez Jr. follows in the traditions of his father's conjunto instrumental style.
Credit: Courtesy Santiago Jimenez Jr.
Part 1: Field Recordings to Superstars
Part 2: Raising the Roof
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Originally Broadcast July-September 2003 -- Starting July 4, Morning Edition features a special series on the history of American music. Honky Tonks, Hymns and the Blues highlights the creation of the American musical traditions that give this country its own unique sound. These continue to influence music and culture around the world.
Presented by NPR's Paul Brown, the series' 11 weekly segments feature oral histories, historic performances, rare archive tape, and interviews with roots music artists including country legend Merle Haggard, bluesman Honeyboy Edwards and fiddle great Mark O'Connor.
Honky Tonks, Hymns and the Blues was produced by Kathie Farnell, Margaret Moos Pick and Steve Rathe, and edited by NPR's Tom Cole.
Below is a summary of the series:
Honky Tonk Women: The Changing Role of Women in Country Music
"It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," but the lady-like Kitty Wells. She captured the nation's attention with her 1952 recording. Wells and her hard working, tough-skinned peers, like Jean Shepard, offered a woman's point of view in their songs, and paved the way for a new kind of country music star.
Listen to Part 1
Jean Shepard recalls how her producer tried to dissuade her from recording 'controversial' material.
Performer Pam Tillis discusses the role of sexuality in the music business.
Country Guitar: The Music Meets Technology and Changing Times
Though guitars have been around America as far back as colonial times, they didn't become an important musical force until the early 20th century. The instrument came to country music over unusual routes. And in the decades that followed, the six-strings went electric, and became the chordal signature of the USA.
Listen to Part 2
Maybelle Carter talks about how she came up with her signature flatpicking style, the 'Carter scratch.'
Carter talks about the long-lasting popularity of the traditional tune 'Wildwood Flower.'
A Pure Sound: Country Music and the Moral Message
The recent revival of interest in traditional rural music revealed the appeal of simple moral messages in a time of rapid change. The sound of artists ranging from the Louvin Brothers to Ricky Skaggs can be traced to the church music that informed their daily lives.
Listen to Part 3
Ricky Skaggs discusses the conflicts between wanting to be a good performer -- and a good Christian.
Charlie Louvin looks back at the controversial cover photo of the Louvin Brothers' 1959 album, Satan is Real. (See the cover.)
Thomas Dorsey: From 'Georgia Tom' to Father of Gospel Music
His powerful combination of sacred and secular styles created a revolution in music. Thomas A. Dorsey's use of jazz rhythm, blues feeling and personal testimony made gospel an irresistible form of sacred music.
Listen to Part 4
The Rise of the Blues
The early blues was country... nurtured at Saturday night dances and on street corners in cities and towns across the South. It was played on acoustic guitars. During these early years, a number of performers and a slowly growing audience were enjoying the sound of the blues before electricity.
Listen to Part 5
Jimmie Rodgers: Birth of the Country Superstar
The "father of country music" traveled like a meteor from obscurity, to fame, to early death. Combining blues, vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley with old-time mountain music, he brought the so-called "hillbilly" sound into the mainstream.
Listen to Part 6
Merle Haggard discusses Jimmie Rodgers being the first "unschooled" musician to achieve widespread popular success.
Haggard talks about the elements of country, blues and jazz that formed Rodgers' music.
Haggard remembers how he first heard of Rodgers from his mother.
Haggard says most of Rodgers' songs are masterpieces.
Haggard talks about Rodgers' influence on many great country musicians.
Haggard explains why Rodgers' music resonated with listeners.
Riding the Rails to Stardom: The Maddox Brothers and Rose
They would do anything to escape the relentless sun and bone-wearying work of the Alabama cotton fields. The Maddox brothers and their 12-year-old sister, Rose, jumped at a chance to sing on the radio, and for four decades their talent, humor and brilliant syntheses of popular music and traditions captured the imagination of hardworking people across America.
Listen to Part 7
Emmylou Harris describes how the Maddox Brothers and Rose brought rockabilly music to a wide audience.
Emmylou Harris discusses why Rose Maddox didn't get the recognition she deserved.
Música Norteña: Accordion on the Texas Border
Thanks to the German immigrants of the 19th century, the button accordion is the central element in the conjunto/Norteña music of Texas.
Listen to Part 8
Accordion player Pearly Sowell describes growing up in New Braunfels, Texas, with a large extended family, speaking both German and English.
Sowell explains the significance of her polka band's name.
Accordion player Santiago Jimenez Jr. compares the German and the Tex-Mex accordion styles.
Jimenez describes racial prejudice towards Mexicans by some Anglos in the last century.
Jimenez tells how he picked up the accordion as a teenager despite his father's refusal to teach him.
Country Fiddling: From Back Porch to Big City
The most powerful outside influence on early Southern fiddlers were new technologies -- radio and "talking" machines. They've played a significant role in defining fiddling and "country music" ever since.
Listen to Part 9
Merle Haggard describes the fiddle's role in the development of music for 'house dances.'
Lone Star Swing: Bob Wills and the Texas Tradition
As young workers left farms and ranches for oilfields, a new music emerged from the raucous roadhouses where they spent their paychecks. Combining old-time dance music with jazz, this was Western Swing -- and its king was Bob Wills.
Listen to Part 10
Bob Wills recalls the origins of Western swing music, in a 1949 interview.
Merle Haggard describes how Bob Wills bequeathed him his fiddle, his relationship with Wills and his efforts to revive Western swing.
Haggard describes how Wills started his career at young age.
Asleep at the Wheel band leader Ray Benson talks about the sometimes surprising reaction of audiences to Western swing.
Black and White: Crossing the Border, Closing the Gap
Despite segregation in American life and law, music didn't follow racial lines. The evidence in commercial recordings is undeniable. Black and white musicians nourished each other to create a common culture in American music.
Listen to Part 11
Guitarist and vocalist Doug Wamble uses the example of his grandfather to show that 'country' means more than just a style of music.
Wamble talks about an increased willingness to acknowledge white appropriation of black musical innovations.
Saxophonist Andrew Love and trumpeter Wayne Jackson of The Memphis Horns, say musicans are less prone to racial prejudice than other Americans.
Multi-instrumentalist Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown says white musicians, particularly from the U.K., have been able to become superstars by copying black styles.
Brown says his prediction about rap -- that whites would start imitating it almost immediately -- has come true.
Honky Tonks, Hymns & the Blues
Etta Baker, Piedmont Blues Legend
The Influential Bristol Recording Sessions of 1927
The Carters, Country Music's First Family
America's Folk Music Anthology
The Secret History of Technology and Pop Music
Buried Treasures Among Live Country, Bluegrass Tapes
The Sound of 1930s Florida Folk Life
'Goin Back to Sweet Memphis'
Remembering Country Music Singer Rose Maddox
Key Recordings in the Development of American Rural Music
Series Funding Credits
Major funding for production of Honky Tonks, Hymns and the Blues comes from the National Endowment for the Humanities and from the National Endowment for the Arts, with support from the Texas Council for the Humanities, the Alabama State Council on the Arts, Rounder Records, the Institute of Texan Cultures at the University of Texas - San Antonio. Additional assistance from Texas Public Radio, the National Council for Traditional Arts, and the Texas Heritage Music Foundation.