Can you play country music on the HARMONICA?
Mostly this month I have been teaching Country Music on the harmonica.
You remember Bob’s Country Bunker from the Blues Brothers Film?
The boys ask ‘what kind of music do you usually have here?’ and the bar lady says ‘Oh we got both kinds – we got country AND western’.
Do you want to see that clip?
I was asked to teach Country Music so I started researching with Ken Burns’ documentary.
I recommend you do the same.
If you would like any of the charts, tab and video instruction I have developed, you can follow the link here:
From this documentary I gained a goldmine of background knowledge and got some help trying to define Country music.
It got harder and harder to define as I got into the documentary.
I think I remember hearing it was given the title Country rather than Country&Western in 1949, at the same time as ‘Race Records’ became ‘RnB’. I also seem to remember it was 1962 so I’ll need to go back and check!
You could define it as ‘If you played the Grand Old Opry on a regular basis you are Country.’
That would include Deford Bailey on harmonica – possibly the finest harmonica player you will hear. Sonny Terry learnt by listening to Bailey on the wireless beaming our from Nashville to Durham Carolina on the WSM (We Shield Millions) radio station.
In 1928, WSM was given the frequency of 650 kilohertz and admission to an elite group of maximum power, Class 1-A clear-channel broadcasters. In 1932, the station’s new 50,000-watt transmitter made it a nation-spanning giant.
Fiddle, mandolin, voice, vocal harmonies, lap dulcimer, lap steel, guitar, banjo, mandolin, harmonica, accordian, washboard, jews harp, string bass, piano, drums – and currently, pretty much anything goes.
Some ingredients of Country music, quoted from the documentary, are:
‘Barn dances, railroads, riverboats, gospel choirs, lap dulcimers, fiddles, cowboys, banjos from Africa, slaves, mintrel songs. Mediaeval English balads, folk music from the British Isles and Ireland, church harmonies, jug band music, blues, yodelling, jazz, ragtime, European polkas, Mexican folk music
It’s ‘lovin’, cheatin’, hurtin’, fightin’, hurtin’, pickup trucks and mothers’ Harold Bradley
‘Death, murder, mayhem, suicide..songs that are real.’ Carlene Carter
‘I think it’s just simple ways of telling stories, experiencing and expressing feelings. You can dance to it, you can cry to it, you can make love to it, you can play it at a funeral – it has something in it for everybody. And people relate to it.’ Dolly Parton
‘Country music comes from the heart and soul that we all have’ Garth Brooks
‘Three chords and the truth’ said the songwriter Harlan Howard
‘It rose from the bottom up. The songs Americans sang to themselves in farm fields and railroad yards to ease them through their labours are the bedrock. Songs they sang on their porches, in church, and in their parlors are part of the origins. It came from the fiddle tunes they danced to on Saturday nights to let off steam, and from the hymns they chanted in church on Sunday mornings.
It is filtered out from sleepy hollows and smoky saloons, the barios on the southern border and from the wide open spaces on the western range.
Most of all it came from it came from the needs of Americans, especially those who felt left out and looked down upon, to tell their stories.’ Ken Burns.
The lyrics are ‘probably the white man’s soul music’ according to Kris Kristofferson. ‘It comes from the heart’
It’s not just ‘cry in your beer’ music although that does exist; it’s there to make you feel better by telling/hearing your story.
There are many genres within Country – and it’s a growing number every day
Appalachia is a region in the Eastern United States. You can’t mention country music without seeing how it’s rooted back to Appalachian Folk Music. This kind of music is a true melting pot of influences derived from African folk songs, English ballads, traditional Irish and Scottish music using fiddles, and African American blues. Without these early influences music, styles like bluegrass and early country music certainly wouldn’t exist. The fiddle and banjo are the most commonly used instruments and guitars were rarely used during most styles of music during this era.
Appalachian Folk artists include: Fiddlin’ John Carson, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Clarence Ashley, and Dock Boggs
Originally derived from Appalachian Folk music, bluegrass has come into the limelight in a league of its own. What takes it a step further from early Appalachian folk is drawing influence from jazz and incorporating elements of improvisation. Instead of playing a song from front to back, musicians would play the same chord structure while a musician would make up their own melodies over it. Today, bluegrass is a widely followed genre with internationally esteemed festivals (Telluride Bluegrass Festival, RockyGrass) and bluegrass artists headlining some of the most coveted music venues in the world like Red Rocks, The Gorge, and beyond.
Artists include: Earl Scruggs, Sam Bush, David Grisman, Johnson Mountain Boys, and Nickel Creek
Classic country is mainly a term used by radio stations to describe country and western hits that have been made over the course of the last few decades. Usually, this can be divided into two formats. The first specializes in hits from the 20’s to 70’s focusing on artists from the style’s “Golden Age” like Hank Williams, George Jones, and Johnny Cash. The second focuses on the 60’s through 90’s with artists such as Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, George Strait, and Garth Brooks.
The outlaw country movement started in the 70s and 80s as a reaction to country music taking a “pop” spin with sleek production, generic structures, and commercializing the Nashville sound. The style uses throwback elements like honky tonk and rockabilly flavors and tends to have more introspective lyrics.
Outlaw artists include: Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Hank Williams Jr.
Red Dirt country music gets its name from the literal red dirt found in Stillwater, Oklahoma. The Red Dirt sound can be compared to the Muscle Shoals deep soul sound in the sense that it is so distinguishable, you almost can’t describe it in words. Red Dirt music has subtle rock elements and lyrical attitude that expand the realms outside of classic country. Artists include: Cross Canadian Ragweed, Bob Cliders, Step Ripley and Tom Skinner.
Texas country is one of the most rapidly expanding sub-genres of country music. This music focuses on traditionalist musical roots with outspoken views on the common working man and blunt topics that are often comical and witty. Robert Earl Keen, Kevin Fowler, Jack Ingram, and Cory Morrow are perfect examples of Texas country artists.
Alt-country, short for “alternative country” is characterized by the fusion of country music and alternative rock. This style was pioneered by Jason and the Scorchers in the 1980s. Many purists shun this style because it is highly produced and has a more “punk rock” aesthetic. Artists in this style include: Blood Oranges, Blue Mountain, and Drive-By-Truckers.
This style often refers to pop artists who have decided to “go country” or country artists who aim to have a more mainstream, popularized sound. You can often find pop country songs on the mainstream Top 40 Billboard charts. American Idol also helped popularize this sub- genre in modern times. Examples of pop country artists are: Shania Twain, LeeAnn Rimes, Lee Ann Womack, Taylor Swift, and Rascal Flatts.
Perhaps the most criticized style of country music is bro-country. This term was recently coined to describe country music originating in the second decade of the 21s century that infuses elements of hip-hop, hard rock, and electronica. Style aside, this style has been criticized by purists for talking about shallower topics like women, alcohol consumption, and partying.
Artists who tend to fall into this genre include: Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton
You also hear these genres bandied about:
- African-American country
- The Nashville sound
- Bakersfield Twang
- Country Blues
- Mainstream Country
It’s a massive and exciting subject; I hadn’t realised it was such a story.
Pretty soon I realised that I could not cover it in one course, so I expect I will write a series of courses on Country Music.
I decided to start at the beginning with the Carter family and Hank Williams learning and teaching a famous tune from each of those artists and then figuring out how to improvise along with the original recordings.
I worked out all the tablature and the charts and the backing tracks and the lyrics. Students can watch the original recordings on YouTube and play along using my charts.
We are also looking into style of the most famous Country Music harmonica Player - Charlie McCoy.
I’ve found a great interview with him so we can discuss what he said and learn the licks that he plays.
If you would like any of these charts, tab and video instruction you can follow the link here.