This is Deep Tracks: the show where I give you the entire history of rock music through podcast-sized chunks every week. I am your exceptional host, Doug “No Longer Can Digest Dairy” McCulloch. Today, we are going to go up the other side of rock music’s family tree:

[play Blues Brothers clip]

That clip—which gives this episode its title—comes from the classic, 1980 film, Blues Brothers, starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. Not only is it a funny bit, but it also does a great job illustrating what I want to talk about today.

In the 1990s, the term “country western” was everywhere: it randomly spiked in the middle of the decade as one of the dominating popular music genres. I and my friends were all heavy into grunge and punk and metal, so, to us, artists like Garth Brooks and Clint Black were viewed as the antithesis to our musical tastes. As a funny side note, my daughter—who is a child actor—was in the musical “Looking For Christmas” a few years back, which is a musical stage-play written by Clint Black. And because it was the first time this show was being performed, Clint Black was at all the rehearsals. So I got to meet him, and of course my daughter got to know him quite well because she was spending, 6-8 hours a day with him, every day for a couple months. In fact, a running gag with him and all the other kids in the show was, he would tell them a daily “dad joke,” which they all loved. The dude is actually one of the nicest guys you’ll meet. I immediately regretted every smarmy comment I’d made about his music when I was an opinionated, punk teen. At one rehearsal, he and I ended up talking music and I asked him if there was any rock album he would include in a History of Rock class, and he said “Aja,” which I thought was great input because, to be honest, up until that point, I hadn’t included anything about Steely Dan in my rock history class. So, kudos to Clint Black for helping me see a blind spot in my rock history curriculum.

I suppose the ironic thing about my disdain for country western music as a teenager, though, is that I have a lot of cowboy heritage in my family on my mom’s side—in fact, I remember as a kid, one of my cousins on that side of the family used to call our grandma “Grandma Betcha Boots.” We’d usually visit my mom’s folks during the summers. I always had mixed feelings about those trips. On the one hand, my grandparents had a pool and horses and a little tractor with a trailer that my grandad would use to tow us grandkids around in; it was in Tucson, Arizona, so some evenings we would go out into the desert and hunt for geodes, which was cool. On the other hand: it was Tuscon, Arizona in the summer…. It was hot enough to scramble eggs on your stomach while laying out poolside. I remember one year I got super sunburned and my mom slathered me in aloe vera, which, for those of you who don’t know, smells like a high school locker room and when it dries, creates a stiff masque, so that I remember whenever I would open my mouth to take a bite of food, I could feel my bottom eyelids getting pulled down with every bite.

But that’s not relevant to this episode. My point is, I grew up with a lot of old western songs, or western-influenced folk music, like Will Rogers, Hank Williams, John Denver (I know that’s kind of a broad mix but that’s what I remember my mom listening to or singing. Tangentially, on my dad’s side of the family, it was all Big Band music, but I’ll be talking about Big Band a little bit next episode, so I’ll stop that tangent there).

Despite growing up with the music, I had never thought of there being a distinction within that term, “country western.” It was only later in life, when I really learned more about the history of the music, that I realized that it came from two different types of music that had combined somewhere along the way. The term is often shortened to just “country,” but the term “country music” pre-World War II vs. what it means post-World War II are two different things. There’s a reason why, in the past couple episodes, I’ve been referring to the music as “country and western,” rather than “country western,” or as just “country.” There’s an evolution to the terminology, and when we’re talking about the time period surrounding rock’s birth, it was known as “country & western.”

But let’s back up and talk first about country, and then about western, and then about… you guessed it: country & western.

The first thing to understand about this music’s roots is that, like early blues, it was very regional. So, the term “country music” before the 1940s, referred to the music of the southeastern United States—so basically, Appalachia. These Folk music traditions of the southeast—like much of the rest of the nation’s non-Native American population—were derived from folk music of the British Isles. Immigrants from Northern England, the Scottish lowlands, and Ulster arrived in Appalachia in the 17th and 18th centuries and brought with them the musical traditions of those regions, mostly English and Scottish ballads. They also brought dance music, which was accompanied by a fiddle.

A lot of those old English and Scottish ballads used modal harmonies—usually Aeolian (also known as Natural Minor) or Dorian. Those modal harmonies are what give those songs their distinct sound as “old ballads.” An example of a song in Dorian mode is Scarborough Faire. I’ll play a clip of it from Simon & Garfunkel’s performance of it, which is probably the most popular version:

To further illustrate how a mode changes the sound of the music, I’ll play the first phrase of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” using three different scales. First, I’ll play it using its original major scale, and then I’ll play it Aeolian mode, and then I’ll play it using Dorian mode:

And if you’re completely lost, don’t worry, the music theory isn’t critical to understanding our topic—I just like to toss those nuggets in for anyone who’s interested.

My point is, though, is that the modes used by those old ballads would impact the sound of American folk music. It would do this in a couple of ways. One of them would be simply through the fact that it’s the root source for American folk music—so it’s just natural that musicians would write music similar to what they grew up listening to. But another way would be through what used to be a common practice of taking preexistent melodies and then either rearranging them a little bit to make a new song, or simply making up new words to go with a popular melody and giving it a new name. I just mentioned “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Can you name two other songs that use that same melody? There’s a reason why the tune for “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “Bah, Bah, Black Sheep,” and the alphabet song are all the same—because before musical copyright was a thing, it was common practice to borrow a popular tune and write your own words to it. Old hymnals did this all the time, which is why even today, if you attend a church that uses any older or traditional hymns, you’ll often see a person’s name listed for the lyrics and then some traditional tune name for the music, rather than a composer’s name. Even the United States’ national anthem is an example of original lyrics slapped onto an already-existing tune from a completely different song. The “Star-Spangled Banner” gets its melody from "The Anacreontic Song", by English composer John Stafford Smith. This was the official song of the Anacreontic Society, an 18th-century gentlemen's club of amateur musicians in London.

A teaser side note: This practice of tunes and melodies being fair game will make things really dicey when we get into the early days of rock music where black artists were finding their songs being re-performed by white artists who would then make a ton of money off of those songs while the black songwriters would see nary a dime…

But I digress!

An example of an Appalachian ballad that’s known to have come from that English ballad tradition is "Pretty Saro". I’ll play a few versions of it that will demonstrate how one tune can be interpreted in different ways. First from Doc Watson’s 1966 album Home Again! Then a clip of its performance by folk artist Iris DeMent in the 2000 film Songcatcher. And finally, I’ll play Bob Dylan’s take on the song from his Bootleg Series No. 10: Another Self Portrait.

Country music would remain sort of locked away by its geography until a guy named A.P. Carter started a band with his wife, Sarah, and her cousin, Maybelle, and, known as The Carter Family, they would make country music history and bring that music out to the wider world.

A.P. was born in Poor Valley, Virginia, in the shadow of Clinch mountain. That’s a great beginning to a bio, isn’t it? With place names like “poor valley” and “clinch mountain,” you know it’s going to be a good story. Anyway, He was known for having a sort of nervous energy about him all the time, really restless, and his hands shook—all his life. His mom swore it was because lightning struck nearby her while she was pregnant with him and that sort of marked him. Whatever the case, he was teased as a kid for having those shaky hands, and eventually his mom pulled him out of school because the bullying got so bad. Later, however, those tremors would lend him a unique vibrato to his voice, which actually contributed to him sort of standing apart from other singers.

One of his early business ventures was selling fruit trees, and it was on one of these sales trips across the valley that he heard a young woman singing on her porch. He was entranced by her voice, they began courtin’, and were eventually married. It’s actually not too far off from mine and my wife’s story. I first met her at a wedding reception, but the first time we hung out—which was the next day—I showed up to her apartment, she was singing and playing guitar. I was smitten. We began courtin’ and eventually got married.

But enough McCulloch family, let’s get back to the Carter Family.

A.P. and Sarah got married in 1915. To keep things in context with our history of blues we talked about last episode, this was three years after W.C. Handy published “Memphis Blues,” which brought blues into the realm of music publishing. Then, in 1926, Sarah’s cousin, Maybelle, married A.P.’s younger brother, Ezra. So, you had this very musical family in this small community who enjoyed playing and singing, but had very different goals in mind with it. Music was a hobby for Sarah and Maybelle—something they’d do at the end of the day to unwind after a hard day’s work—but for A.P. it was an obsession. He struggled with finding steady work and he hated farming; he would disappear for hours at a time, usually going on long walks up and down the railroad tracks, just perseverating on how he could make a living with music. And, of course, this drove Sarah nuts, who would be left with the kids and the chores and everything else.

Music was the thing that had first brought them together, and ultimately, it would be what would drive them apart.

But again, I’m getting ahead of myself.

In 1927, A.P. saw an ad made by a talent scout from Victor Records saying that they would be holding open auditions in Bristol Tennessee. So, despite Maybelle being 8 months pregnant, A.P. convinced her and Sarah to drive with him in the sweltering August heat, 29 miles, to go and see if they could get paid for recording some music.

These recording sessions in Bristol would make country music history. In fact, they’re known as the Bristol Sessions—like, how we don’t say “a declaration of independence,” but we say the Declaration of Independence, and we capitalize the words and such. At the Bristol Sessions, the Carter Family met a man named Ralph Peer and even Jimmie Rodgers—who we’ll talk more about in a minute. But for now, you might remember how last episode I mentioned how record companies were sending dudes out into the countryside to find a new sound to promote by tapping into the music of the people. It’s how Blind Lemon Jefferson was discovered, remember? Ralph Peer was one of those guys, except, in this case, instead of discovering blues artists, he discovered country artists.

Peer was looking for music that he could copyright as his own—remember, at this time, the big money was still in music publishing. So, the idea was, recordings would drive people towards purchasing sheet music. A.P. Carter was a brilliant folk music collector and arranger. So, in A.P., Ralph Peer had found a mother lode of publishable material. In the voice of Sarah Carter, he had found a siren song that would lure in a listening audience. And in the guitar playing of Maybelle Carter? Well, He had found Eric Clapton…before there was an Eric Clapton.

Maybelle Carter had developed what was at that time a unique approach to guitar playing. You see, Most people treated the guitar purely as a rhythm and harmony instrument to accompany singing or other instruments. Maybelle had been playing musical instruments since before she could walk, but she didn’t have a lot of people with which she could readily jam all the time, so she started playing both the lead and the accompaniment on her guitar, together. It was a style that was so unique that it was even given its own name—it was called the “Carter scratch.” There’s a BBC TWO documentary miniseries from 2003 called Lost Highway: the story of Country Music, that has this clip in it that I think does a pretty good job of illustrating what I’m talking about:

The Carter family would bring country music out from its rural nooks and into the public eye through their recordings. A couple of songs that do a decent job of showcasing their sound are The Winding Stream—which is also the name of a fantastic 2014 documentary about them—and Can The Circle Be Unbroken—which happens to be the source of the name of an equally fantastic 2005 PBS documentary about them entitled: The Carter Family: Will the Circle Be Unbroken. I’ll play clips from both songs:

[play beginning of Lost Highway where it points out O Brother Where Art Thou connection?]

Eventually, Sarah would leave A.P. and divorce him. He would be embittered by it but would also never quite get over her. Maybelle would go on performing, including with her daughters. One of those daughters—June Carter—would have a successful music career of her own and marry Johnny Cash in 1968. Another interesting side note: the Carter family are distantly related to both former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Elvis Presley.

But we’re going to shift gears now and talk about that other recording artist I mentioned at those Bristol Sessions with Ralph Peer—Jimmie Rodgers.

If the Carter Family was known as the “First Family of Country Music,” Jimmie Rodgers was known as the “Father of Country Music.”

By age 13, he had organized and started a travelling show not once, but twice—only to be brought home by his father both times. His dad eventually found young Jimmie his first job working on the railroad, as a water boy. This is important because Jimmie’s identity as a performer would be wrapped up with the railroad. His time as a water boy [“that’s some high quality H2O] did nothing to slake his thirst for learning and performing music (see what I did there?). He found himself in the middle of a whole new set of musical mentors as he was further taught to pick and strum by rail workers and hobos. During this time he would also have been exposed to the work chants and songs of the African-American railroad workers, known as gandy dancers—which is a slang term for section hands who laid and maintained railroad tracks in the years before the work was done by machines. A few years later, he became a brakeman on the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad. Seeing as how he would eventually come to be known as “The Singing Brakeman,” this is also an important part of the story…

In 1924 at age 27, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The disease temporarily ended his railroad career, but at the same time gave him the chance to get back into the entertainment industry. He organized a traveling road show and performed across the southeastern United States until he was forced home, not by his father, but from a cyclone destroying his tent. Although, maybe his dad was some kind of warlock and he summoned the cyclone using some sort of weather magic…

Jimmie returned to railroad work as a brakeman in Miami, Florida, but eventually his illness cost him his job. He did what most people with tuberculosis did at that time and moved to a drier climate, which in this case was Tucson, Arizona. There he was employed as a switchman by the Southern Pacific Railroad. By this time he was married and had a young daughter. He kept the job for less than a year, and then the Rodgers family ended up back in Meridian in early 1927, which is where he was originally from, more-or-less (he moved around quite a bit in his early life).

But think about it: his life had come full circle at that point. He’d put in a few years working for the railroad, he’d lived in a few different places, but now he’d ended up back home and with very little to show for it. It’s like going to your high school reunion and realizing you don’t have a fancy career to impress your former classmates with. What would you do? Actually, I don’t care what you would do. This episode isn’t about you.

Jimmie decided to travel to Asheville, North Carolina. On April 18, 1927, at 9:30 pm, Jimmie, and a guy named Otis Kuykendall (you don’t need to remember that name, don’t worry) performed for the first time on WWNC, Asheville's first radio station. Then, A few months after that, he recruited a group from Bristol, Tennessee, called the Tenneva Ramblers, and they secured a weekly slot on the station as "The Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers".

This put Jimmie in the right place at the right time. In late July 1927, his bandmates learned that Ralph Peer was coming to Bristol to hold an audition for local musicians. Jimmie and the group auditioned for Peer on August 3, 1927 in an empty warehouse. Today, there’s a plaque at that spot pointing it out as the “birthplace of country music,” and just a few blocks from there is the “Birthplace of Country Music Museum.” Peer agreed to record them the next day. However, As the band started talking about how they would be billed on the record, an argument ensued, and the band dissolved—although I’ve also read that their breakup was due to a weird disagreement about taking some guitars on consignment from some music stores, selling them, and then never paying the stores back, which sounds kind of “scammy” to me, but nevertheless, whatever it was that killed the band, Jimmie arrived at the recording session the next morning either alone, or, according to an on-camera interview he’d done once, he might’s also had Claude Grant with him—who was one of the Tenneva Ramblers.

Anyway, On Wednesday, August 4, Jimmie Rodgers completed his first session for Victor Records in Bristol, Tennessee—just three days after A.P., Sara, and Maybelle had completed theirs. It lasted from 2:00 pm to 4:20 pm and yielded two songs: "The Soldier's Sweetheart" and "Sleep, Baby, Sleep". Here’s a clip of “Sleep, Baby, Sleep”:

Like with the Carter Family, the Bristol Sessions would skyrocket Jimmie Rodgers’ career. His career as a recording artist would only last five short years, but it brought him a fame that made him a near-Elvis-level icon in his day, and has immortalized him ever since.

In addition to being known as “the Father of Country Music,” Jimmie Rodgers is known for a couple other things: his “blue yodel” and his identity as the “Singing Brakeman.”

So let’s talk about yodeling! This has come up a few times in this podcast. Yodeling had a brief cameo in our discussion about field hollers and, like field hollers, it was used in rural communities for communicating over long distances and also for herding cattle.

It’s also a tradition that goes back centuries.

Yodeling in the U.S. comes primarily from German immigrants. German immigrants first settled in Pennsylvania in the early 1800s, but eventually spread south to the Appalachian mountains where they came into contact with those immigrants from the British isles I mentioned earlier, as well as immigrants from Scandinavia who’d also brought with them a tradition of yodeling called “kulning,” which sounds like this…

But a more familiar spin on kulning that most of you have probably heard would be this…

I’ll add that it may have been a mistake to include that last clip. I try to adhere pretty faithfully to Fair Use laws in my podcast, but Disney gets crazy territorial their stuff, so if my podcast suddenly disappears from all streaming services, you’ll know…the mouse got me…

Anyway! There were actually some traveling American minstrels who were yodeling throughout the United States throughout the 1800s. Tom Christian was the first known American yodeling minstrel—he popped up in 1847 in Chicago. Recordings of yodelers were made in 1892 and by 1920 the Victor recording company listed 17 yodels in their catalogue, many of them by a guy named George Watson, who was apparently the most successful yodeler of the time—though I’m honestly not sure how steep the competition was. In 1897, Watson recorded "Sleep, Baby, Sleep" which, if you remember, was one of those two songs recorded by Jimmie Rodgers at the Bristol sessions.

Jimmie was very open about the influence of African American blues on his musical style as well, which was why the term “blue yodel” was ascribed to him, and why some even termed his music not as “country,” but as “blues for whites”! Later, when rock music would first appear on the scene, a similar thing would happen where many people would, rather than calling it “rock and roll,” call it “white rhythm and blues” instead. To demonstrate his blue yodel, I thought there could be no better source than his song entitled, “Blue Yodel No. 1” :

In 1929, just two years after the Bristol Sessions, Jimmie found himself starring in a movie. It was entitled, “The Singing Brakeman,” and would be a role that, as I’ve already hinted at, would become synonymous with him as a performer. As opposed to the Carter family, who spent quite a bit of energy shedding their country ambiance and “dressing up” to appear classier—despite their music being intentionally plebian—Jimmie would lean into his roots and always appear much like he did in that opening scene of the Singing Brakeman—just some dude in overalls playing guitar on the train platform in between work shifts. The two sets of artists would have their separate reasons for choosing their appearances: the Carters were looking to present their community in a dignified way, while Jimmie Rodgers viewed maintaining a more “down-to-earth” persona as lending him market value amongst his listeners. In the end, Jimmie’s approach to appearance within country music is what would become standard practice. Early country music shows like the Grand Ol’ Opry would make country- and cowboy-themed clothing the orthodox uniform of all performers—whether those performers had rural roots or not. Even today, almost all country music stars are rarely seen wearing anything other than Levi’s jeans—the ultimate workman’s pants—with some sort of hearty, button-down work shirt with boots and a cowboy hat. If you think about it, cowboy hats were designed to keep the sun out of ranchers’ eyes, and those boots were designed to stand up to massive wear-and-tear while fitting snugly into stirrups. None of those things are really necessary for a nighttime show on a stage in the middle of a city, but country singers wear them anyway because…it’s part of the uniform.

But this question of personal and public identity will arise with every generation of artists across all genres. For some, their stage persona would simply be a natural extension of their actual, real identity—a great example of this would be Kurt Cobain’s conversational sort of banter with his audience at Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York performance: you get the sense that you’re not only seeing the front man for Nirvana up there, but you’re also getting the real Kurt Cobain at the same time. There’s no act. But for other artists it will be two very different personas and it will be like they’re two different people—a phenomenon I think was captured perfectly in the ‘90s movie, Wayne’s World, where the two protagonists—Wayne and Garth—attend an Alice Cooper concert where he’s playing heavy rock music and is wearing black makeup and has snakes draped over his shoulders, and then once he gets backstage…

The best part of that scene is, Alice is still wearing his leathers and holding his riding whip while delivering those lines. It’s such a great scene.

But anyway, that wraps up our intro to the roots of country music. Next episode we’ll look at the roots of western music, and then we’ll look at how, like, with the five Planeteers merging the power of their rings to form Captain Planet, [play “by your powers combined” clip], country and western would combine to form…Country Western!

Until then, you can access a transcript of this episode on my website,, where you can also sign up for my newsletter and gain access to the show notes, more resources for any rabbit holes you’d like to go down in your own research, as well as some fun merchandise designed by yours truly.

[play clip of “the power is yours!”]

Show Notes

  • I misspoke when I said that "Looking For Christmas" was written by Clint Black.  It's actually just based on his music--the stageplay was written by someone else.  
  • I mentioned three documentaries on this episode.  The first was one about country music in general, entitled "Lost Highway."  As of the publishing of these show notes, the only place to stream this documentary is on YouTube at this link.
  • The second and third documentaries I mentioned are both specifically about the Carter Family--both of which are named after songs made famous by the Carter Family.  The first is "Winding Stream" (which was available to stream on Netflix for a time but is no longer available on there as of this publishing) and the second is "The Carter Family: Will the Circle Be Unbroken," which, like "Lost Highway," is only accessible on YouTube (as a playlist) as far as I can tell, as of the time of publishing these show notes.  You can access that documentary here.
  • I was planning on including more about modal harmonies in these show notes but I am working on a bonus episode that dives a little more into music theory, so I will save the information for that episode's show notes.
  • Much of the information I had about Jimmie Rodgers in this episode was stuff I already knew, so I didn't go searching about as much for documentaries or other resources like that for him (as opposed to the Carter Family whose music I was much more familiar with than their personal history).  I did, however, use both the Wikipedia entry on him as well as John Covach's brief treatment on him in his rock history textbook, "What's That Sound?", to fill in any blanks in my ready knowledge of Jimmie Rodgers.