Hillbilly Music: The Diverse Roots of Country Music

by Clayton Edwards

The Bristol Sessions took place in the summer of 1927 and changed the face of country music. The Victor Talking Machine Company sent Ralph Peer into Appalachia to offer recording time to regional musicians. They called the music they captured in those sessions Hillbilly Music and it became the foundation for modern country music. However, the music didn’t start in Bristol. What we hear in those early recordings is the result of decades of collaboration and cultural exchange between a diverse group of artists.

The Stonemans, The Carter Family, and Jimmie Rodgers are, without a doubt, the best-known artists who recorded in The Bristol Sessions. As a result, those sessions are hailed as the Big Bang of Country music. However, that’s a bit of a misnomer. The truth is, the Bristol Sessions were more akin to the Jamestown or Plymouth Rock of Country Music. Those sessions didn’t create the music. They did, however, allow those outside of Appalachia to discover and enjoy Hillbilly Music for the first time.

Recently, I spoke to Dr. Ted Olson about the Appalachian roots of country music. Dr. Olson is a professor of Appalachian Studies and Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Country Music Studies at East Tennessee State University and has penned many works on Appalachian music and folklore. Over the course of his career, he has earned seven Grammy nominations for his work in compiling and preserving historical recordings of American music. Additionally, he won the Stephen L. Fisher Award for Excellence in Teaching which is awarded by the Appalachian Studies Association, and the East Tennessee Historical Society’s Ramsey Award for Lifetime Achievement. In short, I couldn’t have found someone more versed in the deep history of Hillbilly Music if I tried.

The Diverse Origins Hillbilly Music

“That music derives from many different sources, in many different places, and many different people. The notion that it automatically or spontaneously emerged in Bristol is fanciful. It really preceded that by many, many years and from different places,” Dr. Olson said of Hillbilly Music. The Bristol Sessions, did, however, change the face of the music business. “One way of looking at Bristol is that it’s the situation that gave rise to a more commercial approach to recording music and packaging it in a certain way.”

Hillbilly Music represents years of cultural exchange and combination. Dr. Olson gave a brief overview of the diversity of the music’s origins. “It came from highland areas and lowland areas. It came from white musicians and Black musicians, from people of different ethnicities. Really, it is quite diverse.”

By the time the music of Appalachia became Hillbilly Music, it was hard to discern what aspects came from which culture. Cultural and musical practices started blending in the early days of North American settlement and continue to this day.

“They blended so long ago that we have to be careful about making too many assessments or judgments about where they came from. What we certainly need to do is give full credit to all the participants in culture-making,” Dr. Olson said.

Finding Common Ground in Music

Black and white musicians of the time played together and learned from one another. In that way, they could find common ground. About the power of music to bring people together, Dr. Olson said, “Music is the great unifier. Music is colorblind. People could appreciate the humanity in other people regardless of where they came from through their shared language which was music… Music was certainly a shared cultural experience that everyone could relate to even if certain sounds or styles might’ve seemed, at first, unusual to some people based on their backgrounds. People quickly assimilated other people’s sounds and they blended together.”

Olson notes that researchers are still unable to identify many of the people who spurred on the sharing and blending of musical traditions. However, with each new discovery, it becomes more and more clear that today’s country music and Hillbilly Music before it came from a diverse group of musicians. “It seems to me that country music is a music of many different cultures, many different people, many different places. We need to, frankly, give credit for all of them as much as we possibly can.”

An Unfolding Story

Today, countless Black musicians that were integral to the creation of Hillbilly Music, as well as modern country music, remain uncredited. However, Olson notes that this is starting to change as researchers dig deeper into the history of the region and the genre. “We’re starting to have conversations about inclusion in terms of expanding the narrative of where country music comes from. It’s very much an unfolding story still.”

The story of country music is unfolding at both ends and Outsider will be here to tell as much of that grand story as we can. Stay tuned for more deep dives into the history of country music and the people who made it what it is today.