Are country and Western two separate genres or one?
December 9, 2012 1:02 PM   Subscribe

Please suggest some examples of "country music" and "Western music" that encapsulate the genres for someone who knows nothing about either. I'd be especially interested in pairs of songs which highlight the differences between the two genres, if indeed there are two. Google only returns hits for things that are described as "country and Western," and I can't tell if this is convergent evolution merging two genres together or just the equivalent of people calling everything from The Beatles to Nightwish "rock music."
posted by d. z. wang to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Well, to my mind, "country music" encompasses a whole bunch of sub-generes, one of which is "western" music. (Others include bluegrass, traditional country, southern gospel, rockabilly, modern-radio-pop-country, etc. What kind of "country" music you're talking about depends on context.) Western music to my mind is two kinds of things: you've got your western cowboy ballads and you've got western swing.

For the classic western, check out Gene Autry, Roy Rodgers, Marty Robbins, maybe Chris LeDoux.

For western swing, check out Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Spade Cooley, and Asleep at the Wheel.

For "country" - it depends on what you're looking for, I think. Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams for older sounds. You'll get lots of argument on the new stuff - I love me some George Straight.

(I'm no expert. I just like lots and lots of country music).

(and actually wikipedia has some good entries on western music and country music, but I don't have time in my edit window to link them!)
posted by dpx.mfx at 1:18 PM on December 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

that is a very good description, dpx.mfx, I agree....
posted by raildr at 1:29 PM on December 9, 2012

For country without the western, go back to the likes of Vernon Dalhart and Jimmie Rodgers.
posted by Longtime Listener at 1:34 PM on December 9, 2012

I would argue they are distinct genres. They share some roots -- the folk ballads of the British Isles, as an example -- but western music is, in general, the music of the experience of the American west, and incorporates that clippety clop sound of horse hooves, Spanish influence, Native American influences, and a lot of Hollywood singing cowboy influence. Country music is, to a large extent, the white rural development of American folk music, with occasional city influences. They have crossed over, of course, but Western music is a pretty distinct genre.

Here are some classic of western music:

Gene Autry, Home on the Range
Sons of the Pioneers, Tumbling Tumbleweeds
Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Happy Trails

And some of country music, which encompasses many subgenres:

Early country

Carter Family, Keep on the Sunny Side
Jimmy Rodgers, Blue Yodel No. 1


Earl Scruggs, Earl's Breakdown
Flat and Scruggs, Foggy Mountain Breakdown

Western swing:

Bob Wills, Lone Star Rag
Spade Cooly, Miss Molly


Jim Reeves, Four Walls
Patsy Cline, I Fall to Pieces

There are a lot of additional genres and subgenres, and a great deal of crossover between them -- as mentioned above, Western Swing could be considered a branch of Western music, as the bands often took traditional western songs and have them a sort of swing arrangement -- but, then, they also borrowed heavily from the string bands of early country music. As with all music, genre sometimes seems more useful as a marketing tool than an actual way of defining music. But there are songs that really define what people mean by genres of music, and some of the links I give above should give you a sense of the qualities of the few I have selected.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 1:40 PM on December 9, 2012 [9 favorites]

dpx.mfx nailed some of what could be considered "Western" or "cowboy music."

However, you'll note that music is all old. No one really makes that kind of stuff anymore, unless it's very self-consciously retro. "Country and Western" is used these days as a catch-all to simply mean "country music." It's a pretty dated term, but it has hung on with older people and as a category name for certain awards, etc. When people say it these days they are almost always using it as a name of a single genre, not two separate ones.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:14 PM on December 9, 2012

When I hear someone say "country and western" these days I actually kind of cringe, the same way I do when I hear someone say "inner city." It's not necessarily a 100% indicator of prejudice, but it's an outmoded term that indicates the sayer may be a bit out of touch and willfully ignorant about the thing in question.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:16 PM on December 9, 2012

Originally, we had Appalachian music, which itself was based on older English and Irish music. Al Hopkins and his band was from this area, and they called themselves "hillbillies." The music industry started calling this sound Hillbilly music, even though the people in the Appalachia area did not call it that. By the 1950s, this is what we call country music (but not fully until after it had lent part of its name to rockabilly).

As people, and music, moved west from the Appalachia area, it changed. You can hear the sound of a horse trot in this music, and the lyrics are more about living "out West." This new sound was called Western music. Western movies were very popular, and featured this music -- performed by country/hillbilly singers. Out of this came Western Swing (which was influenced also by jazz and the Big Band sounds).

People became accustomed to seeing country singers perform western songs. Country, Western, and Western-Swing were all lumped together by recording companies and called Country-Western.

None of the above sound too much like today's Country-Western music.
posted by Houstonian at 2:22 PM on December 9, 2012

I prefer to defer to David Allan Coe, who wrote a note to Steve Goodman, regarding C&W music.

to hear DAC sing it,
posted by mule98J at 2:26 PM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Note: I didn't mean to imply that there is only old stuff out there for country or western; I just think that's more likely to epitomize the genre. There's lots of artists doing stuff that borrows from or leans towards or is close to the old standards.

Artists you might like to check out, with no genre speculation from me:

Dale Watson
Billy Joe Shaver
Lucky Tubb
Wayne Hancock
J. B. Beverly and the Wayward Drifters

I could go on and on and on.....
posted by dpx.mfx at 2:54 PM on December 9, 2012

When I think of Western I think of some of the Hawaiian influence too, with the steel guitar coming out of the slack key style.
posted by small_ruminant at 3:09 PM on December 9, 2012

Someone in the comments of this Bob Wills youtube video of his 1936 "Steel Guitar Rag" pointed out its derivation from Helen Louise and Frank Ferera's 1915 "On the Beach at Waikiki." Ferera was one of the first famous Hawaiian guitarists. Neat to be able to follow the ancestry of songs that way. God bless youtube.
posted by small_ruminant at 3:20 PM on December 9, 2012

I'm a fan of Buck Owens style "Bakersfield Sound" Country.

For Western Swing, I'm partial to Hot Club of Cowtown. Definitely a retro vibe, and a lot of fun to see live.
posted by Mad_Carew at 4:07 PM on December 9, 2012

"Country and western" means country. There is no (more) western.
"Rhythm and blues" means blues. There is no "rhythm music."
"Rock 'n' roll" has been shortened to "rock."

And all the genres bleed into each other over time.
posted by megatherium at 4:14 PM on December 9, 2012

One way to hear the difference would be to listen to the same song as it passes through different genres. "The Raggle Taggle Gypsy" is such a song. It's a Scottish ballad from, well, nobody is sure how old it is but maybe the 1720s. Cataloged by Child, it is also known as "Child #200".

In about 1940, the Carter Family sang it as the song "Black Jack David." This is hillbilly/country music.

In 1944, Woody Guthrie sang it as the song "Gypsy Davy." This is folk music.

In 1956, Warren Smith sang it as the song "Black Jack David". This is rockabilly.

In 1959, Harry Jackson sang the same tune lyrics befitting the West, as "Clayton Boone (track #303)." This is western music.

Just for grins, in 1990 The Waterboys sang this song as "Raggle Taggle Gypsy". This is Celtic folk rock.

In 1998, Dave Alvin sang this song as "Blackjack David." This is current country-western.
posted by Houstonian at 4:24 PM on December 9, 2012 [17 favorites]

They were at some point two distinct genres, however they were enjoyed by the same audiences as they gained greater popularity. Country and western as we know it music pretty much developed simultaneously. John Lomax's "Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads" was published in 1910, and a songbook of "English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians" was published in 1916. A hallmark of western music is the harmonica (Cowboy's Lament is an old standard based on an English song); it was a portable instrument and suited for cowboys, pioneers, and 49'rs. Spanish guitar was incorporated as well. Cowboys would sing to their cattle to sooth them and prevent them spooking and stampeding at night. The cowboy ballad "I Ride an Old Paint" is circa 1875. In contrast, Appalachian music used the banjo, an instrument with African roots, and the Scottish fiddle. Some people differentiate between "hillbilly" music and "mountain" music, with the former being guitar based and the latter being fiddle and banjo based. I'm sure you could argue about that forever, and at some point it become moot with both genres became popular on the radio in the early 20's, along with the western music of singing cowboys. (Bluegrass diverged from mountain music in the thirties by its syncopation and allegiance to incredible feats of instrumental prowess.) Guitar players of the period began to incorporate more blues. Steel guitar and ukelele from Hawaiian music also makes its appearance in the twenties, with steel guitar hanging on and uke disappearing. Western music got a huge boost in popularity in the 30s and 40s from the motion picture business inflating the cowboy myth. Jimmie Rodgers was the country singer who most famously brought blues guitar and steel guitar together along with yodeling. Western music grew in popularity with honky-tonk and swing. The word "hillbilly" began to be seen as derogatory during the depression as southern whites moved into the cities. The depression also brought leftist social ballads, which appealed to listeners in urban areas. Post war, folk music listeners also began to discover "country and western" music that formerly appealed mostly to rural whites. Nashville began to fill with recording studios. Hank Williams made honky-tonk respectable. By the fifties, the music began to incorporate all the influences of the past(hillbilly, honky-tonk, blues, western), but took on a poppier, more mainstream sound when rock and roll came about. By the 50s and 60s, "country and western" were pretty much the same thing, though you could pick out singers with more western or more hillbilly influences. It's been muddy ever since.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:57 PM on December 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

Excellent answers above, and Houstonian has a great way of explaining it!

Here's another short answer, with Western examples.
posted by homelystar at 7:17 AM on December 10, 2012

When I think Country music, I think the Appalachians, Nashville, etc. When I think Western music, I think cowboys, the Old West, etc. The larger genre is Country Western. The answers above a great at defining the sub-genres, but this discussion is not complete without this.
posted by Doohickie at 10:34 AM on December 10, 2012

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