Radio Influence and Hillbilly Music

In Robert Cantwell’s article, Hillbilly Music, I learned many things about how the music industry played a big role in bringing “hillbilly music” to life in the early 20th century. Cantwell begins by introducing Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, and reviewing his start as a boy in rural Kentucky who travelled to Whiting in order to make a better living. Monroe is known as a traditional bluegrass artist. Most would agree that it doesn’t get any more bluegrass than Monroe, who was influenced by music he heard growing up around a musical family in Kentucky. This reading narrated his journey into fame in which the radio played a major role. If it weren’t for a WLS radio station agent approaching the Monroe brothers during a show, Bill, Birch, and Charlie would have probably been playing at local scenes for their entire career. It was the power of the radio that exposed the talent of these musicians to the world.

Cantwell notes that “radio…made excellent advertising, and they used it to attract audiences to their personal appearances.”. This shows how the radio was important in not only exposing great music to those who would not be able to hear it otherwise, but also advertising live performances that would allow listeners to see their favorite musicians in person. The radio also allowed musicians to influence listeners with their lyrics socially, politically, and in many other ways. It had the “power to transmit its message over geographical and cultural boundaries.”.

It is possible that without radio, this so called “hillbilly music” may have never been heard by anyone outside of the Appalachian region. Author and historian, Bill C. Malone, suggested that the beginning of “hillbilly music” on the radio could be credited to WBAP’s square dance program in 1923. As radio shows such as this and others such as the Grand Ole Opry became increasingly popular, more attention was brought to bluegrass and “hillbilly music”. These musicians were also provided with the opportunity to hear other music, especially Jazz, which became an influence for bluegrass artists such as Bill Monroe. With the rise in New Orleans Jazz, the bluesy sounds were emanated throughout bluegrass.

One thing that really stood out to me while reading Robert Cantwell’s chapter was the idea of bluegrass being traditional Appalachian music. This had me questioning whether or not “traditional’ music loses its validity when it is exploited commercially. So, I have composed two questions regarding this:

1) Traditional Appalachian music is thought to be music passed down through generations from family and friends. Is it possible to commercialize true traditional Appalachian music? Or does commercializing this traditional sound contradict its identity?

2) Many bluegrass fanatics and musicians have a strong opinion on the definition of bluegrass music. Does changing one aspect of traditional bluegrass music to incorporate a musician’s personal style change the genre of that song?

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