History of Country Music
The history of country music began with the first recordings in the 1920s of “old-time music” in the 1920s, which refers to folk recordings from the Appalachian Mountains in the rural, eastern United States characterized by the use of the acoustic guitar, fiddle, and banjo (Errey,Scaruffi). These instruments reflect the patchwork of European and African influences on American society; the guitar came from Spain, the fiddle came from Ireland, and the banjo came from Africa (“History”). The United States is a nation of immigrants; so naturally, the music can be traced to its immigrant roots. These particular instruments also convey a distinctly southern culture within the United States. The African roots in country music (banjo and the blues) are connected to rampant slavery in the southern United States. Slavery was abolished in 1865, but the African-American population largely stayed in the South (Scaruffi). The mixture of rural loneliness, slavery, and European immigration were leading cultural factors in the creation of country music, which would lead to Nashville, Tennessee as the nucleus of the country music culture.
On November 28, 1925, the Nashville radio station WSM broadcasted a fiddler named Uncle Jimmy Thompson on the show called “The WSM Barn Dance” (“Introduction to the Opry”). The building for WSM was in Downtown Nashville, but the radio station focused on conveying a rural atmosphere through “barn music.” From the start, Nashville was a strategically advantageous city for the combination of economic aspirations (i.e. “making it big”) but adhering to rural, southern roots. WSM would later be titled the Grand Ole Opry, and by 1934, the WSM’s signal was strong enough to be heard around the country (“History of Country” ). By the mid-1950s, the term “Nashville Sound” referred to country music as a multimillion-dollar, commercial enterprise. The “Nashville Sound” succeeded at borrowing the styles of popular music at the time to create smooth arrangements and distinct choruses. The “Nashville Sound” attracted artists such as Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley to Sun Records in nearby Memphis for a Rockabilly sound that combined blues, country, and rock-n-roll genres (Scaruffi). In 1956, these two artists had three songs in the top five of the Billboard charts (“History of Country”).
While Nashville’s embrace of pop styles in country music was a big hit with mainstream audiences, by the mid-to-late ‘60s, many country artists rebelled against the inauthenticity of compromising the original southern roots (Errey). These artists were coined “outlaw country” and included Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. The mid-to-late 60s also saw Nashville attracting rock and folk artists like Gram Parsons of the Byrds and Bob Dylan for a new country rock sound. In the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Downtown Nashville, there is an exhibit called “Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City” (Light). This exhibit outlines three critical events in the Nashville music scene around this time: Bob Dylan recording his classic 1966 album Blonde on Blonde in Nashville, The Johnny Cash Show at the Ryman Auditorium from 1969 to 1971, and the group of session musicians nicknamed the “Nashville Cats.” The conservative nature of Nashville seemed at odds with Dylan’s protest music of the early 1960s, but once Dylan decided Nashville was a worthy influence, many artists around the world followed suit (“History of Country”). Cash would work on Dylan’s 1969 album Nashville Skyline, which featured heavily country influences.
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum exhibit was a major influence on Denice Hicks, the artistic director for The Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s production of The Comedy of Errors. In the director’s note, Hicks writes, “pairing Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan sounds like a comedy of errors, but the truth is that they inspired each other to make some exceptional music and found a way to blend the conservatism of Nashville with the liberality of folk music. Thus this musical version of Shakespeare’s shortest play was born!” The NSF’s version of The Comedy of Errors is set in 1960s Nashville-like Ephesus, with buildings resembling Nashville honky-tonk clubs, such as Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. In an interview conducted by contributors to our digital archive, one of the costume designers, Colleen Garatoni, said many of the outfits were original outfits found in Grand Ole Opry warehouses. The accents from all the characters were also distinctly southern. Most importantly, country, folk, and honky-tonk songs that reflect the “Nashville Sound” replace many of the scenes in the original The Comedy of Errors. In the same session of interviews, Hicks said that music is a “universal language,” and the intent was to show characters that could only fully express their emotions through songs. All of the songs for this production were written specifically for The Comedy of Errors and borrowed lines from Shakespeare’s original words as inspiration. The musical director Stan Lawrence and fellow contributor Lari White wrote many of the honky-tonk style songs with contributions by David Olney and Jack Kingsley who provided Dylan-esque folk songs to the production. In these ways, The Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s 2016 production of The Comedy of Errors proudly displayed the Nashville heritage of country music for this uniquely entertaining interpretation of Shakespeare’s work.