Early country music featured numerous string bands comprised of fiddle music with rhythm background furnished by guitar, banjo, and sometimes mandolin.
“Country” is the contemporary term for the music of common white folks of the rural South. It evolved over the years from elements of old Protestant hymns, traditional ballads of English and Scottish origins, dance music, African American musical traditions, and material of such composed traditions as designed for the minstrel stage and early-day “Tin-Pan-Alley.” Country music as known in modern America began to develop in the early and mid-1920s when it first began to appear on radio stations and phonograph recordings. In addition to rural residents generally, the music seems to have been especially popular among textile workers in the cotton-mill villages. Country song lyrics, with their varying degrees of sadness and sentimentality, touches of rowdiness, reverence, and occasional self-deprecating humor have a way of expressing the thoughts and feelings of ordinary folk in a manner that, while unappealing to the more sophisticated, reaches their souls when other cultural forms do not. Through the years the music has become more complex, more commercial, and more electric, while still managing to retain much of its original character.
Early practitioners of country music in South Carolina included the Bouchillon Trio and Chris Bouchillon, the latter of whom drew much of his music from minstrel traditions and made several recordings for Columbia, most notably “The Talking Blues” in 1926. Early country music featured numerous string bands comprised of fiddle music with rhythm background furnished by guitar, banjo, and sometimes mandolin. Pioneer artists in this field included the Aiken County String Band, who in 1927 cut such tunes as “Carolina Stompdown” and “Harrisburg Itch” for the Okeh label. The duo of Charlie Parker and Mack Woolbright from Union made six sides for Columbia in 1927 that included such sentimental songs as “Grandmother’s Old Arm Chair” and the humorous “The Man That Wrote Home Sweet Home Never Was a Married Man.” South Carolina–born steel guitarist Jimmie Tarlton, while living in Columbus, Georgia, recorded many numbers for Columbia beginning in 1927 as half of the duet act of Darby and Tarlton, including the earliest known versions of “Birmingham Jail” and “Columbus Stockade Blues.”
While musicians continued to record during the Great Depression, radio programs probably played a more significant role in the dissemination of country-music sounds. Stations of note that broadcast country radio programs in South Carolina included WIS Columbia, WFBC Greenville, and WSPA Spartanburg. Influential stations in neighboring states that had numerous South Carolinians in their listening audience included WBT Charlotte, WPTF Raleigh, WSB Atlanta, and on Saturday nights WSM in Nashville. Among the notable groups heard on these stations were Mainer’s Mountaineers, the Dixon Brothers, the Monroe Brothers, Fisher Hendley, Cliff Carlisle, the Blue Sky Boys, Claude Casey’s Pine State Playboys, the Briarhoppers, and Byron Parker’s Mountaineers (later known as the WIS Hillbillies and finally as the Hired Hands), who made WIS their permanent base after 1937. The banjo-picking comic DeWitt “Snuffy” Jenkins and the fiddler Homer “Pappy” Sherill dominated this group musically. In 1938 the American Record Corporation held recording sessions in Columbia, and in 1938 and 1939 Blue Records conducted similar sessions in Rock Hill, possibly because of disputes with the musicians’ union in Charlotte.
In the past half-century country music has continued to be popular in South Carolina, although the state has contributed few performers who have attained national fame. Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith of Kershaw County eventually became the dominant figure on the Charlotte scene. One of the major stars of the 1960s, Bill Anderson, spent his early years in the Palmetto State, and two of the more significant figures in bluegrass music, the late vocalist Charlie Moore and the influential banjo picker Don Reno, hailed from the South Carolina Piedmont. The late Carl Story, known as the father of bluegrass gospel music, spent the last quarter-century of his life in Greer, where he did disc-jockey work when not on the road. The gospel pianist and Greenville native Hovie Lister led the Atlanta-based Statesmen Quartet for more than a half-century. Southern gospel groups such as the contemporary Palmetto State Quartet still play a significant role on the sacred-music scene.
Although South Carolina may not have produced as many country stars as neighboring states have, country fans are abundant and many radio stations have adopted country formats. Furthermore, the Myrtle Beach area, as one of the South’s major tourist attractions, has increasingly had its share of country music venues. With such theaters and programs as the “Carolina Opry,” the Grand Strand is rapidly gaining a name as “Branson East.”