From 'Hillbilly Music' to Industry Juggernaut: A Century of Country Music Coverage

brooks: al levine/nbcu photo bank/getty images

Before Dolly Parton worked “9 to 5” or Johnny Cash walked the line, Billboard has been in the saddle, surveying the field of country music. Early on, it struggled to get its due: The magazine’s first genre chart, in 1944, tracked Most Played Juke Box Folk Records (Hillbillies, Spirituals, Cowboy Songs, Etc.). But Billboard ponied up proper respect as “hillbilly music” grew into a uniquely American art form that shaped pop culture with smooth “countrypolitan” recordings, Urban Cowboy chic and stadium superstars like Taylor Swift.

Country cropped up in the Jan. 7, 1928, issue with a photo of early stars Otto Gray & His Oklahoma Cowboys Band that included the group’s mascot — a German shepherd named Rex.

“Operators of music machines [are] finding a more generous flow of coins coming in for the hillbilly and cowboy tunes,” according to the Jan. 8, 1944, Billboard, in which the genre chart debuted. On top that first week: Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters’ “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” a favorite among Marines stationed in the South Pacific. Some heard the sound of home: A dispatch from New Delhi in the same issue reported that “a hillbilly guitar brought life to a weary troopship.”

By the 1950s, country had grown into a significant cultural force — and a big business. The Oct. 20, 1958, Billboard introduced the Hot C&W Sides chart (now known as Hot Country Songs), which was topped by Ray Price’s “City Lights.” That issue also showed the genre’s impact on pop and rock: In one article, the 17-year-old idol Paul Anka hailed Hank Williams as “one of the great [song]writers,” while a review said rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson’s “Sinful Heart” “could move in the more rural circles,” since “the gal gives this bleeder a reading with the heartbreak sound.”

Even in the psychedelic 1960s, country was big on campus. “The surfers of South Texas have ‘broken their boards’ and made the switch to country and western music,” reported the Dec. 23, 1967, Billboard, citing pioneering Black superstar Charley Pride as the region’s most popular. Pride’s label, RCA, made him and his genre a national priority, “placing heavy stress” on Nashville, according to the June 27, 1970, issue, which noted the “vast importance to the overall industry” of what was once “known as a specialty” field.

Urban Cowboy and Coal Miner’s Daughter brought small-town music to the big screen in 1980, and the genre continued to grow after that. “Country radio kept pace with its spectacular growth of the last two years,” according to the May 30, 1992, Billboard, thanks to burgeoning stars like Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus. Not everyone joined the line dance, however. A column in the March 28, 1992, issue roasted the “whine of a rock critic” who panned Brooks, suggesting that “record labels could make a fortune if they hired such critics in their A&R departments — and then signed only the acts they hated.”

This story originally appeared in the June 26, 2021, issue of Billboard.