[This guest blog post was written by performer, teacher, and author Edrie Means-Weekly. It was originally published on CommercialVoiceResources.com and has been re-posted here with express permission from the author.]
Country music has been around for nearly 100 years, gaining popularity in the 1920’s with origins in United States. It was derived from the Appalachian folk song and blues. In the early years it was known as “Hillbilly Music” and would later be referred to as County music. Radio programs began to feature Country music. In 1925 Nashville’s WSM radio began broadcasting the Grand Ole Opry live and by the 30’s/40’s Country music was heard all over the US. WSM has continued to broadcast the Grand Ole Opry to this day.
Genres included in Country music are Rockabilly (1950’s, mixture of rock & roll and Hillbilly music – Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash), Bakersfield Sound (1960’s, Western Swing/Honky Tonk – Buck Owens, Merle Haggard), Bluegrass (Mountaineer band music), Honky Tonk, Nashville Sound (1950’s pop stylings, smooth vocal backed by a string section and vocal chorus – Patsy Cline, Eddy Arnold), Outlaw Country, Western Swing, Texas Country and Country Western. Cross-over includes Alternative Country, Country Rock (1960’s, The Rolling Stones “Honky Tonk Women”), Cowpunk, Country Rap, Country Pop (Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Keith Urban), Country Soul (Ray Charles), Southern Soul and Southern Hip Hop.
The instrumentation is fairly simple with acoustic and electric guitars, bass guitar, piano, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, steel guitar, harmonica, drums and double bass. The chord structure is based on the blues and pentatonic scales.
Lyrics nearly always have a strong story to tell or message to deliver with phrasing being short and conversational. Popular themes include alcohol, break-ups, “being country,” cars, Christianity, patriotism, trucks and revenge. Although essential for singers to connect emotionally, it can be challenging for a singer to express or connect to a song if he or she has not personally gone through certain life experiences. This is a good reason for singers to write their own songs. Country artists seem to hold the record for writing their own songs, often telling their own life experiences. This allows the singer to identify the emotion and then physically feel the emotion in the body. I remember hearing Alison Krauss speak about how she was sitting having coffee with her manager and whatever she was talking to him about became her next hit song. She said often times that’s how it happens.
The vocal tone is speech-based delivery, tending to be a Tennessee accent with a mixture of head, mix, chest, belt and falsetto. The tone can be breathy at times especially in romantic ballads. Nasal resonance or “twang” is present in most Country music – more so in Bluegrass and less in romantic Country songs. Country Pop songs can have belty moments throughout with pop riffs. The vocal coloring may be dark or bright and vibrato may be fast, delayed or straight tone.
If you don’t possess a natural American “twang” or southern country accent, dialect accent specialist David Allen Stern has published booklets on American Southern, Mid-West Farm and Texas. All booklets cover Intonation, Speech Rhythm, Muscularity/Resonance, Pronunciation and include IPA and a CD.
On a technical level, in order for the singer to be successful in Country music, they will need to cross-train their vocal production muscles to create laryngeal flexibility. The singer can switch back and forth between registers by making different interior shapes to allow changes in the resonance to serve the style. Good Country singers greatly vary their tone quality by altering the shape of the vocal tract, which extends from the vocal folds to the mouth opening, and by adding ‘vocal stylisms’ (a term I made up years ago to describe the extra nuances in CCM) to support the style. The singer is in control of these physiological and acoustical changes involving movement of the jaw, tongue and soft palate. Often the soft palate is dropped and the tongue retracted. In Bluegrass or Mountaineer songs the tongue pretty much remains retracted throughout. I attribute this tongue retraction not only to the dialect/accent but also to men trying to keep chew tobacco in the sides of their mouth while singing in the early days. This could lead to more jaw/tongue tension, so be careful and do tongue stretches and exercises to loosen up after singing Bluegrass.
Emotion and expression is created vocally by varying the dynamic, coloring the tone, varying the use of vowels and consonants, emphasizing alliterations and adding ‘vocal stylisms’. The singer can shorten the vowel and emphasize a particular consonant or use ‘word painting’ to color lyrics by creatively singing onomatopoetic words such as chirp, drip, bang, knock, zip, and click, as if to make them sound like the things the words represent. On words such as fall and drool, it’s also possible to seem to ‘fall off’ the pitch by gliding down to the next note, which adds more color and emphasis to the meaning of the words. Learning “vocal stylisms” and functional vocal exercises, can enhance style skills and performance in Country music.
EXERCISES FOR LARYNGEAL FLEXIBILITY AND STYLES
- Y[ae] 1 in Chest Register – 8 in Head Register (Yodel)
- [ae] – Start in chest and stay on note change to head
- Whoa – Pentatonic scale, C-D-E-G-A, in reverse A-B♭-A-B♭-G-E-D-C with added half step
- Y[ae] – 3 2 1 (mi, re, do) good for “ tails” or developing the high belt or “scream”
- Blues Scale – C-E♭-F-G♭-G-B♭-C
- [e], [a], [e], [a], [o] – Tongue out over straw. Done in 3rd’s, 4th’s, and 5th’s
- Guy-la – 5 note scale without moving jaw. Isolating the tongue.
- Tongue Exercises
- Touch nose/extend
- 12 o’clock 3, 6,9 12 o’clock
- Curl tongue up (tip against bottom teeth)
- Tongue moving around in a closed mouth
- [t] [d]; [p] [b]; [k] [g]; [sh] [dz]; [ s] [z] (no [zuh] buzz the z) f. Say alphabet with tongue outside mouth
VOCAL STYLISMS IN COUNTRY
- Slides: steady slide upward, End Slide-ups, Fry slide
- Bending (sliding into it from the note below)
- Cry (grace note from above) – sounds like a whine and used in sad or sentimental songs
- Swinging the note: dotted eighth note followed by sixteenth note.
- Onsets: Growls (low, guttural sound), Fry or Yodel at beginning of words
- Tails: 3 & 5 note patterns with decrescendo
- Yodel: Chest Register with a quick change to Head Register
- Licks, Wails, or Riffs: Brief improvisation – a distinctive few notes or short phrase
- Most improvisations can be traced back to classical ornaments
- Retracted tongue – tip against your bottom teeth, pull the tip back, away from your lower teeth and sides of your tongue touching your upper back molars
A singer must use caution and always aim for healthy functional singing while using these vocal stylisms.
Immerse yourself in the music if you are interested in becoming a Country music singer or teach someone who wants or needs to sing Country music for a particular job/role. Listen to it on country stations on the radio or on streaming music services. If you have Sirius xm, you will find there are several channels of Country music: 56 The Highway (Today’s Country Hits), 57 Y2KCountry (2000s Country Hits), 58 Prime Country (‘80s/’90s Country Hits), 59 Willie’s Roadhouse (Willie’s Classic Country Channel), 60 Outlaw Country (Rockin’ Country Rebels), 61 Bluegrass Junction (Bluegrass), 62 No Shoes Radio (Music from and Chosen by Kenny Chesney), 350 Red, White, & Booze (Country Bar Songs). I have short list of recommended singers below from different genres and generations.
- Trace Adkins
- Luke Bryan
- Garth Brooks
- Jimmy Buffet
- June Carter Cash
- Johnny Cash
- Kenny Chesney
- Eric Church
- Patsy Cline
- Dixie Chicks
- Rascal Flatts
- Emmylou Harris
- Faith Hill
- Alison Krauss
- Miranda Lambert
- Patty Lovelace
- Loretta Lynn
- Tim McGraw
- Reba McIntyre
- Willie Nelson
- Bonnie Raitt
- LeAnn Rimes
- Dolly Parton
- Ricky Scaggs
- George Strait
- Taylor Swift
- Randy Travis
- Shania Twain
- Carrie Underwood
- Keith Urban
- Roger Williams
Broadway has incorporated Country music into many shows, including this year’s Tony nominee Bright Star, written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. Here’s a list of country music-inspired shows:
- Always… Patsy Cline (Musical Revue) – 1988, created by Ted Swindley
- Annie Get Your Gun (some songs) -1946, Irving Berlin
- The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas – 1978, Carol Hall
- Big River – 1984, Roger Miller
- Bright Star – 2016, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell
- Calamity Jane – 1961, Sammy Fain
- The Civil War (some songs only) 1998, Frank Wildhorn
- Cowgirls – 1996, Mary Murfitt
- Destry Rides Again – 1959, Harold Rome
- Diamond Studs: The Life of Jesse James – 1974, Bland Simpson and Jim Wann
- Footloose – 1998, Tom Snow
- Floyd Collins – 1994, Adam Guettel
- Great American Trailer Park Musical – 2005, David Nehls
- Honky Tonk Angels (Musical Revue) – Based on 1993 album teamed Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette.
- Honky Tonk Highway – 1995, Robert Nassif-Lindsey, created by Ted Swindley
- Li’l Abner – 1956, Gene De Paul
- Look Homeward Honky Tonk Angel – 2007, by Larry Gatlin centers on country music legend Jimmy John Angel’s reunion concert with his ex-wife and even bigger star, Dixie Diamond
- Million Dollar Quartet – 2006, It dramatizes the Million Dollar Quartet recording session of December 4, 1956, among early Rock and roll stars Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, and newcomer Jerry Lee Lewis
- Oklahoma (some songs only)- 1943, Richard Rodgers
- Paint Your Wagon – 1951, Frederick Loewe
- Pump Boys and Dinettes – 1982, Is a musical written by a performance group of the same name. The group consists of John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel and Jim Wann, who were also the composers
- Ring of Fire – 2006, jukebox musical based on the music of Johnny Cash.
- Robber Bridegroom – 1976, Robert Waldman
- Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (few songs) – 1982, Gene de Paul, Al Kasha, Joel Hirschhorn
- Shenandoah – 1974, Gary Geld
- Smoke on the Mountain – 1990, Musical arrangements by Mike Craver and Mark Hardwick
- The Unsinkable Molly Brown – 1960, Meredith Willson
- Western Star – 1995, Dale Wasserman
- Will Rogers Follies – 1991, Cy Coleman
Now, go have fun listening, singing and teaching Country music – it’s Americana!!
P.S. Need help finding musical theatre repertoire to sing? Check out my professional repertoire guides here.