Magoosh English Class: Country Music in America

Country Music Singer playing a guitar and leaning against a wooden wall

Welcome to the next lesson in our free English class series about Music in America! Go find your boots and cowboy hats because we’re going to explore the origins of country music!

Goals:

  • Explore some of the history, influences, and genres of country music in America
  • Learn basic English terms used around musical topics
  • Explore a literary device used in English

Difficulty Level:

C2 Learners

Time:

Approximately 15 minutes

Country Music: Then and Now

Click below to listen to a recording of this passage.

Many outside of America associate country music as a Western style of music, but it’s actually known as the music of the South. The style originated in the folk music of working class or blue collar Americans. They mixed old Irish, Celtic, and English song styles with American blues songs created by African American workers in the Deep South.

From those origins, a musical revolution began and became a label for the farm and ranch communities of the Southern and Western United states.

The structure of a country music song is simple in nature but incorporates a variety of instruments and vocal harmonies. Country bands use both acoustic and electric guitars and drums accompanied by classic country instruments like a fiddle, steel guitar, banjo, or a harmonica. Most songs are traditionally played on a blues musical scale.

Though country music had been popular for over 20 years, the term didn’t become popular until the 1940’s when it replaced hillbilly music. Even then, it was called Country and Western music because of the Western musical influences. Performers often wore cowboy hats, boots, jeans, and Western style shirts, and song lyrics generally reflect the values associated with the American South and frontier West. Many of these performance traditions are still honored.

Beginning in the 1950’s, country music mixed with rock and popular music stylings and formed many musical blends that made it onto mainstream radio stations. Through the 60’s and 70’s, musicians blended other styles with country music to create a large number of country subgenres like country rock, pop country, neocountry, and alt-country. Many are still popular today.

However, the biggest boost to the popularity of country music came in the 1980’s when the US government expanded the number of FM Radio stations allowed to transmit. Traditionally, country music was played on lower quality AM Radio stations in rural and suburban areas. But with the expansion, the masses could hear high quality productions.

Today, country music continues to draw millions of listeners and inspires musicians from all walks of life and within many genres.

Watch this video for an example of a classic American folk song played on the fiddle:

Word Focus

  1. Blue Collar – (adjective) – Working class individuals who perform manual and/or unskilled labor (farmers, factory workers, etc…)The city was very poor and full of blue collar workers, but their spirit was never broken.
  2. Fiddle – (noun) – Another word for a violin that is used to play folk songs.A fiddle is the same instrument as a violin except that fiddle is a specific term in folk music like Cajun and Irish songs.
  3. Steel Guitar – (noun) – A horizontally positioned guitar played with a steel bar.The steel guitar is now a pillar of country music style.
  4. Banjo – (noun) – A stringed instrument that looks like a guitar but has a long neck and an open-back, round body. It is played by plucking the strings. Dueling Banjos is one of the most famous banjo songs ever.
  5. Harmonica – (noun) – A small wind instrument played with the mouth. Players change notes with the reeds and by taking air in or blowing air out through the instrument.My grandfather used to play the harmonica in a local band when he was younger.
  6. Hillbilly Music– (noun) – Regional folk music from the mountain regions of the Southern United states featuring a banjo, fiddle, and guitar. **Note: Hillbilly on its own can be viewed as a derogatory term.**Many hillbilly bands originated in the lower Appalachian region of the US.
  7. AM/FM Radio – (noun) – Both AM and FM radio are methods to broadcast radio waves. AM stations broadcast based on amplitude and FM stations on frequency. FM stations have little to no static.I prefer listening to FM radio over AM radio because there isn’t as much static, and the selection of music is a lot better.

Now, watch this video to see ALL of the country instruments in action, and let us know which ones you can spot in the comments below!

Grammar Center: Compound Nouns

In these music lessons, and especially in the above passage, you may have noticed a number of compound nouns.

The basic concept of compound nouns is for beginner and lower-intermediate level learners. But it’s important to understand that compound nouns grow more complex as you advance your learning.

As an American, I’ll be the first to say it, we LOVE to make compound nouns. It’s so easy to put two words together to give something a label.

For example, here are a few compound nouns from the lengthy list in the passage above:

  • Vocal harmony
  • Cowboy hat
  • Deep South
  • Pop country
  • Mainstream

Compound nouns are two or more words that come together to form a single unit or noun. We form these nouns by combining a noun with another noun (cowboy hat) or an adjective with another noun (pop country). However, there are other forms:

Other Forms

  • Noun + Noun: football, baseball
  • Adjective + Noun: blackberry, greenhouse
  • Noun + Adjective: truckful
  • Noun + Verb: sunset, haircut
  • Verb + Noun: breakfast, swimming pool, washing machine
  • Preposition + Noun: underground, underwater, overhead
  • Verb + Preposition: checkout, check-up

Compound nouns come in three forms:

  1. Spaced or openswimming pool, washing machine
  2. Hyphenated – check-up
  3. Closed – Checkout, underwater

Don’t forget! Compound nouns can also be plural.

  • Don’t forget your tennis shoes!

Lastly, because compound nouns act as a single noun, they can be modified by an adjective or another noun.

  • The song had beautiful vocal harmonies that elicited a strong emotion from the audience.

As an advanced learner, you probably know the basic ones like breakfast. But as you expand your vocabulary, it’s important to notice when writers (even academics) use two distinct words to create a new one.

The best tool you have for identifying compound nouns is a strong vocabulary, so be sure and build it up every day and utilize tools like the free Magoosh TOEFL Flashcards.

Next, don’t be afraid to play with compound nouns in your own conversations. It’s fun to explore the language and see what you can come up with between friends. This is a great tool that helps you learn and remember words. After all, you can always confirm the correct usage with a native speaker.

Quiz Time!

  1. The author of the passage would likely agree with which of the following statements?A. Banjos and harmonicas are used in most American bands.B. Country music, though popular, didn’t have an effect on American culture.C. Country music is a popular form of American music with a diverse and stylized history.

    D. Steel guitars are used in every country music band.

  2. Which style of folk music was not incorporated into early country music?A. IrishB. ScandanavianC. Celtic

    D. English

  3. Hillbilly music is a subgenre of country music.A. TrueB. False
  4. Which of the following is an example of a blue collar job?A. CustodianB. Computer Software ProgrammerC. Lawyer

    D. TV Anchor

  5. Compound nouns can be modified by an adjective or another noun.A. TrueB. False
  6. Read the sentence from the passage below:Country bands use both acoustic and electric guitars and drums accompanied by classic country instruments like a fiddle, steel guitar, banjo, or a harmonica.In this sentence, the word both is used as a/an:A. Adjective

    B. Pronoun

    C. Conjunction

    D. Preposition

    Show Correct Answers:
    1. C
    2. B
    3. B
    4. A
    5. A
    6. C
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