Country by the Decade: 1960s
How country music’s biggest artists and moments in the 1960s shaped the genre forever.
By Katie Quine
Along with rapidly changing cultural mores, the 1960s also brought an explosion of new musical genres, from psychedelic rock to bubblegum pop. It seems as if the entire universe had been seized by “Beatlemania” during the decade, but a great deal was happening in the country music world, too.
The Nashville sound remained a popular subgenre in the early 1960s, but in California, a contrasting style emerged as an alternative to the polished sounds produced on Music Row. “The Bakersfield sound” captured the ethos of honky-tonk bars, which resulted in electrified, crisp tracks with a noticeable backbeat. Alongside his Buckaroos, Buck Owens was a pioneer of the Bakersfield sound. His chart-topping “Act Naturally” helped the subgenre gain a wider audience and was even covered by The Beatles.
Johnny Cash saw his fair share of success as an established artist in the decade, too. In 1963, he recorded his biggest hit, “Ring of Fire.” The song was written by June Carter, who he met backstage at the Ryman Auditorium during a Grand Ole Opry show in 1956 and married in 1968.
Many of Cash’s songs were topical and candid. The Man in Black didn’t shy away from weighty issues that made national headlines at the time. Cash released several protest songs over his career and played a series of concerts at jails across the country as a way of advocating for prison reform.
One of Cash’s stops included San Quentin State Prison, where he recorded a legendary live album in 1969. A young Merle Haggard, once an inmate, sat in the audience of Cash’s 1958 prison show. Cash was an inspiration to Haggard, who became a star himself after he was released on parole. Even though Haggard’s hits such as “Okie from Muskogee” and “Fightin’ Side of Me” offered a different perspective on subjects such as the Vietnam War, together Cash and Haggard not only sang about real-life issues but also shared a close friendship.
For the first time ever, the 1960s brought both war and presidential debates into the living rooms of television viewers, but The Porter Wagoner Show occupied a unique space on screen, providing entertainment and a slice of Americana during a turbulent time in history. Porter Wagoner, a rhinestone-studded Grand Ole Opry fixture, hosted a variety show that was widely syndicated and championed traditional styles of country music. The show also happened to launch the career of “girl singer”-turned-superstar Dolly Parton. Her rise to fame signaled an era of reigning country queens to come in the 1970s.