Dive in to the task of tracing the precise origins of country music, and you’re bound to discover that the experience is filled with endless detours. Mapping a road trip across the United States in a ruler-straight line would be an easier undertaking.
Many country music fans point to the first recordings of Southern Appalachian fiddle players in the 1910s or the first commercial album made by Eck Robertson in 1922. But the roots of the music run deeper than the 20th Century’s advancements in recording technologies. Mountain and hillbilly music blends the folksongs and ballads brought to the South by immigrants from the British Isles in the 18th and 19th Centuries with the rhythms of African music brought to the U.S. by the early waves of the slave trade. Often prohibited from playing drums, African captives invented one of the staple instruments of country music – the banjo – in the 1690s, and many of them swiftly mastered fiddle playing. Despite the ongoing, deeply essential influences pioneered by Black music-makers, only two of them – DeFord Bailey and Charley Pride – have been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
The twists and turns of country music as it transformed from backyard and street-corner song-making to rhinestone-encrusted big business reflects the American story in all its glory and salty grime. But the themes of struggle and agony, love and betrayal – with a dose of nostalgia thrown in for good measure – resonate across the decades.
Country music weaves together a tangled web of musical origin stories – and its narrative is far from complete. More than mere twang and strumming, more than the music of a singular place or tradition, more than a slew of songs that compare wives to rusty trucks and drunk husbands to cheaters of the heart, country music has always contained multitudes.
Just as the roots of country music snake out in every direction, the branches of that musical tree are just as varied, blending notes and beats of the blues, folk, rock and bluegrass. And in Minnesota, these local musicians do what country music makers have always done: Put their own stamp on song.
Monroe Crossing – “Easy to Get Lost”
Dubbed the “father of bluegrass,” Bill Monroe brought together the five musicians of Monroe Crossing in musical harmony. One of the many much-loved bluegrass outfits in Minnesota, the quintet shows you that it is, indeed, “Easy to get Lost” in a rich musical tradition that leaves you with the distinct desire to explore all the red barns Minnesota has to offer.
Chastity Brown – “Plans of Buildin'”
Blending country, soul and blues, Chastity Brown now calls Minnesota home – but her roots are in the gospel musical tradition of her upbringing in Tennessee. About her musical influences, she says, “What I’ve realized is that the personal is political. Just by me being a biracial, half-black, half-white woman living in America right now is political. Just being a person of color, a queer woman of color, for that matter, is freaking political…. I’m really intrigued by the perseverance of the human spirit and the complexities and contradictions that we embody as human beings.”
Jack Klatt & The Cat Swingers – “Life’s a Drag (But Not Mine)”
In addition to notes of country swing, this little ditty from Jack Klatt & The Cat Swingers takes you straight through the doors of a 1950s-era Parisian bistro, where accordion melodies and the quick beats of an upright base lull you into an ex-pat dream. Just like the origins of country music, it’s downright impossible to put Klatt’s music into a box.
Barbara Jean – “Flesh and Bones”
Against the rugged backdrop of her Lake Superior home turf, Barbara Jean has honed a singular musical style steeped in country, Americana and bluegrass influences with a touch all her own. Star Tribune music critic has called her “Minnesota’s answer to Emmylou Harris,” and you can almost hear the subtle nuances of the North Shore in this quiet song driven by banjo and pedal steel.
The Cactus Blossoms – “A Sad Day To Be You”
Spend any time listening to The Cactus Blossoms and you might start to dream of warm summer afternoons spent wandering down gravel roads in search of a tree-lined creek to cool off in. With a classic country sound that hearkens back to the days of Hank Williams and harmonies reminiscent of The Everly Brothers, you might think that brothers Page Burkum and Jack Torrey (who took a stage name when he stepped out as a solo artist at the age of 19) hail from the South. Instead, they grew up listening to vintage country and folk music in Minneapolis, and, after forming The Cactus Blossoms in 2010, they now bring that classic sound to all corners of the globe.
Trampled By Turtles – “It’s a War”
Warhorses of the Midwestern folk and bluegrass circuits, Trampled By Turtles bring a kind of string-band fever pitch to their music. Originally from Duluth, the band has released eight albums – and their fifth release “Palomino” held fast to a top-10 position on the US Billboard bluegrass charts for 52 straight weeks. But the band’s origin story revolves around accidental circumstances. In 2003, frontman Dave Simonett lost most of his music gear after his car was broken into during a show with his former band. Left with only an acoustic guitar, Simonett started writing song influenced by country, folk and bluegrass.
The Pines – “Behind the Time” and “Shiny Shoes” (Plus an interview)
Vocalists, guitarists and songwriters David Huckfelt and Benson Ramsey were both raised in Iowa, met one another in Tucson, Az., and formed The Pines in Minneapolis in 2002. Playing a nuanced blend of blues, roots, folk and indie-rock, the band turns the Midwest’s flat, expansive prairies into a musical language that demands your full attention.
Want to dive into the rich history of country music? For a limited time, you can stream Ken Burns’ latest documentary epic, Country Music, a 16-hour exploration that will criss-cross the nation.
If you need a little more Minnesota-made country music in your life – and who doesn’t? – check out this video story about The Okee Dokee Brothers, a duo that takes inspiration from experiences in the great outdoors to inspire others to connect withe the natural world.
Let’s face it: Every day should be Valentine’s Day. Look no further than these eight Minnesota music-makers and their love-inspired tunes to prove our case.