Irish luck of country music

Photo by Caroline Betz Student Publications

From Reba McEntire’s murder ballad “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” to the prominent fiddling in “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” the influence of Irish folk music on the country music of today can be seen throughout some of the most famous songs of the genre. 

Among the diverse roots of the country music genre sits the traditional instruments and music of Ireland. One of the most prominent elements of country music that has roots in Irish music is the fiddle. Many Irish immigrants, especially between 1820 and 1930, moved to rural areas in Virginia and the Carolinas — the area where country music first developed. 

The cultural influence of these early Irish immigrants to the U.S. can be seen through modern country music and the prevalence of instruments in the genre. 

Sometime around the 17th century, the fiddle appeared on Irish shores from continental Europe, and it grew in popularity within the instrumentation of traditional Irish songs. 

As the Irish immigrants brought their songs with them across the Atlantic, American folk music began to include elements of these songs. In particular, the fiddle became incredibly popular in music styles developing in the Appalachian Mountains that would eventually develop into the country music of today.

Early influence of the fiddle on American music can be seen through the string-band music that emerged in the early 1920s. 

The genre began to be featured on radio stations, especially Nashville’s famous station, the “Grand Ole Opry,” that still plays country music to this day. 

The radio features broadened the influence of the fiddle within the string-band genre and brought its melodies to new ears. 

Some of country music’s most popular songs that prominently feature the fiddle include  “Amarillo By Morning” by George Strait, “Cowboy, Take Me Away” by The Chicks, “Callin’ Baton Rouge” by Garth Brooks and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels Band. The fiddling portions of country songs are often so popular with fans that during live performances, fiddlers may perform extended solos and riffs beyond what is included in the recorded version of the songs. 

The tradition of ballad songs, a hallmark of the country genre, also can trace their roots to Irish folk songs. Although the ballad evolved through many different cultures, they are especially notable among Irish folk songs that were popular during times of large waves of immigration from Ireland to the United States.  

Popular narratives in these ballads include dramatic stories of great love and murder. 

The style of vivid storytelling through music was popularized in American folk music. This was done in much the same way as the fiddle, eventually becoming a significant part of American genres that were in their infancy in Appalachia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Some popular examples within contemporary country music include “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” by Reba McEntire, “Don’t Take the Girl” by Tim McGraw, “Cowgirls Don’t Cry” by Brooks & Dunn, “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman, “Jesus, Take the Wheel” by Carrie Underwood and “The Highwayman” by Jimmy Webb. 

The stories told in these songs detail devastating heartbreak, love that could move mountains and sinister murders — echoing the stories told by the Irish folk ballads. 

As country music comes into mainstream media like never before, taking the top three spots on the Billboard Top 100 for the first time ever, take a listen and you just might notice some of the ways that Irish music has influenced the growing genre.