The Life and Struggles Of Being A Country Musician In The 60s

Close-up portrait of American country singer and songwriter Johnny Cash (1932 - 2003). (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

The 1960s were a period of significant social changes and the rise of various countercultural movements. The American society was in a state of unrest, and many artists reflected this in their music. The 1960s saw the growth of television and radio stations that broadcasted new genres of music into millions of homes, but the themes of country music still resonated with many Americans. As city life boomed and rural life was romanticized, many songwriters headed to cities like Nashville in search of success.

In these creative hotbeds, artists found like-minded individuals who were eager to transform traditional country music and create a sleek new style that promised wider popularity. These artists became household names, but with fame came notoriety, and many country stars paid a heavy price for their success. Despite the themes of love, loss, and nostalgia in their music, many country artists of the time were struggling with personal pain and controversy that they tried to keep hidden from the public eye.


“The Negative Impact of Touring on Family Life in 60s Country Music”

The 1960s saw a significant shift in the American family structure, with divorce becoming more common due to the rise of feminist empowerment and a loosening of societal taboo surrounding it. This increase in divorce rates coincided with the growing popularity of country music, as many country performers hit the road to take advantage of their success.

Touring and the constant pressure to maintain a balance between family life and a demanding career presented many difficulties for country artists. The hectic schedules and endless travel resulted in many performers struggling to be the ideal “father,” “husband,” or “wife” for their families.

Moreover, the road life brought with it its own set of temptations, as demonstrated by the tumultuous relationship between country musicians Tammy Wynette and George Jones. Their troubled marriage, marked by heartaches, reconciliations, and two separate divorce filings, highlights the difficulties that touring can put on a relationship.

Their daughter, Georgette Jones, spoke of the impact that this turmoil had on their family. Tammy Wynette’s hit song “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” from 1968 reflects the pain and sorrow of divorce, as the singer portrays a mother trying to shield her young son from the heartache by spelling out the word around him.


“Segregation in Country Music: The Racial Divide in 1960s America”

As equality in marriages was being fought for, America was also grappling with its racist history and strained racial relationships. Despite country music having roots in blues and R&B, many artists of color were not included in the success of the country music genre, as reported by Time.

Many country musicians were impacted by segregation and the lingering effects of discriminatory practices from the Jim Crow era, resulting in a lack of diversity in the mainstream country music scene. This caused a separate music market for artists of color to emerge, and often their work as session musicians went uncredited or their records were sold as “race records.” The genre was targeted towards white America. Audiences also faced the consequences of these harsh separations, with black audiences unable to attend white-only shows and interracial band members unable to play together. Many venues also refused to book shows for artists of color, as reported by Rolling Stone. The Grand Ole Opry, a revered institution in country music, also excluded many artists of color during this time, as documented by The New York Times. However, with the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, opportunities became more accessible for discriminated artists. Charley Pride, who was highly regarded in the industry, was one such artist who persevered and became a country music superstar. He later spoke about America’s racial attitudes in an interview with The Dallas Morning News, via AP News, calling such prejudices “a disease.”


“Publicity Invades Privacy”

The personal lives of the country music stars in the 1960s were greatly impacted by the fame they received. As their songs gained popularity and were broadcasted nationwide, the public’s attention was not just focused on their musical abilities, but also their personal lives. With their growing popularity, their personal choices, beliefs, and relationships were subject to public scrutiny, and their public image played a significant role in their reputation and career. This pressure and criticism made it challenging for them to maintain a normal life.

Some country artists faced backlash and criticism when they deviated from their wholesome image, such as Tammy Wynette and George Jones. For instance, when the two were separated, fans would ask about Jones’ absence during Wynette’s performances.

Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian Liberto, also faced a similar situation when photos of Liberto’s arrest in 1965 were leaked to the newspapers. This sparked outrage among Cash’s fans and conservative groups, as interracial marriage was heavily stigmatized at the time. Liberto, who had Sicilian heritage, was mistaken for being Black, leading to the Cash family receiving death threats from white supremacists.


“The Threat of Substance Misuse”

The danger of substance abuse was a constant threat for country musicians during the 1960s. The fast-paced, high-stress lifestyle that came with being a country star often led to heavy drinking, drug use, and other forms of substance abuse. This was especially true for musicians who were performing on a nightly basis and had to cope with long hours, strenuous travel schedules, and the pressure of keeping up with the demands of the industry.

According to The Guardian, many country stars turned to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with the stress and strain of life in the public eye. These harmful substances often became an escape from the intense criticism and public scrutiny they faced, as well as a way to deal with personal problems and the constant pressure to perform.

However, this pattern of substance abuse often spiraled out of control and had serious consequences for the musicians, their families, and their careers. Many artists became addicted and suffered from health problems, such as liver disease and other organ failures, as a result of their substance abuse. It was a vicious cycle that threatened the lives and careers of many talented musicians in the country music scene.


“Mental Health Neglect: The Dangers of a Lack of Support”

In the 1960s, when discussing mental health was still a taboo subject, many country music stars struggled with depression, anxiety, and addiction in private. The pressure of fame and the stigma surrounding mental illness made it difficult for them to address and overcome their demons.

Male country musicians faced a particular challenge, as the macho culture of partying and drinking often overshadowed their struggles with mental health. Female country artists also suffered in silence, as in the case of Tammy Wynette who received electroshock therapy for depression during her pregnancy but kept it a secret.

However, many country musicians received treatment and revived their careers in the following decades, raising awareness about mental health issues among their fans.


“The Harsh Reality of Domestic Violence in 1960s Country Music”

Despite the rise of feminism in the 1960s, the prevalence of domestic violence in the country music industry was a silent issue. Female artists were often subjected to abusive relationships, but these were often downplayed or ignored by the heavily male-dominated industry. Domestic violence was seen as a private problem, allowing abusive behavior to go unchecked.

In her book, Vivian Liberto, former wife of Johnny Cash, described her husband’s physical abuse. Tammy Wynette’s claims of being kidnapped and beaten at gunpoint are shrouded in uncertainty and speculation, with her daughter later supporting the theory that the incident was fabricated to protect her manager and fifth husband, George Richey. Loretta Lynn’s marriage to her husband and manager, Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn, was plagued by drunkenness, violence, and infidelity, inspiring many of her songs, but Lynn admitted to putting up with the abuse for the sake of her six children.

Domestic violence in the 1960s country music industry was a difficult topic, but the industry’s tendency to downplay or ignore these issues allowed abusive behavior to continue without consequence.


“Unfaithful Lovers in Country Music”

Infidelity has been a recurring theme in country music since the 1960s. Musicians have transformed their heartbreak and pain into lyrics, either mourning the loss of a loved one or celebrating a forbidden love. One famous example of this is Johnny Cash and June Carter’s relationship, which began as an affair while both were still married to others.

However, Cash’s persistent infidelity throughout the 1960s caused tension in their relationship, as documented in Robert Hilburn’s biography of Cash. Male artists often brag about their extramarital affairs, while female artists tend to express their sorrow and anger over being betrayed by a partner. Loretta Lynn, for instance, wrote hit songs such as “Fist City” based on the heartbreak caused by her husband’s infidelity. Despite this, Lynn acknowledged her husband’s right to a share of her earnings as her spouse and manager.


“Gender Inequality in 1960s Country Music”

The 1960s was a time of great social change, yet many traditional gender roles persisted in country music. Women were often underrepresented and marginalized, frequently serving as background singers rather than headlining as songwriters and performers. In songs of the era, women were often portrayed as suffering or as objects of desire. Despite these challenges, many female songwriters emerged as stars who would change the genre forever.

Dolly Parton, in her 1968 hit “Dumb Blonde,” challenged the sexist attitudes she likely faced with the line “this dumb blonde ain’t nobody’s fool.” Patsy Cline, despite being a mother and wife, broke social norms and set a trend for women in country music. Loretta Lynn also demanded autonomy and a career, releasing the controversial song “The Pill” that praised the freedom contraception offered women. Despite its “scandalous” nature, many radio stations still refuse to play the song today.


“Exploitative Managers and Gatekeeping Producers in 1960s Country Music”

The country music industry in the 1960s was plagued by managers and producers who wielded a great deal of power over the artists they represented. One of the most notorious examples was Elvis Presley’s manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, who took an unprecedented 50% cut of Presley’s earnings, according to The New York Times. This led to Presley being trapped in a contract with Parker until 1976, even though he was reportedly unhappy with the management.

Many young artists in the industry likely fell victim to exploitative management practices at the beginning of their careers. Record producers in Nashville held control over the studios, engineers, and other resources essential for recording music, which gave them significant influence over the sound and direction of “the Nashville Sound.” This contributed to the eventual decline of the 1960s country sound, as noted in “Will the Circle be Unbroken.”

In the Nashville scene, talent agent, publisher, and booker Jim Denny played a significant role as a gatekeeper for aspiring country musicians. Denny was the booker for the Grand Ole Opry, a weekly institution that launched the careers of many country legends. However, aspiring artists had to first pass through Denny, as evidenced by Johnny Cash’s experience, who had to wait two hours to speak with Denny despite having a hit single at the time of their meeting, according to “Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Reader.”


“Tragic Deaths Plague the Country Music Scene”

The year 1959 is remembered in country music history as “the day the music died,” with the tragic loss of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper in a plane crash on their way to a concert. Unfortunately, the hazards of touring did not abate in the following decade. In the 1960s, several promising country artists lost their lives while travelling to or from concerts. Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, and Hawkshaw Hawkins were killed in a plane crash in 1963, while Jim Reeves died in a 1964 plane crash that remains shrouded in mystery.

On the roads, country artists also faced dangerous conditions. Johnny Horton was killed in a car crash in 1960, and Patsy Cline herself had survived a car crash in 1961. These tragic deaths cast a shadow over the 1960s country music scene, highlighting the sacrifices and risks faced by musicians on the road. The loss of so many talented artists cut short the careers and musical legacies they could have left behind.


“The End of an Era”

Making it through the tumultuous 1960s country music scene is no small feat. But even if you’ve managed to avoid all the pitfalls that came with being a star in this era, your work is far from over. The industry is a fickle one and as the decades passed, so did the taste of the public. By the end of the 1960s, country music was fighting to remain relevant as the appeal of rock and roll, psychedelia, funk, and soul took hold.

As rock dominated the airwaves, country radio stations and labels began to focus their attention on the commercially successful artists, making it more difficult for new songwriters to break through, as reported by The New York Times. The shine of the polished Nashville Sound was beginning to wear off, and many artists felt trapped in tradition. To combat this, some country singers, like Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, adopted the rebellious spirit of rock and combined it with their country roots to create a unique, raw sound, leading the way for the emergence of “outlaw country” in the 1970s. This fusion forced many of the leading artists of the 1960s to either adapt or be left behind, according to the book “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”