The German Fascination With Country Music
Country music is unequivocally American, and the more modern take on the genre has helped to boost its global popularity even more in recent years. But there is one place that has a long-standing fascination with all things country – Germany. Now home to a vibrant and active subculture that includes local artists, music festivals, and even theme parks, Germany has embraced country music like nowhere else. But where did this fascination come from, and what does the German country music scene look like today?
How it all started
Over the years there have been a few reasons why country gained such a foothold in the German psyche, but the origins actually go as far back as the late 19th century. As the Wild West era was in its heyday in the years following the Civil War, popular German author Karl May was weaving tales of cowboys and Indians in the frontier country. May, despite never visiting America himself, helped to popularize the romantic images of the Old West lifestyle back in his native Germany.
At the time, May’s depictions of the freedom and possibility of the new world were a source of escapism for many in a country undergoing rapid industrialization. Little wonder that there was a resurgence in interest in his work in the post-war years. At the same time, many Germans got their first taste of authentic country music via the American Forces Network (AFN) radio broadcasts aimed at resident American GIs stationed in the many military bases spread across the western part of the territory.
During the Cold War years, as Communism exerted its influence over much of Europe, country music and the American lifestyle came to represent a better, more aspirational way to live. During that time the United Service Organizations (USO) also brought many country stars over from the states to entertain the GIs, and thanks to concerted efforts to encourage friendship between the countries many locals attended events and even played in the bands.
From these beginnings started a thriving German country music scene that persists to this day. Many local artists started incorporating aspects of the genre into German language songs, which proved a more popular choice than singing in English. Truck Stop, a band that formed in the 1970s and still performs today, switched from English to German in 1977 and saw their sales skyrocket. Although virtually unknown outside their homeland, Truck Stop have toured with the likes of Hank Williams Jr and Waylon Jennings, and the band may be single-handedly responsible for inspiring many of the well-known names of the German country music scene.
Other notable talents who came through during the 1980s and beyond include Tom Astor and Gunter Gabriel. Astor, looking every inch the archetypal cowboy musician with his white teeth and Stetson, has worked with some of American country music’s heavy hitters including Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, John Denver, Kenny Rogers, and Willie Nelson. More recently there has been a move towards more English language country music in the traditional style from artists like Markus Rill and Slow Horses. Berlin band The BossHoss do country-style covers of pop favorites and display a distinctive cowboy aesthetic. German alternative country bands include The Waltons, who describe their style as ‘cow-punk’ and distance themselves from the more aggressive psychobilly country punk that originated in England.
Country festivals and gatherings
Country music may only account for a very small proportion of record sales in Germany, but the small scene is dedicated and enthusiastic. It’s also big enough to support several events including an annual Country Music Meeting in Berlin featuring largely local talent. Other festivals include the Trucker & Country Festival in Geiselwind, which celebrates the spirit of freedom and the open road based on an idealized version of the modern West. It has it all – from beer in salons, gambling and festive games. Quite a different experience from every when most people just play mobile casinos with Wild West themed slots to get the mood.
Germany is also home to two Wild West theme parks, the largest being the Pullman City Harz in the Saxony-Anhalt region. The park pulls in hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, calling itself the home of cowboys and country music. Hundreds of acts perform music almost daily, and shops sell boots and hats, Native American style jewelry, and other trinkets with a western theme. Unlike much German country music, the park allows only English-language songs, although they make an exception for Truck Stop who play a large open air concert there each season.
Tucked away in an industrial area on the outskirts of Berlin you can find Old Texas Town, opened in 1950 and run by The Cowboy Club Old Texas Berlin. A detailed reconstruction of an Old West town, this attraction opens only one day of the month during the summer season. Dedicated country-western fans flock to the site to get a real taste of the American West – the authentic clapboard church is even available as a wedding venue.
Country in the Eastern Germany
The phenomenon of the German country music fan is maybe best summed up in the song Sauerkraut Cowboy by Don Jensen. Having grown up between Germany and America, Jensen may be uniquely placed to know of what he sings. The song gently pokes fun at the German country fan who has never visited the United States but takes his family on outings to rodeos and has a picture of Willie Nelson hanging on the wall.
While some more serious German country fans reject this image, and maintain that only original American country music is authentic and worthy, there is no doubt that Jensen’s song exemplifies much of the country music fandom in Germany.