The origin of country music goes back to the songs of the Scottish Highlands, but its roots include Irish jigs, English ballads, the French cotillion, African slave rhythms and even church hymns. A conglomeration of these styles was played by English, Scottish and Irish settlers in Appalachia and the West from the 1700s.
Variously known throughout history as Mountain Music, Frontier Ballads, Cowboy Songs, Hillbilly, American Folk, Country & Western, it has been popularly called Country Music for the past forty years.
In contrast, the origins of polka music lie in the folk melodies of Central Europe. It came specifically from Bohemia in the early 1800s, but is ultimately based on the traditional music of the larger region intertwined with one another to include Polish, Czech and Slovakian areas.
But in the old world origins of the music, there does seem to be a similarity between Scottish/Irish folk music and Polish Highlander music, an example of similar sounds in the ethnic music of country and polka fans.
In recent decades, polka and country music seem to have come to share a similar fan base. Many polka bands regularly play country songs as part of their repertoire. Polka legend Jimmy Sturr has performed four times at the Grand Ole Opry, the mecca of country music in Nashville. He has recorded with Willie Nelson, Brenda Lee, Charlie Daniels and the Oak Ridge Boys.
Sturr says that the convergence of the country and polka genres has occurred primarily because polkas and many country music songs, especially Western Swing, share the same 2/4 rhythm. This makes it easy to convert and perform a country song in a polka style. In addition, obereks and country waltzes seem to be practically interchangeable. For example, Sturr and Nelson have recorded an absolutely beautiful version of "Waltz Across Texas," an old country standard, that would appeal equally to any polka or country fan.
Another example is the country song "Westphalia Waltz," first recorded in 1946 by Cotton Collins. Collins heard the Polish folk song "Pytała Się Pani" (also called "Wszystkie Rybki") in central Texas and reworked it into a country waltz and performed it with his band, the Lone Star Playboys. The Playboys often played in Westphalia, Texas and the piece was renamed "Westphalia Waltz" at the suggestion of local residents. Hank Thompson, a national country star of the 1950s, recorded the song in 1955 and that exposed the tune to country fans throughout the U.S.
In the 1930s what was called Texas Music became a popular form of the country genre, as popular Western movies enthralled audiences with the romance of the dashing cowboy balladeer. Texas country music was influenced in part by Polish, Czech and German folk music of central Texas, where those immigrant groups had a strong presence.
Also, use of the fiddle in both country and polka songs, and since the 1920s in country music the accordion, contribute to a similarity of sounds. The accordion came into country music from the French Cajuns of Louisiana, but also through those Central European ethnic groups in Texas and the Tejano or Tex-Mex musicians who were influenced by them.
Only one Polish American made it big in country music, Pee Wee King (Frank Kuczynski) of Milwaukee. The Country Music Hall of Famer was influential in popularizing country through his radio and television shows. Young Kuczynski got his start playing in a polka band. So did country star Willie Nelson, who played at age 10 in the John Raycheck polka band in Abbott, Texas.