Although researchers have begun cataloging the incredible diversity of bacteria found in soil, we are largely unable to interpret this information in an ecological context, including which groups of bacteria are most abundant in different soils and why. With this study, we examined how the abundances of major soil bacterial phyla correspond to the biotic and abiotic characteristics of the soil environment to determine if they can be divided into ecologically meaningful categories. To do this, we collected 71 unique soil samples from a wide range of ecosystems across North America and looked for relationships between soil properties and the relative abundances of six dominant bacterial phyla (Acidobacteria, Bacteroidetes, Firmicutes, Actinobacteria, α-Proteobacteria, and the β-Proteobacteria). Of the soil properties measured, net carbon (C) mineralization rate (an index of C availability) was the best predictor of phylum-level abundances. There was a negative correlation between Acidobacteria abundance and C mineralization rates (r2 = 0.26, P < 0.001), while the abundances of β-Proteobacteria and Bacteroidetes were positively correlated with C mineralization rates (r2 = 0.35, P < 0.001 and r2 = 0.34, P < 0.001, respectively). These patterns were explored further using both experimental and meta-analytical approaches. We amended soil cores from a specific site with varying levels of sucrose over a 12-month period to maintain a gradient of elevated C availabilities. This experiment confirmed our survey results: there was a negative relationship between C amendment level and the abundance of Acidobacteria (r2 = 0.42, P < 0.01) and a positive relationship for both Bacteroidetes and β-Proteobacteria (r2 = 0.38 and 0.70, respectively; P < 0.01 for each). Further support for a relationship between the relative abundances of these bacterial phyla and C availability was garnered from an analysis of published bacterial clone libraries from bulk and rhizosphere soils. Together our survey, experimental, and meta-analytical results suggest that certain bacterial phyla can be differentiated into copiotrophic and oligotrophic categories that correspond to the r- and K-selected categories used to describe the ecological attributes of plants and animals. By applying the copiotroph—oligotroph concept to soil microorganisms we can make specific predictions about the ecological attributes of various bacterial taxa and better understand the structure and function of soil bacterial communities.