All throughout country music history we’ve been looking for a term that perfectly encapsulates the definition of what the majority of mainstream country sounds like given the current time period. That’s not meant to automatically insinuate a bad connotation. Through the constant cycle of trends we’ve seen some pretty awesome eras emerge with names to match. “The Outlaw Movement”, “The Neo-Traditional Country Movement”, these are both names which have brought our great genre of country music to new heights.
Of course, there are also some moments that I think we’ll look back on and wince at, and they’re moments that are very recent. We all know about “bro-country”. I don’t have to sit here and type a history lesson for you guys. It’s a movement that, while not starting the divide between mainstream and independent country music fans did make it worse than we had ever seen. The worst part is that it only took a year and a half to do it. But that era is gone, and what ensued thereafter is arguably even worse.
While someone like Sam Hunt didn’t start the influx of pop music into country, he certainly opened up the door to more artists who sped up the process to the point where you can hardly distinguish anything country in certain artists’ songs today. This has caused both fair and unfair criticism. Fair in the sense that the music being put out often commits the sin of false advertising but unfair in the sense in saying the music is bad solely because it’s not country. When you still have people crying out “bro” it makes it a lot harder to come up with a name for this new sound that is fair to it. Let’s face it, artists who made the “bro” sound famous such as Florida Georgia Line could be making a Hot AC album right now for all we know, and Luke Bryan is resorting back to his old sound (at least for a couple more weeks….). “Bro” isn’t an appropriate term anymore.
It was brought to my attention on Twitter via Carson Crosby that music related websites such as Billboard and Spotify have recently started calling certain artists, “Nashville Pop”. Their prime example was Maren Morris, a marketed country artist whose music is really anything but that. I already stated that it’s hard to discern what’s country about a lot of artists, songs, or albums these days, and it’s gotten to the point where we don’t have “country-pop”, just pure pop. Chris Lane’s debut single, Keith Urban’s Ripcord album, Maren Morris’ debut album, Florida Georgia Line’s new single, and Thomas Rhett’s abhorred new single are not the only examples of this, but they are the prime ones. Today, I want to break down “Nashville Pop” and explain why it could be a small victory for mainstream country music, even if it ultimately does nothing except give something a proper name.
Just look at the name “Nashville Pop”. What does it even mean? Given the name it’s obviously Pop, but it’s not the exact same Pop you hear from Pop radio (but it’s damn close….). No, this is “Nashville” pop, an add-on that just cries out, “yeah, we’re really out of ideas for the next trend but this is popular, so hey, why not?” The two terms go hand in hand to describe an exclusive club of music that isn’t quite the level of pop that pop radio is looking for but no way in hell is country in the slightest.
Of course, the biggest problem with my breakdown is that you may think I’m calling everything under this new unofficial sub-genre bad. Assessing the quality of music is something that is hard to do, mostly because it all comes down to individual preferences. There are some critics out there who think it should all be wiped away from existence while others may be more forgiving of acts such as Maren Morris or Jillian Jacqueline simply because they like their music. Going further than that, some people may not like even those two, and they may even think that some of the above artists I mentioned are good. That’s perfectly fine, taste is subjective. Taste is not what I want to attack here. I myself am simply a fan of music first and foremost. I don’t come down harder on artists like Sam Hunt or Keith Urban because they’re bad and I don’t think anyone should be listening to them. I just want to see these artists call their music what it is and stop wasting the time of country music listeners., since these are the artists who people are thinking of as country these days.
That’s another thing that comes out of Nashville Pop. We can safely eliminate the insinuation that country critics like me are stuck up traditionalists who don’t like Pop music or really any other genre for that matter. Filing the above mentioned artists under the same umbrella as mainstream country gives off a notion that there is something country about this music. Calling it what it is under the new name of “Nashville Pop” would for once be an example of correct marketing in country music. They say there’s room for everyone in the country genre, and I agree as long as there’s some semblance of country music in the equation. But why do the non-country sounds have to rule over more authentically country sounding artists like Jon Pardi, Maddie and Tae, William Michael Morgan, or Mo Pitney? Why can’t we call artists like Sam Hunt, Maren Morris, or Keith Urban “Nashville Pop” while we call other artists Country?
In an era where a band like Green River Ordinance is excluded from the Billboard Country Charts simply because they aren’t country enough, how are we letting other artists get away with it, especially if Billboard explicitly calls some of this music pop? Is it because they’re marketed country and we don’t ask any questions about it? It’s wrong and unfair. Of course, the unfortunate fact would remain that this music would remain in the mainstream country format. With that being the case, if there’s nothing to insinuate that there’s anything country about “Nashville Pop” other than its place of origin, don’t let it be what represents country music to people these days. Hand the genre over to people who actually care about the genre. Mainstream country shouldn’t have to automatically make some people shudder at the sound of the name these days but it does.
And who knows what could happen if “Nashville Pop” came into existence? Maybe some “country” fans would wake up and smell the roses and realize that this music really isn’t country. Maybe we could have some sort of revolution in mainstream country music. I know it’s not going to happen, and even if it doesn’t there’s still a wide field of options in the independent/Americana scene to choose from.
Ultimately this piece doesn’t come with a happy ending, at least for now. Country music hasn’t been saved and we can’t pack our stuff up and call it a job well done. The fact remains that “Nashville Pop” is still the rule and not the exception of what the majority of mainstream country sounds like these days. But you know what? We have a name. We have something that clearly distinguishes the music made by artists like Maren Morris, Sam Hunt, Thomas Rhett and others from actual country music. It could be something that finally pushes the genre to its breaking point or it could go on peacefully while critics and other independent country fans such as me continue to get mad. The funny thing is that this term wasn’t brought up by some critic, it was coined by actual music related services. They can admit that this stuff isn’t country. If only we could get the artists in question to do the same.