Fans have been debating what country music is and what it should sound like probably for as long as the concept of “country music” has existed. Between the Nashville Sound and Chet Atkins, the outlaw backlash, the Urban Cowboy fad, the neotraditional movement, the Garth/Shania boom years, “Murder on Music Row”, the rise of alt-country and Americana, Taylor Swift winning Entertainer of the Year, “old farts and jackasses”, the emergence of bro-country, the out-of-nowhere success of Chris Stapleton and all the other notable events and eras, I’m sure you’ve heard all the arguments and back-and-forths by now. At this point, rehashing this whole debate is not beating a dead horse, it’s exhuming the body and lighting it on fire. But if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to give my thoughts on this subject.
I guess the question we have to ask ourselves is, “What exactly is country music?” The biggest issue surrounding this whole debate is that there’s no official, objective criteria that determines what is or isn’t country. It’s not like a deity has descended from the heavens to inscribe the one true definition of country music onto a stone tablet, nor have scientists discovered a new theorem that can be used to irrefutably prove whether a piece of music is or isn’t country. Webster and Wikipedia are vague, and talk more about country music’s influences and places of origin than what it actually sounds like. Ultimately, it seems people’s conceptions of country music vary depending on when they were born, what music they’ve been exposed to, and what they like.
Country music is always changing, and that’s a good thing. It’s a necessary step for the genre to remain vibrant and healthy and not become stagnant. If country music never changed or evolved in any way, that would mean that all country music would forever sound like the early country pioneers of the 1920s and 1930s. Now, I happen to think artists like Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family are pretty badass, but that would mean no Hank, no Bill Monroe, no Waylon, no Dolly Parton, no Alan Jackson, no Sturgill Simpson, you get the idea. I think we can all agree that that would be a bad thing. Country music, just like anything else in life, is going to change whether we want it to or not. Just like the country music of the ’50s doesn’t sound like the country music of the ’30s, it’s unrealistic to expect the country music of the 2010s to resemble that of the 1990s (or any other decade).
Like many, if not most, long-term fans of country music, I become frustrated when I hear modern mainstream music labelled as country that has very little or nothing in common with my conception of country music. But this raises the question: if country music is always changing, and no one can really define what country music is, how can I justify claiming that many of these new mainstream country artists aren’t “real” country? Who’s to say this isn’t the way country music has naturally developed, and I’m just grouchy that it doesn’t sound like the way I want it to anymore? This is the vaunted “evolution” argument. It goes like this: Country music has always been evolving, and whenever a new sound or style emerges, people who hate change complain that it’s too radical or not country enough. After a while, this new sound/style is accepted as normal, and may even be retroactively regarded as traditional. Then a little while later, something new comes along and the whole process starts over again. The backlash against the pop-country and bro-country of the 2000s and 2010s is just the most recent incarnation of this, as the argument goes.
Proponents of this argument cite several historical anecdotes to support their claim. Johnny Cash’s unique sound that blended rockabilly, country and folk was considered novel in the 1950s, and many people regarded him as more of a rock artist. Patsy Cline’s music contained pop flourishes in an intentional attempt to crossover. Willie Nelson was considered a weird hippie for introducing folk and jazz sensibilities to country music. When Hank Jr. gave up trying to imitate his father and began adding Southern rock and blues elements to his music, traditionalists cried foul. George Jones abandoned his initial raw-honky tonk sound and embraced producer Billy Sherrill’s softer countrypolitan style to great commercial success. All of those artists were boundary-pushers back in their day, or at least otherwise did some things that were decidedly non-traditional at the time, but are now considered unassailable icons among “real” country fans.
You can even see this happening with more modern artists. Garth Brooks was viewed as Satan incarnate in the ’90s for blending pop and country, but now history has begun to become more sympathetic towards him. Compared to a lot today’s country, Garth Brooks may as well be Hank Thompson. Same goes for Tim McGraw, whose popularity among traditionalists in the ’90s was about as low as Brooks’s, but is now considered one of the last few artists on country radio fighting the good fight.
Now, I’m going to say something that might be a bit shocking. I think this argument is unmitigated BS when applied to today’s mainstream country, and I’ll explain why in a minute. But I admit that I’m a fallible human being, and I allow for the possibility that this argument could be right and I’m wrong. Perhaps I really am just biased against modern mainstream country because it doesn’t fit my personal preference of what country music should sound like. Perhaps in forty years people will regard today’s mainstream stars as country legends and unironically mention them in the same breath as Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn. I think this scenario is exceedingly unlikely, but it’s not like I haven’t been wrong before. We’ll have to wait a few decades and see.
But here’s why I’m confident I’m right. There is a kernel of truth in the “evolution” argument that today’s hearsay is often tomorrow’s orthodoxy. But here’s where the argument breaks down: today’s non-traditional artists (i.e. the bros and pure pop artists) that people complain about are qualitatively different than the celebrated non-traditionalists of yesteryear (e.g., the outlaws and pop/country hybrids) in one crucial respect.
Let’s examine the word “evolution.” Evolution means gradual change over time. In a music context, it essentially means taking an established sound, and either changing part of it or adding something new. It’s true a lot of the “boundary-pushers” of the past were innovative and incorporated elements of other genres into country music. They broke new ground. They added things to country music. But let’s stop here and let that sentence sink in. They added things to country music, but it was still country music. This might have resulted in a new kind of country that had never been heard before, but it was also fundamentally country at its core. It built on what came before and had a lot of things in common with the music of previous generations even if it didn’t sound identical.
The outlaws, for example, added rock and folk sounds to country music, but at the same time they were also deeply influenced by traditional country. They worshiped Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Jimmie Rodgers, and Bob Wills, and it showed in their music, even if they didn’t sound exactly like them. They didn’t just name drop these artists. They paid tribute to them in their music, and even covered them at times, often in the form of entire albums. Likewise, Patsy Cline and Garth Brooks may have taken their music in a poppier direction, but their music was still mostly rooted in country and represented a legitimate form of country music, even if it earned the ire of purists at the time.
These artists expanded country music tradition. But what they did not do was release music that completely belonged to another genre and had nothing in common with country music’s history at all, and then proceed to call it country, which is exactly what many of today’s mainstream “country” artists are doing.
This is how you identify whether non-traditional sounds represent a “legitimate” evolution of country music or not. You ask the question: does it logically follow and build on what came before? Does much of the music on today’s mainstream country radio have anything in common with the way country music sounded like even a handful of years ago, much less the 60+ years before that? Or is it basically 100% pop music forced onto country listeners for reasons that have to do with $$$? I think you know the answer. Today’s mainstream “country” artists aren’t expanding country tradition. They’re replacing it with something else entirely.
In contrast, consider artists like Chris Stapleton and Brandy Clark. Personally, I wouldn’t consider either of these artists particularly traditional, but I have no problem viewing them as authentic country artists. Now, it’s obvious Stapleton doesn’t sound anything like Hank Snow, nor does Clark sound anything like Kitty Wells. These folks represent a more contemporary or “progressive” strain of country music. But it’s possible to examine their music and find strong traces of country music’s storied history. They’re clearly influenced by the country artists of the past, even if they don’t sound exactly like them. They belong in country music. In contrast, it’s impossible to trace Sam Hunt’s music back to the country music of the mid-2000s, much less any earlier period. This is the key difference.
Now, I should reiterate something. It goes without saying, but it probably goes better with saying, that how “country” an artist is doesn’t really have to anything to do with how good their music is. And I say that as someone who listens to traditional country music more than anything else. For example, Eric Church only arguably qualifies as country, but I think his music is mostly outstanding. The same goes for a lot of alt-country and Americana artists we champion who are often only quasi-country at most. Conversely, there is a lot of pure traditional country in existence that is painfully average at best. When I say that someone isn’t country, I’m not necessarily suggesting they make terrible music, just that they don’t belong on country radio (in my opinion).
This raises another question. Why should we care about what mainstream country radio plays? Can’t we all just listen to our musical collections or use Spotify or whatever, and go tell mainstream radio to go pound sand?
The appeal of this line of thinking is understandable. I personally stopped using mainstream radio as a method of discovering new music years ago. I imagine many people have done the same. But the truth is us hardcore country music nerds on the Internet are part of a tiny minority. As much as we don’t want to admit it, what mainstream country radio plays is what defines country music to the general public. The average person is not interested in country music enough to go online and learn about Whitey Morgan and Margo Price, or buy a Flatt & Scruggs box set. They’re going to turn on their radio and accept whatever is presented to them as country, whether it’s George Strait or Florida Georgia Line.
This is why it’s important to fight for actual country music to have a presence in the mainstream, because the very concept of country music, as defined by society at large, is at stake. I believe that country music, as a unique artform, is worth protecting and preserving. That necessarily means calling some music out as not country, because if anything and everything is country, then nothing is, and the words “country music” will have ceased to have any meaning.