Every decade or so, country music encounters a new identity crisis. For the past five years, long-time fans of the genre have been echoing a sentiment that is as country as a cowboy hat and boots: country music is dying.
Bob Wills and Hank Williams killed country when they popularized “Honky Tonk” in the 40s. Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley killed country in the 50s with rockabilly (rock and hillbilly music). Chet Atkins and Merle Haggard killed country in the 60s with the Nashville Sound and Bakersfield Sound, respectively.
And then things got really confusing. The Eagles killed it when they crossed country and rock n’ roll on a massively successful scale. The first signs of country pop emerged in the 70s with Dolly Parton, and then Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings killed that with outlaw country — which, as we all know, died a horrible death when Garth Brooks came along in 1989.
So is country music dying? Of course not. It’s already dead. And it’s been dead many, many times. And yet here we are, with country music the most popular genre in America.
Still, despite the massive commercial success of country music since the 1990s, there’s a feeling that this time it’s a much more serious death. The redeeming quality of all those newcomers throughout the decades was that, for the most part, they still had really great songs.
The critiques quickly switched from, “That ain’t country,” to, “Who cares what it is, it’s good.” But over the past 5 years, country radio has been dominated largely by songs that were objectively not good.
And that’s the real caveat, here: there always has been and always will be great country music. But will country radio play it? Will the business side of the music business support it? Will Nashville — a town notorious for its resistance to outsiders — accept that music coming from outside its good ol’ boy network is far superior to the music being made inside it?
Country music has had its share of critical darlings over the past few years. Kacey Musgraves, Sturgill Simpson, The Civil Wars, Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton have all released much more “traditional” albums to much fanfare and laughable radio support. Artists like Brett Eldredge have also proved that you don’t have to choose between great music, a modern sound and commercial success — he achieved all three with his debut record.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Bro country is real, and it still exists. When we talk about the state of country music, the major implication is the state of what’s on the radio. Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line are still dominating charts and ticket sales. They’re still making a lot of young fans — and a lot of money for a few people.
So naturally, labels are willing to put money into new bros like Chase Rice, Michael Ray and Canaan Smith, who deliver predictably vapid products but capitalize on a large base of fans predisposed to love that kind of country music. And labels will put in the $1 million necessary to get that all-important “No.1” at radio in order to convince fans they belong.
But there are signs that in the next five years, country music is headed to a much better place. For one, country artists aren’t denying there’s a problem anymore. Even Florida Georgia Line, in perhaps the most tone-deaf statement of the century, believes country radio needs to play “better” songs.
Country fans and artists aren’t accepting the sentiment that women are the tomatoes on a country radio salad, while the Luke Bryan’s of the world are the lettuce.
The ballad is coming back, and it doesn’t have to be sung by a platinum-seller like Miranda Lambert to make it successful. Cam‘s “Burning House” is climbing the charts, Little Big Town‘s “Girl Crush” had a massive year and Mickey Guyton‘s “Better Than You Left Me” moved the needle despite little promotion.
Country legends like Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire are re-establishing their dominance. Ronnie Dunn and Don Henley have new projects on the horizon. Newcomers from the past five years like Brett Eldredge and Eric Paslay are preparing for their second act. Charlie Worsham and Josh Dorr may not be household names yet, but they’ve got the potential.
In 2010, the best bet for great mainstream country music was from established powerhouses like Zac Brown Band, Sugarland and Tim McGraw — and even they aren’t susceptible to some bad calls (“Truck Yeah,” anyone?). Nobody really knew just how dumb country singles were going to get, honestly.
But in 2015, it looks like quality mainstream country has a fighting chance. The next five years could see a resurgence in songs that make you proud to be a country fan. Yes, country music may live to die another day just yet.