Is Country Music Changing for the Better?

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If you watched the CMA Awards last November, you were no doubt impressed, or at least surprised, by Chris Stapleton’s performance and awards sweep. Earlier that year, he’d earned only modest recognition for his debut album, Traveller. But when mainstream country’s biggest night rolled around, he was the star of the show. Videos of his rousing duet with pop star Justin Timberlake went viral nearly as soon they hit the Web. By the end of the show, he’d taken home several of the top honors. Country music had crowned a new star, and it appeared to be a statement about the direction of where the genre was heading.

The morning after the award show, I published a lengthy rant about how country music was going to be good again in 2016. So one year later, is that the case? 

It’s getting there.

From a fan’s perspective, the landscape of today’s country music is like American politics: incredibly polarized. On one side you have the content on Top 40 radio. Most of it still sounds like refugees from the rock and pop worlds. The bros are still there, as are the teeny boppers. If you didn’t know you were listening to a major country music station, you probably wouldn’t guess it was actually country music. But it’s all still making money, which means a lot of people still enjoy it. Pop-country, in its many iterations, has always been that way, so don’t expect it to ever change. 

On the other side, there’s a wave of rising independent artists (and some signed to the majors) who are making some of the best music of the modern era — substantive art that is true to the spirit of country music. They’re finding success by sticking to their guns, touring relentlessly and taking advantage of new mediums to reach ears. Most importantly, they’re doing it without the help of country radio or exposure from the big awards shows. This is a topic I frequently discuss with artists on our podcast

“[The ACMS] should drop all the formulaic cannon fodder bullshit they’ve been pumping down rural America’s throat for the last 30 years along with all the high school pageantry, meat parade award show bullshit and start dedicating their programs to more actual Country Music.” — Sturgill Simpson

Perhaps it’s just because social media is now universal, but there seems to be more vocalized discontent with modern country music than ever before. Country’s core fanbase — people who grew up listening to country music — are disenfranchised by what gets labeled “country music” these days. They are frustrated, and many of them have completely given up on the radio.

A number of artists are frustrated, too. Country is notorious for being tight-lipped and overly P.C., yet more artists are vocalizing their discontent. When Sturgill Simpson wrote his roughly 1,000-word Facebook post against what’s been interpreted as Nashville’s overlords, his comments quickly went viral, earning more praise than condemnation. Crossover artist Aaron Lewis’ sharp, yet blatantly pandering, comments at a concert in September also ignited traditional country fans. The speed at which those comments went viral and the praise they earned should absolutely tell you that many people who listen to country are yearning for something different. The good news is that more fans are realizing they don’t need the mainstream to find it. 

As polarized as the format seems among artists’ and fans’ camps, some significant things have happened this year that point to changes in mainstream country. Nashville seems to be betting on traditional country music making a comeback. Last week, George Strait even made a similar observation. This summer, we’ve heard some traditionally-minded songs return to the radio. Cheif among them is Stapleton, whose Traveller album just earned platinum status. But he’s not the only one. Neo-traditionalists like Jon Pardi and William Michael Morgan recently notched No. 1 hits with straight ahead country tunes. Morgan’s “I Met a Girl” sounds like it could be a song George Strait would record. Ironically, Sam Hunt, the punching bag for pop-country critics, co-wrote the song. 

Those successes matter because radio has country music’s tastemakers by the balls. Radio influences what music becomes ubiquitous, not just on the radio, but also through corporate mediums like grocery stores, television, movies, and of course, the award shows. Radio is also the primary medium that breaks country artists. However, it’s no longer becoming essential, nor is it the only way an artist can reach millions of fans. 2016 has certainly proved that to be true. 

Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson — two of the greatest artists of this generation — both scored No. 1 country records, without ever getting played on Top 40 radio. Simpson is selling out theaters around the world. Texas artists Cody Jinks and Cody Johnson came close to similar achievements. Traditionalists in their own ways, they are gaining remarkable popularity outside of Texas, a state that often limits an artist’s popularity to within its borders. 

Radio is the primary medium that breaks country artists, but it’s no longer becoming essential.

And one year after radio promoter Keith Hill’s assertion that women are the distasteful “tomatoes” in country music, two female singers are leading a revolution in the genre. Margo Price and Kacey Musgraves have become two of the most popular artists, and yet both get practically zero airplay on country radio.

The way country artists are being honored for their work is broadening too. This year’s Americana Awards were bigger than ever, running nearly four hours long. Thanks to Dale Watson’s Ameripolitan Awards, the artists on the fringes of country music are also getting recognition for their work. Yet country music’s biggest spotlight is still limited in its scope.

Room for Everyone?

When I ask artists about what they think of modern country, they often tell me the same phrase: “there’s room for everyone.” In the ways that I just discussed, yes, that’s true; however in commercial country it’s not.

Nashville has worked so hard to recreate the recent successes of Taylor Swift and “bro-country”, and the money-making formulas of other formats, that it’s created a sphere of music no longer recognizable as country music. That’s not to disparage artists who are successful in the mainstream. There are many great Top 40 acts, but the standards of what the industry deems sellable are atrocious.

Many fans who watched the CMA Awards last year were utterly confused when they saw pop princess Ariana Grande perform with Little Big Town. Then came Sam Hunt with Dwight Yoakam at the ACMs. Do I even need to mention Pitbull’s bit at the CMT Awards?

The tastemakers seem to be fully aware that they’ve overstepped the bounds. They are still making gobs of money, so, again, don’t expect pop trends to ever split from country music. However, nostalgia is hot right now, so expect a lot more of it in the coming year. The lead up to the 50th anniversary of the CMA Awards kicked off earlier this month with “Forever Country,” an all-star mashup of three classic country songs from the past 50 years. That video went super viral.

Consider the new releases from Big Machine Records, the label that’s orchestrated a lot of the country music many people despise. In September, they released Aaron Lewis’s firmly country-rooted album, Sinner. Later this month, they’ll debut newcomer trio Midland’s EP, a project carefully crafted to sound like the young country of the early 90s and late 80s. Keep an eye out for those guys — their EP drops Oct. 28. 

Newcomer trio Midland perform in Texas. Photo: Matt Alpert

The question for you is, does it even matter if country radio and Music Row’s tastemakers become more inclusive? If an artist like Margo Price or Sturgill Simpson won New Artist of the Year and performed on live TV in front of millions would that really help center mainstream country? If Chris Stapleton is any indication, then yes — absolutely. Radio and the award shows, as tacky as they often are, still have a lot of power over the public’s perceptions of the genre. It’s time for the country music establishment to fully embrace what millions of fans around the world want to hear more often.

But as the fan, you really don’t need them. Now more than ever, country music can thrive without the constraints of how the business used to be. Charlie Starr, frontman of Blackberry Smoke, hit the nail on the head during a recent interview with our Associate Editor, Lorie Liebig.

“We all have a choice,” said Starr. “People like to complain about pop-country, and it is disgusting, but we don’t have to listen to it. Crappy pop music has always been there, and it always will be. You just have to choose, do I want to listen to the good stuff or the bad stuff?”

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Is Country Music Changing for the Better?