It seems more and more these days that country music is having a real identity crisis, at least that’s how it looks to someone who has really only been big into country for the last 20, or so, years.
There have always been different forms of country music from hillbilly to outlaw but they all had / have a distinct country sound to them. Perhaps my age (41) is just starting to show but to me much of the modern country music or “new” country as they call it that is originating from music city Nashville is sounding anything but country. Now don’t get me wrong I’m not saying I don’t like it, ok admittedly I’m not a big fan of some of it, it’s not all bad.
Country Music in 2016 is one of the strangest genres as it evolves. You’ve got artists like Luke Bryan and Sam Hunt who may have started country and definitely have songs that I would consider country but are leaning into more of a hip-hop, hick-hop as they seem to call it, format which is hip-hop with a country theme. Then there’s the bro-country made up of artists like Florida Georgia Line and Dan + Shay, yet another poppier sounding country than traditional country. Interestingly enough is that many of the women in country, Miranda Lambert excluded, seem to also be leaning in more of a pop direction. Carrie Underwood‘s latest album crosses into pop more than a chicken crosses a road (not saying it’s a bad thing, it’s just not country anymore) and one of my all-time favourite family bands, The Band Perry, released their latest single this past summer and, although amazing, it’s about as far from country as you’re going to get. So I guess you can compare Taylor Swift to the Pied Piper of Hamelin, she made the transition from country to pop look easy and cool.
Now let’s look at the other side, it seems that for as many country artists that seem to be attracted to the pop side of things there’s almost as many artists that weren’t country that are now embracing it with their own country singles. Namely Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler who released his country track “Love Is Your Name” last summer and now Justin Timberlake wants to “Drink You Away” (ok that one is a bit more on the pop country side but, for now, it’s still classified as country) and once again we can look to another pop/rock star turned country Darius Rucker as the trendsetter also proving that there is a thin line between genres and it’s very easy to cross. With the recent success of Chris Stapleton and the return of Garth Brooks to the scene the traditional country sound is hip again, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see this traditional trend continue on the charts throughout 2016. Thankfully Canadian country music is alive and well with artists like Paul Brandt, Gord Bamford, Dean Brody, Tim Hicks, Brett Kissel, Tebey and Jason Blaine staying true to the genre and carrying the torch for the next generation of stars like River Town Saints, Jess Moskaluke, Madeline Merlo to name just a few.
I don’t think country music needs saving from anything. Whether you like modern incarnations of what country radio hits are, or you like what I’m doing, or you like something really off in folk, poetry Americana land, it’s all just music, man. If you like one of them, great, go buy it. – Chris Stapleton
But what does this mean for the country music genre as a whole? Rock has various subgenres each of which has their own dedicated radio station in most major cities from Metal to Indie to Classic to Alternative the list can go on and on. Should country radio split into individual stations dedicated to the new formats too? In Ottawa we already have two country music stations, one dedicated to new (Top 40ish) country and one that plays all that and more. Is this a sign of things to come for country music, or am I just reading too much into this trend?
Just this past week I read an interview Chris Stapleton gave to the Nashville Scene to which he addresses the claims that he is the saviour of country music. “I don’t think country music needs saving from anything. Whether you like modern incarnations of what country radio hits are, or you like what I’m doing, or you like something really off in folk, poetry Americana land, it’s all just music, man. If you like one of them, great, go buy it.” he said. “I’m connected to all kinds of things in that way, and I like all kinds of music. But I would rather people stop caring about lines. Nothing gets on my nerves more than somebody else spending all their energy and time talking about something that they don’t like, and trying to convince you [that] you shouldn’t like it, and this thing over here is better. … I don’t like sushi. In fact, I kind of loathe sushi. But I don’t go around trying to convince my wife or any of my friends, “Oh, you shouldn’t eat sushi, it’s terrible.” It’s the dumbest thing ever. It doesn’t make sense to me why we do that with music. We don’t really do that with anything else. … I think it’s OK if somebody likes my music and likes Sam Hunt’s music too. And I think if we’re both selling records, it’s good for everybody. I think it allows other records to get made.”
I’ve long been against genres and have always advocated for people who want to be fans of music not just one genre or type of music but unfortunately that’s how the industry is. It’s almost impossible to find an all genre radio station out there, at least not in the major markets.
So is country music in trouble or is it thriving? I’d love to hear your thoughts, do you agree? or do you disagree? Let me know in the comments.
Hendrik Pape / @hendrikpape