An Introduction: A Modern Country Music History

When I wrote about my favorite country music literature with Nathan Kanuch in February, I noted that most of those books chronicled country music history in the 20th century. The few books that delved into the 2000s did so briefly, and mostly just to provide an added addendum or conclusion, above all else.

The obvious question is, “why?” And that can only be answered with personal theories and speculation. For me, I look to why Ken Burns ended his country music documentary around the year 1996. According to him, history requires time and distance to properly note and record. A fair statement, and in the Internet age, it’s tough to argue that a recorded history of the here and now is essential when we’re constantly up to date on it anyway. We may not remember certain events in due time, and surely certain things will change and predictions we make will either come true or not, but that’s just how it goes.

Still, I’m attempting something either crazy, stupid, or both – an examination of a history of country music in the 21st century thus far.

Well, 1989-2019, actually. I dip my toes a little into 2020 at times just to tie up any loose ends and such, but this is not meant to end on an examination of how the pandemic has affected the industry – it’s an examination of a simpler time. Note, too, that I say “a” history, because, to no one’s surprise, nothing is really reported objectively. What we choose to or not to include when telling a story is how we frame a narrative … for better or worse. In other words, try as we may to get the facts right, ultimately it’s each individual’s story to tell and interpret. And like with Burns’ aforementioned documentary, trying to write a history will lead to the inevitable debates of what/who was and wasn’t included when it’s finished.

In other words, please don’t judge the following by the names you do and don’t see. Understand that my aim is to tell the entire story, for better and worse.

Now, I say this all as someone who is not an industry insider, historian, music journalist, or, well, anything. Like Steve Earle, “I’m just a regular guy” – one fueled only by passion and determined to do my best to contribute something I want to see in the world. And while I have no expectations for the response this will receive, my hope is that it can be used, at the very least, as a starting guide for someone to polish later on for further discussion. And as the world finds itself kinda-sorta still on pause yet ready to move forward, I think it’s time to get started. Regardless of how this goes, the reward is in the writing process anyway, and that has never been truer for me than it is here.

I’ve divided this history up into six parts. Part one, ironically enough, will explore the ‘90s boom and events that spilled over into the 21st century, so as to properly frame the conversation and why things happened the way they did. Part two will explore country music’s heated reaction to post 9/11 politics and the changing winds that came with the turn of the decade. Part three will explore the end of the 2000s, where new artists would emerge to take advantage of the budding technology and mediums available. Part four will explore the 2010s, and yes, bro-country, to be exact, as well as the independent resurgence that gave – and continues to give – country music some of its brightest acts today. Part five will continue that, as well as offer perspective on country music’s independent expansion and return home for its mainstream. Part six, the conclusion, will turn the conversation back primarily toward the mainstream while still keeping that independent spirit intact, and is meant as, you guessed it, an addendum of sorts. Again, I’ve chosen to end things near the end of 2019, right before the pandemic consumed our daily lives and what now seems like a different world ago. It was, really.

Thank you all for reading. I’m not sure I’ve ever worked so hard on anything like I have with this project. Feel free to debate with it, disagree with it, challenge it, celebrate it, share it, and form your own questions as you move along. I just ask that you hold off on condemning it (or, you know, praising it … maybe) until you’ve read through it all. I took a different approach to crafting what I thought was a cohesive narrative, so I assure you that all of the big names are included, just maybe a bit earlier or later than expected. Be gentle, too – I did my absolute best with it, but I’ll be the first to tell you it’s far from perfect!

I’m going to mostly save the “thank yous” for a certain other section of this entire affair, but I do want to dedicate special “thank yous” specifically to both Liz Austin and Josh Schott right now. Liz read this thing like a hawk and made sure it flowed better. She also caught errors my eyes seemed to glaze over. In a way, then, she was the best editor I could have asked for with this project. Josh was kind enough to push and challenge me to strengthen certain sections and expand upon what needed to be expanded upon and cut what needed to be cut. It’s because of him that you’re reading about more artists than you might have otherwise. I mean it when I say I couldn’t have written or finished this without both of them and their help.

Get ready to enter a time machine back to the past and work your way to the present. To quote The Turnpike Troubadours’ Kyle Nix: “I hope you like it some.”

Until then,
Zackary Kephart

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