Part Three – A Modern Country Music History: We Were Both Young When I First Saw You (2005-2012)

READ: Part Two – They Don’t Have Cash and They Don’t Sound Haggard (1996-2005)

American Idols in a New Age

Country music’s story in the latter half of the 2000s is less about the events that shape it and more about the artists – new and old – who rose to prominence during the time period. And as Gretchen Wilson proved unable to maintain consistent success and longevity within the genre, two women emerged from newly growing mediums to foster a way forward.

Carrie Underwood had planned a career in broadcast journalism while studying at Northeastern State University, until friends encouraged her to try out for the Fox hit reality show, American Idol. Underwood, who had performed regularly in church, at school, in local talent shows and at regional festivals in her childhood, was unsure of the prospects. A few contestants on the show had tried to succeed by performing country music, like Josh Gracin, and the show’s first-ever winner, Kelly Clarkson, would eventually record her own solo hits for the genre. But no one had ever outright won that way. It would take further encouragement from Underwood’s mother to travel to St. Louis to audition for the fourth season. Her rendition of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” earned her a ticket to Hollywood, and a performance of Heart’s “Alone” during top 11 week prompted judge Simon Cowell to predict, “Not only will you win this show, you will sell more records than any other previous Idol winner.”

Carrie Underwood. From ‘Slant Magazine.’

On May 25, 2005, she won, and her Arista Nashville debut album, Some Hearts, released in November that same year, went on to sell 7 million copies in the United States alone. Both of Cowell’s predictions had come true. Though her performances ranged across multiple genres and her debut single, “Inside Your Heaven,” was marketed to pop radio, Underwood was determined to become a country music artist. Her next single, “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” spent six weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard country chart and paved the way for a string of singles that, until 2018, all peaked at either No. 1 or 2 on the charts. She also began touring with Brad Paisley and Kenny Chesney and found time to finish her degree at Northeastern State University and graduate with a B.A. in mass communications.

American Idol was not the only television show to foster new talent, though. By the time Miranda Lambert auditioned for Nashville Star in 2003, she had already left the titular city once, over frustrations with the “pop” music presented to her during a recording session, and released a self-titled debut album in 2001. Lambert, the daughter of a mother and former musician father who both became private detectives, had lived her life like it was a country song. When the Texas oil crisis dampened the economy at the end of the 1970s, Lambert and her family lost everything, eventually starting over to begin a faith-based ministry and offer shelter for domestic violence victims and their children. By 2002, Lambert was performing in various Texas clubs, opening for acts like Jack Ingram and Kevin Fowler, both of whom would also eventually make their way to Nashville. While on Nashville Star, where she stayed for nine weeks and eventually placed third, she caught the attention of Sony Music executive Tracy Gershon, who convinced the label to sign her to Epic Nashville.

Lambert’s insistence on singing songs she had either written or co-written stood in sharp contrast with other artists then, especially when her subject matter tapped into taboo-for-the-time subjects like literally burning someone to death for cheating, on “Kerosene,” and domestic violence, on “Gunpowder & Lead,” her first top 10 hit and one written while she was taking a concealed handgun class in her hometown, further inspired by the victims she’d observed from her parents’ shelter. As she told Texas Monthly in 2011, “Isn’t the dark side a lot more interesting? Seriously, if all I did was sing about all the really nice things that happen to women, I’d be bored to death.”

Lambert’s material bridged a fine gap between the free-spirited, hard-charged traditional styling of yesterday in her messaging and female empowerment, but also borrowed liberally from contemporary influences. “Kerosene,” for example, ripped the main riff from Steve Earle’s 1996 song “Feel Alright,” enough to where he was eventually credited as a writer for the song. But unlike her contemporaries whose material was laced with a crossover-ready pop sheen, Lambert’s songs borrowed more from Americana, southern-rock, and blues. And she wouldn’t be the only newcomer to follow in this direction.

Eric Church. From ‘Country Fancast.’

By age 13, North Carolina-native Eric Church was writing songs and learning how to play guitar. He formed a band, the Mountain Boys, while in college, and initially wanted to move to Nashville. His father agreed to fund his first six months there if he agreed to finish school first. So he did, and moved to Nashville with a degree in marketing to pursue a country music career afterward. It took over a year to land a song publishing deal, but when Church signed with Sony/ATV, he found success from having his songs recorded by other artists, including Terri Clark’s version of his own “The World Needs a Drink.” He eventually landed a publishing deal with Arturo Buenahora Jr., who further hooked him up with an unlikely producer: A Cleveland rock producer named Joy Joyce, who had settled in Nashville long ago.

Church signed with Capitol Nashville and released his debut album, Sinners Like Me, in 2006, pushing the blue collar anthem “How ‘Bout You” as his debut single and a song celebrating a negative pregnancy test as his sophomore one, with “Two Pink Lines.” His sophomore album, 2009’s Carolina, gave him modest chart success through its first two top 10 singles, one of which being “Love Your Love the Most,” a song he’d later concede was a song released purely for radio airplay. Neither single offered much beyond that, though. As a last-ditch effort, he begged his label in June of 2010 to release a deep-cut called “Smoke a Little Smoke” and was met with hesitation. He was told that it was “his funeral,” if released, by Universal Music Nashville CEO Mike Dungan. The stomping, anthem-ready, pro-pot anthem recast Church’s public image as someone more daring than his contemporaries. And while the song’s No. 16 peak position was even lower than his previous two singles, it made up for it in sales and recognition, becoming a crowd favorite and allowing him to henceforth pick his own singles.

Church ultimately attained success on his own terms, but it could have ended differently. His success from his debut album landed him an opening slot for country-pop trio Rascal Flatts on the Me and My Gang Tour. But he played too loud during his opening sets and played longer than he was supposed to, costing the trio, as they once reported, “a lot of money.” Church met his match during a performance in Madison Square Garden, where, after once again playing past his allotted time, he was fired from the tour. After getting fired from the biggest tour in country music, he was offered a 45-minute opening slot opening for Bob Seger, and later credited him for renewing his faith in music.

Church would later say the Me and My Gang tour wasn’t for him and that he’d been looking for an out, and the performer to replace him and give him that took the opportunity to cultivate a growing fan base and launch herself into superstardom: Taylor Swift. Church jokingly told her she should send him her first gold record as thanks for getting fired. When she attained her first gold album, she sent a note to him saying, “Thanks for playing too long and too loud on the Flatts tour. I sincerely appreciate it.”

Taylor Swift ‘Tim McGraw’ single cover. From ‘Billboard.’

At age 14, Taylor Swift was the youngest writer ever signed by Sony/ATV Music’s Music City office, carrying on the traditions of other child stars in Brenda Lee, Tanya Tucker, and LeAnn Rimes, in what had historically always been the domain of adults. Her country music story began at age six, when she was inspired by LeAnn Rimes and Shania Twain to pursue a music career. Listening to Twain songs, she once said, made her “want to just run around the block four times and daydream about everything.” As she said to Rolling Stone in 2009, “I loved the amazing female country artists of the Nineties – Faith, Shania, the Dixie Chicks – each with an incredible sound and standing for incredible things.”

As a child she performed at karaoke bars and in a local children’s musical-theater company, but by age 11, after watching a Faith Hill documentary, she persuaded her parents to take her to Nashville. Still too young then, Swift was rejected by record labels and returned home to compose songs and learn guitar. Pursuing music – specifically country music – made her unpopular in school. “Anything that makes you different in middle school makes you weird,” she said. “My friends turned into the girls who would stand in the corner and make fun of me.” She tried to fit in but couldn’t; redemption came through music and songwriting. Her father transferred to Merrill Lynch’s Nashville office when she was 14, relocating the family to Hendersonville, Tennessee. By 2005, she had left the Sony-owned RCA Records and began harnessing a new phenomenon that most country artists hadn’t properly acted on yet – social media. Swift’s MySpace page was used to communicate directly with fans by blogging and uploading new music with behind-the-scenes video footage of how she crafted her songs. And she sang for a market country music hadn’t properly capitalized on yet – teenagers, specifically ones who could understand and relate directly to Swift’s songs.

While promoting her debut single – a sign of the times that it was called “Tim McGraw” – Swift said, “radio is the biggest priority for me and building those relationships.” But she also courted contemporary pop culture in her marketing, with label head Scott Borchetta stating, “We wanted her to be viral, and she was – particularly with the younger, internet-savvy crowd.” Even radio programmer Becky Brenner admitted, “Her popularity on MySpace was a huge deal for us.” Her self-titled album gave way to both more top ten hits and No. 1 singles in “Our Song” and “Should’ve Said No,” including a crossover hit in “Teardrops on My Guitar.” The album sold more than four million copies in less than three years.

“At 14, 15, and 16, I was hanging out at the Bluebird Café in Nashville, or meeting with songwriters to hear their opinions on the world,” she notes in Peter Cooper’s Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride. “I wanted to know what people thought of the prospects of a teenaged girl making it in country music, and the forecast was grim. I had a lot of people prepare me for the failure that never ended up happening. Just because you’re 16 does not mean you have to think like a 16-year-old.”

Swift was signed to Big Machine Records after her performance at an industry showcase at Nashville’s Bluebird Café caught DreamWorks Records executive Scott Borchetta’s attention, who was preparing to form his own record label. She became one of the new label’s first signings, which launched in September 2005, and her father purchased a three-percent stake in the company for an estimated $120,000. It launched as a joint venture with Show Dog Records, a label started and directed by Toby Keith, but the partnership dissolved by March 2006. Jack Ingram attained the first No. 1 single for the label with “Wherever You Are,” joining a rank of popular Texas and Red Dirt favorites like Pat Green, Cross Canadian Ragweed, Wade Bowen, the Randy Rogers Band, and Miranda Lambert, among others, trying for a mainstream country music career in Nashville. Out of that group, though, only Lambert would have consistent chart success, and Swift would quickly eclipse Ingram as the label’s big success story.

Craig Morgan. From ‘The Boot.’

Swift was not the only artist to emerge from an independent record label. Broken Bow, founded in 1999 by Benny Brown, also emerged as a leading alternative in the independent label realm. It gained ground in 2001, when former Atlantic artist Craig Morgan notched a top ten hit with “Almost Home,” followed by the label’s first No. 1 hit in “That’s What I Love About Sunday,” just three years later. At age ten, after singing “The Star Spangled Banner” on a field trip to Nashville, Minnie Pearl approached Morgan and told him, “Son, somebody you’re going to be a famous singer.” After working various jobs and serving in the army, Morgan found his way to Nashville. Joe Diffie also caught a second commercial wind for the Broken Bow label, and stood alongside Sherrie Austin and Lila McCann as early label success stories. But Georgia native Jason Aldean would eclipse them all with a self-titled platinum debut album and a singles run that would place all but two of his songs released thus far into the top ten, while Morgan would exit for BNA Entertainment in 2008.

Country music, then, had its fair share and emergence of new artists aiming to stake their claims as superstars by the mid-2000s, but one former king wasn’t done quite yet. By 2005, Garth Brooks had been retired for five years, planning to remain that way until his youngest daughter graduated from high school. He married Trisha Yearwood, who herself attained a commercial comeback through Big Machine Records, in December of that year and even released a new single for one very special reason.

Chris LeDoux. From ‘The Famous People.’

The Singing Bronc Rider Chris LeDoux passed away on March 9, 2005 from liver disease and cancer of the bile duct. Between 1973 and 1991, he had released more than 24 albums marketed specifically to his fans in the rodeo and cowboy subculture. He was also referenced in Brooks’ very first hit, “Much Too Young (to Feel This Damned Old),” receiving a deserved boost in stature and a spot on the Capitol Records roster, where he and Brooks teamed up for “Whatcha Gonna Do With A Cowboy,” LeDoux’s only top ten hit. “Good Ride Cowboy,” while not written by Brooks, served as a tribute to his late friend upon its release in October, with Brooks stating that, “I knew if I ever recorded any kind of tribute to Chris, it would have to be an up-tempo, happy … a song like him … not some slow, mournful song. He wasn’t like that. He was a man’s man. A good friend.”

An eventual top five hit, Brooks broke the record for the highest-debuting country single on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart since the debut of SoundScan with its No. 18 entrance. Keith Urban would break that record with 2006’s “Once in a Lifetime,” debuting at No. 17, and Kenny Chesney would break it again with 2007’s “Don’t Blink,” debuting at No. 16 and a further testament to his superstar status. But Brooks would reclaim the record just one week after Chesney, when he released another single post-retirement career. “More than a Memory” served as the first single to Brooks’ compilation album The Ultimate Hits, becoming the first song to debut at No. 1 in the history of the Hot Country Songs chart, and was the only one until the chart methodology changed in 2012.

Welcome to Hell

Within Nashville and beyond it is where certain artists first brought the spirit of the underground country and Americana movement of the ‘90s into the mainstream, albeit for a short time. And it would come from artists of royal country music bloodlines. In the late ‘80s, Minnie Pearl remarked, “Lord, honey, you’re a ghost,” upon meeting and seeing how much Shelton Williams resembled his grandfather, Hank Williams. Shelton adopted the stage name Hank Williams III in 1996, when he switched from punk rock to playing his version of country music: A combination of honky-tonk, hard rock, swing, and “Assjack” – a further combination of metalcore, psychobilly and punk – with his “The Damn Band.”

The first child of Hank Williams Jr. and his second wife, Gwen, Hank III started playing drums and guitar with his father by age twelve, shifting away from country music as a sole love by high school when he played bass guitar for heavy metal band Superjoint Ritual. His stint there further, perhaps ironically, convinced disgruntled punks and metalheads to listen to country music again. He’d find his way back, though. In the early ‘90s, Williams cut his teeth in lower Broadway venues like Layla’s Bluegrass Inn, as a testament to the punk and country fusion that characterized Lower Broadway’s revitalization during the decade.

Hank III. From ‘Salt Lake City Weekly.’

In 1996, pressured by a court order to make child support payments following a one-night stand, Williams went from playing in bottom-end punk bands and installing garage doors for extra cash to signing with Curb Records. He began performing country songs in Branson, Missouri, going further with an album, Three Hanks: Men with Broken Hearts, in which his voice was merged with both his father and grandfather, and would later be labeled by the youngest Williams as “misconceived.” It was at a chance Wayne Hancock show that Williams decided the kind of music he wanted to play – hard-edged country music. Though he’d later perform punk music as well, Williams kept his two loves separate when he started, particularly in his live shows that split the two genres into their own specified segments, and was known solely as a neotraditionalist with his first few releases. He released Straight to Hell in 2006, the first country record to ever come with a parental advisory sticker on it.

Recorded on a piece of consumer electronics – a $400 Korg D-1600 digital workstation – it took all the power of budget and production out of the hands of Curb Records and put it back into the hands of the artist. Williams stated he’d hope this would inspire other musicians to own their own workstations in order to keep full control of their music. With help from bass player Joe Buck and steel guitar player Andy Gibson, Williams set all budgetary restrictions aside, focusing purely on following his creative instincts to craft a double album, recorded in Buck’s house. Its strong heavy metal and punk influences ironically, or perhaps not, turned many young country music fans onto vintage country stylings of yesterday, and included a second disc with a 42-minute hidden track of acoustic numbers and ambient noises that was unlike anything released before in country music.

Originally known as Thrown Out of the Bar, Straight to Hell was slated for release in late 2004, but was moved to a 2006 release date when Curb Records refused to release it. It took a court order from Williams for the album to go public. Williams once noted that complications with his record label stemmed from a conflict of interests: He wanted to record music with people he knew and trusted, and Curb Records wanted him to work with their own team. His notorious complications with his record label would end with 2010’s Rebel Within, but Curb would continue to complicate matters when it released Hillbilly Joker on May 17, 2011, an album they had refused to release when Williams handed it to them in the late 2000s, and had only released once he was free of his contract. Upon its release, Williams only said, through Facebook, “Don’t buy it, but get it some other way and burn the hell out of it and give it to everyone.”

Williams was not the only artist to publicly feud with Curb Records. Along with LeAnn Rimes’ legal battles from a decade earlier and ‘90s country star Clay Walker’s disapproval of how they marketed his 2010 album She Won’t Be Lonely Long, Hank Williams Jr. left the label in July 2009, citing creative differences as the main reason behind his decision. Tim McGraw also faced troubles with the label, starting in 2008 when they decided to release another Greatest Hits project instead of the new music he had been working on that had been shelved. According to a 2008 statement from him, “I am saddened and disappointed that my label chose to put out another hits album instead of new music … I had no involvement in the creation or presentation of this record. The whole concept is an embarrassment to me as an artist.” He, too, would find freedom, when Emotional Traffic, his last album for Curb Records, was released in January of 2012.

Another end of an era came in June 2007, when Johnny Cash’s longtime lakeside home was destroyed in a fire. He and June Carter Cash had lived in the house from the late 1960s until their deaths in 2003. “So many prominent things and prominent people in American history took place in that house – everyone from Billy Graham to Bob Dylan went into that house,” Marty Stuart said not long after the destruction that consumed the place where Cash had written much of his famous music, the place where the music video for Cash’s “Hurt” was filmed, the place where Roy Orbison had once been a next-door neighbor, and the place where Kris Kristofferson once landed a helicopter on the front lawn to pitch Cash some songs. Both George Strait and Patty Loveless would honor its legacy on “House of Cash,” featured on Strait’s 2008 album, Troubadour.

Strait not only carried his influence and momentum into the new millennium: he surpassed it. He became a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006 and expanded his sound. His 2001 Road Less Traveled album, for instance, embraced vocal processing and was considered by some critics as an experimental album, and 2005’s “You’ll Be There” became his first single to appear on the adult-contemporary charts. But there was never a doubt that Strait was a country music artist first and foremost. Honkytonkville, released in 2004, was a fiery set of hard country noted for mixing the old Strait with his modern, superstar self. That same year he released 50 Number Ones, a collection that is what the title says it is and gave him his 51st chart-topper, with “I Hate Everything.”

That, however, is when totaling both his Billboard Hot Country Songs number ones in addition to his ones that topped the Radio & Records and Gavin Report charts. On Jan. 14, 2006, Strait earned his 40th No. 1 hit on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart with “She Let Herself Go,” tying him with Conway Twitty for having the most No. 1 hits of any country music artist in history. The single to break that record would mark both a milestone for both Strait and two of its writers. One of them was “Whisperin’” Bill Anderson, who, with “Give it Away,” was the first songwriter to have a No. 1 hit in five different decades. The other artist, however, was just getting started.

Jamey Johnson. From ‘The Boston Globe.’

After two years of college, Alabama-native Jamey Johnson served eight years in the Marine Corps Reserves while gigging with country bands around Montgomery, his influences being Alan Jackson and, fittingly, Alabama. By 2000, he moved to Nashville and formed a connection with Greg Perkins, fiddler for Tanya Tucker and Tammy Wynette, among other artists. He released the self-funded They Call Me Country in 2002, but to little avail. Perkins invited Johnson to sing on demo tapes, and the songs among those recorded included “Songs About Me,” later recorded by Trace Adkins, and “That’s How They Do It In Dixie,” later recorded by Hank Williams Jr., Big & Rich, Gretchen Wilson and Van Zant.

Johnson would get his start writing his own songs through producer and songwriter Buddy Cannon, who helped him land a songwriting contract. His first hit came when Trace Adkins released “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” which Johnson wrote with Dallas Davidson and Randy Houser as a joke. Johnson and Houser would eventually move on from that joke, if still be defined somewhat by it, while Davidson would transform it into an entire trend a decade later. Johnson signed with BNA Records that same year, releasing a major-label debut album that would spawn the top 20 title track … and a second single that would fail to even chart, prompting the label to drop him. After that major label debut, Johnson retreated back to songwriting, living as a recluse after divorcing his wife. He’d not only help to pen Strait’s aforementioned “Give it Away” and another Adkins hit, “Ladies Love Country Boys,” in 2007, but also “Another Side of You,” recorded by Joe Nichols, who also recorded Johnson’s “She’s All Lady” for his eventual Real Things album.

He’d self-finance another release, and this time, it would be his breakthrough collection. Originally only made available online, Johnson’s That Lonesome Song drew attention for its sound, style, and content – drenched in pedal steel with a noticeably sparse sound, coupled with content that was self-cautionary and dark. It stood in contrast from what mainstream country music had become in the latter half of the 2000s. Initially released only to online retailers in 2007, the album was physically released in August 2008 by Mercury Nashville, when the label’s own Luke Lewis caught wind of it. Johnson was signed to the label shortly afterwards, with Mercury acquiring the album and omitting two songs from the original release – “Next Ex Thing” and “Leave You Alone” – as well as including three songs not featured on the original – “Mowin’ Down the Roses,” “The Last Cowboy,” and “Between Jennings and Jones,” the last of which outright referenced Johnson’s turn of luck. The album’s leadoff single, “In Color,” became Johnson’s first solo top ten hit and earned him the 2009 CMA and ACM honors for Song of the Year.

The single, as numerous critics have noted, was championed by certain country fans who felt that their style of music was no longer prevalent in mainstream country music. “In Color” was a story about a grandfather telling his grandson about the hardships of the Great Depression and what the black-and-white photos didn’t show, acting subversive in its view that painted it as more than simple nostalgia. It provided a lyrical insight missing from country music at this time, and the album’s recording itself was unlike what Nashville was used to, as well. “Place Out on the Ocean” and “Between Jennings and Jones” were produced by Dave Cobb – a producer who’d gain considerable notoriety in the 2010s – while the remainder of the album was produced by Johnson’s road band, the Kent Hardly Playboys (note the pun). Several publications praised it for a return to a hard country sound and ranked it as among the best country music of the entire decade – both for the album itself and its singles. Johnson’s ambitions, though, were more of a creative variety than they were a commercial one. “In Color” remained his only solo top ten hit, and was followed by “High Cost of Living,” which peaked inside the top 40.

In the album’s liner notes, Johnson says, “I woke up in my truck one morning after a hard night out on the town. With divorce on the horizon and my record deal taken away I set out for relief by getting out of my head for a while. Instead of risking the drive home (I was staggering drunk) I just threw my keys in the bed of my truck and went to sleep in the passenger seat. It was over a year later, after receiving Song of the Year at the ACM awards in Las Vegas, before I’d have another drink. That Lonesome Song is a collection of my observations of my life as I saw it during that time.”

That project was followed by a 2010 double album, The Guitar Song, which once again featured a slew of collaborators not typically expected on modern mainstream country music projects: Among them, Bobby Bare, Bill Anderson, James Otto, and Alabama’s Teddy Gentry. Further cementing his traditional status, too, the album featured covers of songs by Keith Whitley, Kris Kristofferson, Vern Gosdin, and more. The album became an even bigger critical success than its predecessor, becoming Johnson’s first No. 1 album. But its biggest single, “Playing the Part,” barely scraped the top 40 at radio, and aside from a few scattered single releases and a tribute to songwriter Hank Cochran with 2012’s Living for a Song, Johnson has remained largely absent since, citing label complications (which he eventually resolved by forming his own Big Gassed Records) and a concussion, among other reasons, as for why.

A Rocking Ruckus

Darius Rucker. From ‘USGA.’

By 2006, the Chicks had remained out of the public eye since its 2003 controversy. As the members’ families expanded and personal lives took priority, they met with producer Rick Rubin, who wanted to produce the group’s first album since Home. The group members, unsure of the prospects, were even more taken aback when Rubin suggested they write the entire project themselves, which they had never done before. The result took over two years to finalize, but the post-controversy world they lived in allowed them to be more revealing on their collection, and the album that followed was 2006’s Taking the Long Way. With nothing left to lose and pretty much everything to gain, song topics ranged from family illness (“Silent House”), spousal abuse (“I Hope”), and infertility (“So Hard”), but it was the album’s big single, “Not Ready to Make Nice” that directly addressed the controversy from their side.

Predictably, the single died just within the country top 40, but became a top-selling digital single and helped Taking the Long Way sell more than half a million copies in its first week release. And with Rubin at the production helm, the album earned attention from rock audiences. They were featured in the documentary Shut Up and Sing, which focused on the aftermath of the controversy and the album that grew out of it. The album quickly went double platinum, which, while not as strong as their previous releases, still proved there was an audience willing to listen to them, country fans and beyond. They wouldn’t regroup to release a follow-up album for another 14 years, and both Emily and Martie Maguire eventually formed their own short-lived duo, The Court Yard Hounds, in 2012. But by 2020, the Dixie Chicks were back and known simply as the Chicks, and released the long-awaited Gaslighter album that same year.

By the mid-2000s, country music had yet to have a Black superstar since Charley Pride or a Black woman have a top 30 radio single since Linda Martell’s 1969 hit “Color Him Father.” Pittsburgh native Rissi Palmer placed three singles – “Country Girl” (No. 54), “Hold On to Me” (No. 59), and “No Air” (No. 47) – on the country charts from 2007-08, but her self-titled album only reached No. 56 on Billboard’s country album chart. And while both Rhonda Townes and Miko Marks released albums between 2005 and 2007, neither artist broke through. Instead, the next Black superstar to break through country music racial barriers would come from an unlikely source.

In early interviews as the lead singer of rock group Hootie & the Blowfish, Darius Rucker cited country duo Foster & Lloyd as his main inspiration for starting a band and pursuing a music career, and often cited country music as his main songwriting influence. He specifically cited Radney Foster (formerly one-half of that aforementioned duo) and his debut album, Del Rio, TX 1959, as another crucial influence. Rucker would even dedicate the title of his sophomore album, Charleston, SC 1966, to Foster. As a child, he would turn on his radio dial in his hometown to hear WSM broadcast live from the Grand Ole Opry, stating it was “magic” hearing acts like Buck Owens, Charley Pride, and Dolly Parton on the airwaves. “‘Let Her Cry’ was the first country song I wrote, we just didn’t call it that at the time!,” he once said.

By the time he made the transition to country music, Rucker had fronted a band with one of the most successful debut albums ever with 1994’s Cracked Rear View, which sold over 20 million copies and spawned several hit singles, as well as four other modestly successful albums. He originally wanted his debut album for Capitol Records, 2008’s Learn to Live, to sound like “the countriest album he had.” He was met with praise for his sound, but was told by his label president that he didn’t know if “George Strait could get these on the radio.” Regardless, it sold 1.5 million copies, strengthened by the release of No. 1 single releases in “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” and “Alright.” While nervous about how he’d be received in a country market, Rucker noted that people would come up to him, saying, “I never listened to country music until I heard you, and now I listen to country all the time.”

That didn’t mean he was welcomed by everyone. Upon trying to enter the country market, Rucker stated he was met with hesitation from some radio DJs who initially refused to play his music “because he was a Black guy.” Indeed, Rucker had addressed racism through Hootie & the Blowfish, receiving death threats over a single, “Drowning,” that protested the flying of the Confederate flag above the South Carolina statehouse. But when “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” reached the No. 1 position on the charts in September 2008, it made Rucker the first solo Black artist to chart a No. 1 country hit since Charley Pride with “Night Games” in 1983. And from 2008 to 2011, every single of his made the top 5 of the charts.

The Genre That Built Them

By 2009, Taylor Swift was a bonafide superstar, country or otherwise. Her sophomore album, Fearless, debuted at No. 1 on the all-genre Billboard 200 and Top Country Albums charts, strengthened by the success of five top ten singles, including “Love Story,” which was both a country and adult-contemporary No. 1 hit. That year at the ACM Awards, she took home the Album of the Year award for Fearless. 2009 was arguably even better: She won four CMA Awards, including Entertainer of the Year, Female Vocalist of the Year, Album of the Year (for Fearless), and Music Video of the Year (for “Love Story”) She was 19 years old and the youngest person to ever win Entertainer of the Year. At the Grammys, she won for Album of the Year, Best Country Album of the Year, Best Country Song of the Year (for “White Horse”), and Best Country Vocal Performance by a Female Artist (for “White Horse”). By 2010, Fearless had sold six million copies, and singles like “Love Story” showed that she was willing to incorporate more sophisticated elements and references into her works like Romeo & Juliet and The Scarlet Letter.

In February 2010, Swift was asked to sing at the Grammy Awards. She performed a medley of her own “Today Was a Fairytale” and “You Belong With Me” and was joined by Stevie Nicks and Butch Walker for both the latter song and a take on Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon.” She was, as critics noted, pitchy and noticeably uncomfortable during her performances. Industry blogger Bob Lefsetz predicted that her “dreadful” performance would kill her career, which was among the nicer things written about the star.

Suffice it to say, it did not kill her career, and in Swift fashion, she was silent in the aftermath of the performance. She emerged with an album’s worth of songs written and drawn from her own life’s experiences. The result was Speak Now, which debuted at No. 1 on the all-genre chart just as its predecessor had, with first-week sales of one million copies. It contained a single aimed specifically at her critics. “Someday I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me,” she sings, quite bluntly, on “Mean,” further stating, “And all you’re ever gonna be is mean / Why you gotta be so mean?”

“Mean” was the result of a young artist staking her place in a genre where she knew she belonged, and was but one example of a changing of the guard as country music headed into the 2010s. The first decade of the 21st century saw a technological shift that happened through the Internet. Beginning with Napster in the late 1990s and continuing with YouTube – Spotify, too, by the 2010s – the Internet made it easier for listeners to obtain digital recordings over physical ones. What would become known as the decade of the single era was one country music was ready to embrace. Since its advent in the era of 78 rmp discs, the country music industry preferred to distribute record singles, given that they worked better than their album-length counterparts in radio broadcasts and jukebox play. Even following the debut of the long-playing (LP) album format in the late ‘40s, record labels preferred singles, and only used albums as a way of compiling an artist’s most recent singles. It was only in the wake of rock music’s embrace of the concept album in the mid-’60s that certain artists began to utilize its musical potential, and challenging the Nashville studio system that had dominated record production since the 1950s.

Brooks & Dunn (Ronnie Dunn, left, and Kix Brooks, right). From the duo’s Facebook page.

Another change occurred at the turn of the decade. On August 10, 2009, country music duo Brooks & Dunn announced it was disbanding, and would release one final album, #1’s … And Then Some, on Sept. 8, 2009, as well as embark on a farewell tour that would end with a final show in Nashville, on Sept. 3, 2010. Country music’s most successful duo – ending on a run of 26 million albums sold, 20 Billboard No. 1 hits, 19 CMA awards, 24 ACM awards and two Grammy awards – had called it quits and ended as it had started, as a parellel line drawn between two solo acts.

Ronnie Gene Dunn only gravitated toward music after college, when, after studying theology at Abilene Christian College and later dropping out, he moved with his parents to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he fronted the house band at Duke’s Country, a popular nightclub. He released two singles for Churchill Records in 1983-84 after attracting talent agent Jim Halsey’s attention, but it was victory in a country talent contest that led to a recording session with up-and-coming producer Scott Hendricks, who brought Dunn to Arista Records president Tim DuBois’s attention.

Leon Eric “Kix” Brooks III had grown up on the same Shreveport, Louisiana street as Billie Jean Horton, who had been married to both Hank Williams and Johnny Horton. Far from just a fun fact, though, Brooks’ first paying performance was at age 12 with Horton’s daughter, and he still lists both Williams and Johnny as influences. He played in various Louisiana clubs before making his way to Nashville in 1979, where he recorded a single for an independent label but found more success as a writer. Early success stories include John Conlee’s 1983 No. 1 hit “I’m Only in It for the Love” and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1985 hit “Modern Day Romance.”

Separately, Brooks and Dunn had found meager success as writers and solo artists, but DuBois introduced the two singers over lunch one day, insistent that they had to record together. The unlikely combination resulted in a debut album that sold 6 million copies and yielded several No. 1 hits, including its title track single, “Brand New Man,” “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” “Neon Moon,” and “My Next Broken Heart.” It would make for the duo’s biggest success story, but far from its only one. Follow-up releases would also become multi-platinum success stories, and as the two transitioned into the 2000s, they would continue to release million-selling albums. Dunn, the more recognizable and distinctive vocalist of the two, handled most of the lead vocals, with Brooks supplying harmonies. Their concerts were known for their high-energy antics, with Brooks sometimes leaving the stage to dance with the audience members. Starting in 1991, they were the ACM Vocal Duo of the Year, keeping that honor until 2009, with the exception of 2008, when they were bested by Sugarland. They were the CMA Vocal Duo of the Year in 1992, as well, and would remain that way until 2006, only bested once, in 2000, by Montgomery Gentry.

Even when 1999’s Tight Rope only went gold in sales, the duo bounced back with 2001’s Steers & Stripes, thanks to hit smashes like “Ain’t Nothing ‘Bout You” and “Only in America,” the latter released before the Sept. 11 tragedies, but still celebrated afterwards as something of an anthem for a grieving nation. And while the hits had slowed down for the two with 2007’s Cowboy Town, which found Brooks taking more lead vocal duties, they were still highly successful when they called it quits. Brooks had hosted the nationally syndicated radio program American Country Countdown since 2006 and initially focused on that after the split, and Dunn signed with a recording contract with Arista and released his first solo album in 2011. Brooks followed suit, in 2012, with his own solo project, and reunited with Dunn for a brief moment on 2016’s “Damn Drunk,” featured on Dunn’s Tattooed Heart album. Starting in 2014, they reunited for a run of Las Vegas shows with Reba McEntire, and by 2019 had reunited for a full tour and collaboration project in Reboot, which featured collaborations with other artists performing their songs as evidence of how their legacy had come full circle.

Miranda Lambert. From ‘Sounds Like Nashville.’

Just like with Faith Hill and Tim McGraw in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, country music had a new power couple as it headed into the 2010s. Miranda Lambert was blazing her own trail with her set of hard-edged country-rock by the end of the 2000s, but had yet to score her first No. 1 single, despite already notching a few signature songs in “Kerosene,” “Gunpowder & Lead” and “Famous in a Small Town.” While the lead single to her third album, 2009’s Revolution, only barely scraped the top forty at radio, its second single, “White Liar,” built off what previous singles had established for Lambert’s fiery artistic persona, peaking at No. 2 on the charts. But the album’s third single, “The House That Built Me,” would not only mark a different direction for her, but also give her that first No. 1 hit.

Her fastest-rising single yet was, ironically enough, the first she didn’t have a hand in writing, even though she may as well have. “I mean, I just started bawling from the second I heard it,” she told Today in 2010. Lambert’s father, Rick, noted that it was a reminder of what he and his family had lost between the Texas oil crisis and a few bad business decisions that left the family close to bankruptcy at one point, noting, “We actually lost a house that we built with our own hands.” They also did, in fact, bury their dog of 14 years in the yard of a rundown house they rented in that dark period, just as the song says. Some of the rooms in that house didn’t have windows, and when the Lamberts acquired it, almost everything needed either fixing or replacing from floor to ceiling. Miranda’s mother, Bev, also planted a garden, pulling what the family needed from the ground, while Rick killed game animals for protein. They absolutely refused to believe their daughter didn’t write it when they eventually heard the song.

The song’s writers, Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin, said it took seven years to write “The House That Built Me,” longer than it takes to build an actual house. They thought of the idea at the Sundance Film Festival in the early 2000s, but couldn’t get anyone to record it. They cut it down and re-wrote it in the years that followed, and later added in one of its most crucial lines, “If I could just come in, I swear I’ll leave / Won’t take nothing but a memory.”

The song was originally intended for country artist Blake Shelton, who Lambert started dating in 2006 and married in 2011. The two writers sent it over to producer Scott Hendricks, who included it on a CD of potential songs for Shelton. But when Lambert heard it, her reaction was so strong that she insisted on cutting it. Her first No. 1 hit earned a Grammy award, placing her in a rare company of modern country artists during this time with that power, including Sugarland, Brad Paisley, Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, and Lady A (then Lady Antebellum). She also won for Song of the Year and Music Video of the Year at both the ACM and CMA Awards, further winning for Single of the Year at the former.

Shelton himself was a prominent name in mainstream country music himself by this point. He busted out of the gate with the No. 1 ballad “Austin,” which also became a No. 18 pop hit and tied the record with Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart” as the longest-running debut No. 1 country hit, staying atop the charts for five weeks. He was inspired to write and perform music following the death of his brother, Richie, at age 14, and at age 15, reportedly wrote his first one, inspired by acts like Earl Thomas Conley and the other various country music acts he listened to growing up. He was originally slated to record Toby Keith’s “I Wanna Talk About Me” as his debut single, until “Austin” was chosen instead. Like Keith, Shelton struggled to find consistency after that initial debut smash, especially when several singles following his second No. 1 single, “The Baby,” failed to make the top 20. He’d bounce back thanks to big signature hits in the prison-themed “Ol’ Red,” originally recorded by both George Jones and Kenny Rogers but most closely associated with Shelton today, and the dry humor of the rollicking “Some Beach” in 2004.

He’d rise to superstardom in the 2010s, thanks in part to a string of No. 1 singles that began in 2008 with a cover of Michael Buble’s “Home” and lasted until 2016, with “Came Here to Forget,” broken only once by the No. 8-peaking “I’ll Just Hold On.” He’d also land a role as a judge and coach on the NBC reality television series The Voice in 2011. And his high-profile marriage to Lambert resulted in a flurry of increased media attention for both artists, until their divorce in 2015.

As the Decade Closed, They Got a Little Bit Stronger

In terms of other artists who rose to further prominence as the decade ended, Eric Church was on a hot streak of his own by the time “Smoke a Little Smoke” peaked. That momentum rolled over into his third album. Chief, released in 2011 and named after Church’s police chief grandfather, solidified his image as a country-rocker. The name also tipped its hat to Church’s nickname, which he acquired after having to wear sunglasses (to avoid wearing contacts in front of the bright lights) and a hat (to prevent sweat) during his live shows, crafting the image shown on the album’s cover. Released in July 2011, Chief featured all but one song co-written by Church, who wanted to craft an album without any rules or restrictions. The ill-fated lead single “Homeboy” didn’t start the album era off on the right foot, but “Drink in My Hand,” the album’s second single and rowdy, hell-raising drinking song, became Church’s first No. 1 single – inspired, as he says, by the rowdy energy he got from his fans during his live shows. It paved the way for an even bigger hit and one inspired by a rock legend, rather than a country one.

Released in February 2012, “Springsteen” was, as Church notes, inspired by a love affair in an amphitheater between two people that didn’t happen through its titular artist. Despite the nod to an outside influence, the song’s sentiments of nostalgia and wistful longing for a past relationship resonated with country music fans, enough to where it became Church’s second No. 1 hit, first Billboard Hot 100 top 20 hit, and earned him two Grammy nominations. It was his personal favorite song on the record, too, and earned a nod of approval from the artist mentioned in the title itself – Bruce Springsteen.

Like Miranda Lambert and Eric Church, other artists chose to follow their own muse as they rolled on into the 2010s. Dierks Bentley, for instance, chose to pivot away from his consistent and successful commercial run to record a project emblematic of his musical roots. Bentley wasn’t a bluegrass fan until he moved to Nashville and started attending shows at the famous nightclub, the Station Inn, known for its evenings of bluegrass and acoustic entertainment. He came to Nashville because of a love for Hank Williams Jr. and Garth Brooks and was disillusioned by how many artists weren’t writing their own songs when he got there, due to his insistence on doing so himself. He was encouraged to check out the aforementioned venue and says he fell in love with the music played there, “because it was from the heart.” There, he met Terry Eldredge, of the Grascals, as well as both Ronnie and Rob McCoury, sons of the bluegrass legend Del McCoury. His earliest albums typically included at least one bluegrass song, as a nod to the influence.

Dierks Bentley. From ‘NPR.’

Originally inspired to create both a commercial country album and bluegrass project following his 2009 release, Feel that Fire, Bentley switched gears upon realizing that he was combining the best of both on his newest project, which would turn from an initial side-project into a legitimate studio album with 2010’s Up on the Ridge. “I realized right away we were breaking rules, putting drums and electric bass on stuff that was bluegrass,” he told The Boot in 2010. “We were cutting a Kris Kristofferson song, one by U2 and one written by Bob Dylan. Then we wrote ‘Up on the Ridge,’ and were like, is it country or bluegrass? We didn’t know, so we said let’s stop worrying about genre description, and just do a great record.”

Bentley didn’t know whether there would be a single at country radio for the project, but was elated when the title track was chosen for release. Even still, his hesitation towards country radio wasn’t for naught: “Up on the Ridge” peaked at No. 21 on the charts and was followed by a second single, “Draw Me a Map,” that barely scraped the top forty. But between its sound spanning bluegrass, country, and Americana and a murderer’s row of guest appearances – from the Del McCoury Band, Alison Krauss, Jamey Johnson, Miranda Lambert, and Chris Thile, among others – it secured its legacy as a critical success, one that exposed modern mainstream country fans of the time to an entirely new musical world while pushing it forward, all the same.

Like Bentley, Sara Evans, an artist who began performing with her family’s bluegrass band at age four, broke through with a decidedly commercial country sound. But, also like Bentley, Evans would find ways to merge her two preferred styles throughout her career, including a chart-topping title track from 2000’s Born to Fly that emphasized her traditional roots. And until the latter half of the 2000s, she was a reliable hit-maker who built off that established formula. Success stuttered when the third single from her 2005 Real Fine Place album, “Coalmine,” which followed a chart-topping title track and the top ten hit “Cheatin’,” faltered in the wake of mine disasters. And some critics and historians further claim that personal troubles, including a messy divorce in the middle of the decade, hampered her success toward the end of the 2000s. She’d bounce back one last time with the lead-off single to her eventual sixth album, 2011’s Stronger.

Sara Evans. Credit: Robert Ascroft

“A Little Bit Stronger” became an anthem for those struggling to move with their lives in the wake of messy pasts and constant reminders of them, strengthened by the reminder that getting “a little bit stronger” with each day still counted as progress made. In May 2011, it became Evans’ first No. 1 hit since 2005’s “A Real Fine Place to Start,” her first platinum hit, and was featured on the soundtrack for the 2010 film Country Strong, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Tim McGraw.

The song was written, in part, by Hillary Scott, a member of the pop-country trio Lady A (then Antebellum), a group itself on the cusp of superstardom with the release of its 2009 smash hit “Need You Now.” The trio grew out of a chance meeting in a Nashville nightclub, when Scott, daughter of country singer Linda Davis, recognized Charles Kelley from his MySpace page and introduced herself. Kelley and his childhood friend, Dave Haywood, moved to Nashville to write songs together, but wanted to invite Scott to join their group. Kelley and Scott handled vocals, while Haywood served as the band’s instrumentalist. They broke through quickly with a self-titled 2008 debut album and a No. 1 single in “Run to You” that earned the band several awards. But they’d find their biggest success with the lead-off single to their sophomore album, the aforementioned soaring pop ballad called “Need You Now” that would eclipse “Run to You” as the band’s signature song. Released in August 2009, the song climbed to No. 1 by the end of November, and peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 by March 2010. By April 2011, it had surpassed Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” as the most downloaded song in country music history, and remained that way until December 2013. Perhaps an example of growing too big too fast, though, the group struggled to recapture that same magic, outside of 2011’s “Just a Kiss,” and went on a short hiatus in 2016 to focus on solo projects. The trio regrouped in 2017.

Banding Together For A New Decade of Change

Country music’s duos and groups, in a sense, reflected the dichotomy of mainstream country music’s sound and lyrical structure as it headed into the 2010s. The common name for the divide comes courtesy of author Richard Peterson, who, through his essay in Reading Country Music, coined the terms hard-core and soft-shell to reflect the different sides and sounds. Hard-core acts typically emphasize “Southernisms,” write about concrete, personal situations, use string instruments in an attempt to evoke an earlier time period, and foster a commitment to country music. Soft-shell acts typically sound more polished on their recordings, write about general situations to find wide-ranging relatability, typically distance themselves from common country music and southern stereotypes, and typically yearn for crossover success.

Rascal Flatts. From ‘The San Diego Union Tribune.’

Examples of soft-shell acts in the 2000s, then, would be Lady A and Rascal Flatts, the latter act a trio comprised of vocalist Gary LeVox, Jay DeMarcus (a second cousin to LeVox), and Joe Don Rooney that rose to prominence in the early 2000s with regular country and adult-contemporary success and reflected the polished, crossover ready appeal of modern pop-country. The trio formed in 1998 and quickly found success through 2000’s “Prayin’ For Daylight.” The act won ACM’s 2000 New Vocal Duo and Group honors. Several more top ten hits followed, including a first No. 1 in 2002’s “These Days” as well as an adult-contemporary crossover success with 2004’s “Bless the Broken Road.” Starting with 2006’s Me and My Gang, the group found success through working with producer Dann Huff, and singles like “What Hurts the Most” and “Here Comes Goodbye” continued the band’s multi-format success.

Somewhere in between the divide was Sugarland, initially a trio comprised of Jennifer Nettles, Kristian Bush, and Kristen Hall, then as a duo, after Hall abruptly left in 2006 to focus solely on songwriting (a 2008 lawsuit against the band fueled speculation that she had been forced out because of her weight and open lesbianism). While in line with commercial country sound expectations for the time period, the duo also proved it was capable of catapulting a sparse ballad called “Stay” to the top of the charts. And 2008’s Love on the Inside was co-produced by the two members, bringing in a more rootsy feel with spare production. But after the crossover-ready concoction of 2010’s The Incredible Machine, the band remained relatively silent, not helped by more lawsuits that followed after its 2011 performance at the Indiana Stage Fair. The outdoor stage collapsed due to high winds, killing seven and injuring more than 45 people. Later that year, 44 lawsuits were brought against the duo and a handful of organizations involved with the show. Nettles and Bush took time off in 2012, striking out with solo projects throughout the 2010s, before regrouping in 2017.

Somewhere between the country and rock divide was Montgomery Gentry, a duo comprised of Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry. Montgomery’s younger brother, John, was a popular ‘90s country artist known for sensual ballads like “I Can Love You Like That” and faster-paced up-tempos like “Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident),” but before that, he was in a group with Eddie and Gentry called Young Country. The group split when John got a record deal, but Eddie and Gentry eventually regrouped, and in 1999 released their debut album, Tattoos & Scars, buoyed by early success through the hard-driving, stomping “Hillbilly Shoes” as well as the more straightforward country hit in the top five “Lonely and Gone.” The duo came out swinging by being named the Academy of Country Music’s Top New Vocal Duet or Group Award that same year, and in time became known for its odes to blue-collar values that had a stronger sincerity to them compared to other acts that would wear out those themes in the next decade. Tracks like “My Town” and “Something to Be Proud Of” rang more like anthems than songs. The latter hit came from the duo’s 2004 You Do Your Thing album, which also spawned its first No. 1 hit, “If You Ever Stop Loving Me.” Success faltered by the turn of the 2000s, though, and by the 2010s, the duo’s chart success had largely faded.

The Zac Brown Band, on the other hand, broke through with the decidedly rootsier “Chicken Fried,” which, while more in-line with what country fans likely expected from the genre, didn’t initially drive country music forward much with its familiar checklist-driven ode to Friday nights, cold beer, and good-hearted women. But the band that built its following through its live show and mixture of country, folk, and southern-rock and was initially comprised of lead singer Zac Brown, Coy Bowles, Clay Cook, Jimmy De Martini, Chris Fryar, and John Driskell Hopkins, quickly proved it could provide more than just breezy country songs. The band’s live show consisted of hot instrumentals and extended solos spanning multiple genres, and with hits like the rollicking “Toes” and the touching look at divorce on “Highway 20 Ride,” the band proved it could sound good in any capacity. The sophomore follow-up, 2010’s You Get What You Give, featured not only an expansion in sound, but even more career-worthy hits with the Jimmy Buffett duet in “No Hurry” and the haunting ballad “Colder Weather” that remains one of the band’s signature songs to this day, and the expansion continued into 2012’s Uncaged. The band maintained consistency and a growing catalog of hits while also expanding its sound until 2015’s Jekyll + Hyde, which shifted toward an all-genre melting pot of sounds that felt inorganic compared to past musical fusions. And the Zac Brown Band hasn’t been able to recapture the magic of those earliest albums – critically or commercially – ever since.

It was, however, also its 2010 hit, “As She’s Walking Away,” that would give one of its featured artists his final No. 1 hit. Despite maintaining consistent success throughout the 2000s, by the time Alan Jackson entered the 2010s, his radio success was largely over. A string of No. 1 hits starting with the graceful “Small Town Southern Man” and ending with “Country Boy” carried him through 2009, but became his final solo chart-topping hits, too. And aside from two original studio albums and a bluegrass detour in 2013’s fittingly titled The Bluegrass Album, Jackson was largely silent throughout the 2010s. And even despite being named the ACM Artist of the Decade, by 2011, George Strait was heading for a similar path. Success hadn’t totally faded for him yet, but began to show its signs when “Drinkin’ Man,” a single from his 2011 Here For A Good Time album, peaked at No. 37 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, marking his lowest-peaking chart performance yet.

Reba McEntire returned from her hiatus with 2003’s Room to Breathe, which wasn’t as well-received as her ‘90s work. It was followed mostly with side-projects as the decade progressed, including 2005’s Reba 1’s and 2007’s Reba: Duets, the latter of which included a top ten duet with Kelly Clarkson, “Because of You.” By then, Reba had ended after six seasons, and McEntire refocused her energies and talents on recording and touring. In November 2008, she left MCA Records after 25 years to sign with Valory Music Group, a subsidiary of Big Machine Records, growing ever larger due to Taylor Swift’s success. Her next original album, 2009’s Keep on Loving You, debuted at No. 1 on both the Billboard country chart and all-genre 200 album chart, her second to do so after Reba: Duets. In January 2010, “Consider Me Gone” became her first No. 1 hit in five years, and she launched her next album, All the Woman I Am, that same year, with another chart-topper in “Turn on the Radio.”

As she entered her fifth decade as an entertainer, she was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2011, marking a rare feat of an artist being inducted while still placing hits on the country charts. Unfortunately for her, she wouldn’t maintain the momentum for long. The second single from All the Woman I Am, a not-so-well-received cover of Beyonce’s “If I Were A Boy” failed to make the top 20, and follow-up singles failed to make the top 40 entirely. McEntire wouldn’t release another new single for three more years.

McEntire’s commercial decline was similar to George Strait and Alan Jackson’s in relation to their respective debuts and timing, but also reflective of another trend as country music exited the 2000s. Carrie Underwood led the charge for being the woman to have the most top ten singles throughout the decade, with ten in total. In absolute total: Faith Hill and Martina McBride both followed, with nine; Taylor Swift, with eight; Sara Evans and McEntire, with seven; Jo Dee Messina, with six; LeAnn Rimes and Gretchen Wilson, with five; and Shania Twain, with four. Compared to the 1990s, in which McEntire led the charge with 27 top ten hits and nine more – Trisha Yearwood, Hill, Patty Loveless, Tanya Tucker, Pam Tillis, Lorrie Morgan, Twain, Wynonna Judd, and McBride – not only matched but exceeded Underwood’s grand total, women in the 2000s fared worse on the country charts than they had in a very long time, and wouldn’t see an improvement in the 2010s.

The Underground Goes Under

Like mainstream country music of the 2000s, underground country of this time period built its stories through its burgeoning artists – like Hank Williams III – rather than its notable events. Also like before, geography continued to play an important role in its representation. Artists like Rachel Brooke and Whitey Morgan (both of whom remain active today) hailed from Michigan, the former a Gothic country artist who’d become known as the Queen of Underground Country in time, and the latter a hard-edged honky tonker who, like most insurgent artists, released a sophomore album with Bloodshot Records in 2010. He left the label not long afterward. His goal was to reach the fans directly, forging a DIY attitude that made him completely independent. Flint and Detroit specifically provided the biggest representation, but a venue like Ferndale’s Club Bart offered events like “Honky Tonk Tuesdays” that provided both a needed sense of community and structure.

Lydia Loveless. Credit: David T. Kindler

Of course, the rest of the general upper Midwestern United States continued to provide ample talent, too, from Madison, Wisconsin’s Those Poor Bastards to Duluth, Minnesota’s Trampled by Turtles. When Ohio native Lydia Loveless started out, she credited the general alternative country movement as a source of inspiration. “My boyfriend at the time listened to Hank Williams III, and I thought that was really cool because he was singing about whatever he wanted to but it was very country,” she told Interview magazine in 2013. On her 2011 Indestructible Machine album, which earned comparisons to the likes of Loretta Lynn with a punk aesthetic, she stated, “I think the new songs are more representative of the rock-’n’-roll and punk that I was listening to when I was younger.”

Greater representation remained small, though. An act like Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, for instance, caught a break when its own “CB Song” was featured in a commercial for GEICO’s year-long “Sunglasses” television advertisement, and caught a second one through promotion from horror author Stephen King in 2008. Additionally, “Swampblood” was featured on the HBO series True Blood. Fame, though, was not around the corner. “We all slugged it out in rough bars for hours on end,” lead singer J.D. Wilkes told The Milwaukee Record in 2018. “You weren’t laying out your clothes in preparation for some Americana fest. You were trying to make a living selling beer with hillbilly music and trying not to get stabbed in the process.”

It was as much a musical genre as it was a lifestyle choice, then, perhaps no better emphasized than through Nevada’s own Hellbound Glory. Fronted by Leroy Virgil, the band often sang hard-edged country music that owed more to the ‘70s outlaw movement than to alternative country music, and often framed its stories around Reno. “We got a lot of comparisons to Hank Williams III because of the lyrical content,” Virgil said. “But to be honest with you, I’ve been writing about drugs and booze since I was 16 because drugs and booze have always taken a pretty big part of my life.” He’d mature in time, but the Hellbound Glory of the late 2000s played its brand of “scumbag” country music as advertised.

And though punk and country were the primary influences, the general Americana realm gained steam in the latter half of the 2000s through string bands and bluegrass music, thanks in part to bands like the Avett Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show. The .357 String Band would count as well, if its brand of bluegrass music didn’t also come with a straightforward punk sensibility. Initially comprised of Derek Gunn (guitar, vocals), Jayke Orvis (mandolinist, multi-instrumentalist), Rick Ness (bass), and Joseph Huber (banjo, fiddle, vocals), plus Billy Cook, after Orvis’ departure in 2009, the band hailed from Milwaukee and, like other independent acts in this vein, built its following through high-energy live shows. The band made three albums together blending the sound of an Appalachian string band with a punk sensibility, with Orvis later joining the Goddamn Gallows and Huber striking out for a solo career.

And as alternative country music moved into the 2010s, a movement would die and a movement would be born. On Saturday, November 17th, 2012, Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers played its final show at Nashville’s Mercury Lounge, calling it quits after 16 years together. The band was but one of other independent bands in the .357 String Band, Sunday Valley, and Hellbound Glory that would dissolve … for a time, that is. Both the Shack Shakers and Hellbound Glory would eventually regroup, but the reasons for quitting at the time were legitimate. Without a solid support or fanfare behind the movement, these bands and their respective members turned attention away from making music free of commercial boundaries and started thinking about the cost behind those decisions. Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, for instance, cited not being able to afford health insurance as a primary concern for its temporary breakup. Others cited a lack of support and infrastructure for festivals and touring, in addition to rising gas prices that made the journey far less feasible.

And by 2010, Hank Williams III’s temporary break from the road in 2008 had snowballed into a period of increased inactivity. The “Cussin’ Board” on his own website – which fostered discussions about not just him, but the underground country movement in general – had shuttered. Parts of the now-deceased movement would be absorbed in Dale Watson’s take on it, called “Ameripolitan,” and others would find a different life in other scenes in time. But without a definitive leader and support behind it the way there was before, the underground scene as it was known then died, for all intents and purposes, in 2012.

In both its mainstream and underground realms, then, country music was poised for a change, and how that would form would greatly alter the trajectory of both worlds as it headed into the remainder of the 2010s.

Part Four: Bros and Broncos (2012-2014)

One thought on “Part Three – A Modern Country Music History: We Were Both Young When I First Saw You (2005-2012)

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