READ: Part Three – We Were Both Young When I First Saw You (2005-2012)
Not So Lonely At the Top … Or At the Bottom
Country music’s earliest years of the 2010s were as tame as the latter half of the decade that preceded it, and by then, country music’s newest superstars were varied and established. Of the ones who entered that way, though, only a few would remain that way throughout the course of a decade filled with change, upheaval, and a resurrection of age-old debates that have followed the country music genre since its earliest days. Kenny Chesney would remain a huge touring act; Tim McGraw would find continued success in a post-Curb Records career; Keith Urban would continue to push his signature pop-country sound, angering purists and endearing him to younger fans looking for a change; Blake Shelton would reach new heights through his both his music and television careers; Carrie Underwood would remain a consistent chart success, vocal presence, and more; and Eric Church would continue to tap into his outsider status, fostering success, if not always the radio hits to match it.
Some that have been discussed in previous chapters – like Lady A and the Zac Brown Band – would only hang on to their superstar success for a portion of the decade, and other names not yet mentioned likely have their own parts to play and will require their own separate discussions as this section unfolds. Others require only a brief explanation, like Toby Keith, who entered the decade with arguably his biggest hit yet, a half-spoken, half-sung novelty hit called “Red Solo Cup,” following his final No. 1 hit, “Made in America.” Emerging trends of the 2010s, however, would not line up with Keith’s artistic ideals, and his success would largely fade just a few years after that hit.
A weirdly isolated group that would both rise to prominence and fall from it during a relatively short time period was the Band Perry, a classic-styled brother-sister country band (comprised of Kimberly, Neil, and Reid Perry) that was equal parts rootsy and edgy when it broke through with the 2010 mega-smash “If I Die Young,” a crossover hit that went seven times platinum. While Big Machine Records reportedly wasn’t keen on releasing “Better Dig Two” as the lead single to the trio’s sophomore album, Pioneer, Kimberly held firm. It became another smash No. 1 hit. But the label retaliated by releasing “Chainsaw” as an eventual single, and while the song ended up becoming a modest top 10 hit, it would scan as a wake-up call for the band to chart a new direction.
The band’s post-Pioneer career has been rocky, at best. The lead single to a never-released third album, “Live Forever,” marked a shift away from the band’s acoustic-based style in favor of a noticeably heavier pop-leaning direction, and the band members themselves even started marketing themselves away from country music. “We’re pop tarts at heart,” Kimberly told Entertainment Weekly in 2015, confusing listeners. The song flopped at radio, and the group parted ways with its label the next year. Since then, the band has tried rebranding several times to no avail. The trio went independent in 2018 to release the Coordinates EP, its first project in five years, but none of the project’s singles – all of which were marketed to pop and AC markets – made any impact. It’s fair to say the band’s story is one of the most confusing ones of the 2010s to accurately follow.
As for the names not established yet, one Georgia-based artist would ascend into superstardom while another fellow Georgian artist would follow soon after. By the end of the 2000s, Luke Bryan had attained modest success with both “Do I” and first No. 1 single “Rain is A Good Thing,” but compared to his contemporaries, he wasn’t yet a superstar. The Leesburg native was bound for Nashville at age 19, until his older brother Chris was killed in a car accident – an event Luke has stated he’s never quite processed yet. He credited his brother for helping him to love country music, and his last music-related memory shared with him was attending a Hank Williams Jr. concert just one month before his death. Following the incident, he completed his degree at Georgia Southern University. A farm kid, Bryan was initially employed by his father as a peanut farmer after college, but chased his music dream once again two years later after receiving encouragement from his father, who knew his son wasn’t destined to work for peanuts. He gave him an ultimatum: Pack up and go to Nashville, or get fired.
Upon moving to Nashville, Bryan joined a publishing house, with some of his earliest success stories being a title track cut for Travis Tritt’s 2004 My Honky Tonk History album and Billy Currington’s 2006 No. 1 hit “Good Directions,” a story with a twist ending. He signed with Capitol Nashville and released his debut single, “All My Friends Say,” which reflected the rowdy charisma that would define part of his ascent to stardom later on. He’d break through with 2011’s “Country Girl (Shake it For Me),” a ditty written with frequent songwriting collaborator Dallas Davidson, which both men were inspired to write after listening to hip-hop songs. When Bryan was still playing club shows, he’d notice fans would stick around and listen to hip-hop music the DJ was spinning. Country music fans who just watched his show would fill up the dance floor, and Bryan wanted a single that could capture that same energy. The single opened up the doors for further sexualization in country songs, embraced by men and women alike, and, though only a top five hit at radio, became Bryan’s best-selling song and paved the path for more multi-platinum hits to follow. “That song put me in a whole other spectrum of relevance. It changed the game and it made me a headliner,” Bryan told Billboard in 2019. Bryan told Davidson, upon writing the song, that the country music genre needed more songs about “country girls shaking it a little bit,” a prophetic statement for the decade to come.
By the time he entered the 2010s, Jason Aldean had already released his biggest album yet with 2010’s My Kinda Party. His success started after the paltry peak of 2008’s “Relentless,” when his third album, 2009’s Wide Open, launched with “She’s Country.” The song was a loud, amped-up rocker criticized for its oversimplification of terms used to describe “country” women that – despite the criticism – became Aldean’s second No. 1 single, first pop crossover hit, and one of the biggest-selling singles by a solo male country artist to date. Next single “Big Green Tractor” was even bigger, taking inspiration from Kenny Chesney’s “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” but framing it as more serious and romantic, marking another No. 1 hit for Aldean, his first top 20 crossover pop hit, and another multi-platinum-selling song.
His defining album era, though, was the aforementioned My Kinda Party one, a project that not only sold more than 4 million copies alone – a rare feat by this point in time compared to being an expectation for the 1990s – but was bolstered by its Kelly Clarkson duet in “Don’t You Wanna Stay” and a song that would foreshadow the defining mainstream country music sound of the decade, “Dirt Road Anthem.” The song was a genuine country-rap crossover hit that expressed country pride and southern values – familiar themes for Aldean’s work – and bolstered in prominence not only by its original recording by country-rap artist Colt Ford, but also a remix featuring Ludacris, released on June 9, 2011. Despite the obvious connections, Aldean denied it was a rap song, commenting that Ludacris just so happened to be an artist he shared similar values with, even though one of its artists referenced in song – George Jones – may have disagreed.
Aldean’s success, in a nutshell, can be summarized as giving his fans exactly what they want. “I think you do have to make it, to some extent, black and white. The song has to say what it means and it means what it says,” he told The Guardian in 2016. “If you try to get too tricky with the lyrics, it gets confusing. You don’t have to listen to it five or six times to really get it. If it’s something I have to go back and listen to over and over again to figure what it says, it’s too much work for me and it’s too much work for the listener.” Indeed, both Bryan and Aldean would mix their country pride anthems with themes that would largely characterize mainstream country in the first half of the 2010s, and they’d be joined by another act just getting started – a duo that shared roots with Florida and, like Bryan and Aldean, Georgia.
If It Ain’t Bro-ke, Don’t Fix It
On October 20, 2012, in an effort to acknowledge the newly growing mediums of music consumption, Billboard changed its Hot Country Songs chart methodology to include digital downloads and streaming data combined with airplay to determine chart positions. A new chart, the Country Airplay chart, which, for all intents and purposes, operated in the same fashion as the old Hot Country Songs chart, was made to reflect country radio’s continued dominance over the genre. An example of the dichotomy was seen right away, when the lead single from Taylor Swift’s 2012 Red album, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” declined in popularity as an airplay single but shot to No. 1 during the first week the charts changed, and would stay there until it was dethroned by the biggest country music single of the 2010s.
Florida Georgia Line, a duo comprised of Brian Kelley (from Florida) and Tyler Hubbard (from Georgia), formed in 2010 after its two members met at Belmont University. Kelley came from a baseball background – his musical influences counted as Garth Brooks, Alabama, Lil Wayne, and Eminem, among others – and Hubbard formed a hip-hop group called Ingenious Circuit in his teens. The two met through a mutual campus worship group while at Belmont, and following graduation, decided to give themselves two years to make it as a duo. They were discovered by Nickelback producer Joey Moi, who wanted a hair metal sound for a duo that wanted to model their sound after Shinedown, Three Days Grace, and, unsurprisingly, Nickelback. The melting pot of influences was evident by their very first release.
A high-twangy, amped-up number, “Cruise” attracted major label attention after airing on satellite radio channels and selling well digitally, helping Florida Georgia Line land a deal with Republic Nashville and Big Machine Label Group. The duo would become the biggest label success story since Taylor Swift. Released as a proper single in late 2012, “Cruise” was the No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot Country Songs Chart by December 22, 2012, and remained at the top until August 2013, interrupted only for a few weeks at a time by hits from Swift and Darius Rucker, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “Wagon Wheel” respectively. In total, the single spent 24 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, with 19 of them being consecutive stays at the top, from April 20, 2013 to August 24, 2013, and maintained that record until 2017. The single also set a record for the most downloads sold of a single country song, beating out the previous record set by Lady A with its 2010 single, “Need You Now.” By April 2015, “Cruise” had sold 7.4 million copies; 7.5 million, by November 2016. A remix with rapper Nelly only further bolstered its status as a cultural sensation.
Like with Gretchen Wilson’s own debut single a decade earlier, “Cruise” would forever typecast Florida Georgia Line – specifically as a breezy, lightweight act capable only of mostly singing about beer, trucks, and girls and little else. Unlike Wilson, though, it would do nothing to hinder the duo’s success, even though it came with the added criticism that the actual sound owed very little, if anything, to country music.. The duo’s 2012 debut album, Here’s to the Good Times, launched three more singles off the success of “Cruise,” and, with the exception of the Black Stone Cherry cover in “Stay,” didn’t stray much from lightweight subject matter of partying, women, and small town values. The album caught a second commercial wind it didn’t really even need when a deluxe version was released off the success of “This is How We Roll,” a duet with Luke Bryan that, commercially, was the closest the duo had come then to recapturing that initial “Cruise” magic, and truly cemented country music’s new commercial head A-listers heading into the still young decade. Even when the more thoughtful “Dirt” launched the duo’s sophomore album, 2014’s Anything Goes, it was followed by singles like the album’s title track and “Sun Daze” that failed to differ much from the established formula – commercial successes, artistic failures.
Double Homicide on Music Row
In the wake of the massive success achieved by acts like Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and Florida Georgia Line, on August 11, 2013, music critic and author Jody Rosen wrote, for New York Magazine, an article in which he criticized this new trend in mainstream country music. He referred to it as “bro-country” – “music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude” – offering a term of indictment for its other various critics to use and a term of endearment for the artists who made it. The music made by these artists was criticized for approaching its simple narratives with a numbingly predictable set of stock images and taglines.
On September 12, 2013, the Nashville Scene published a breakdown of the lyrics of the top 20 songs on the country music airplay charts, indicating a common lyrical thread and the genre’s shift toward party songs centered on the aforementioned subjects of women, trucks, and alcohol consumption. Rather than highlight their individual successes or failures, the article sought to spotlight the similarities between the songs in terms of lyrical structure, theme, and content, along with pointing out how many of them were made by solo male country artists. The basic argument made was that listeners likely couldn’t tell most of the songs apart. Somewhat now older patriarchs of the genre like Kenny Chesney or Tim McGraw never engaged with the name itself, and the former artist was actually opposed to its implications for the genre. Like with any trend throughout country music history, country music’s new or rising artists would be the ones to heavily adopt the trend that could have either started with “Dirt Road Anthem,” “Country Girl (Shake it For Me),” “Cruise,” or something else entirely … or a little bit of everything. And as it gained ground and popularity, debates over bro-country’s meaning and impact were heavily abound by 2013 – ones that started before bro-country was even properly termed.
On Sept. 19, 2013, Billboard published an article voicing the opinions of certain artists within country music who were concerned over the format’s direction. The titular lead singer for the Zac Brown Band, for instance, called Luke Bryan’s mega-smash hit “That’s My Kinda Night” “the worst song I’ve ever heard,” further stating, “There’s not a lot in the country format that I enjoy listening to. If I hear one more tailgate in the moonlight, daisy duke song, I’m gonna throw up. There are songs out right now on the radio that make me ashamed to even be in the same format as some other artists.” He also said, in regards to the songwriters behind them, “You can look and see some of the same songwriters on every one of the songs. There’s been, like, ten No. 1 songs in the last two or three years that were written by the same people, and it’s the exact same words, just arranged in different ways.” Jason Aldean, perhaps predictably, came to Bryan’s defense. Further fanning the flames was Alan Jackson, who by this point was largely forgotten by country radio. In an interview with the Baltimore Sun on Sept. 4 of that same year, he said there was “no country stuff left” on country radio. Out of Texas, Wade Bowen, who built a solid following in Texas and tried his hand at a mainstream country music career in the early 2010s, released the quiet protest of “Songs About Trucks,” framed around wishing to hear music with more substance to it. And in the realm of other legends voicing concerns, rock icon Tom Petty called modern country music “bad rock with a fiddle.”
Gary Allan, who caught his own career resurgence in 2013 with “Every Storm (Runs Out of the Rain),” his first No. 1 in nine years, joined in the fray, noting to Larry King, “I feel like we have lost our genre.” Allan’s reference was less about bro-country specifically, though, as it was about the everlasting pop-versus-country divide, particularly when asked whether he thought of Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift as country artists. That spoke to a larger point made: Both Allan and Jackson were naturally being phased out of country radio playlists by this point, and Brown’s criticism may have scanned as hypocritical to those pointing out his own numerous beach-inspired tracks requiring just as much thought as “bro-country” songs. Indeed, the most biting criticism didn’t come from these men – it came from a woman from Golden, Texas, who was just getting started with her own music career.
Kacey Musgraves’ songwriting career began when she was eight years old, when she wrote a song called “Notice Me” for her elementary school graduation. A mandolinist who’d later also become a guitarist, Musgraves often played at local festivals as a child, and released her first solo album at age 14, funded by her family. Like contemporaries such as Miranda Lambert and Jack Ingram, she eventually made her way to Nashville, but not before spending time honing her craft in Texas, specifically in Austin. Before she was a major label artist, Musgraves collaborated with the Texas country act Josh Abbott Band for a duet of “Oh, Tonight” in 2010, and opened for the European leg of Lady A’s Own the Night tour in 2012. That same year, she signed with Mercury Nashville and released her solo debut single “Merry Go ‘Round.”
The single’s discussion of deteriorating rural culture was not only starkly different compared to other singles at the time of its release, but also was the first single from a critically acclaimed debut album, Same Trailer, Different Park, released in 2013. It would join other songs grappling with heavy, controversial topics, like religion and same-sex marriage on “Follow Your Arrow,” the album’s third single that didn’t even make the top 40 at country radio, despite becoming a top ten best-selling hit on the alternate Hot Country Songs chart. Her biggest hit that year came from Miranda Lambert’s recording of her own “Mama’s Broken Heart,” co-written with Brandy Clark. Musgraves may have broken through because of country radio, but after “Merry Go Round” barely scraped the top ten, she would never have another radio hit again. Her own success wasn’t solely tied to critical acclaim, though. Same Trailer Different Park not only debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard country album chart, but went on to earn a gold certification from the Recording Industry Association Of America (and, as of this writing, is now a platinum-certified album). Additionally, “Follow Your Arrow” sold over 1 million copies as a single despite not even cracking the top forty at radio.
It likely didn’t help Musgraves’ career that she was as equally critical of country music’s direction as her more established male peers. “My voice is undeniably country, and I love country,” she told American Songwriter in May 2013. “Do I love what it’s turned into? No, not all the way. It’s a little embarrassing when people outside of the genre ask what I sing and I say country. You automatically get a negative response, a cheese factor.” She took it further that August, telling British GQ, when asked what musical trend needs to die out immediately, “Anyone singing about trucks, in any form, in any song, anywhere. Literally just stop – nobody cares! It’s not fun to listen to.”
Unfortunately, Musgraves was wrong when she said “nobody cares.” It was during this time, actually, that country music had never loved its men more as much as it had loved its women so little. Undeniable commercial smash hits paved the way for multiple platinum-certified crossover successes, but, as the aforementioned artists argued, at the cost of a genre’s integrity and soul. Like Musgraves, country duo Maddie and Tae, comprised of Maddie Marlowe and Taylor Dye, launched its career swinging. The duo’s 2014 debut single, “Girl in a Country Song,” took aim, albeit playfully, at several tracks considered to be bro-country – Tyler Farr’s “Redneck Crazy,” Chris Young’s “Aw Naw” and Billy Currington’s “Hey Girl,” just to name a few – as well as its noted lyrical clichés. “We used to get a little respect, now we’re lucky if we even get / to climb up in your truck, keep our mouth shut and ride along / and be the girl in a country song.” The accompanying music video starts with typical images of young women in cutoffs before shifting to scenes of intentionally homely men strutting around in the same outfits, washing cars in slow-motion, and literally flipping the script of a typical bro-country video. But in an industry that’s profited off both popular trends and the backlash surrounding them, “Girl in a Country Song” actually became the duo’s first No. 1 single, and would remain its only one for six more years, until 2020’s “Die From a Broken Heart.”
Just like with Jason Aldean and Zac Brown, “Girl in a Country Song” didn’t sell well with everyone. Florida Georgia Line’s Brian Kelley responded to the song by saying “I don’t know one girl who doesn’t want to be a girl in a country song. That’s all I’m gonna say … that’s it.” Another irony: Florida Georgia Line and Maddie and Tae shared a label home in Big Machine Records (through its subsidiaries), further emphasizing the appeal of the industry’s capitalization of both trends and the backlash surrounding them. Kelley’s statement also reflected how bro-country had become a term of endearment for certain artists criticized. Thomas Rhett, also signed to Big Machine Records and a success, thanks to hits like “Get Me Some of That” and “It Goes Like This,” posted a “Best of Bro-Country” playlist to his YouTube channel. Country Outfitter posted a similar playlist called “10 Bro-Country Songs for Summer” meant to celebrate the trend. Radio station KSTN in Stockton, California, played Luke Bryan’s “Country Girl (Shake it for Me)” on a 48-hour loop, after properly rebranding as a bro-country station. As far as the early 2010s were concerned, bro-country was there to stay.
Accidentally Sidestepping Another Problem
Perhaps the oddest bro-country-related feud came from Blake Shelton, who, at the beginning of 2013, said, “Nobody wants to listen to their grandpa’s music. And I don’t care how many of these old farts around Nashville are going, ‘My God, that ain’t country!’ Well that’s because you don’t buy records anymore, jackass. The kids do, and they don’t want to buy the music you were buying.” Country legend Ray Price fired back at Shelton, on Facebook, telling him, “You should be so lucky as us old-timers. Check back in 63 years (the year 2075) and let us know how your name and your music will be remembered.” Shelton later apologized, which Price accepted, and in the most underrated snark, jab, and retaliation possible, Willie Nelson renamed his tour that year to the “Old Farts and Jackasses Tour,” while Jean Shepherd said, “We’ve got a young man in country music who has made some pretty dumb statements lately. What did he say? That traditional country music is for old farts and jack-you-know-whats? Well, I guess that makes me an old fart. I love country music. I won’t tell you what his name is … but his initials is BS … and he’s full of it!”
Price wouldn’t get to witness the fallout of country music’s civil war that year. He died on December 16, 2013, just eight months after George Jones’ passing in April, who had also been critical of modern country music’s direction up until his own death. Though Vince Gill couldn’t figure out what to make of the song he’d started for Keith Whitley’s passing nearly 25 years earlier, at Jones’ funeral, alongside Patty Loveless, Gill performed “Go Rest High on That Mountain.” Overcome by emotion, he struggled to finish it.
By the time he uttered his infamous comment, Blake Shelton had achieved a superstar status in popular culture that eluded his contemporaries, thanks to his stint as a coach on The Voice and marriage to Miranda Lambert. He himself was too old for frat parties, and often offered a safe yet slightly more diverse offering of song topics through his own musical output during this time. Still, he was a strident defender of the bro-country movement, and contributed to it with his own “Boys ‘Round Here,” another song echoing the mainstream’s flirtation with rap music. Yet the music video stages a mock competition between typical “good ol’ boys” and young Black men sporting dreadlocks and gold chains, suggesting a paradox that the fusion of the two genres was similar yet worlds apart. Steve Earle arguably put it best when he said that modern country music was just “hip-hop for people who are afraid of Black people.”
Certain artists did try addressing racial barriers both culturally and internally. Brad Paisley, for instance, teamed up with LL Cool J for a duet on his 2013 Wheelhouse album, “Accidental Racist.” He said at the time of its release, “I think that song comes from an honest place. This isn’t a stunt. This isn’t some thing that I just came up with just to be sort of shocking or anything like that. I knew it would be, but I’m sort of doing it in spite of that, really. I’m doing it because it just feels more relevant than it even did a few years ago. I think that we’re going through an adolescence in America when it comes to race. You know, it’s like we’re almost grown up. You have these little moments as a country where it’s like, ‘Wow, things are getting better.’ And then you have one where it’s like, ‘Wow, no they’re not.’ ”
But the song’s message was seen as overreaching and uneasy in its attempt to address systemic racism, particularly in its metaphors and comparisons used, and received significant backlash when the album was released, including being lampooned by the hit television show Saturday Night Live. In regards to the song, Paisley said, “How do you show your Southern pride and not be misunderstood? There were some things I wanted to say from my perspective as a Southerner, like, ‘Contrary to what some people may think about Southerners who fly the Rebel flag or wear it, I hate slavery. I hate the fact that it happened. I can’t change it, and more than anything I want to know how we can get past it.’ ”
In regards to the controversy, he added, “The whole thing took me by surprise in this sense: This was a deep album cut on a country record. I didn’t know it was possible for an album cut to make the news, let alone to be headline news.” By this point, Paisley had not scored a No. 1 hit country single since his 2011 duet with Carrie Underwood, “Remind Me.” And aside from attaining a few hit singles in 2014 and 2015 – including a No. 1 single in 2014’s “Perfect Storm” – Paisley largely wouldn’t bounce back commercially or artistically in the 2010s.
And greater racial representation in country music was still slim as it was – both in the genre’s mainstream and independent realms. The Black string band Carolina Chocolate Drops remained an exception. Started in 2005 by Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons, and Justin Robinson, the group experienced multiple lineup changes throughout its duration, but would get its start traveling every Thursday night to the home of old-time fiddler and songster Joe Thompson. There, the band members would learn songs, listen to stories, and to jam. Thompson, a black fiddler in his 80s, played his instrument with a short bowing style he had inherited from generations of family musicians. The Carolina Chocolate Drops started as a tribute to Thompson, a chance to show what had been learned and bring his music out of the house and into the dancehalls.
The band won a Grammy award for its 2010 album, Genuine Negro Jig, which featured fresh interpretations of music culled from the Piedmont region of the Carolinas, highlighting the central role Black people played in shaping the nation’s popular music from its beginnings over a century ago. The band’s live shows were known for featuring flatfoot dancing, jug playing, shouting, and for the talent of all multi-instrumentalists involved, including their banjo, fiddle, guitar, harmonica, snare drum, bones, jug, and kazoo skills. Thompson died in 2012, but his legacy was secured. In 2014, the group stopped regularly performing together, with many of its members, particularly Giddens, choosing to embark on solo careers.
And in the mainstream, Darius Rucker would also make string-band music popular, when he released “Wagon Wheel” as a single in 2013. The single was originally an untitled and unfinished Bob Dylan song, included on the 1973 Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid soundtrack sessions. When leaked to bootleggers, the song was titled “Rock Me, Mama.” Old Crow Medicine Show’s Critter Fuqua picked up a bootleg in ninth grade when he visited London.
The royalties for the band’s take on the song, released in 2004, were split evenly with Dylan. While performing at the Grand Ole Opry on July 6, 2012, Old Crow Medicine Show was joined by Rucker for a surprise rendition of the song, and the fans went crazy over Rucker’s cover. His version bolstered its stature when released as a single, becoming a crossover country and pop hit. The song didn’t initially appeal to Rucker, until a chance performance from the faculty band at his daughter’s high school convinced him otherwise. “It was one of those things that I didn’t really get,” he said. “We were watching my daughter, and the faculty band gets up. It’s just the faculty from her school, and they play ‘Wagon Wheel.’ I’m sitting in the audience, and they get to the middle of the chorus, and I turned to my wife, and I go, ‘I’ve got to cut this song.’ ” Instead of cutting it as a bluegrass or folk song, Rucker turned it into a country one, and his biggest hit to date.
Pop Goes the Country, Country Goes the Pop, Etc., Etc.
By 2013, George Strait needed only one more No. 1 single to hit 60 in total. In an attempt to reach that total while he was still 60 years old, both his fans and his record label used social media platforms to urge listeners to call on country radio stations to play his single “Give It All We Got Tonight” as much as possible, in turn launching the “60 for 60” campaign. He announced in 2012 that he would embark on a farewell tour, the Cowboy Rides Away, throughout the next year. “I always had it in the back of my mind, when I turned 60 it might be the time to start thinking about it,” Strait said. “I didn’t want to book a tour where nobody came,” he said. Strait and his team hit their goal, when “Give It All We Got Tonight” became his 60th No. 1 hit for the week of May 12-18. He turned 61 on May 18. Also that year, he was awarded the Entertainer of the Year award by the Country Music Association, his first since 1990. It was meant as a final victory lap over anything else, though. Strait’s follow-up single, “I Believe,” only made it to No. 50 on the charts, a meditation on the lives taken from the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012. “There’s 26 reasons” to sing the song, he sang, alluding to the number of lives lost.
As Strait took a bow, another artist jumped back into the fray. While Garth Brooks had kept true to his promise to retire until his youngest daughter had graduated from high school, he periodically reemerged at several points afterward. From 2009 to 2013, Brooks played a 186-show acoustic Las Vegas residency with his wife, Trisha Yearwood. As a whole, though, he remained out of the public eye. When he returned in 2014, he was arguably as big as ever. He revealed in a July 10 press conference that he would release a new album and embark on a new tour later that year. He was a staunch detractor of streaming, however, and launched his own GhostTunes as a way of countering it. It ceased operations in 2017, and Brooks announced he would move his music to Amazon Music shortly afterwards. He launched the Garth Brooks World Tour in September 2014, which took the unconventional route of announcing each city on the tour individually, in order to generate excitement and combat ticket scalpers and resales.
The first concert took place at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois, and just days later, Brooks announced ten additional shows. This pattern of adding more shows according to demand would continue until its end. He released his next album, Man Against Machine, in November, and while its radio singles fared poorly for his standards – its biggest hit being the top 20 lead single “People Loving People” – his tour lasted until 2017, by which point he had attained his first No. 1 single in over a decade with “Ask Me How I Know,” and had just finished the highest-grossing country music tour of all time. He also began promoting the next generation of country music talent, including Caitlyn Smith and Randall King. The former artist found success as a songwriter in both pop and country, thanks to hits like Meghan Trainor’s “Like I’m Gonna Lose You” and Cassadee Pope’s “Wasting All These Tears,” as well as having her songs featured on the Nashville television show. It would be Brooks’ promotion of her own “Tacoma” that would fuel her rising star, and in 2018, she released her debut album, Starfire, showcasing not only her songwriting skills, but also her dynamic vocal range. King is a fourth generation hay-hauler who released a self-titled debut album in 2018 that drew praise for tipping its hat to ‘90s influences like Alan Jackson and George Strait. He drew immediate praise from Brooks, who recorded his “The Road I’m On” for his 2020 album, Fun. Change was in the air, indeed.
But while Brooks marked his return to country music, Taylor Swift got ready to leave it. Ahead of the release of her 2014 1989 album, Taylor Swift made one thing very clear: “This is my very first documented, official pop album.” Swift, one of the most acutely aware artists of discussions surrounding her, said at the time that she knew no one would be surprised by the move. “I think people were surprised that I was honest about it,” she told CBS in 2014. Her label wanted her to include country songs on the new record to court both markets, but she felt it would “be exploiting an entire genre.” By March of that year, she had moved to New York City and was working with pop producers like Jack Antonoff, Max Martin, and Shellback. And aside from a few scattered single releases pushed to country radio, Swift kept the promise she made.
Despite switching sounds, though, Swift continued demonstrating the same knowledge of media that pushed country music to embrace new technologies and business models in the 2000s. Just as the 1940s and 1970s saw country artists involved in similar battles over artistic compensation, Swift came to the forefront of the debate ahead of 1989 over streaming issues in relation to artist compensation. Just ahead of the album’s release, she removed her recordings from Spotify in protest of the streaming service’s low royalty rates. She was not the first artist to do this, but she was the one to earn more national attention and provoke larger debates over the rise of streaming and its economical impact on the music industry than ever before. She was both encouraging traditional music consumption while also relying on other streaming services (like Apple Music and YouTube) to promote her music and videos. And though she added her music back to Spotify in June 2017, by asserting creators’ rights within a new model of popular-music consumption, she pioneered a new paradigm for the production and consumption of popular culture in the 2010s.
Meanwhile in the country music genre, bro-country and a continued fusion of country and hip-hop were both so ingrained in new artists’ material and quoted influences, that Big Machine label head Scott Borchetta claimed, in regards to bro-country artists and rising newcomers, “it’s in their DNA.”
Nowhere was that more tested than with newcomer Sam Hunt, who eschewed the bro-country moniker for something different altogether. Before embarking on a country music career, Hunt was a teenager in Cedartown, Georgia, whose quarterback skills took him to the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he eventually won a starting job. And before leaving for college, Hunt bought his own guitar after playing around with one recently bought by a friend, stumbling upon a new passion in the process. As a philosophy major balancing school with sports, Hunt mastered his new instrument during his downtime, and, encouraged by his teammates, started booking shows at bars around town. After graduation in 2007, he had a tryout with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2008, but left after two months, inspired to pursue a music career instead. He came to Nashville with a friend (who’d later become his road manager), two mattresses, and his mom’s minivan.
Success came through a publishing deal, where he co-wrote Kenny Chesney’s chart-topping 2012 hit “Come Over,” Keith Urban’s 2014 top ten hit “Cop Car,” and Billy Currington’s chart-topping “We Are Tonight,” released that same year, along with the title track to Reba McEntire’s 2015 Love Somebody album. His noted musical influences at the time included 1990s-era country music as well as rap, R&B, and other urban pop styles, a product of his childhood in which those styles were found on various playlists, due to country music’s commercial boom of the time. His earliest solo live shows, though, featured him with two guitarists and a laptop, because he couldn’t afford a drummer. Before he had a record deal, he found success from streaming. Hunt’s manager, Brad Belanger, said, in 2017, “We didn’t have the money or the know how to get CDs in Target. But we could record songs at home and put them up on Spotify or SoundCloud or Pandora. It was free, easy, quick and the way to get to all the fans, not just the country fans, since the streaming services have a much lower wall between genres than terrestrial radio or television.” Hunt signed with MCA Nashville in 2014 and released his debut single, “Leave the Night On,” as a testament to that musical melting pot.
Naturally, the blend of styles drew both praise for its progressivism and ire for further pushing country music closer to mainstream pop. All five singles from his debut album Montevallo not only peaked within the top 2 of the country airplay charts, but became crossover smash-hits that immediately catapulted him into superstardom. He’d regularly cover acts like Drake, Beyonce, and Mariah Carey, and, as critics have noted, his usual attire of a baseball cap with a flat bill didn’t match the look of a typical country singer. A deliberate move, so as to erode stereotypes. “When people in Nashville told me I had to dress like that, I was like, ‘Wait a minute. Why?’ So I deliberately dressed differently,” Hunt told Billboard in 2015. “People who might not have listened to me if they’d seen me sitting on a hay bale in a barn on the front of a record – they give the music a chance.” Like a similar contemporary of his, Kacey Musgraves, Hunt was regularly told by fans that “I didn’t think I liked country music before I heard your record.” Taylor Swift called him “the coolest new thing that country music has going on,” when she brought him onstage in Chicago that same year for a duet of Hunt’s “Take Your Time,” a half-spoke, half-sung ballad that was among many of Hunt’s earliest crossover successes. Others included “House Party,” featuring turntable scratches, and “Break Up in a Small Town,” featuring a dubstep drop.
One thing for certain, however, was that by the time George Strait rode away, Taylor Swift moved to pop, and Sam Hunt dominated the airwaves, the bro-country era was wearing thin for listeners. In February 2015, the information and measurement company Neilson reported that country radio’s ratings had fallen to an 8.4 share amongst its key demographic of 18-34 year olds and was ranked third overall when compared to other formats. They marked the lowest ratings for country music since December 2012, shortly after Florida Georgia Line’s debut. The duo itself would take steps toward maturity with the on-the-nose title of 2016’s Dig Your Roots. And after launching his 2015 Kill the Lights album with the blatantly bro-country-tinged “Kick the Dust Up,” Luke Bryan would release “Fast” as a future single, a song about acknowledging the passage of time and youth that the aforementioned sub-genre was obsessed with, only from a grown-up, mature perspective. At any rate, the genre would continue to be male-dominated.
A Hill to Die On
The lack of female representation on country radio was amplified by a May 2015 issue of industry publication Country Aircheck, when radio consultant Keith Hill said, quite bluntly, “If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out. The reason is mainstream country radio generates more quarter hours from female listeners at the rate of 70 to 75%, and women like male artists … The expectation is we’re principally a male format with a smaller female component.” He stirred the pot even more, when he added, “Trust me, I play great female records and we’ve got some right now; they’re just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of the salad are the females.”
As expected, backlash ensued, and from many prominent female artists in country music. At the CMA Fest that June, t-shirts were sold saying “Let the Tomatoes Play,” and Martina McBride herself sold t-shirts: “tomato,” for women, and “tomato lover,” for men. She asked her social media followers for their thoughts, and found that her feed was “overwhelmingly full of comments that disagree wholeheartedly with what was said in the article and how they, as the core audience, feel misrepresented.” Jennifer Nettles took to Twitter to write, “Don’t worry babe. I see an opportunity here. (A) big ole vagina shaped opportunity.”
Despite his crass comments and presentation, though, Hill wasn’t to blame for the underlying problem, even if his further defense of the comments didn’t help his case. Several fans questioned whether Hill’s comments were made to reflect a current data model for mainstream country music, or to just amplify an underlying sexism within the industry now made public. “The Tomato-gate just accelerated it because it really brought forth what people knew but nobody was talking about,” said artist manager Tracy Gershon to The Tennessean. “When I was shopping female artists, several labels said, ‘We don’t sign females,’ or, ‘We already have too many females and they are too hard to get on radio,’ or, ‘It is too hard to find songs for females.’ We had to find proof that that isn’t true.” Indeed, the controversy also spotlighted the genre’s newest female contenders, working to establish their individuality and broaden the genre’s subject matter.
Kacey Musgraves remained one such example of a female artist working to broaden her subject matter and sound, even if country radio disagreed. The lead single to her sophomore major-label album, Pageant Material, “Biscuits,” peaked merely at No. 36, and follow-up single “Dime Store Cowgirl” failed to even chart. Despite this, the album still debuted on the Billboard Country Album Chart at No. 1 and initially outsold its predecessor, even though that debut has outpaced it over time. Country music’s mainstream was embroiled in something of a civil war through 2013 and 2014, and would only shift those arguments toward a similar problem altogether in 2015. In between that fracture came the birth of an entirely new underground movement.
New Metamodern, Underground Sounds in Country, Western, Americana, and Beyond
At a time when underground country music was headed for a commercial and artistic death in 2012 and bro-country reigned over FM airwaves in 2013, several artists would pull from Americana, traditional country, and the aforementioned alternative movement to give it new life. And unlike past iterations that ran only parallel to country music’s mainstream, there would be no ignoring this movement’s impact in the country music crossroads. It, ironically enough, would also want nothing to do with greater recognition within the country music community. Hank Williams III remained the founding father of a movement that awakened a DIY spirit in country music and spoke to what was happening to country music in a stark vernacular that endeared himself to like-minded fans. But that fight was broken in the 2010s, and one of the artists to revive country music’s underground would want nothing to do with any titles of a country music savior.
By 2012, the Sunday Valley band had dissolved. Its leading member, Sturgill Simpson, was ready to strike out on his own for a solo career. Simpson was born in Jackson, Kentucky, in the heart of Appalachia. His grandfather introduced him early on to country and bluegrass music, particularly Merle Haggard. His grandmother introduced him to sixties soul. Rock ‘n’ roll came roaring by third grade, thanks to an older cousin. A troubled youth led him to only barely graduate from high school, and just before he did, he enlisted in the Navy. He enlisted, he says, because of “the wrong books – like the novels of Jack Kerouac” that romanticized his view of the world. “I wanted to sail the Seven Seas.”
Instead, he saw the impoverished pockets in Kuantan, Malaysia, and his worldview darkened. After three years, he hung around Seattle, Washington, experiencing an epiphany in 1999, when he heard Bill Monroe’s “Wayfaring Stranger” while driving around one day. “I was transported to [my] childhood. I’d rediscovered my musical heart, and I zeroed in on bluegrass. For the next four years, I immersed myself, from pre-World War II to its pinnacle in the seventies. I studied the songs and bands of Ralph Stanley and the original masters.”
He formed Sunday Valley in his home state of Kentucky in 2004, a four-piece band that found early success opening for fellow Kentucky-based band Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers. In 2005, Simpson moved from Kentucky to Nashville, but only stayed for nine months, because he didn’t know how to get people to hear his music or knew how to fit in with country music’s then current fold.
As he told NPR in 2014, “I really came, more than anything, to find the old timers that were still around, that I could play bluegrass with and try to learn as properly how that should be done as I could … I didn’t find a lot of similar-minded folks in town: pop-country was really at saturation at that point, and what is now described as the ‘hip’ Nashville scene wasn’t really there yet. You know, any of those bars in East Nashville that are hotspots, that you can walk into on a Friday or Saturday night, back then there’d be six people in there.”
Disgruntled, he moved to Utah to work for the railroad. Now 28 years old with the Sunday Valley moniker at rest, Simpson worked in Salt Lake City as a train conductor at a switching facility, helping to operate one of the main train arteries between the East and West Coast. He enjoyed it, but moved back to Kentucky when his grandfather became sick. While caring for his family, he met his future wife and eventually decided to move back to Utah to work for the railroad again after his grandfather’s recovery. The job he loved, though, depressed him after taking a management position, and he looked to music for a form of therapy. “I started pulling the guitar out of the closet for the first time in about three years and really, really [started] writing a lot.”
With encouragement from his wife, he sold everything they owned except for an old Ford Bronco, and moved again to Nashville in 2010. That year, he revitalized the Sunday Valley band name and hit the road. The band played once again with Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers and released an album, To The Wind and On to Heaven, a noticeably more hard-country inspired effort that played fast and raucous, so as to echo Simpson’s bluegrass and rock music upbringing. The band caught its breakthrough when asked to play at the Pickathon Festival in Portland, Oregon in August 2011, but it would be more of a break-out moment for Simpson than the Sunday Valley name. After Purdom’s departure in 2012, Simpson made the announcement that April that he planned to strike out on a solo career.
After going solo, Simpson released his debut album, High Top Mountain, on June 13, 2013, a self-funded, self-released project that – later, much to Simpson’s dismay – earned comparisons to Waylon Jennings for a similar vocal style and evocation of a hard-edged, outlaw-inspired sound (and featured Robby Turner, a former guitarist for Jennings). Produced by Dave Cobb, the album was initially more of a critical success than a commercial one, but would spearhead a slew of critically acclaimed albums released that year produced by Cobb. Simpson would later regard the album as being too polished for his liking.
After the release of High Top Mountain, Simpson gained new opportunities from opening shows for Dwight Yoakam and Charlie Robison, and would make his Grand Ole Opry debut on August 23, 2013, after being invited by Marty Stuart. He honored his grandfather, Dood Fraley, who said, “That’s it, bud … that’s the biggest honor in country music … that’s what you’ve been working so hard for all these years whether you knew it or not.”
The second biggest honor, then, came in May 2014, when Simpson released his sophomore album, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music. The album opened to high critical acclaim and surprisingly high sales numbers. It debuted on the Billboard Country Album Chart at No. 11, selling 5,500 copies in its first week, a feat unheard of for an artist with no major label support. Soon, Zac Brown, Keith Urban, Jake Owen, Sam Hunt, and more were calling themselves Simpson fans. Brown went so far as to book Simpson for select dates on the Great American Road Trip tour, just two months after the album’s release. Along with its nod to Ray Charles’ own landmark Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music shifted between hard-country, psychedelic rock, up-tempo gospel and more, and was led by “Turtles All The Way Down.” It starts with a heavy steel guitar and straight-ahead country delivery from Simpson, but quickly reveals itself as a meditation on life through Eastern philosophical and Western Judeo-Christian religious imagery, with references to “reptile aliens made of light.” In the end, as the song says, love is all that matters, and that straightforward country song then morphs into a hazed-out dose of psychedelia.
It wasn’t a radio hit, but it was a hit, and is noted today as Simpson’s signature song. On July 14, 2014 Simpson appeared on Letterman, exposing him to a mass audience, and bolstered his status by another appearance on The Tonight Show, in October. Sales numbers for his breakthrough album increased, eventually landing Simpson to a major record deal with Atlantic Records in January 2015. By February, the album had moved 100,000 in sales.
Similar to Simpson, Jason Isbell would also find his breakthrough moment in 2013, but from a comeback album, rather than a debut, and also through producer Dave Cobb. Isbell was born in Green Hill, Alabama, to parents who were both teenagers. He grew up with a musically-inclined extended family, and learned how to play music through his grandfather and uncle, including the mandolin when he was six years old. His grandfather, a Pentecostal preacher, played country, bluegrass, and gospel on guitar while introducing his grandson to the blues. By high school, he was so adept with the guitar that he played with bands in local bars and formed a country cover band with songwriter Chris Tompkins that once played at the Grand Ole Opry. Isbell was then only 16 years old.
It was in Muscle Shoals venues, though, where he’d befriend professional musicians and earn his start, including David Hood, bassist for the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and father of Patterson Hood, a founding member of the southern-rock band the Drive-By Truckers. He pursued a creative writing degree at the University of Memphis but returned to Alabama before graduating. He then took a job as a songwriter for FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, and left one year later, in 2001, to join the Drive-By Truckers as the band promoted its Southern Rock Opera album.
For the next six years, Isbell would contribute vocally, musically, and lyrically to the band, infusing his songs with references to Alabama in his themes of family, poverty, and struggle, most notably on the opening track to his 2011 Here We Rest album, “Alabama Pines.” Success came with it, but also took its toll on him, who suffered from personal turmoils and alcohol abuse fueled by a heavy touring schedule and whiskey-drinking band lifestyle. “I drank all the time,” he told the Huffington Post in 2013. “I used to think I didn’t drink in the morning, but my wife pointed out to me that I didn’t usually wake up in the morning.” He’d later say he didn’t remember a lot of his time with the band because of his drinking, even though he became one of the group’s songwriting assets and most popular players in his time there. By the end of each day, Isbell figured he had drunk a fifth of Jack Daniels.
On April 5, 2007, Isbell parted ways with the Drive-By Truckers and pursued his own solo career. He released his first solo effort that year, Sirens of the Ditch, featuring most of his old bandmates. A sophomore album would follow, this time with a newly formed 400 Unit Band, named after the psychiatric ward of Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital in Florence, Alabama and initially comprised of friends from Muscle Shoals.
As solo success came, his personal troubles worsened. A personal feud with Dierks Bentley over accusations of him stealing parts of Isbell’s “In A Razor Town” for his single “Home” happened in early 2012. In February, his girlfriend, Amanda Shires, along with manager Traci Thomas and musician Ryan Adams, staged an intervention. Their goal was to get Isbell into rehab. Isbell told GQ in 2019, “I had told her [Shires] once before, when she and I weren’t too far along, that I think I need to quit drinking and I didn’t think I could do it on my own, because I tried before and not had any luck. And I said, ‘I think I’m gonna need help doing this, go to rehab or something like that, because I don’t know how to do it on my own.’ She said, ‘If you still feel that way 24 hours from now, you’re going into rehab.’ ” Isbell emerged sober from Cumberland Heights Recovery Center in Nashville and used the experiences that shaped that transformation to craft his 2013 album Southeastern.
The album chronicled Isbell’s sobriety as well as the challenges that came with it. On “Live Oak,” for example, he opens with “There’s a man who walks beside me / He is who I used to be / And I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me,” suggesting that it was always possible to regress. It was also, as its opener “Cover Me Up” blatantly spells out, an album dedicated to Shires. She herself was an accomplished musician, a fiddler by the age of 10 who had joined former backing band for Western swing legend the Texas Playboys by age fifteen. She first met Isbell in 2004 while playing with her band, the Thrift Store Cowboys, just one year before the release of her own solo debut, Being Brave. The night before Isbell was to go into rehab, he went on one last-chance bender that tested her patience, and at that point wanted nothing to do with him. While in rehab, though, he’d ask her to “wait to see the progress” he was making. She did, and the two were married in February 2013 by officiant and fellow musician Todd Snider.
High Top Mountain and Southeastern were huge critical success that broke commercial barriers and paved the way for more to come, and they wouldn’t be the only ones. Alongside newcomers and breakthrough acts, legends were experiencing career revivals like never before. In 2014, Willie Nelson attained his first No. 1 album in 28 years, when he released Band of Brothers. Dolly Parton’s Blue Smoke, released the same year, also was a success, debuting at No. 2 on the country charts and No. 6 overall on the all-genre Billboard 200 chart. Johnny Cash, too, would have one final breakthrough, through a posthumous release of a lost album, Out Among the Stars, also released that same year, which debuted at No. 1 on the country charts. George Strait and Reba McEntire would also find their way back into the spotlight. Both, ironically, have released their latest studio efforts in the same years: 2015, with McEntire’s Love Somebody and Strait’s surprise release Cold Beer Conversation, and 2019, with Strait’s Honky Tonk Time Machine and McEntire’s Stronger Than the Truth, heralded by many critics as a return to her country roots in the same vein as 1984’s My Kind of Country.
Perhaps the most unlikely name to receive consideration in his final years was John Prine, a folk icon who had yet to receive his considerable due in country music for penning story songs like “Hello in There” and “Sam Stone” in the early ‘70s. He worked as a mail carrier in the late ‘60s and sang at open mic nights at the Fifth Peg in Maywood, Illinois, but only started performing after someone asked him, “you think you can do better?,” upon observing the other singers. Inspired by Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, and Roger Miller, Prine would combine bleak stories with absurdist humor that caught listeners off guard. He became a central figure in the Chicago folk revival, and upon releasing his self-titled debut album, was hailed as a promising songwriter, even if greater success eluded him. His follow-up releases were eclectic yet quirky, and though he moved to Nashville and wrote songs for artists like Tammy Wynette and Don Williams, he was never quite a folk, country, or rock icon; he was all three and more.
In 2018, he released, The Tree of Forgiveness, which gave him the best chart performance of his career. Artists as diverse as Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Margo Price hailed him as a hero and an icon. He also won the Americana Artist of the Year award in both 2017 and 2018, as well as Americana Song of the Year and Album of the Year in 2019, and was nominated for consideration in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for 2018. In 2020, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award. He cemented his status as a legend just as his final days drew near. In April that same year, Prine passed away due to complications from COVID-19, after surviving multiple bouts with cancer. His musical legacy can be heard through his own Oh Boy Records, established in 1981 and home to artists like Kelsey Waldon, Tré Burt, Arlo McKinley, and more, all of whom carry their own poetic justice into their own works.
Prine didn’t leave, however, without making his mark in other ways. In 2009, one of Prine’s icons, Bob Dylan, said, “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mind-trips to the Nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs. I remember when Kris Kristofferson first brought him on the scene. All the stuff about ‘Sam Stone,’ the soldier-junkie-daddy and ‘Donald and Lydia,’ where people make love from 10 miles away. Nobody could write like that.”
It goes without saying, then, that more independent acts inspired by offbeat poets like Prine would find success in the wake of Simpson and Isbell’s success, and the resulting wave would affect all corners of the great country music divide.
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