As one of the final installments in ‘A Modern Country Music History,’ I’d like to offer a “behind the scenes” look at the process and its creation – a step-by-step guide to untangling my mind, if you will. This project technically started on Feb. 12, but the drive and inspiration behind its creation was planted far earlier than that. My main fascination with country music history and research mainly started in the summer of 2018 when I began work on my undergraduate thesis on – what else? – country music (fun fact: the combined six main parts equates to a piece three times longer than that thesis). It’s likely nerdy to say I spent that time absorbing any book I could on the subject … now confirmed by me typing that out.
But I was hooked. It made me realize how much I didn’t know about the genre of music I claim to know and love. Granted, I’m not one of those gatekeeping individuals who thinks you need to know every single Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard song before claiming your country music fan card. If anything, discovery is something we should encourage – not force. If you want to know anything about country music in the 20th century, chances are there’s a resource available to suit your needs, whether it’s a straightforward historical narrative or some cool deep-dive into some other topic. Still, I must admit I’ve long been disappointed in a lack of discussion for country music’s modern era. Not that it’s going to top the legendary performances and performers long gone by now (or the ones still around), but as someone who grew up listening to country music around the late 2000s, it’s a perspective I had always wanted to read.
So I sent a tweet on Feb. 12, basically say all that – in which I threw out the idea that it would be cool to read a history of the 21st century thus far. The positive response surprised me, and was enough for me to finally commit to something I never thought I would do.
Where would I start, though?
I got to work later that night. My original plan was to create a singular blog post outlining country music history from 2000 to … well, now. Trying to find a good entry point, however, provided a hurdle for me. We could have started with the Chicks and that particular incident (covered in part two!), but that’s 2003, and now we’re limiting ourselves to just 18 years. So, OK, what happened in 2000? Not a whole lot.
I started thinking about what more I could do with the project and kept tracing my steps back further and further and further and further … until, wait! 1989! I thought about the key players of the 1990s, like Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson, and how they’re still relevant today in some form. I thought about Keith Whitley’s death, and how his death and the arrival of the class of ‘89 created a new chapter in country music history, one only discussed as something of a conclusion or addendum in certain history books. If anything, it always seems to be the early years of the decade that get discussed.
But there’s so much more to the story to tell! It may not be as rich or rewarding as country music’s best years of the 20th century, but that’s us looking back on a now near-100-year history with rose-colored glasses. There’s always a good and a bad component to it, and sometimes those dual components need each other. So I had to then think about the other end of the spectrum, and trying to find a good end point also proved difficult. Ending it at 2019 just made more sense as I thought about it. A tumultuous year in its own right that would pave the way for one that no one saw coming. More than anything, the particular history I ended up telling feels self-contained looking at it now; I think we’ll have to create an entirely new chapter and start from scratch in the 2020s. As for whether there’s ever a part seven … well, let’s just wait and see.
I thought about all of that and wrote around 2,500 words that night, just as a way to prove to myself that I wasn’t totally in over my head with the idea. I still think I was, but I’m glad I acted on impulse anyway. I wrote around 2,000 more words the next night. Part one was done, I thought. Part two was also fairly easy to assemble. The thing is, when taking 1989-2005 in aggregate, I already had the research compiled through my library – I just had to piece things together while putting my own spin on it and doing just an extra bit of research for those later years. I never really thought of doing anything differently, but I wanted a history that was all-encompassing and could relate to the modern day. Finding that common connection and thread through time is what country music is all about, and making sure that was apparent to you, the reader, was important to me when crafting this.
I had rough drafts for parts one and two done within a week. From February to April, I spent at least three hours a night writing as much as I could for this thing. I spent my weekends gathering research and preparing for the week ahead. That became frustrating starting with part three, when my library no longer really helped me out and I had to rely on my own research to craft a narrative that – to the best of my knowledge – hadn’t really been crafted before. For the record, I’m not arrogant enough to think I’m the first to write about country music history in the 2000s and 2010s, nor do I think this will be the best one out there. My goal was simply to create something I wanted to see that I hadn’t yet. Writer’s block hit me with part three, and it’s there that I began doubting my progress and thought about abandoning the project.
OK, I’m being dramatic. I never actually thought about abandoning it, but I began to understand why people don’t often choose to write about this particular time period in country music history. In, say, 20 years, maybe these past two decades will seem like nothing in the general country music story and history will repeat itself like it always has, but for as much as I wanted to celebrate country music, I also wanted to highlight the darker parts. That wasn’t meant to be a spotlight of personal favorites over the years. It was more of a “how we got here and why” sort of thing.
On Feb. 23, things clicked. I’m not sure what happened exactly, but I had finally found a way to piece together what I had wanted to say with part three. It was one thing to always have the information present in front of me; it was another to piece it together to tell a cohesive story. It’s like if someone dumps a puzzle in front of you – you know what to do, just not how to put it together. At any rate, that night created something of a domino effect for my writing. Suddenly I was going back to the first two parts and adding to them and making them more complete than they were. The only problem was that part three was as long as parts one and two combined. This would signal my first criticism for my finished piece, in that I think I spent too much time on individual artists and not enough time circling back to the overall story in later editions of this series. The 2010s were eventful, but perhaps not enough to have three sections devoted to them. If I were to ever revise this by extending the story to country music in the 2020s, I’d likely try and make it all flow a little more cohesively.
Anyway, some of part three became part two, some of part two became part one, and you get where I’m going with this. By March, I was inspired and excited. The thing I had only ever thought about doing was quickly becoming a reality. I was sending out drafts to people and gathering feedback, and pretty soon I was going back and re-editing … and it was fun. And then part four came along – the one where I discuss bro-country and the subsequent backlash behind it – and writer’s block was back … sort of. Unlike part three, I had a good road map for where I wanted to go with it, I was just intimidated because there was a lot there to unpack. I also wanted to do it right. For as chaotic as the bro-country era was, it was also the era I somewhat “grew up” with, in a sense. I was a kid just discovering country music throughout part three, but by the time I became a teenager in the years explored through part four, I was moving beyond country radio as a means of discovery. It was an exciting point in time where my world expanded, and for as many bad things that the era brought, I wanted to highlight the growing independent movement as a result of it – the good.
But … how does one maintain objectivity in what is supposed to be a straightforward history? I know the heroes and villains in my personal story, but do I address everything in a way that’s all-inclusive?
Another problem with part four … the first draft was around 15,000 words and only explored five years of history. Part three was around 10,000, and parts one and two were now sitting around 6,000-ish each. You see the problem. Did I go overboard with things? Did I get to the heart of the matter, or did I leave out something crucial in favor of furthering my own perspective? These were questions I grappled with heavily in the final parts of this series. It wasn’t until my good friend Josh Schott read a final draft that this five-part series became a six-part one. He noted that I didn’t have anything on John Prine throughout the piece, and he was right. I needed to fix that. And I finally found a good way to split things up. More than that, I found a way to include an icon who never really got his fair due in the country music history books.
Now, that brings up another point. Even with how gigantic this series became, there are several names that didn’t make the final cut – not even for a simple mention. I know. I’m aware of it. I tried. Trust me, I tried. But there’s only so much you can include before the house of cards comes tumbling down. And I know folks may also disagree on certain names that were included. It isn’t necessarily all about who is and isn’t included, but I know even just one section on a deserving artist can really make a piece feel complete. That’s when I started compiling the soundtrack for this series and when I understood that it’s the songs and names that make that history what it is.
On that note, half the fun with this project was stopping just to rediscover yesterday’s music and fall in love with it again. I mean, there are exceptions to that rule, of course, but that’s to be expected when examining 30 years of any musical genre’s history. And I wanted to learn what others gravitated to most during each era. It’s one thing to objectively examine the heavy hitters – even the bad ones – but it’s another to really explore and explain what makes your favorites resonate with you, especially the ones that no one else is really talking about. That’s why I’m launching an accompanying opinions section, not only to help include names you might not see in the piece itself, but to add reason, perspective, and analysis in a way that wouldn’t have felt right within the piece itself. It’s definitely something to be excited for, I think.
Anyway, it was all a complicated whirlwind of emotions that fueled the finalization of the piece. By April 5, the first final draft was done. Part six ended up being the longest individual part, but to be honest, I don’t have much to say about it. It came out relatively easy. I did, admittedly, cry writing the Merle Haggard tribute and about the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting. Even just typing that again pushed me to the edge.
And then the next question came: Who is this for? Could any country fan find something to like here or find merit in the story told? I always tried to write this for the country fans that didn’t understand the history but wanted to learn more. My big inspiration was Ken Burns’ documentary on country music, and I kept thinking to myself, “If someone finished the documentary and wanted to learn what came next, would this series work?” I thought what has and hasn’t changed over these past 30 years in country music. What has changed is the discovery aspect, namely in country radio’s continued decline in acting as a collective arbiter of taste. There are so many names rising up now that are fostering success on their own terms, and in this hyperactive age we live in, we’re constantly in search of the next big thing, even when the current big thing is still sitting atop the mountain, so to say. On the other hand, country radio is still important, and it’s elitist for us as fans to act like it’s not. To a large group of country fans (and non-country fans), country radio is country music, and, uh … yikes. Still, country music has always been about fan connections with the artist, and in the social media age, it’s easier than ever to connect with our favorites. Dangerous, too, to a large extent (and for both sides). But great nonetheless.
And as for what hasn’t changed, friends … well, we’ll always argue over what is and isn’t country music, and in some ways, it’s those debates that are needed to ensure that country music continues to thrive in every capacity. I tried to include something for everyone in here.
Speaking of everyone, I have several people I want to thank – people that inspired me or helped this project come to life in some way: Bryce Ahaus, Kyle Akers, Jim Bartlett, Megan Bledsoe, Kevin John Coyne, Carson Crosby, Nathan Kanuch, Leo Kelly, Joe Kraus, Marty Kurtz, Sunny Lee, Jon Pappalardo, Grady Smith, and Julian Spivey, among so many others.
To Liz Austin – your excitement for this project surpassed my own at times, I think. Thank you so much for your careful attention to detail with this series, and for believing in it all the way.
To Josh Schott – your ideas turned a decent piece into a great one. This is as much yours and theirs as it is mine, and it’s a good reminder of why I hope you keep on writing in some way.
I hope you enjoyed ‘A Modern Country Music History.’ These next few years are going to be exciting to watch and record, so it’s a good thing the story never ends.