The Opinions Section (Part One): A Modern Country Music History

READ: An Introduction

As previously noted throughout this series, one of the biggest inspirations behind its creation was Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary. I think about what helps that series stand out beyond its visual and audio components – compared to other country music histories, that is. My answer is – the interviews. It’s one thing to tell a straightforward, objective historical story, but it’s awesome hearing artists talk about iconic songs and moments that happened within that history, especially when many of them now – like the Merle Haggard or Charley Pride interviews – are worth cherishing. It might an opinionated component to what is supposed to be an objective exercise … but come on, it’s music! Why be anything but subjective when approaching it? It’s an enriching part of the experience.

Obviously … I don’t have the reach to ask artists to contribute their thoughts and opinions to this, but we’re all music fans, and all of our opinions count. So I proposed a survey to people asking them 14 questions to gather their thoughts on country music’s last 30 years. For the record, I didn’t ask anyone to contribute – this was simply a volunteer kind of thing that anyone is still welcome to contribute to should they be interested. We’re all just regular people untangling our thoughts on the genre we love. Actually, this is going to be a three-part miniseries of sorts, because people got really passionate about this. And I love to see that. I hope you enjoy this final bonus installment of ‘A Modern Country Music History.’

1.) In your opinion, do you think Garth Brooks’ 1991 boom period would have happened without SoundScan? If so, do you think it would have still happened for country music in general? Also, had the technology been introduced in an earlier time period, say, five or ten years before, do you think it would have had a significantly different impact on any artist/act? If so, who?

I think Garth Brooks probably would’ve had the boom period regardless of SoundScan. He stepped in and offered a fresh take, coupling that neo-traditional country substance with an arena sound and a big stage presence to boot. Fans went wild for him. I also think the boom for country would’ve still happened due to other trends that took off during that time as well, making country “cool” again, though it may not have had the same surge in popularity as it did with SoundScan – Liz Austin

Garth Brooks
When I listen to “Friends In Low Places,” for example, right when No Fences came out in 1990 that led up to that boom, there wasn’t that hard-core bar-room anthem the way he delivered. This had a rock and roll kind of feel, like something one of the hair bands or the Rolling Stones would’ve done – Joe Kraus

SoundScan certainly helped grow Garth Brooks’ popularity and country music’s popularity at this time, but I think he would’ve still been a major star in the genre and music overall because of one thing – he sounded different. When I listen to “Friends In Low Places,” for example, right when No Fences came out in 1990 that led up to that boom, there wasn’t that hard-core bar-room anthem the way he delivered. This had a rock and roll kind of feel, like something one of the hair bands or the Rolling Stones would’ve done, compared to many country guitar solos from the late 1980s and early 1990s that had Bakersfield or West Coast Country roots. Before Brooks, many assumed country music was a regional genre, that it was only the occasional Dolly or Kenny Rogers or even a Willie Nelson who could cross over. With Brooks, he borrowed not only from Merle Haggard & George Jones but his other influences growing up like KISS and James Taylor that made everyone catch onto his style and made country the way it is has morphed into now. SoundScan definitely helped him but, based on talking with others who grew up right when he started also, and hearing his body of work from his debut album in ’89 and the aforementioned No Fences, he was on his way to a special career. – Joe Kraus

Back in this time charts and industry recognition were a much bigger driving force in getting attention on music. So without this overdue correction I don’t think the country music boom happens, at least not as quickly. It would still happen regardless, though, because it’s just too big of a genre not to have its “boom” moment. 

If SoundScan had been introduced earlier, I think the class of ’86 would have been a much bigger deal. Who knows, maybe Dwight Yoakam would have been a bigger star than Garth Brooks. But it’s a difficult hypothetical to reasonably predict. Poppier country music always has and always will have an easier time crossing over and blowing up than traditional/alternative country, or in Yoakam’s case, being an outsider to Nashville and making music that isn’t based off the “Nashville sound.” Out of the class of ’86, though, I think Keith Whitley would have been the one to benefit the most, and obviously if he didn’t have his untimely death, I think he would have been one of the biggest stars of the ’90s. He had that “it” factor that allowed him to connect with various audiences, and he was just starting to really take off, so I think he could have ultimately been at the same level as Strait and Jackson by the end of the ’90s. – Josh Schott

Dwight Yoakam.
If SoundScan had been introduced earlier, I think the class of ’86 would have been a much bigger deal. Who knows, maybe Dwight Yoakam would have been a bigger star than Garth Brooks – Josh Schott

I would like to read a scholarly historical analysis of the impact of SoundScan. The methodology of sales reporting before then was fabulously retro: record stores phoned in their numbers to Billboard for a lot of years, and the number of stores reporting was ridiculously small. (In the early years of American Top 40, Casey Kasem used to say that the Billboard Hot 100 was based on reports from 100 record stores coast to coast.) When you’re calling in your numbers, you’re on the honor system to report accurately, and I wonder if that didn’t lead to undercounting of certain acts who were considered less than hip. I don’t know. I could be completely wrong (editor’s note: he’s not!), which is why I’d like to learn more about how it worked. SoundScan is certainly more small-d democratic than what came before. – Jim Bartlett

I think back to a quote I read from Dwight Yoakam once before, who said, “I think if SoundScan had been around in ‘86, ‘87, you would have seen Randy Travis have a No. 1 record, maybe with Storms of Life and certainly with Forever and Ever, Amen. It would have been No. 1 for several weeks, probably – I mean, these are albums that sold three, four million copies. And I think I would have had a top 20 album with Guitars, Cadillacs.” I agree with that, given that the class of ‘86 beyond Yoakam and Travis was incredibly diverse in style and presentation, even if the class of ‘89 is still excellent, too. But I think Garth Brooks would have exploded regardless, if only for what his image communicated to fans and how revolutionary his live shows were for a country act. Both Travis and Brooks cared about keeping their music branded as country first and foremost, so there’s an interesting parallel there as well, even if the actual music and presentation was different.  – Zackary Kephart 

From what I understand, SoundScan made it clear that country music albums were easily selling on par with the biggest pop records of the day. It showed country music was exploding in popularity all across the country. People were paying attention and spending money on country music like never before. I think this ‘boom’ started with the likes of Randy Travis, who was easily selling 5+ million copies of a single album. It certainly continued in the 1990s. I’m thinking of Wynonna pulling off those kinds of numbers on her debut solo album. George Strait, Alan Jackson and Brooks & Dunn were, too. 

Garth Brooks has always known how to game the system for his benefit. He’ll manipulate the public by any means necessary if it means moving more product and inflating his numbers (butts in seats, albums sold, etc.). Has anyone repackaged their greatest hits/original albums more than him (outside of Curb Records doing it behind their artists’ backs)? I’m honestly not sure how big of a role SoundScan played in this, but it did give him a way to begin the marketing practices he’s perfected even through today. 

I do think he would’ve been massively popular with or without it, though. He puts on a stage show like no one else in the genre. He’s magnetic, even with just a guitar. His music videos were some of the most memorable of the era. Garth is the total package, something almost all of today’s mainstream acts aren’t. They might try, but they don’t even come close. – Jon Pappalardo 

Admittedly, I don’t know much at all about SoundScan as the business side of country music has never interested me all that much. But, Garth Brooks was always going to break out in a major way because he changed the game when it came to live country music shows by bringing the arena rock aspect of the live show to country music. Sure, someone would’ve done that eventually, but can you see an artist like Alan Jackson or George Strait running around stage and smashing guitars? – Julian Spivey

Garth Brooks’ 1991 boom period most likely would have happened without SoundScan because he is really popular, to the point that the self-reported album sales before SoundScan would not have been able to dilute it. And given Brooks’ superstar (not just confined to country but all-genre) status at that time, country music benefited from increased exposure and so the popularity of country music will still be reflected on album charts.

I think George Strait would have benefitted from SoundScan if it was used five years earlier. Ocean Front Property has two of his most popular and well-liked songs, and I would imagine he was not that single-focused at that time, so double platinum seems slightly too low. – Sunny Lee

2.) Alternative country music was properly coined in the 1990s, but who or what, to you, is the origin point for its sound and spirit? Why do you think it reached a minor breakthrough period in the ‘90s? Do you believe the underground scene of today bears any connection to past iterations?

From my limited exposure to this period without being able to actually live it and experience it, I think it was always kinda there. People began to migrate toward authentic music, and that’s for all genres, not necessarily just country. I think there’s specific acts today that bear the connection – Jamey Johnson, Evan Felker, and Mike and the Moonpies, to name a few. They just have that spirit about them. – Bryce Ahaus 

Even I don’t quite feel comfortable pinpointing the movement’s origins, though I think both Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons were integral for taking those roots and spurring a genuine interest in cultivating genuine artistic integrity. I think the “punk” mentality of the ‘90s movement was more of a spiritual description than it was a sonic one, so while I would argue today’s music is more clean-cut compared to earlier iterations, I think the mentality remains the same. And after so long, it’s finally broken through to the mainstream. – Zackary Kephart

For me, I always think of Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Guy Clark, and Jim Lauderdale as the origins of alt-country, their fringe work. – Liz Austin

For me, I always think of Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Guy Clark, and Jim Lauderdale as the origins of alt-country, their fringe work. I think today’s scene still bears that same spirit, some of it may not sound the same as its origins, but the spirit of it is the same. – Liz Austin 

Steve Earle is the father of alternative country. I believe alt-country saw success in the ’90s because the genre had exploded commercially with artists like Garth Brooks who were believed to be taking the genre in too much of a pop-leaning direction. The backlash from “real country” fans was to gravitate toward artists like Earle whom they believed were evolving the genre in a more respectful way. Similarly, the backlash from bro-country and the encroachment of EDM and R&B influences in the 2010s has resulted in success for independent artists like Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell, as listeners denounce the mainstream in the search for more substance. In the same way that Earle and others found minor success in Nashville as Music Row tried to adapt to the times, today we are seeing acts like Childers signed to major labels as Nashville finally recognizes the hunger in listeners for more organic and substantive music. – Megan Bledsoe 

When I think of the roots of alternative country I tend to think of a couple of things. For example, I think of Texas singer/songwriters like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Terry Allen (and even people like Steve Earle, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, etc.), and also the Los Angeles cowpunk scene. And then of course acts like Uncle Tupelo and the Bloodshot Records acts. I think it reached its breakthrough point because the scenes in a few major cities had been fermenting for a while and finally came into their own. I think the scene today has quite a lot in common with the scene in the mid-’90s, except in the ’90s it seemed like there was more space for slightly weirder acts. Even the underground acts today today seem to be following some kind of a template to a certain extent (with some exceptions!) – Leo Kelly 

Townes Van Zandt
When I think of the roots of alternative country I tend to think of a couple of things. For example, I think of Texas singer/songwriters like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Terry Allen (and even people like Steve Earle, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, etc.), and also the Los Angeles cowpunk scene. – Leo Kelly

I don’t know a whole lot about the alt-country trend of the ‘90s, some of those bands I’ve unfortunately not even gotten around to listening to. But I don’t think the alt-country scene was anything new at that time because I view a lot of the older acts I enjoy like Guy Clark and John Prine in that category. Yes, I do believe there’s an underground scene within country music and for the most part it’s where 90 percent or so of the good stuff these days comes from. I don’t even bother with mainstream country radio anymore and haven’t for a half decade or so. – Julian Spivey

I think there are multiple origin points for alternative country music: but mainly cowpunk and the combination of Emmylou Harris & Gram Parsons as duet partners. Spirit-wise, outlaw country contributed to the outlaw state of creative mind.

Alternative country music was close to alternative rock music in the 1990s with slightly rougher guitar sounds, and since both branded as anti-mainstream, it would attract similar groups of people at that time.

Yes and no regarding whether the underground scene of today bears connection to past iterations. There are still some cowpunks and the familiar alt-country sounds from veterans and some newcomers, but the meaning of alternative country music is wider than before. I don’t think Neko Case would have been treated as alt-country in the 1990s, but she is mostly counted as such now.  – Sunny Lee

3.) Several veteran performers exited major label rosters and couldn’t find airplay on country radio during a time period when several new acts emerged in the late 1980s/early 1990s, many of whom claimed to have idolized those same performers. Do you think this was ultimately healthy for the country music genre? Why or why not?

I don’t think it was necessarily healthy or unhealthy, but this appears to be the way that things just naturally work in most pop genres, not just in country. It’s only gotten worse in the last couple of decades, though. Acts like, say, George Jones or Conway Twitty were at least having some hits in the ’80s. It’s impossible imagining someone like Tracy Lawrence having a hit now. – Leo Kelly 

It is never healthy to put an artist out to pasture because of their age. For country music specifically, this was the first sign of the genre shifting to cater to younger audiences. While this resulted in a commercial boom during the ’90s, it also led to the rapid erosion of the genre as labels constantly chased trends to keep up with the next generation. As independent artists have demonstrated, obtaining grassroots support is often a more sustainable model for retaining momentum than chasing the flavor of the month and continually having to adjust to new flavors. – Megan Bledsoe 

I look at this from two angles. From a pure music quality standpoint, no, I don’t think it was healthy. But from a business standpoint, it’s just something that’s part of all genres of music. A lot of people complain every time this happens when a generation of established artists are phased out for the new, but the majority of the audience honestly doesn’t notice. Newer and more casual listeners especially will not take notice, and that’s ultimately where radio and labels are trying to always hook people. Because truthfully most listeners are fickle and don’t really establish a “loyalty” or connection to particular artists. They get bored after hearing certain artists and sounds for so long. Hence why there’s always this constant churn rate. So while I’m amongst the loud minority who hates watching the industry toss aside legends once their “marketability” runs out, I’ve also come to realize that the key word is minority. At the end of the day the music business is a cruel one, and an artist should ultimately focus on legacy, not short term hits if they truly want to be remembered. Merle Haggard may have been kicked off country radio at this time, but I guarantee more people listen to his music now than the majority of the artists played on the radio when he was kicked off. The long game is much more proven than the short game. – Josh Schott 

As I noted in my response to question one, I think that both the class of ‘86 and ‘89 ushered in a lot of fresh, needed talent for the country music genre, but it does always come with that caveat that certain names had to go in order for new ones to enter. Truthfully, even I can’t say for sure whether it was good or bad. I love, love, love the stylistic diversity that country music displayed in the mid-to-late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and like with anything, it’s a cycle that would have inevitably come about anyway. Plus, artists like Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash thrived without country radio support, even if both faced their own respective struggles to attain their own career resurgences. I think you have to move it forward in some way, but with country music, you also have to make space for the legends in some capacity, especially in a genre that prides itself on its past. – Zackary Kephart

I personally do not think it was healthy. I am a big fan of individualism and originality, and can appreciate someone idolizing someone, but I feel like some of the newer acts turned into rip-offs essentially. An example today is the trend of name-dopping artists for authenticity purposes. – Bryce Ahaus 

It definitely caused a gap between the older crowd and the crowd of the newcomers in the 1980s and 1990s, but not as large of an impact right now with the pop-country dominating the charts the past few years. That’s because now the older artists have so many platforms to keep the ’90s country craze going by releasing new songs and albums on all the musical platforms. That’s what was missing back when Merle Haggard, George Jones, and the other legends were shoved aside in the late 1980s. But, like everything else, what sells the most is youth. It’s the youth that still sells the albums and packs the stadiums usually and that is what advertising and the public relations teams of these artists still aim towards the most. The mass exodus of these artists wasn’t the best way for them to go out, in my opinion, but every generation has its own list of stars. With that said, there is still a huge hunger among this generation of fans that are very much into the Prime Country (1980s and 1990s) and even older sound. – Joe Kraus 

Loretta Lynn
How many of us listen to music from Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, and Loretta Lynn today, let alone George Strait and Alan Jackson? I think there’s a great deal more of us that still love the older music and usually listen to a mixture of older country and newer stuff, and radio should reflect that more. — Liz Austin

While I do think that airplay/radio is very cyclic, much like award shows, and I understand that it needs to be to a degree in order to keep it fresh, I think it may be too cyclic, too heavy-handed in ushering in new artists and just dropping veterans completely. I believe that there really should be more of a balance when it comes to airplay. After all, how many of us listen to music from Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, and Loretta Lynn today, let alone George Strait and Alan Jackson? I think there’s a great deal more of us that still love the older music and usually listen to a mixture of older country and newer stuff, and radio should reflect that more. – Liz Austin 

Is it healthy to push artists like Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash out of mainstream country music? No! But that’s the way almost all of the entertainment business works. The business is always focused on the next big new thing and that always seems to mean “younger thing.” I don’t blame the artists for this one bit, but the whole business model. At least the guys in the ‘90s sounded like they came from the artists before. The mainstream guys who constantly name drop Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings today don’t sound like they’ve ever spun one of those guys’s records. – Julian Spivey

Waylon Jennings
The mainstream guys who constantly name drop Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings today don’t sound like they’ve ever spun one of those guys’s records. – Julian Spivey

I don’t think it is healthy for the genre. It leads to a recycling of sound without the substance (arrangements or lyrics), and people who just listen to the old music that the new ones rip off in many ways. However, I fully understand that it’s how the industry works. Newer artists enter counting older artists as influences, and there’s a need to eventually put less of a spotlight on older artists for the development of newer artists. – Sunny Lee

4.) After the purging of the (Dixie) Chicks, no female performer had a No. 1 country hit until May 2004, when the streak was broken by Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman.” Do you believe this was a direct consequence of the incident surrounding the Chicks’ statement? Furthermore, do you believe the incident is what made female artist representation in general dwindle by the end of the decade and on through the 2010s? Why or why not?

Several things contributed to the drop in female representation on country radio. The success of Taylor Swift, while it was positive in and of itself, opened the door for radio to filter out older female voices; since Nashville was focusing hard on teenage audiences, it meant that women with more life experience would not be relatable to their target demographic. At the same time, more and more male artists began objectifying women in their songs, slowly leading to a point where the female perspective was dismissed as thoroughly unimportant and uninteresting, unless that female artist wanted to sing woman versions of bro-country songs. Teenage girls no longer wanted to be the woman with a guitar pouring out her heart, but instead they began to dream of being the pretty passenger in their boyfriend’s truck drinking a beer and proudly sporting a bikini top and cutoff jeans. – Megan Bledsoe 

Taylor Swift
More and more male artists began objectifying women in their songs, slowly leading to a point where the female perspective was dismissed as thoroughly unimportant and uninteresting, unless that female artist wanted to sing woman versions of bro-country songs. – Megan Bledsoe

I feel like what happened to the Chicks is a separate thing from the general disappearance of women from the charts, although I was out of country radio at that time, so I don’t know for sure. There’s a real herd mentality in mainstream country radio. If one or two prominent programmers do something that works, others fall into line without much independent thought. I know a guy who has been a very successful programmer the last few years who goes on Twitter to tout fabulous new singers he’s found, but they are always cookie-cutter Russell Dickerson/Brett Young/faceless former baseball player dudes. The whole Tomato Gate thing was an example of one guy’s opinion, not backed by a great deal of research, that was taken as gospel across the industry because Keith Hill was getting paid to proliferate it, and all his client stations couldn’t be wrong, could they? (Hill once found his way out to my lightly trafficked blog to defend himself in my comment section, which makes me think he needs better things to do with his time.) (Editor’s note: I agree) – Jim Bartlett 

I am not a data nerd, so all I can say on this matter is that the Chicks purging and Shania Twain’s departure left a huge hole for female talent in country music that was answered through Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, and Taylor Swift. I don’t know, it was as if we couldn’t make room for any more beyond those three, and it made for a weird sort of competitive environment for the “queen” that, to me, wasn’t healthy for the genre at all. Sadly, things haven’t gotten better since then. – Zackary Kephart 

I definitely believe The Chicks’ incident and black-balling from the country industry hurt all women afterwards trying to pave a way in country music. It’s typical in industries, but especially entertainment to see an entire group of minorities get punished for the actions of one. The Chicks also committed the ultimate “cardinal sin” in the eyes of the industry by going against the propaganda being pushed. Throw in simply being women and you have yourself a lot of angry old white dudes at radio and labels who feel like they’ve been defied. They took everything they could from The Chicks and even then they still felt that wasn’t enough, I don’t think, in their minds, because there’s still lingering hate for them to this day. They didn’t want to take a chance of another woman going against the grain, hence why radio became a sausage fest. And it all adds up. You never see a male artist who gets played on country radio speaking up and going against the grain, at least in modern times. The only male artists who ever speak up are either veterans who have been cast aside by radio or indie/smaller artists like Sturgill Simpson who never have and never will get played on the radio. So radio knows they can count on men to “tow the company line” and not speak out of favor of the powers that be. After The Chicks incident, women were basically deemed too risky to play. – Josh Schott 

I think it was the perfect excuse to do the purging, but I’m sure they would’ve found another way to do it if the Chicks hadn’t gotten themselves into trouble. Sadly, the genre has never really been super female-friendly, representation-wise. And what representation they had really started to dwindle long before the Chicks’ controversy. Look at the CMA Entertainer of the Year award category: Barbara Manrell won in both ‘80 and ‘‘81 (the next female artist to win after Dolly Parton’s ‘78 win), then Reba McEntire took the award home in ‘86, then there was a 13-year-stretch where no females took home the award until Shania Twain took it in ‘99. If you take a look at the Hot Country charts, in 1990, there were only 5 songs by a solo female artist that hit  No. 1, vs. 10 songs by solo females hitting No. 1 in 1989 (this isn’t counting the three Judds songs that also hit No. 1). You can already see the decline starting right around the 1990s point, long before the Chicks ticked off half of the country. – Liz Austin 

The Chicks
Had it been an outspoken male artist saying the same thing that year … you wouldn’t see the ouster of men from radio success. It gave radio (and the corporate male label execs) a reason to not promotionally push women more in the immediate aftermath of the Chicks’ statement. – Marty Kurtz

I think that the (Dixie) Chicks issue was just about the beginning of the loss of representation of women in country music. Women in country music have always had it a little (and sometimes a lot) harder than men in the genre and their incident was no different. Had it been an outspoken male artist saying the same thing that year … you wouldn’t see the ouster of men from radio success. It gave radio (and the corporate male label executives) a reason to not promotionally push women more in the immediate aftermath of the Chicks’ statement. Whether that’s because they didn’t want the audience to see other women and think, “oh man, they’re gonna turn into the Dixie Chicks” (which does happen because people like to stereotype race and gender) or because the conservative, pro-America male was more appealing and marketable (and therefore making them more money), it happened. It then led to artists like Martina McBride and Faith Hill slowly leaving the genre and becoming less relevant. Even an artist like Gretchen Wilson couldn’t stick, minus a couple of songs. Which eventually led to the genre only really having two consistently relevant mainstream women for just about a decade, Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood. – Marty Kurtz

I don’t think the Dixie Chicks “controversy,” which is one of the biggest black eyes on the genre of country music in its entire history, had much to do with the downfall of women being successful in the genre, which still continues today. The reasoning seems solely in the fact that mainstream country music is sexist. And some of that sexism seems to come from the fan-base too. Country radio programmers talk about how listeners want to hear male singers and have the data that seems to show it. – Julian Spivey

It could be, but I would argue male artists were so popular at that time that no female artists could catch up to them (not dissimilar nowadays to where Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen are the real faces of the genre and shadowing female artists). Only until Taylor Swift came to the scene were female artists comparable to (or eclipsed) male artists, but I think she, Carrie Underwood, and Miranda Lambert basically covered the niche of mainstream female country artists – Swift being the one who had eventual crossover success, Underwood being a grassroot-supported artist that represented American virtue and stayed in the country genre for most of the time, and Lambert being more artistically progressive while still securing a decent number of hits that popularized her.  – Sunny Lee

5.) Several artists debuted or rose to prominence in the mid-2000s and then again in the mid-2010s, both in the mainstream and independent realms. Who among them do you believe changed country music for the better, if any? Who among them changed it for the worse, if any?

Miranda Lambert is the one who first comes to mind when thinking about artists who have changed/influenced the genre for the better, along with Eric Church. Both artists have brought their own brand to the genre and paved their own path, rather than follow a formula. Others that have influenced the genre for good: Carrie Underwood (regardless of whether people like her sound or not, she’s one of the most successful stars country has and has an incredible voice to boot), Gretchen Wilson (while her star did end up burning out quickly, I think she did help usher in a new chapter of firebrand, redneck women to stand beside the more polished female artists the genre prefers), Josh Turner (helping to itch the second coming of the neo-traditional trend along, as well as being a top notch vocalist). 

For the bad: Florida Georgia line comes to mind. Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan started off with some potential, but ultimately their influence has harmed the genre more than helped it in the long run. Sam Hunt is another one. That group really feels like the founding fathers of really awful mainstream “country”. – Liz Austin 

For the better: Dierks Bentley, Eric Church, Brandy Clark, Erin Enderlin, Jason Isbell, Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Joey+Rory, Chris Stapleton, Carrie Underwood. 

For the worst: Lady A, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Florida-Georgia Line, Darius Rucker, Morgan Wallen. 

In the middle: Kelsea Ballerini, Zac Brown Band, Luke Combs, Maren Morris, Big & Rich, Thomas Rhett, Sugarland, Gretchen Wilson. Also, I loved the Band Perry’s debut album but detest how they blew up their career like they did. I don’t think it had any major effect in changing country music either positively or negatively. At least we got “If I Die Young” out of the whole thing. – Jon Pappalardo

Miranda Lambert and Eric Church collage.
Many readers have cited both Miranda Lambert and Eric Church as artists who have changed country music for the better.

Taylor Swift changed country both for better and for worse. She displayed that country music could be relatable to teenage girls but this, in turn, led to country shifting in a more pop direction and simultaneously discounting the perspectives of older women. Jason Aldean changed the genre for the worse because his success with bro country anthems and the incorporation of rap elements into mainstream country songs led everyone behind him to try and replicate his success. While Aldean’s music, for the most part, was fine, the backlash it caused has permanently devolved the country genre, at least in the mainstream realm. Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” had the same effect; while that song was actually good, its massive success ushered in a year and a half of “Cruise” wannabes that made the country genre, once known for its maturity and storytelling, into a never-ending party on a backroad. – Megan Bledsoe 

Eric Church has done a ton to promote both independent and female artists. He also has dabbled a lot into the Americana/Appalachian sound and brought it to mainstream airwaves (the Mr. Misunderstood album, for example, has a lot of that influence). 

Chris Stapleton is another example. When the current era of country music was becoming more intolerable than ever, he released Traveller. It exposed many young listeners like myself to more traditional country and blues sounds. I found the SteelDrivers off of related artists to him, then Cody Jinks, then the Turnpike Troubadours, and so many more.

Also, Evan Felker is the most talented songwriter that has emerged in my lifetime. – Bryce Ahaus 

I think of Jason Aldean, Eric Church and Luke Bryan being the big three male artists that came to prominence in the 2000s. Of the three, I think Eric Church is the only one who’s really done anything interesting with his career, and he should be applauded for that, even though I’m not the superfan that some people are. Miranda Lambert seems like the leading female artist of that generation and she should also be applauded for carrying the torch and making some great music to, even though it’s not all great. – Leo Kelly

The better: Luke Combs, Midland, Cody Johnson, Taylor Swift, Jake Owen, Jesse Daniel, Tyler Childers, Zac Brown Band, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Miranda Lambert, Jason Aldean (2005 until after the Night Train album), Tenille Townes, Justin Moore, Joe Nichols. The worst: Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt, Thomas Rhett, Dustin Lynch, Chase Rice – Joe Kraus 

I think we’re going to look back at the 2010s someday as one of the great creative boom periods in the history of country music. It also marks the turning point of country radio being the end-all-be-all as far as “making it” is concerned. There were of course several artists who made it in country music outside of radio before this, like John Prine. But they were large exceptions to the rule. In the 2010s, it was basically a trend. Zack points out a great example in the book where Cody Jinks outsold Chris Lane in album sales, when Lane’s singles were getting heavy airplay and major label backing versus Jinks, who did it all independently through years of hard work and touring. This was one of several defining moments for artists that showed you don’t have to play by the old rules of the games anymore to make it. 

So bro country emerged in the 2010s and this pissed off a lot of people. These people then took to the internet for alternatives, including yours truly. I always say there’s a yin to yang. Sturgill Simpson emerged at the perfect time to be the yin to the bro country’s yang. High Top Mountain and Metamodern Sounds in Country Music could not be more opposite of what radio played. But here’s the thing: if he releases these albums just five years earlier, I think he would have fizzled out right after Metamodern, if he even releases it at all. Because five years earlier means the country blogs and the power of social media aren’t there yet. Simpson blew up largely because of word of mouth, along with extensive touring. He knew enough people in Nashville to catch their attention (outside of the major labels/radio of course) and enough people on the Internet heard his music to become loyal fans and spread the word of him to everybody they knew. The rise of Simpson captured the whole zeitgeist of the industry, inside and out. It felt like an impossible rise out of nowhere that inspired so many artists and fans. It took him years of failure and quitting music to reach this point and he never had to “sell out.” So in artists and fans’ minds, if he could do it, then maybe others could do it too.

The rise of Simpson captured the whole zeitgeist of the industry, inside and out. It felt like an impossible rise out of nowhere that inspired so many artists and fans. – Josh Schott

The biggest artist inspired by Simpson of course was Chris Stapleton. And his rise to stardom sent absolute shockwaves through the country industry. He was always hiding in plain sight and he should have been a star much sooner. In an alternate timeline, maybe The Jompson Brothers blow up and Stapleton leads a rock revival. The talent was always there, but a path to making it didn’t exist in Stapleton’s mind. He was already making a living writing songs for the stars and he was never one to seek the spotlight, so why make music yourself? But then Simpson makes it with Metamodern, an album about reptile aliens made of light and multiple drug references, so all the sudden Stapleton’s music doesn’t sound so crazy after all. Along with a big push from his wife, Morganne, this drove Stapleton to make Traveller and then subsequently his performance with Justin Timberlake on the CMA Awards (which his wife also pushed). Now that everybody in country music knew that alternatives existed to the likes of Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan, this forced everybody at radio to up their game and at least pivot to something with more substance. And this was once again another moment that showed you don’t have to do things the traditional way to make it. Stapleton blew up without country radio. Granted, he sort of still played by the rules working within the industry for years, but he cashed in years of basically being the nicest guy you could meet in a vile industry and “waiting his turn” to get the one moment he needed to get heard. 

Kacey Musgraves was another important artist that emerged that had a great impact, as her struggle to get played on country radio while selling and touring really well, in addition to near universal critical acclaim, helped shed a lot of light on the systemic issues that still plague country radio to this day. And she reasonably responded by finding other venues to get her name out and make her star bigger: touring with Harry Styles, collaborating with Katy Perry, leaning more into pop on Golden Hour and becoming an icon for the queer community. While chart-wise she hasn’t had crossover success, culturally she undoubtedly has, and one must wonder how the country industry’s shunning of an artist of this caliber will affect the overall health of the genre. My guess is, not for the better.

And of course there’s another artist that must be mentioned in terms of great breakouts. I feel like he gets forgotten about, especially since his fight is within the system, and that’s Eric Church. Of course, Zack covers his rise in the book, but I really feel like Church’s rise and impact gets overlooked or forgotten by many in the country industry. While it’s important to have outsiders fighting the system, you need insiders too, and nobody’s done it better in the 21st century in country music than Church. But in particular I want to highlight Church from Mr. Misunderstood on, as this period on to me has been his most important and impactful. It far outshines what he did before it and it’s still continuing, as of this writing.

While Church before this album was certainly a quality artist who released a lot of good music, he just wasn’t quite his best nor was he himself. He pigeonholed himself into an outlaw image that just wasn’t him, but was quite marketable and helped him land the vast, loyal fan base that he still has to this day. But if an artist isn’t being themselves, the music just isn’t ever going to quite reach it’s full potential. This changed when Church got really personal and fully embraced his true self on Mr. Misunderstood, as the title track spells out who he is to everyone listening: the introverted, anxious music nerd who isn’t just country, but a mix of several genres and has something to say beyond your typical country themes. And ever since this album it feels like Church has finally ascended to his peak and, in my opinion, has resulted in his absolute best work. This is more outlaw and badass than anything else he’s done in his career, and his legacy will only shine brighter as a result. He’s always had an eye on his legacy. And so many artists today lose sight of their legacy. They only focus on how people think of them now, not 10, 20 or 50 years from now. Church gets the importance of truly leaving your mark. – Josh Schott 

I think there’s a few artists you say really have changed the landscape of country music that debuted in the mid-2000s and rose to prominence in the 2010s.

I think Miranda Lambert is the huge outlier for women, even more so then Carrie Underwood. While Underwood is undoubtedly the bigger overall star (due to a poppier sound and commercial fanbase from American Idol), Lambert is the more versatile artist and vocalist in my opinion. Her songwriting talent is far better as well and has been one of the most critically well received artists in the genre over the last 15 years. Part of that may be due to it only being a two horse race between her and Underwood, but her music has stood up better over the course of time.

As far as male artists go, I think Eric Church is the biggest male star of this generation and that’s even underselling it a bit. If Eric Church the artist didn’t make it in Nashville … Eric Church the songwriter would have. Over the course of his career, there is no bigger mainstream artist that has gained the trust of his record label and consistently been right every time he’s gone out on a limb. He gets thrown off the Flatts’ tour and what happens? He opens for Bob Seger, his idol. He says “Give me just enough rope to hang myself” and puts out “Smoke a Little Smoke” instead of “Carolina” as a single. What happens? It’s still probably his second biggest single in his live show. It also set up his Chief era and we all know how that went. He buys a record making plant overseas, makes an album and doesn’t even tell the record label until after he gives it to fans first. And it becomes probably the best mainstream album of the decade. And what other artist would be allowed by their label to go into a little restaurant in the mountains of North Carolina and create a three- album-project out of nowhere and away from Nashville? Nobody. There’s a lot of label executives that hold the hands of a lot of artists (especially early on in their career) and I think Church’s success can prove to a lot of younger artists (Like Luke Combs, Thomas Rhett, etc.) that you can do things your own way and have that musical freedom. Whether or not these artists take that advice or go in that direction is up to them, but creating new and interesting music and sounds is something that a lot of current mainstream acts don’t do.

And as far as artists that have changed the genre for the worst … I think Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean are among the worst. Not even for the fact that their music can be some of the worst in the genre, but that (in my opinion) they have sold out and continue benefitting from unoriginal and uninspired music. For both Bryan and Aldean, their first 3 albums are solid and good albums. Music that feels true to them and semi-interesting. Once they both reached a certain level of success, they continued to really just create the same exact music over and over again without saying anything new. With every new Aldean record, you start out with a concert rocker that says “When the light comes on, we’re all getting drunk and having fun”, then a slow R&B-infused song about his wife that says “I got what I got and I’m happy”, and then maybe a song about his hometown. With Bryan, most of his singles are based on a catchy melody that has no lyrical element in it (“One Margarita”), a country cred song that just proves how country he is (“What Makes You Country”), or a slower song about lost love that has absolutely nothing interesting about it besides “we made love on a beach or by the waves” (“Waves”, “Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset”). Both of these guys continue to make the same music over and over again while trying to package it as a new record and it seems like they want to put the least amount of effort in doing so. – Marty Kurtz

Almost everything about mainstream country music has changed for the worst, but are the artists really the one’s to blame? Should we maybe be more focused on the executives who run Nashville? The singers are also to blame, but who’s making the most money? – Julian Spivey

For the better: Miranda Lambert, Eric Church: both for balancing art between creativity and accessibility. Chris Stapleton, for reviving the blues influence in country music. Jason Isbell, simply for his lyricism. Sturgill Simpson, for being a great genre chameleon using the common themes in country music as his foundation.

For the worse: Sam Hunt, for his misogynistic lyrics. Thomas Rhett, for being a boring artist. Almost everyone else related to him is more interesting, and he only gets initial success due to industry ties. Dustin Lynch, for being the most glaring example of using a cowboy hat as a marketing ploy while not making country music for a long time. Florida Georgia Line, for being a huge instigator of bro-country. And a dishonorable mention for Maren Morris, the most overhyped artist in the last five years, showing how some critics don’t focus on music but rather its politics and affiliations. – Sunny Lee

READ: The Opinions Section (Part Two)

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