11.) From a technological perspective, how do you believe country music has had to adapt over the past 30 years? How do you feel it could improve?
One of the things I noticed when I got back into country radio around 2010 is how much better-produced the records were than they had been in the ’70s/’80s, when stuff tended to sound dry and flat, which was the style then. But what worked on a Steely Dan record wasn’t as good for Crystal Gayle. By the 2010s, drums banged louder and guitars bit harder. Part of it had to do with radio’s “loudness wars” going on at the time, but part of it was the Shania Twain/Mutt Lange influence. They hit big with records that were produced like Lange’s stuff with Foreigner and Def Leppard, and the rest of Nashville noticed. Today, I suspect that hotter production style is preferable for earbud listeners, but again, smarter people than me would have to say. (And on the subject of earbuds: we are living through a plague of pointless fade-ins and senseless mid-measure cold endings in all of pop music now that must be earbud-driven, but they make it damn hard for a radio jock to run a tight show.) – Jim Bartlett
Country music will have to accept that radio is becoming less and less relevant. Sales and streaming numbers are much more indicative of which songs are resonating with the public. The former numbers account for those listeners who value full albums and have vinyl collections. The latter accounts for those listeners who value playlists and huge singles. Also, more and more artists will have to start pressing their records on vinyl. – Megan Bledsoe
Country music has always been slower to embrace technological innovations than other musical genres, but I think it’s embraced streaming well enough today. We don’t quite have those viral, out-of-nowhere chart hits like others, but I do think a general embrace of social media and the like has helped the genre push onward. With that said, as someone who operates a music blog, any artist operating without a website is doing it so wrong in 2021. I’m not talking about a Bandcamp page or a TikTok account, I’m talking about a live website where fans can go to learn about the acts themselves. And that doesn’t mean peppering the “About” page only with press for their latest album. Also, I’m shocked that certain artists don’t have their music available on friggin’ YouTube, as I believe that’s one of the most basic, accessible platforms for discovery. – Zackary Kephart
The explosion of social media plays a huge role in the changing climate. Some artists/teams have already done a great job of utilizing socials, but others leave a lot to be desired and need to get onboard if they hope to reach a wide audience. Also, streaming appears to be here to stay, so learning how to make that work better for the artists and all involved would be key. Also, and this is probably a more niche complaint, artist websites tend to leave a lot to be desired, especially newer artists that don’t have a team behind them (or not a good one, that is). A lot of new artists may have websites, but there’s not much there. To new artists out there: Make sure you have a well-written bio on the website, and don’t just talk about the latest project and nothing else. There’s room for everything, but people want to know about YOU first. – Liz Austin
Country music has definitely had to learn how to use the internet to its advantage, just like every other genre has had to grapple with it. Independent artists have especially had to embrace it and wield it to their advantage, and it’s ultimately proven to be the best alternative to radio.
As far as how country music can do better in adapting to technology, I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s better, but something that the genre is going to have to continue to deal with is the increasing urbanization of living (less people are living rurally) in general. But country has always did well in adapting in this regard. They survived the explosion of rock in the ’60s, so I think they’ll have no problem navigating this issue. – Josh Schott
Country music has always been at least a few years off from current trends, whether it’s the rise of streaming platforms or social media engagements. Some music genres such as hip-hop/rap take off much faster than others in these new platforms maybe because of who’s using them, but the common thing is they are youngsters. A lot of them love country music, but they may still use the old model of supporting artists by buying the records and that’s it, which isn’t wrong, but it is never contradictory to streaming the records. Same for social media engagements. I know country artists are most eager to show their entertaining selves in live shows – after all, it’s the artist-fan relationship that country music originally built itself on, but maybe don’t view social media as a replacement but rather an alternative? Sure para-social relationships are weird (even though one may experience it more in the past year through livestreams), but given the circumstances, it’s worth exploring.
I believe country music fans should be more extroverted. Show your love to the artists loud and clear. Stream the heck out of your favorite songs and albums because every stream counts in addition to physical copies. Let the discussions fly as well. Just remember to be civil and no hard feelings, OK? The presence of good online country music discussions will help break stereotypes, or at least I hope. Moreover, even though I think TikTok can’t build a sustainable career, having some decent hit songs or revived songs is still good enough to put artists’ name out there. Again, it highlights the presence, which is the most important aspect nowadays. – Sunny Lee
12.) Who do you believe are among the more underrated acts of the past 30 years? Why?
Josh Turner, for starters. He has a deep, rich voice that is perfect for country music. He’s a good songwriter and super likable personality. If he had come up through the ranks in the ’80s or ’90s, I think he may have actually made it bigger than he did, in the same class as George Strait and Alan Jackson. Gary Allan is another one. I mean, just based on Smoke Rings in the Dark alone, he should’ve hit bigger. He has a unique voice, one that really emotes, and one that can sing anything from gritty, dark songs to beautiful ballads. Julie Roberts, too. She has a beautiful, soulful voice and certainly paid her dues within the industry. She had a hit with “Break Down Here”, but then after a few other singles, just fell by the wayside. Sunny Sweeney is another, I often find myself scratching my head over her lack of hits and acclaim. – Liz Austin
Lee Ann Womack has never gotten the respect she truly deserves. She won Female Vocalist of the Year from the CMAs 20 years ago, Album of the Year in 2005, and had “I Hope You Dance,” but she should be revered as one of the greatest country vocalists of her generation.
Despite her success, I blame MCA and likely the recording contract she signed with them. They failed her when they repeatedly tried to push her into “mega” superstardom and didn’t really let her make the music she wanted to make. They interfered too much with her artistry by telling her they didn’t know what to do with the music she was turning in. She admits this. It was a constant battle. This back-and-fourth cost her the reverence she truly deserves. – Jon Pappalardo
That’s a tough question. I think several of the hat acts have a deeper catalog than people give them credit for – Tracy Lawrence and Mark Chestnutt come to mind. It’s hard to truly call them “underrated,” though. I do think that Jason Boland is slightly underrated. I know that he’s popular on the underground scene, but I think he has a very strong catalog of work. – Leo Kelly
Riley Green. “I Wish Grandpas Never Died” was one of the most authentic songs I’ve heard in years when it was first released, and I can’t wait for his next album to come out. “Bettin’ Man” has that deep Joe Diffie influence, too. Jesse Daniel – If you’re wishing Bakersfield country came back, he’s your guy. His last album, Rollin’ On, came out just before the pandemic began and it was my favorite album of 2020. The title track and “Only Money, Honey” were my personal favorites. Randy Rogers Band – the best Texas country group over the past 20 years. My gateway to Texas Country was their song “Tequila Eyes” and then “Tonight’s Not The Night” – Joe Kraus
Is it possible for somebody who had a whole bunch of #1 hits in the ’80s to be underrated? Rosanne Cash has been consistently brilliant for most of the last 30 years, to the point at which her artistic legacy rivals and in some ways exceeds that of her father, but country radio hasn’t played her in all that time, and her records from Interiors forward have been pigeonholed as folk, Americana, or roots music. The River and the Thread, which is gobsmackingly great, won three Americana Grammys in 2014 when it should have been Album of the Year. – Jim Bartlett
Corb Lund – it’s such a shame he never gets discussed. He reminds me of the Chris Ledoux treatment: phenomenal, but kind of thrown aside. Others: Jason Eady, Uncle Lucius, Hellbound Glory, though the last one is understandable due to the nature of their musical subjects. Still one of the best sounding bands out there. Whiskey Myers, too. Most recently – Zephaniah OHora and the Michigan Rattlers – Bryce Ahaus
Mark Chesnutt. My answer for this is always likely going to be Mark Chesnutt. He’s a hall of fame caliber guy who’s never gonna make the hall of fame. Even when it comes to ‘90s male singers he gets the short straw, it seems. He doesn’t put out much new stuff these days, but when he does it’s still good. – Julian Spivey
Marty Stuart – He is the best concept album maker of the past 30 years. It is difficult to think of complete story albums with great music, lyrics and guests, but he did it with The Pilgrim and Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota. The latter also helped him to bond with Native Americans. This proves his preservationist approach is not fraud or a misstep.
Aaron Watson – Being an independent artist from the start until now is hard because you essentially must sell yourself on your own. He did it with his live shows, and it paid off when he is the first indie artist to get Billboard’s Country Album chart No. 1. Moreover, one may get the slight progressiveness from his recent albums, like a nod of Tex-Mex culture in Vaquero, or an ode to Guy Clark in the intro of Red Bandana.
Robert Ellis – I don’t think he ever says he is a country artist (or even an Americana artist), but I have always enjoyed his guitar playing (and truly living up the ‘guitarist’ title) and more sentimental lyrics in his four albums.
Gretchen Peters – Particularly the three-album run from Hello Cruel World to Dancing With The Beast in the 2010s (Editor’s note: YES). It’s quite accessible, but at the same time it is heart-wrenching in the best possible way.
Neko Case – She brings the “alt” part of alt-country. Not so much of alternative rock, but rather quite bizarre moments (check out “Where Did I Leave That Fire,” for starters) yet tied beautifully. Also her running theme of environmentalism is very interesting.
Elizabeth Cook – She is probably the most divisive among country music critics, but I like her naked truth style starting from Welder. When you essentially have nothing to hide after devastating life experience, you get songs which are quite personal but touching. – Sunny Lee
Jon Pardi deserves credit for revitalizing the Bakersfield sound and helping to make the fiddle relevant among younger country fans, after a decade of veritable absence. Another one is Iris Dement — if she was at all interested in being famous, she would be. Lastly, The Turnpike Troubadours’ influence out of the Red Dirt scene – Grady Smith
13.) In the independent realm, both Texas and Kentucky have provided a plethora of breakout acts over the past decade. Are there any other places you can think of that have birthed some of the genre’s best talents over the same time period?
Virginia seems to be a hotbed for country music. Obviously the state birthed the Carter Fmily, Roy Clark, and Patsy Cline, among other greats, but newer artists include Brad Paisley, Phil Vassar, Dori Freeman, Charles Wesley Godwin, and Kaitlyn Baker … and that’s just off the top of my head. – Liz Austin
Georgia – and it’s mostly for the bad. Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Brantley Gilbert, Cole Swindell, Tyler Hubbard (FGL). If you’re a shitty country singer over the last decade and a half, the odds are you came from Georgia. – Julian Spivey
I don’t think I am supposed to answer places outside of the U.S. (Editor’s note: why not?) but don’t forget Canada, where Colter Wall, Lindi Ortega, Whitney Rose, and technically Tami Neilson, came from. – Sunny Lee
North Carolina doesn’t get enough love! From the folky bluegrass rock of the Avett Brothers, to the heartland stylings of Eric Church, to affable mainline country stars Luke Combs, Scotty McCreery, and Kellie Pickler, the state has provided so much to the genre. – Grady Smith
14.) The Chicks, Kacey Musgraves, Sam Hunt, Sturgill Simpson … these are all artists cited by those who say they “don’t like country music” yet like them. Some of them pulled from tradition to create something new, and as for others, country fans would argue they weren’t country in the first place. What do you think the appeal of these artists is to fans not as familiar with country music?
The Chicks, Kacey Musgraves, and Sturgill Simpson are all demonstrably country, in that you can trace their roots back to stuff that came before them, and they acknowledge the debt. Sam Hunt is a creation out of nowhere and entirely a marketing phenomenon. Most of his singles could have, and should have, been sent to pop radio. While he’s put noises that sound like country into a few of his succeeding singles, it’s clear that he has no more affinity for country music than he does for Tuvan throat singing (and if I recall correctly, he’s even given a few interviews to that effect). People who like Sam Hunt don’t “like country music” – they like Sam Hunt, which is not the same thing. Ain’t nobody using him as the gateway drug to George Strait or Reba McEntire (or even the Chicks and Simpson). – Jim Bartlett
Without a doubt, the appeal of these “I normally don’t like country, but I like this” artists is the lyricism. Ascetic of the artist’s music is the other big reason they have appeal beyond country listeners. The artists make and present music in a way that doesn’t solely tie itself to a country identity. Just to run through the four artists asked about in this question: The Chicks have the same appeal that the outlaw artists like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson had back in the day and still have today: it’s dangerous, rule-breaking, against social norms and is something that goes beyond country music. Kacey Musgraves brings in more universal themes like gender inequality, LGBTQ+ and mental health, and she presents country music in a way that is welcoming to all. Sam Hunt brings R&B/pop flavors to country themes and dresses more like a pop star than a country star. And Sturgill Simpson is much like Hunt in that he dresses in a T-shirt and sneakers, which has wider appeal than Stetsons and belt buckles. Simpson’s music is also all over the place thematically (especially appealing to the indie crowd) and this is bound to attract more listeners.
But again, I have to go back to unexplainable balance of how country the lyrics and presentation is in their music. There’s no magic formula with this and only the audience can tell you if the artist/act has found it. Eric Church, Cody Jinks, and Turnpike Troubadours are three country acts who are beloved by many in the genre and many of us believe they’re more than good enough to cross over to other genres’ fans, yet they don’t. These artists just don’t get held in the same regard as Simpson, Musgraves, Tyler Childers, Chris Stapleton and the like.
I remember when Church went on ESPN College Gameday or even when he sang the National Anthem at the Super Bowl in 2021 and he wasn’t welcomed warmly by fans outside of country music. His reception was not unlike somebody like Kenny Chesney or Luke Bryan showing up to the party. They’re just viewed as generic mainstream country by non-country fans that many outside (and inside) the genre enjoy mocking for its cliché. To us country fans, many of us would find it absurd to see Church lumped in with them, as his music takes in many influences of several genres and has much more substance in the lyrics. Heck, you could make the argument Church has just as many varied, in-depth themes in his music as Kacey Musgraves and Sturgill Simpson (I certainly would), but for some reason non-country fans don’t see this and don’t have the same connection.
And then you can blow up my entire argument by pointing out the recent success of Morgan Wallen with non-country fans. He’s as country as country comes in his music, yet the suburban crowd seems to really connect with him. TikTok blew him up of course, but you would think he’s too country for non-country fans. So really it’s explainable, but not really explainable as to why certain country artists have wide appeal to non-country and certain ones you think would don’t. – Josh Schott
With all of these except Sam Hunt, I believe the appeal is largely due to political and social concerns. The Chicks, Kacey Musgraves, and Sturgill Simpson are all very outspoken politically and all hold liberal views. I think this makes many people who would not otherwise give country music a chance want to check out these artists. Country music is viewed by many as being a bastion of racism, sexism, and homophobia. People are more open to listening to Musgraves, the Chicks, and Simpson because they don’t appear to fit these stereotypes. Then they find out they actually enjoy these artists’ music. The same fans might enjoy other country music as well, but they never bothered to explore it.
As for the crowd who doesn’t like country music but likes Sam Hunt, this is simple: they believe Sam Hunt is country because his albums say “country” on iTunes. They don’t really like country music. – Megan Bledsoe
The rebellious spirit they all have in common coupled with their unique approach to the genre, often blending other genres, which in return attracts those who wouldn’t listen to stone-cold country but finds the blend of R&B or pop or other elements appealing. – Liz Austin
First of all, those self-pretentious pricks that actually exist and say that kind of thing can stick it where the sun don’t shine. On a more serious note, I think it really operates on a case-by-case basis. I still, for example, fail to hear the country elements in Sam Hunt’s work, so answering why for him is fairly straightforward and easy. But with, say, Sturgill Simpson, I think it’s more of a reaction to the mainstream than anything else, and how Simpson, for them, resurrects (or rather, once resurrected with his earlier work) those lost country sounds. And here’s the Chicks and Kacey Musgraves representing both sides of that divide – artists who have their fair share of very traditional-sounding music but were shunned by radio for very different reasons yet still came to roughly the same end point. They both now make music that’s more all-encompassing, and I think fans respect that. – Zackary Kephart
Country music unfortunately seems like it’s never going to break out of the “for hicks” stereotype it’s seemingly had since day one. If more people would give it a chance, people might find they enjoy it. So often it takes an artist with a pop influence like Kacey Musgraves (and a fan in Katy Perry) or a blues-rock sound like Chris Stapleton who can bridge out a bit to get people thinking, “Oh this sounds good,” when actually they don’t know much of what they’re talking about. – Julian Spivey
First of all, genre-blending (while in reality, not really having many country elements to “blend”) really sells (otherwise why would every PR campaign mention it?). Bluegrass for The Chicks, pop for Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, R&B akin to Drake for Sam Hunt, and soul for Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. This gives an interesting entry point for people who are fans in other genres to dip into country music.
Also, the lyricism. Feminism from The Chicks, cynical and witty views of small town life from Kacey Musgraves’ first few major label albums. F-boy attitude from Sam Hunt and the outlaw theme from Sturgill Simpson, too. All are not the common association of mainstream country music, which is “beers, trucks and hot women”. – Sunny Lee
There are a substantial number of people that find any attempt to define country music (its style or its sound or its traditions) as exclusive, pointless, or even problematic, and they view such discussions as an imposition on musical expression — or, depending on their worldview, an imposition on them personally. I think this type of music listener often admires artists that seem to break rules for what country should sound like or how country stars should act, even if those “rules” are not truly in existence.
I also think some artists’ political leanings, whether real or perceived, matter immensely to many fans that wouldn’t otherwise deign to listen to mainstream country music. Increasingly, I see this attitude among more liberal country music fans, who want to express their love for the sound of the genre while also expressing a degree of disdain for country’s more conservative listeners, and this crowd tends to have a louder voice in media.
But paradoxically, many of the most politically liberal artists in country are also the most musically conservative, so artists like Sturgill Simpson can gather fans of many different stripes. – Grady Smith
Lastly, an open-ended discussion, meant for you to share any opinions you have over country music’s path from the debut of the class of ‘89 to the present day. Fire away on whatever topic you’d like or feel free to offer any final thoughts!
For whatever it may be worth (not a lot, I’ll wager), I will add my voice to the chorus of those both baffled by the way mainstream country radio continues to ignore its female artists when the evidence of their talent is right in front of their faces. The CMA and ACM keep nominating Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood for all of the major awards year after year, even in years when they don’t release new music, because as far as they’re concerned, there’s literally no one else. (Reba McEntire, too.) But in the last year, when I’d get to play Ashley McBryde’s “One Night Standards,” Ingrid Andress’s “More Hearts Than Mine,” or the singles by Tenille Townes and Tenille Arts, they blew away everything else around them. Still, I show up for work every weekend to see multiple new adds from males with dumb haircuts singing about beer and beaches, while new music by women either gets relegated to specialty shows (the only airplay my station gave to *anything* on Golden Hour was on the Sunday night acoustic show) or ignored entirely. The females mainstream country deigns most often to play are consistently the least interesting and the most unthreatening. (Lookin’ at you, Kelsea Ballerini.) I’d like to think the industry is coming around on Ashley McBryde, but we’ll know when/if her next album comes out. – Jim Bartlett
The independent sector of country music truly is coming back. People are getting tired of the crappy electronic cookie cutter lyrics (Sam Hunt/Thomas Rhett/Luke Bryan/Florida Georgia Line). I think the new independent wave has really emphasized artists being artists and producing art over trying to be a brand or a rock star. Whether people are ‘country’ or not, most people are just … people. Common, everyday humans. There isn’t a better genre to capture that image of life than traditional country. It’s the one genre you don’t HAVE to try to be something special and still get respected. There’s comfort in listening to and digesting music that has walked the path and felt the feelings that you have. I don’t hate other genres by any means, but I find them harder to relate to than country. – Bryce Ahaus
We won’t see another artist with as big of a multi-generational grasp on the genre like George Strait has had since he first released “Unwound” in 1981. He seems to be the one artist where young people my age and past generations all enjoy him equally. Everyone knows at least one George Strait song, whether they’re a country fan or not.
Vince Gill is the ultimate triple threat … Great songwriter, musician, and vocalist all the way around. – Joe Kraus
For me, what comes immediately to mind is how far mainstream country music has fallen off course in the last 32 years. The biggest offender is the overall quality of the songwriting. I’m not only referring to the subject matter but the way songs are written. Bobby Braddock participated in the Country Music Hall of Fame’s virtual songwriter sessions late last year and said it’s a practice today to have the second verses of songs cut off in the middle. I’m so glad he admitted that. Luke Combs’ “Beautiful Crazy” drives me insane when you get to the second verse and he stretches out the word ‘sleep’ to what, fill time? Really? That didn’t happen much in the ’90s or most of the 2000s.
The ’90s and most of the 2000s led to a golden era for intelligent adult songs with real perspectives and substance. The quality from back then just hasn’t been there for about a decade now. Also, the path from the class of ’89 to the present day has seen a rise in singers with very limited vocal ranges. I’m 33 years old. I remember when country singers had to be able to sing. Taylor Swift has figured out what to do with her vocal abilities, but I’m thinking of people like Kelsea Ballerini. Her limited vocal range never would’ve gotten her a record deal in country music in the 1990s.
Final thoughts: I’ve been listening to country music consistently since 1996, the year I always cite as when I first started ‘paying attention’ to the genre. It’s the longest ongoing relationship I’ve ever had to any one thing in my entire life. This genre is more than a passion for me. It’s an obsession (Editor’s note: I hear that!).
I know in my soul I was born predisposed to loving country music. I would watch TNN with my grandfather, a lifelong Willie Nelson and Tanya Tucker fan. I attended a Dwight Yoakam concert with my godparents, who love his music even more than I do. My godmother adores Trisha Yearwood. My mom, without even knowing it, raised me on Alan Jackson and Mary Chapin Carpenter. My dad loves and introduced me to Suzy Bogguss and Pam Tillis. I have countless more examples, too.
Know this, too. I had a weekly two-hour country music radio show in college (Colby-Sawyer College in New London, NH. The station, which has since been sold, was 90.9 WSCS) for each of my four years. I played a lot of great music but I buckled to mainstream trends and artists, too, which makes me cringe just thinking about it. It was a small college station, so I could play whatever I wanted. I didn’t have much of an audience, but I loved it. I so wish the shows had been recorded, but that wasn’t something we did. I was station manager, too, for a year.
I think my biggest education about country came from the blogging world, 2009-today. I’ve learned so much from all the great country blogs past and present (Editor’s note: Oh, how I wish I had been around in the golden age of The 9513 or Country California or Engine 145). The perspectives have been invaluable to me. It was such an honor to join this community ten years ago and find my little corner within it. My Kind of Country ended because we were literally burnt out from the review schedule we tried to keep while balancing work and our personal lives. I miss it, but I’ll always cherish those eight years. – Jon Pappalardo
Something that I get sick of pointing out but needs to continue to be hammered home to country listeners across the board: country music never has and never will need to be “saved.” It’s never been lost, so how can it be saved? No genre of music has ever needed saving. The only saving we need in country music is from insecure fans and talking heads within the industry who can’t seem to accept that change is constant. As Zack demonstrates throughout the book, country music has changed a lot over the past thirty years and it’s only going to continue. And yet despite all this change, does country music ever stop mattering? Does anybody every run out of country artists they can connect with? I would wager to say no.
Instead of focusing on the constant sound discussion, we should instead be working on problems that actually need to be solved and are going to be huge talking points going into the future: making music streaming better so every artist has a fair chance to make a living, removing systemic issues from country radio and the industry so everyone has a fair shot (or if it was up to me, just straight up get rid of radio), continuing to be more welcoming to non-white and LGBTQ+ artists and fans because everyone should feel welcome in country music and should have a seat at the table, and promoting the overall variety of country music.
While we charge into the next decade of the 2020s, remember that while country music’s circle will change, it shall never be unbroken. Country music shall never fall as long we the people who believe in it uphold and preserve its place and legacy as one of the most important cultural touchstones of our society. – Josh Schott
I think the underperformance for some country songs on the Hot 100 because of the chart rule (in that one needs physical releases in order to chart) is a more serious problem than the underperformance of country albums on the Billboard 200. There is no way “The Dance” or “Friends In Low Places” were not top 10 all-genre hits at that time.
I also believe the number of songwriters used to write a country hit is much higher now than in the past. However, the top mainstream country stars now have the homogeneity problem where they would use those few songwriters, but their contributions are not always the greatest and lack identity. It leads to a sameness of sound that, combined with extended chart runs, makes a group of songs become tiring more easily.
On a more positive note, the rise of independent record labels that hampers the power of the “Big 3” is overall better. Sure, Big Machine Label Group and Broken Bow Records have an uneven artist quality, but more power to them to break the status quo. And independent labels like Bloodshot Records and Oh Boy Records have great artist rosters. Special mention to Thirty Tigers, too, which, while technically not a record label but rather a distributor, has helped to promote the independent artists well. – Sunny Lee