Big green tractors. An ice cold beer. Blue jeans and dirt-covered work boots. This imagery might make you think of the early 2000s. You might be transported to your grandfather’s truck with artists like Jason Aldean and Kenny Chesney singing their Southern-accented hearts out through the car radio. On the other side of things, you might be disgusted, repulsed by the idea of such music.
Country music has become a controversial genre. In 2019, emerging artist Lil Nas X released his Grammy Award winning song “Old Town Road” that took the country by storm. However, the release of this single brought nationwide discourse: is “Old Town Road” a country song? According to Nas X, yes, it is. However, many disagreed, despite the artist’s intentions. This brought upon the issue that the country genre is heavily lacking in diversity, and is possibly even guilty of gatekeeping.
Country is often considered one of the least popular genres of music in the nation. At the end of last year, Billboard released their annual year-end charts, in which they rank albums, songs and artists based on their popularity throughout the year. The top country musician was singer-songwriter Luke Combs. In contrast, the top pop musician was Ariana Grande, who was also the second top artist overall.
Combs’s estimated net worth, according to Celebrity Net Worth, is five million dollars, an impressive number considering he has only really gained popularity in the last four years. However, this does not come close to Grande’s net worth at an estimated $150 million.
How could it be that the most popular country artist is so much less popular than that of another genre? In our modern day, it has become commonplace to hate country music. I have seen Tinder bios that read, “I like all music, send me a song (as long as it isn’t country)!” But, I’ve also seen fish-holding, truck-owning Tinder users with a Luke Bryan song listed as their musical ride-or-die.
I myself am someone who used to detest the genre, even though I was raised listening to playlists of country, folk and rock. Now, when Dolly Parton or Tyler Childers comes on shuffle, I am elated.
Today, let’s dive into the discourse.
What is country and western music?
Country music’s origin story is similar to that of folktales. Each song holds a tale about love, loss or family. Traditional country music (a term with no set definition) was often a twangy epic, allowing for an artist to pour their heart out on the stage.
Country music went mainstream in the 1920s, when Jimmie Rodgers became the nation’s first country music star. Artists of the time, like Rodgers, laid the groundwork for what the genre would become. However, it wasn’t quite defined as a genre for nearly three decades until artists like Hank Williams hit the scene.
Suddenly, country and western music was an acoustic guitar, yodeling amalgamation of getting your heart broken, feeling a sense of pride for your homeland and falling in love with the town’s prettiest gal. Songs teetered between comedic tunes that had the crowd howling with laughter and deep, sorrowful melodies that any person can relate to.
In an attempt to define what made a song the perfect country and western song, musician David Allen Coe is famously quoted during a musical interlude in his song, “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” as saying the ideal lyric must include Momma, trains (or trucks!), prison and getting drunk.
While Coe was clearly joking, these are all extremely common themes throughout the genre, even as it evolved to be what it is today.
The culture behind the genre
Where I’m from, country music is the ultimate way to connect with your small-town roots. Nothing beats a summer night at the 4-H Fair in cowboy boots and a flannel shirt with a twangy ditty playing in the background.
What’s great about country music is the genre is really a conglomeration of many subgenres in one. Working-class America is often considered the main audience for this music, as country stars like Willie Nelson strive to portray the humble, small-town life that much of middle America possesses.
While the United States is considered the motherland of country music, in 1971 the British band The Rolling Stones dipped their toes into the genre in their album “Sticky Fingers”—so much so that lead singer Mick Jagger even donned a Southern American accent for some of the songs.
Not only that, but country music is nowadays considered just as much American as it is Mexican. In the 1920s, when country was just beginning, it was often considered honky-tonk music, largely inspired by Mexican ranchera music.
Country brings people together. This music knows no borders. Its centermost themes are great joys and sorrows that anyone can relate to and enjoy, from small town farmers to families gathered around the campfire to, well, anybody.
Comedy in country music
This wouldn’t be an exposé on country music if I didn’t take some time to focus on the comedic tone so often used in the songwriting of the genre. The most well-known example of this is Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue.”
The song follows the life and tribulations of a fictional man whose father, right before walking out on his family, named him Sue. The sound of the audience hooting and hollering with joy when Cash sings the final line, “And if I ever have a son / I think I’m gonna name him Bill or George! / Anything but Sue!” is electric. It’s a crowd of people all smiling and laughing at a line most of them have heard dozens of times.
Comedy is just as foundational to the country genre as the sorrow of heartbreak. Some more modern examples include Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup,” Hayes Carll’s “She Left Me For Jesus” or Big & Rich’s “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy).”
I think a common misstep that non-country listeners take when criticizing the genre is taking it a little too seriously. They sit down ready to hear great musical genius––which, with Patsy Cline’s vocals, Sturgill Simpson’s lyrics and Merle Haggard’s guitar, you have a whole catalog of genuinely genius work––but oftentimes it isn’t meant to be taken so earnestly.
Country music is for your average every-person. You turn to country music to drown out the sorrows, for a laugh after a long day of work or for a friend who understands you. You turn to it to be comfortable, to find a familiar voice within the troubles of the day-to-day.
I think Dolly Parton, country queen (!!), put it best when she said, “If you talk bad about country music, it’s like saying bad things about my momma. Them’s fightin’ words.” It’s not an entirely serious comment, and it’s clearly not intended to be taken as such. Still, it keeps that soul-filled country tone.
Sorrow and love in country music
One of the most relatable feelings known to the human race is heartbreak. It is the sadness, the feeling of grief and loss when a sorrowful event happens. It is lyrics like Zac Brown Band’s, “[She] wonders if her love is strong enough to make him stay. / She’s answered by the tail lights shinin’ through the window pane,” in their song “Colder Weather” that hit the hearts of listeners in need of a friend who understands.
That’s why we turn to sad music when we’re down, isn’t it? We want someone who understands how we feel. We want to sit in our sadness. We want to process it and feel it entirely through. We want to cry to the wave that is Karen Fairchild pulling on our heartstrings when she sings, “I wanna taste her lips / Yeah ‘cause they taste like you,” in Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush.”
Every artist has heard some version of the phrase, “Sometimes your best work is made when you’re hurting.” As much as that can be strange to hear, it’s true.
Just as a room full of giggling patrons can bring people together, so can the unified feeling of sorrow.
Diversity in the genre
In this segment, I am really just going to give you recommendations. As this debate comes to a close, I would be remiss if I didn’t leave you (a country listener or a country hater) with some artists to take a gander at.
After all, country is no longer a cluster of straight white men singing about their terrible wives and going to prison. With the world and its musical needs, the genre has grown and evolved, I think for the better.
I know what you’re thinking––well, you’re either thinking one of two things. One: Katy, country music just isn’t what it used to be! How could you possibly say that today’s artists are better than its founders like Hank Williams or Charley Pride or Willie Nelson? Or, two: We’re listening to the same country, right? It’s never been good, and it’s definitely not getting any better.
Well, hold your horses, cowboy!
Country is more than the Grand Ole Opry Nashville-lovin’ straight-to-CD sound that we are so indoctrinated into associating with the genre. More and more, artists are working to defy the constraints of the genre altogether. I mean, Lil Nas X had an entire controversy because of the genre-bending nature of “Old Town Road.” Sturgill Simpson, who can be considered a country artist, came out with his album “SOUND & FURY” in 2019 that is categorized under alternative.
Genre is a box that keeps artists contained. Today, we are breaking out of these boxes, slowly but surely.
So, here’s who I would like to recommend. I’ll keep it brief.
First off, we have the elusive and mysterious cowboy known as Orville Peck. Peck’s deep, smooth voice feels like a relic amongst the techno sounds of today. Commonly seen wearing a mask with extravagant fringe that hides his identity, Peck has taken the world by storm since his first album “Pony” premiered in 2019. Peck is further proof that there is space for LGBTQ+ artists in the country genre.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops was founded by the band’s lead singer, fiddle and banjo player Rhiannon Giddens, a MacArthur grant winner who strives to reclaim the African American roots that are so present in genres like folk and country. Other members of the band include Hubby Jenkins, Dom Flemins, Leyla McCalla, Adam Matta and Justin Robinson. The Grammy Award winning band blends country and bluegrass sounds in a beautiful symphony that never fails to impress.
Next, we have the one-album-wonders: The Highwomen. Playing on the name of the country group The Highwaymen (containing Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson), The Highwomen’s first album is a beautiful ode to the western woman as we’ve known them in the past and we know them today. When I listen, I can hear my grandmothers and great grandmothers before them, but I also see myself, my mother and my sisters. Members of the band are the very talented solo artists Brandie Carlisle, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires.
Rediscovering in 2020
Now, after reading my admittedly long essay, where are you left? Does country sound more or less appetizing than it did, say, five minutes ago?
I talked to my dad, Randy Smith, the man who introduced me to this kind of music, to see what he had to say about it. The first thing he told me was that he is not a fan of country music. This took me by surprise, seeing as I have many memories singing David Allen Coe and Tyler Childers in the car with him.
What he was getting at, however, is he isn’t a fan of what country has become. He, as a music fan, even feels the pressure of genre that musicians themselves are feeling. Where Childers clearly has a country sound, he is now more and more categorized by award shows as “Americana,” a new genre that has emerged from recent artists that seem to live in between country, folk, rock, and indie.
Still, I think he was onto something. “The guys I listen to… I just like their stories. It’s all familiar. There’s somebody you know in a line, or [the song overall is] something you can relate to in some way. They do all their songs with themselves and their guitar and that’s it,” said Smith.
It’s the vulnerability, the raw and real nature of the genre, that grabs people. Ideally, you can argue this for any kind of music you like. That’s what music does. It’s art that strives to tell a story that at least someone can resonate with, whether you’re Carrie Underwood or Kendrick Lamar.
So in 2020, as genre becomes less and less relevant, let’s strive to be more musically diverse. Great work is happening in every sector! Don’t let your love of Miranda Lambert be a guilty pleasure––just let it be a pleasure! Dare I even say it: art is art is art is art.
Love the art you love, and don’t let labels keep you from dipping your toes into something atypical for your music taste. Pick up your Spotify or Apple Music and press play on some Orville Peck today. Who knows, you may even find your new favorite artist.