By Jewly Hight, NPR Music
Evolution follows a familiar pattern in plenty of popular music genres. Fearless newcomers or agile established stars with credibility to burn veer from the dominant aesthetic, adopting approaches to music-making that come off as savvy correctives to what everyone’s used to hearing. And if what they’re doing really begins to catch on, bits and pieces are absorbed into the mainstream, subtly or significantly shifting the genre’s center, before something completely different comes along to catch the public’s ear. Just think of how many hip-hop trends, from the street-hardened fatalism and stark beats of trap music to the punchy, triplet flow spawned by Migos’ experimentalism, have bubbled up from the underground, and eventually even altered the feel of mainstream pop.
These cycles propel country music forward too, but they’re unfolding at a more deliberate pace in a genre where innovation tugs against preservation and the path to success often passes through conservative terrestrial radio. That’s why it’s taken years for the stylistic shifts anticipated by Kacey Musgraves, Sam Hunt and Maren Morris to actually arrive. Musgraves’ emergence, five years ago, generated discussion about the potential for changes in country’s outlook, attitude and style, but it’s only now, with the release of Golden Hour, her third proper, major label album, that she sounds truly freed from having to claim her place in the country landscape.
Pop, hip-hop and R&B have far higher turnover rates for hits, thanks to massive streaming numbers and radio programming that favors the hot and new over the familiar. But besides making the most of the digital outlets favored by young listeners, most mainstream country artists are still expected to pledge their fealty to the format and court radio’s long-term support, which can be a deeply demoralizing endeavor due to programmers’ tendency to stick to one thing that’s working at a time and pay attention to little else.
Since participating in the country world has always been as much a matter of cultural identification as musical identification, and as much about being claimed by the audience as branded for the marketplace, artists also face a tension between engaging with popular trends and conveying a sense of connection to country’s lineage and core values. Some of modern country’s most frequently invoked archetypes, Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, were initially viewed as interlopers, their modernizing of studio and show production, self-presentation and songwriting disrupting the genre’s status quo and grabbing ears beyond it. Over time, they both made convincing cases that redefining what country superstardom looked, sounded and behaved like didn’t undermine their country affinities — that their broader ambitions needn’t threaten their places in the format. And eventually, plenty of other artists followed their lead in making flashier music videos, beefing up their backbeats and staging shows with the energy and theatricality of arena rock.
“Every time someone starts to make a real noise or pisses people off, later they get revered for it,” observes Shane McAnally, now one of Nashville’s most influential writer-producers and developers of new talent. “This [rising] class of artists right now, most of them would say their number one favorite artist is Shania or Garth. And at the time those people came along, it was like, ‘Y’all are ruining country music.’ I mean, it seems like every time I hear those words, we just get a whole lot more people listening to country music.”
Earlier this decade, there was a prolonged moment when contemporary country sounds and sensibilities seemed to consolidate around the so-called “bro country” template. Male acts at every tier of the industry were incorporating sometimes dated hip-hop flourishes into feel-good hybrids and cocksure, youthful displays of masculinity. The tailgating soundtrack was having its day, while hard times, relational strife and emoting in general receded from country radio playlists. But in the midst of that beat-driven bluster, noteworthy new arrivals on the margins of the mainstream forecasted shifts in momentum.
Kacey Musgraves and Women In A Male-Dominated Genre
First came Kacey Musgraves, a singer-songwriter salvaged from the roster of Mercury Nashville’s shuttered roots imprint. She blended deliciously arch and detailed songcraft with western kitsch and indie irreverence with a low-key insistence on tolerance, an approach to making social statements that helped map the coming changes in country discourse (see the accompanying timeline). But the coolness of her delivery was so antithetical to the muscled-up performances dominating playlists in 2013 that, at least in the short term, she enjoyed more visibility than commercial clout. It couldn’t have helped her standing with country radio that she didn’t really labor to hide her disdain for the direction pop-country was taking at the time, though she was plenty pop-savvy (and would eventually even go on tour with Katy Perry).
Taylor Swift had proven the potential of a personalized singer-songwriter approach half a decade earlier. Stepping into the spotlight as a teenage striver, she invested equal energy in winning over young, female fans and powerful, middle-aged gatekeepers, and achieved success on such an astounding scale that she established a new paradigm for mainstream country aspirations. Musgraves’s arrival couldn’t have felt more different; she seemed far more comfortable in an individualistic role that didn’t require asserting her place at the center.