(Pictured: Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line. Not your mama’s country singers.)
Country music has always been a battleground of styles. The following badly oversimplifies the history, but here we go: Country fans of the 50s had little use for the softer “countrypolitan” sound that dominated the 60s and early 70s, and many rejoiced when the outlaw movement of the mid-70s brought more traditional sounds back. But outlaw country didn’t transform anything for good, and a good deal of country music remained heavily pop-oriented until late in the 80s, when new traditionalists like Randy Travis and Lyle Lovett gained popularity. But in the 90s, first Garth Brooks and later Shania Twain (and her producer/husband Mutt Lange, who had guided the careers of Foreigner and Def Leppard) redefined what mainstream country meant. In the early oughts, pop-oriented guys like Kenny Chesney and Brad Paisley charted alongside throwbacks like Alan Jackson. No matter the level of creative tension, however, you were always able to draw a line from the contemporary stars back to the people on whose shoulders they stood, whether that was Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Reba McEntire, or stars from even earlier days.
But in recent years there’s come a remarkable break in the history of country music. In 2011, Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” became the first major hit to incorporate rhythmically spoken verses, a style incongruously imported from hip-hop and rap music. It wasn’t long before Aldean released a version on which he collaborated with Ludacris, and it started a flood of country songs with hip-hop elements. This has resulted in some pretty odd music, and it’s not just younger stars making it. In 2013, Tim McGraw, who began as a thoroughly mainstream country singer in the mid 90s, released “Southern Girl,” on which he slathered himself in levels of auto-tune generally heard only on rap records.
Break number two: the 2012 single “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line. Apart from the vocal—an exaggerated drawl—and an ostentatious banjo, there’s nothing country about “Cruise.” It’s a loud, riff-heavy record aimed at young listeners—and aggressively putting off older ones. “Cruise” arrived at the precise moment Billboard modified its chart rules to give extra credit to records that cross over. The change seems nutty, boosting a record higher up the country chart based on how well it does on other, non-country charts—but the net result was to make “Cruise” the longest-running #1 song in the history of country music.
The success of “Dirt Road Anthem” and “Cruise” had the effect of freeing country singers, songwriters, and record labels from stylistic limitations—and from country’s history. Blake Shelton famously claimed this was natural evolution that only “old farts” would resist, but it represents much more than that. Country music has become whatever country labels release and country radio stations will play, no matter what it sounds like. This trend began in the oughts with Carrie Underwood (even though the most country thing about her was that she dated the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys) and continued with Taylor Swift. But it’s only within the last two years that the trend has become the norm. Sam Hunt’s current hit “Leave the Night On” might have been released to adult contemporary radio five years ago without changing one thing about it. It’s on country radio in 2014 because country is the mass-appeal pop format of the moment.
As a sometime-country DJ and a card-carrying old fart, I like some of what I’m hearing right now. Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, Eric Church, and the Zac Brown Band are remarkably good. Shelton and Toby Keith can be, when they choose good songs, but they don’t always. Gary Allan would have been a star in any decade. Despite what I’ve said about it here, I even like “Dirt Road Anthem.” But I often find myself wishing country would stop chasing fads and ignoring its history. And maybe also pick up a damn fiddle now and then.