Country music’s adaptation to the twenty-first-century
It’s no secret that country music has changed in the last 20 years. The content within most of the songs that top the Billboard charts have evolved into something utterly unrecognizable to “classic” country, i.e. songs about “Achy Breaky Heart[s]” and rivers named “Chattahoochee.”
On one hand, it’s a beautiful thing; country music is now more of an open calling, near flush with the pop genre with hints of modern rap influence sprinkled throughout. This is, in many ways, where any fan of the musical arts should take pride, for progress is akin to evolution, and any partition of arts is a poison.
On the other hand, the lyrics seem to have degraded over time. Songs that used to top the charts once dealt with “Friends in Low Places” and mothers inadvertently letting their children grow up to be cowboys. Seldom heard is such content on the radio for 21st century country; those lyrics required a steel guitar (and definitely a cowboy hat).
Country music is a now a product of development, adapting with the times and to popular radio culture, thus producing a more progressive sound. The lyrics may still be catching up, but the instrumentals deserve a level of appreciation.
This blending of genres is highly prominent in the melodies and lyrical flows of modernized country. Most songs in the Top 100 on Billboard embody this new musical algorithm. With an apparent deviation from the “down home” roots of the genre, county music has veered away from fiddles, banjos and acoustic drum sets, and now utilizes looped guitar tracks and electronic drum pads; many of these tempos contain snap and clap-type effects often heard in trap music.
These rhythms are now well-known in country. Although opinions differ on the genre’s evolution, the more optimistic listeners would consider this a testament to the musical brilliance and widespread popularity of the rap, hip-hop and pop genres, from their influential aesthetics to flows which render the totality of the genre so catchy.
Although it happens less now than it did in the early 2000s, rap-country collaborations used to be all the rage, possibly the catalyst to the genre’s expanse; honorable mentions go out to collaborations such as Nelly and Tim McGraw in 2009, Nelly and Florida Georgia Line in 2012, Ludacris and Jason Aldean in 2011, and the kings of smoke, Snoop Dogg and Willie Nelson also in 2009.
In fact, more so now than ever, musicians of color are topping the charts for country music, and they are amassing a diverse fan base while producing some integral content relative to their experience as a musician of color. This cultural breakthrough, at its finest, can be directed to its predecessor, a man that stepped on stage in 1927 to display his prowess at the harmonica during a country music radio show in Nashville — the legend, DeFord Bailey, a grandson of slaves and master of instruments now living in perpetuity in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Surely his influences live on in Jimmie Allen, the first black man to score a career No.1 in 2018 on Billboard with his debut single “Best Shot.” And not alone at the top, Kane Brown met the same success when his album ranked No.1 on the Billboard Top 200 charts, but not without meeting some racial flack on Twitter. Sad to say the “haters” probably know little about the roots of country, and even less about the legend of DeFord Bailey.
Yet the structural disparity of country has kept female artists from meeting the same success. As of a year-end survey, only six female artists charted the top fifty on Billboard (2018). To add to the fact, Miranda Lambert, a country superstar selling albums in the millions, was only able to reach No.1 on country radio by collaborating with Jason Aldean.
This imbalance did not go unnoticed by Lambert. “Yes, I had to sing with someone with a penis to get a No. 1, [but] I do like this person, Jason Aldean, a lot […] so it was a great song with an old friend,” Lambert said in an interview with the Washington Post.
All eyes should be kept on the lopsidedness of female popularity in country; it shouldn’t require male-female collaborations for females to receive recognition. The fight shall rage on, and our hope lies with the rising stars in country to (re)pave the way, much like our own Cam Marvel Ochs, a UC Davis alumna who chose a career in country music stardom over psychology.
From writing songs for Miley Cyrus to signing deals with Sony Music Entertainment, Marvel Ochs is making strides for the genre. She is a prominent figure in music, producing award-nominated content while maintaining her integral love for home: UC Davis. Her footprints are everywhere in country music and on campus. Just look to The Spokes, an all-female acapella group that she started during her time in Davis. Cam provides hope for any rising musician, proving the requirement for a dream is but a mere spark of creativity.
Though the realm of country has expanded by taking on new, diverse faces that are paving the way for the future of the genre, it doesn’t keep those considered to be “interlopers” away from the craft. These breakthrough artists like AJ McLean (Yes, Backstreet Boys’ AJ McLean) are considered snakes in the grass to some and superstars to the rest. Certain fans are not too thrilled about arrivals such as these, calling their music the “worst country music of 2018,” and whether their judgment is on point or not is up for consideration.
Recently, in a red carpet interview, McLean said that he would be entering the country game to shake things up. His exact words were, “I’m coming in to disrupt country.” As to how much disruption he has actually caused must be weighed against his most popular, debut song, “Back Porch Bottle Service.”
The song sings as the title suggests: “Damn girl you lookin’ gorgeous / Just keep lightin’ me up like them tiki torches on a… / Back porch bottle service.”
One thing is for certain, the song doesn’t exactly handle the most groundbreaking content, but it’d be wrong to consider this bad art, because art is art — a creation from the soul. And to deny the will of the artist is to deny the power of creativity. McLean’s form of “art” is without a doubt hard to grapple with, and that’s understandable.
Concerning the tune, McLean’s song has the obvious pop influences with a pinch of urban roots in the lyrics. The guitar is looped, as is the drum track which holds the tempo, and his lyrics (ignoring the prosaic content) have a smooth flow that could have easily been placed over some 808s rather than an acoustic guitar. This seems to be the common theme with most of the songs charting the Top 100, although McLean’s song did not reach that level of hype, possibly due to its lyrical insipidity.
To find such depth in modern country music, once had by artists such as Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline and Conway Twitty, a suggestion would be to opt out of country music altogether and transition to folk music. That is not to say the depth no longer resides in country music — take Sturgill Simpson, for example, or Rick Trevino. Both musicians are prominent figures in country music and produce a wide range of songs with philosophical content in the lyrics. But in folk music, the focus is less about the tune and more about the story to be told.
Country music is not dead, but is instead adapting to its new and diverse life. The hope is there, maybe not so much for former Backstreet Boys, but for the overall inspiration that’s fueling the culture. To acquire the depth that many demand in their country, it requires a bit more digging. But to witness the future, the natural blending of musical genres and cultural amalgamations, the product stands before us. One but needs to turn on their radio.
Written By: Clay Allen Rogers — firstname.lastname@example.org