RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Country music is popping up everywhere beyond Nashville this summer. There is honky-tonker Eric Church who tops this week's Billboard album chart. And there's Blake Shelton who markets himself as the classic Southern good old boy, but has become a crossover celebrity as the judge on NBC's "The Voice."

And then there's this song, a top 10 pop hit, after weeks at number one on the country charts.

(Soundbite of song, "Dirt Road Anthem")

Mr. JASON ALDEAN (Singer): (Singing) Yeah I'm chillin' on a dirt road, laid back swerving like I'm George Jones. Back in the day Potts farm was the place to go. Load the truck up, hit the dirt road. Jump the barbed wire, spread the word. Light the bonfire then call the girls. King in...

MONTAGNE: That's Jason Aldean.

And joining us is now to talk about these trends in country and the changing of the guard in the genre, is NPR music critic Ann Powers.

Good morning.

ANN POWERS: Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So a country winger who slides right into rap. Well, whats going on with that?

POWERS: Jason Aldean is a huge star in country right now and he really exemplifies this new, old style of doing country. He's traditional yet totally living in the 21st century, crosses over into rap. Yet he's very much the Southern, classic country guy. Hat wearing, you know? That's what it's like right now in country.

MONTAGNE: And, Jason Aldean, coming really too from the deep South.

POWERS: Jason is from the Macon, Georgia, based in Nashville now. But he represents this younger generation. They identify regionally. They embody family values in a lot of ways, but then it's not a big shock if they're interested in hip-hop or if they represent a more contemporary perspective.

MONTAGNE: But country singers would pick up would pick up on rap and maybe work with hip-hop musicians. That's not actually a totally new trend.

POWERS: No. Tim McGraw had a record with the rapper Nelly. There have been other elements of hip-hop that have connected with country.

What I think is new is the way these younger artists are so comfortable with both really connecting with hard country and, at the same time, seeing no contradiction in throwing in a little rap.

MONTAGNE: But have embraced the rural, country traditions more than, say, their immediate predecessors.

POWERS: Well, we saw with artists like Tim McGraw and Faith Hill or, of course, the great Garth Brooks, a movement toward a more, shall we say, cosmopolitan view in country - a more pop view in country, for sure.

Now artists like Jason Aldean and Eric Church for example, want to identify with a way of life that's about family values or about sort of old-fashioned storylines. But they're doing it in a way that really feels very right now.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's play a bit of a song by Eric Church called "Homeboy."

(Soundbite of song, "Homeboy")

Mr. ERIC CHURCH (Singer): (Singing) Homeboy, you're going to wish one day that you were sitting on a gate of a truck by the lake, with your high school flame on one side, cold beer on the other...

POWERS: I think the song is a great example of what we're talking about because, of course, homeboy is a hip-hop term for your best friend, the person you hang out with. But Eric Church is using it in the sense of come on home, boy. It's a song directed from one brother to another - kind of a prodigal son coming back working on the farm, after trying life in the city. And the markers in the song are very much connecting to urban life in the 21st century.

There's another one called "Springsteen," which is about remembering being in high school. And instead of listening to, say, Hank Williams, they listened to Bruce Springsteen. And that is heritage for these artists, as much as your classic country artists would be.

MONTAGNE: Ann, what is a female equivalent to these guys?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: What are the good old girl equivalents?

POWERS: Well, if there's any artist who epitomizes this new attitude in country music, it's Miranda Lambert.

(Soundbite of song, "Boys from the South")

Ms. MIRANDA LAMBERT (Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) Maybe he's in Texas, maybe this town, maybe Oklahoma plowing up some ground. Northern Carolina...

POWERS: Miranda Lambert happens to be married to Blake Shelton, who appears on the television show "The Voice." But she herself is the darling of Nashville. She's won many awards. Her albums have been successful. And now she has a new project with two songwriting partners thats called Pistol Annies. It's coming out later this month.

And this song, "Boys from the South," really captures to me the spirit of these country artists we're highlighting today.

(Soundbite of song, "Boys from the South")

Ms. LAMBERT: (Singing) And he kissed me underneath the chinaberry tree, said goodnight darling, with a sweet Southern drawl. Man, I think I might just have to love them all...

MONTAGNE: So Ann, this is something of an Anthem to the boys from the South. But I think we just heard why it wasnt quite as old fashioned as it might seem.

POWERS: Exactly. Having the line: I think I just might have to love them all, it's not quite stand by your man, is it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Well, not by your one man.

POWERS: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

POWERS: Liberated women with a traditional streak. I think thats a huge part of what we're hearing in country music now.

MONTAGNE: Ann, thanks. It's been a pleasure talking to you again.

POWERS: Always a pleasure, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR music critic Ann Powers.

(Soundbite of song, "Boys from the South")

Ms. LAMBERT: (Singing) Maybe in Kentucky, working in the mines. Maybe down in Little Rock, just to pass the time. Maybe he's somewhere in New Orleans...

MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And Im Steve Inskeep.

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