How The Sound Of Country Music Changed : The Record Over the last five years, a gradual evolution — characterized by careful and savvy boundary pushing — has taken hold in a genre where innovation always tugs against preservation.
NPR logo How The Sound Of Country Music Changed

How The Sound Of Country Music Changed

In 2013, Kacey Musgraves emergence onto the country music scene hinted at changes that would arrive over the next five years. Musgraves' new album, Golden Hour, might signal her freedom from that same landscape. Kelly Christine Sutton/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption
Kelly Christine Sutton/Courtesy of the artist

In 2013, Kacey Musgraves emergence onto the country music scene hinted at changes that would arrive over the next five years. Musgraves' new album, Golden Hour, might signal her freedom from that same landscape.

Kelly Christine Sutton/Courtesy of the artist

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.

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.

Sam Hunt on stage in Nashville during CMA Fest in June 2015. Rick Diamond/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Sam Hunt and Maren Morris arrived on the scene in the years that followed, each of them possessing fluency in the postures and cadences of millennial pop that turned heads and blurred boundaries. "[M]odern country singers love to flaunt phrases and attitudes borrowed from hip-hop, but Hunt's borrowings are softer and sneakier," observed Kelefa Sanneh. Jon Caramanica had a similar take on what Morris was up to: "Think of all the ways dissenters have tried to upend country in recent years: by sneaking in rhythmic vocal tics learned from rappers, by thinning out the genre's musical baggage, by pledging inclusive values. Ms. Morris, an astute synthesizer, has studied and perfected them all."

Hunt was a southern college quarterback-turned-country brooder, staking out a position between sensitivity and swagger. After a youth spent performing on the local circuit in her native Texas, Morris was on track to write for other artists on Music Row until it became clear that she was the one best equipped to convey the real-talking perspectives in her songs. In 2013, Hunt tested the waters with an initially free acoustic mixtape — his version of rap's preferred buzz-building tool — before releasing a 2014 album that applied a conversational flow reminiscent of Drake to small-town settings and downtempo country-pop production. Morris self-released an EP in the summer of 2015 whose surprise success on Spotify landed her on a major label that fall and led to a full-length debut the following year that was sleekly rhythmic, casually irreverent and slyly sensual. She proved she could belt at the top of her range, like many a country-pop diva before her, but spent more time luxuriating in her lower register, sauntering into hooks with her sultry attack and deftly delivering eye-rolling inflections.

Hunt's music had pensiveness and finesse and felt a little ahead of the country curve. His vocal style shared little with the boxier rapping other country artists had tried, so much so that Brad Paisley made Hunt's delivery a punchline during a CMA Awards monologue. (That was also the year that Chris Stapleton — a grizzled, southern soul belter who'd labored beneath the radar for years and earned Nashville's goodwill in the process — gave a breakthrough performance alongside his wife Morgane and buddy Justin Timberlake.) Seemingly every discussion of Hunt's music took up the question of whether it could legitimately be called country. Even so, what he was doing felt like a descendant of the hick-hop already populating radio playlists, and his songs quickly spread from streaming sites to airplay.

Maren Morris performs in Las Vegas in April 2016, just before the release of her debut album, Hero. Bryan Steffy/Getty Images for ACM hide caption

toggle caption
Bryan Steffy/Getty Images for ACM

Maren Morris performs in Las Vegas in April 2016, just before the release of her debut album, Hero.

Bryan Steffy/Getty Images for ACM

The format was slower to acknowledge Morris' cultural and stylistic impact . Radio's decision-makers claimed that their market research proved playing women was a liability to the format, a commercial justification that nonetheless had substantial social impact, marginalizing female voices and viewpoints. Morris wasn't terribly interested in adopting an attitude that radio would consider sufficiently agreeable for a woman; she was slightly brash and sexually frank, and her initial breakthrough brought little airplay.

Last year, the country scene didn't generate any galvanizing new trend-setters. (Affable everyman Luke Combs easily stood out, but his strength was harmonizing country's red-blooded recent past with its beat-propelled present.) Instead, 2017 was the year that the pop-conversant mindsets informing Hunt and Morris' music finally moved the center of gravity in the country mainstream, and other artists made their own use of the space they helped clear. "The perception has changed," notes McAnally, who's worked closely with Musgraves and Hunt and co-written with Morris. "People in the immediate industry aren't seeming as offended by people blatantly using the sounds that are considered pop." Even though Stapleton was something of a one-man bulwark against glossy, beat-driven production — his sinewy, classic sound selling millions of albums to adult fans — his rule-breaking success was also frequently invoked as a sign that things were changing.

YouTube

Hunt mostly laid low in 2017 aside from releasing a pair of songs. "Body Like a Back Road," a breezy, braggy number with slinky organ and guitar licks over a bass-and-handclaps groove, was the one that received all the promotion. It became not just the song of summer, but spring and fall too with its record-setting, 34-week stay atop Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart, fueled to a great degree by streams and downloads. Morris made a long, slow, 10-month climb to her first solo No. 1 with "I Could Use a Love Song," reaching the pinnacle a couple of weeks into 2018. She was also called upon to lend her voice to a cross-genre collaboration with the DJ Zedd and a euphoric, dance-pop-influenced hit that signaled the stylistic repositioning of one of country's ascendant superstars, Thomas Rhett.

An agile centrist eager to please fans and industry gatekeepers alike, Rhett displayed an excellent instinct for the pace of evolution in the format. He'd begun applying lessons learned from the suave showmanship of Bruno Mars and Justin Timberlake on his 2015 album, finding his greatest success as a crooning romantic, but now felt even freer to try out any pop flavor that captured his attention. He covered an impressive amount of territory in 14 tracks, from a hard-twanging, line dance-friendly number featuring his country songwriter dad to dejected, conversational balladry, surging, EDM-style synths, quiet storm seduction and mellowed-out dancehall grooves, some of his production choices aligning closely with the aesthetics taking center stage in the pop world.

Rhett made clear that his unfettered stylistic sampling didn't undermine his core identity as a country artist, which was his way of acknowledging country-pop's competing priorities. "I think my voice is the glue," he told Jon Freeman, "and I think just being so involved in the production process and just having my identity all over this record is what makes it cohesive."

Kelsea Ballerini was another congenially striving young star with a handful of hits under her belt who made use of country's coziness with current pop last year. The arena-headlining duo Florida Georgia Line did the same, teaming up with a newbie country hit-maker, guesting on EDM pop and trop-house singles and pulling off a reverse crossover move with pop singer Bebe Rexha. Some artists seized the opening to roll out more dramatic reinventions. Distancing herself from her previous rep as an earnest teenage belter, Danielle Bradbery insisted on shaping last year's album around sensibilities that she could claim as her own, resulting in wintry, programming-reliant production and a sulkier style of singing .

RaeLynn had spent her first several years in Nashville searching for middle ground between her inclinations and the whims of country radio. On some of her early releases, it felt almost as though she was trying to hold the rhythmic friskiness of her delivery in check. But in Hunt and Morris's wakes, she found herself between record labels and newly emboldened. Working with a vocal coach, RaeLynn shed the notion that she needed to distinguish between the "country side of [her] voice," with its deliberate exaggeration of her peppery Texas twang, and her more relaxed pop mode. She hunkered down with her collaborators to make her debut album, an appealing portrait of young womanhood's vacillation between audacity and insecurity that was framed with precise picking, brittle beats and whooshing synths.

Says RaeLynn, "I felt with my other records, 'This has to sound like this.' And instead of stressing about where it should fit in, we just made the record we loved and what we thought sounded incredible and what I wanted to hear over and over again."

McAnally was put in charge of a major label imprint last year (along with Musgraves' manager Jason Owen), and one of his first moves was to sign Walker Hayes, who'd gotten zero traction earlier in the decade with an amiable, Barenaked Ladies-ish, pop-rock angle on country. Cribbing a move from the Sam Hunt playbook, McAnally had helped lay the groundwork for Hayes's rebranding as a breezily wisecracking, beatboxing, sung-spoken storyteller by releasing a pair of minimalistic mixtapes, cheekily dubbed 8-tracks, through his publishing company in 2016. For the proper album that followed, they made only minor tweaks to the formula: a live rhythm section here, a whimsical piano countermelody there. It would've been hard to imagine Hayes's DIY-style quirkiness and mischievous, Macklemore-ish delivery adding up to a top 10 country album several years back.

"Now that I know what's possible, if I meet an artist that somebody else thinks just does not fit, that makes me really drawn to 'em," McAnally explains. "That was the Walker Hayes story. The more I heard people say, 'This will never work on country,' that made me want to work with him more. And [I] wanted to push him more and say, 'What would you do if you had no limitations?'"

During a recent event at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum honoring the accomplishments of Cindy Mabe, the president of UMG Nashville, the label exec spoke of how much more sustainable and satisfying it is working with artists who have distinct musical identities, personas and vantage points, who have potential to be what she called "disrupters" of the format's status quo, rather than soundalikes. That wasn't just business speak. There's an element of self-awareness to country's current evolution, which is not to imply that there's any sort of coordinated, industry-wide effort to counterbalance the excesses of the bro country years. Individuals involved in making or promoting the music have ideas about where they'd like to see the genre go, what elements they want to add to the mix, what the multi-generational audience will identify with. That's a big reason why a mover-and-shaker like McAnally takes on such a wide array of projects (including those on the traditional side, like Midland's meticulously crafted Urban Cowboy update). It's a way of trying to make room.

YouTube

When Hayes took up familiar country themes, like a marriage ruined by drinking, he did so from a fresh, acutely diaristic angle, describing in detail what it's like to stew in self-loathing, unable to toss out the last beer haunting him in the fridge. Likewise, the title track of Rhett's album Life Changes was a droll summation of his journey from aimless college kid to country headliner whose fans follow his wife on Instagram. Both songs were in step with "Drinkin' Too Much," the sleeper that Hunt quietly released ahead of "Body Like a Back Road." "Drinkin'" was meant to feel like it was ripped straight from the pages of his life. Over fingerpicked acoustic guitar, Hunt bared his guilt-ridden soul to an ex — whom he identified by name — pleading, "I know you want your privacy, and you've got nothing to say to me/But I wish you'd let me pay off your student loans with these songs you gave to me." People compared it to "Marvin's Room," a likeness Hunt surely recognized himself, having frequently including the Drake song in his live sets. "Drinkin'" may not have been a smash, but it may be an indication of where country-pop is headed from here.

In the past, country artists weren't expected to sing their autobiographies in any literal sense. But in songs like these, and those by a small but growing number of compelling, post-Musgraves arrivals like Kassi Ashton and Jillian Jacqueline, the implication is that they're conveying the specificity of their experiences and asserting their individuality. That's happening on a musical level too, with those importing the outsider postures of pop-punk and emo (see: Kalie Shorr, Muscadine Bloodline, Tucker Beathard) and preparing to put out albums that flaunt their musical eccentricities, be it Dierks Bentley's gestures toward mountain mysticism or the Brothers Osborne's funky, wild-eyed improvisation. Stapleton's impact can certainly be seen in the momentum building behind brawny, band-based music-making.

Pop music has become increasingly withdrawn of late, alienated in its skepticism and chilly textures. A hermetic aesthetic would never fly in country, where there's a premium placed on conveying widely shared sentiments and just generally being accessible. But artists sprinkled across the country landscape, from the fringes to dead center, are exploring the potential of playing up the particular. And Musgraves is once again clearing and claiming space for her music, this time just a few steps beyond where some of the most interesting country-pop action is.

On Golden Hour, she hasn't entirely abandoned the tools with which she built her persona, the understated sarcasm, subtle use of psychedelic western imagery or artfully idiosyncratic references to kitsch. But none of that is the main event. Musgraves' new priorities are pensive reflection, confessional clarity and delicate sentimentality in the key of classic country and pop. And her current fascination? What comes of outgrowing the appeal of blissfully detached, carefully curated images and deciding to explore the emotional landscape beneath them.

YouTube

There's an airy lift to the album's melodies and a sparkling sophistication to its textures, all gentle strumming, crystalline steel guitar, precise, plucked banjo and gauzy synths. The overall effect brings to mind everything from Glen Campbell to Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters, Beck's moony introspection on the album Sea Change and the adult folk-pop of Mindy Smith.

That's no accident. Musgraves co-produced the album with a new pair of collaborators, Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian, with whom she also co-wrote just over half of its 13 tracks. Though Tashian and Fitchuk have each assembled quite a list of mainstream country credits in recent years, they first found their footing working with the quietly refined voices that populated the Nashville songwriting scene, like Smith, Sarah Siskind, Griffin House and Tashian's own soft rock band The Silver Seas. Now Musgraves's latest work is uniting contemporary perspectives, intimate expression and awareness of writerly lineage in a way that nobody in her space quite has before.