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Country music has gone through some major stylistic sea changes over the years. From the singing cowboys of the 1930s to the honky tonk Nashville sound, to the hip-hop and Latin-infused electronic sound of today, no musical movement can stay the same forever in the wake of so much cultural change around it. Johnny Cash (considered by many now to be a country pioneer) was once ridiculed for his style, which later became iconic and influential.
And country music is poised for another change right about now. Radio has been dominated by “bro country” (pop-leaning, male-focused party music) for many years, and this awesome video by YouTuber Grady Smith exposes how snaps or claps on beats 2 and 4 have begun to infect every country song like a virus. Not that these styles are inherently bad at all, but when things get too homogenous and formulaic, they need to get shaken up every once in a while.
A few artists are looking to break up that homogeneity these days, and we’d like to highlight some of them.
If you’ve been sleeping on Kacey Musgraves, it’s time to stop hitting the snooze button and wake up. Her current album, Golden Hour, is one of the best I’ve heard in a long time. Largely ignored by mainstream country radio, she nevertheless swept the Grammy Awards this year. Unlike many current artists, she follows in the footsteps of old-school country, citing artists like Marty Robbins, Bobby Gentry, Charley Pride, Loretta Lynn, and Jim Croce among her influences.
But don’t be mistaken: She’s not just a copy of what has come before. Musgraves’ music definitely has a pop flavor. She also bucks cultural standards in the otherwise tradition-oriented genre, with lyrics tackling topics such as marijuana use, church culture, and even LGBT acceptance. Standouts on Golden Hour include “Rainbow” and “Space Cowboy,” although the whole album is fantastic.
If you haven’t heard of Blanco Brown yet, don’t worry — you will. Rather than a flash in the pan, “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X is a sign of things to come for the genre. Yet, while comparisons will no doubt be drawn by others, Blanco has his own style.
Consider, if you will, rap with steel guitars and lyrics about what is essentially a barn dance. That’s the premise for Blanco’s new song (and dance) “The Git Up” — and what’s more, it is really, really good. #thegitupchallenge is already becoming the major dance move of the summer. So I guess the only question is, Will country radio embrace the change with open arms or give it the cold shoulder?
When you think of country music, you don’t necessarily think of piano-based singer songwriters. Ingrid Andress is looking to change that perception. While the sound itself is hardly typical of country, what cuts through most is her earnest and heartfelt lyrics. Songs like “More Hearts Than Mine” — about introducing a boyfriend to one’s family — provides a fresh, contemporary take on relationships not heard too often, but is still firmly mythologized within the right family values themes held in high regard by mainstream country artists.
Another standout song is “Ladylike,” a down-to-Earth view on what it is to be a woman, with some incredibly sharp images and beautiful lyrical rhymes. Much of her music feels just as at home on the pop stations as on country radio, but that’s part of pushing the boundaries of the genre. Andress is definitely forging her own unique path, and it will be interesting to watch her career unfold.
When you think of country music, the UK probably doesn’t spring to mind as fast as, say, Nashville, but English sister duo Ward Thomas definitely has a bit of that heartland in them! While they’ve already achieved some success in their home country (performing on the BBC, reaching #1 on the U.K. Albums chart, and having their album go silver) they haven’t quite broken through stateside yet.
I’m not sure if that’s because we’re stubborn or because their PR people haven’t been able to crack the code, but we shouldn’t bet against them. The band was surprised by country star Cam at a CMA Songwriters Series event recently with an award recognizing their achievements in the music industry. Their lyrics are young, fresh, and tread new ground – songs like “Lie Like Me,” which is about the way we portray ourselves on social media, is instantly relatable in the digital age. And their new single “No Filter” is a call to abandon our preconceived notions and just be direct and honest with one another. With conversational lyrics, great pop phrasing, and a tastefully countrified sound, they are definitely poised for a breakthrough.
If high octane guitar playing is your thing, you’re going to want to check out Molly Tuttle. She has won multiple awards for her playing alone including Instrumentalist of the Year at the 2018 Americana Music Honors and Awards. Tuttle is also breaking the glass ceilings: She won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitar Player of the Year Award — the first female artist in the organization’s entire history to do so.
Ranging from tender, heartfelt ballads to plucky rambling tunes like “Take the Journey,” her music is earthy and rustic, with clear influences in bluegrass, blues, and Americana. In many ways, she represents a refreshing return to country musical roots with an ethereal and modern voice to back it up. Her latest album, When You’re Ready, was released this past April on Compass Records.
Fresh new talent is constantly bubbling up every day — talent that blends the old “if they ain’t broke, don’t fix ’em” traditions with new innovative sonic stylings. Whatever form the future of this great genre takes, it will certainly be interesting to watch. With these artists and others like them, the future of country music is undoubtedly in good hands.
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