by Phoebe D. Renje
In 2020, Loretta Lynn, perhaps one of country music’s greatest artists, sat down with fellow musician Martina McBride on her podcast, Vocal Point. Lynn commented on the poor state of country music today, and I wholeheartedly agree. Country music as a genre has lost its way. The industry has recentered its songs to pop and hip-hop in exchange for chart-toppers and awards. When you listen to these songs, it’s a mishmash of snappy beats and lyrics that sound more pop than country, and audiences love it. Soon, country music will no longer exist or may not be as unique as it once was.
There’s a repeated formula with each new country music star: They write a song about living in Appalachia and finding love, add a generic beat, and within a few months, they’re topping the Billboard 100, singing at the Grand Ole Opry and racking in awards. Pop and country have always been somewhat entwined; many country stars from past decades were considered pop. Dolly Parton switched to pop by signing with Monument Records in 1977. Her song, “Here You Come Again,” became her first pop hit. Now, a half-century into her career, she still makes pop music with her signature Tennessee flair. Shania Twain is another prime example of genre-switching; she began her career in country music and transitioned to pop in the 90s. The most recent transition from country music to pop is Taylor Swift; her first four albums were marketed as country, but she rebranded her music with 1989 (2014) and has since been known as a pop artist. Parton, Twain, and Swift are successful examples of genre-switching, but the argument remains. There’s nothing inherently wrong with switching genres, but country singers’ Southern drawl is the only way to distinguish pop from country now.
In the few songs with country lyrics and instrumentals, musicians sing about blue jeans, women, beer, hunting, fishing, America, and Christianity. This newer form of country, dubbed “bro-country,” dominates the charts. These tracks include snappy, trap-like beats and some guitar to give it a “country” music vibe. Newer country artists, like Florida Georgia Line, have collaborated with pop artists, catering to pop audiences. Recently, country songs have also catered to rap and hip-hop fans. “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X could be considered hip-hop rather than country because the trappy beat and lyrical flow are rap, but the lyrical content lies closer to a country song.
Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, and Johnny Cash are all considered some of the greatest country singers ever. Many modern artists cite them as their chief inspirations, although, judging by the nature of the songs, it seems unlikely. Some contemporary artists, such as Luke Combs, Miranda Lambert, Chris Stapleton, and even Carrie Underwood, still uphold the “traditional” country music. They’ve got the message and the Southern voice as all country artists do, but there’s soul, there’s the emotion of country music; most of all, they have instrumentals telling you, “Hey, this is a country song.” Regardless, they still relish in fame and fortune like any pop-country artist.
Country music is more than tailgating, dirt roads, and living in the South. It’s a deep sense of pride in being an American. It tells stories of love, peril, family, religion, and community. You feel a connection to these artists: the resilience of Dolly Parton in “9 to 5,” the hurt in George Jones while he croons “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” and the pride in John Denver singing “Country Roads, Take Me Home.” Country music is a story so short yet complex that it transports you to the Wild West or the Appalachians for three minutes. Artists are eager to tell these stories with the right chords, but the industry must listen.
*Cover Photo by Chris Hollo, courtesy of Schmidt Relations.