By Olivia Ladd
Upon its release in March, Kacey Musgraves’ “High Horse,” characterized by Donna Summer-esque hums, waning guitar riffs, stereophonic bass and attitudinal lyrics, collected an impressive range of reactions. Hardline country purists had a lot to say about Musgraves’ decision to include a glistening, disco-influenced track on her latest LP Golden Hour, while others reacted to the song with something approaching elation. This isn’t the first time Musgraves has strained against the confines of genre and — while it may sound like a new collision of styles to younger ears — it’s not the first time country has twirled its way into the disco.
Many parallels could be drawn from country to disco — rhinestones on Nudie suits and glittery gold jumpsuits, cowboy boots and platform dancing shoes — the expression of an untold cultural history. The disco crossover is part of longstanding tradition within country music, with origins tracing back to high-profile artists on both sides.
Donna Summer moved to Music City in 1995, having been a part of the country music circle for years. The disco queen herself penned “Starting Over Again,” in the early ’80s originally performed by Dolly Parton and later by Reba McEntire and Steve Wariner. Emmylou Harris recorded Summer’s track “On the Radio,” greatly departing from her bluegrass sound. Summer’s influence proved too widespread to be contained. While she sometimes slipped into the rock world, Summer found a fit in country with strong, broad-range female voices that could belt her audacious songs.
Kacey Musgraves told Beats1 DJ Zane Lowe during the “High Horse” premiere that she was inspired by The Bee Gees, and that isn’t surprising considering the band’s country history. Rogers’ “Buried Treasure” from 1978 shared songwriting credits with the famous brothers Gibb. Even Conway Twitty joined the genre-blurring legacy with “Rest your Love On Me,” written by Barry Gibb. Gibb’s role within country placed him on the Grand Ole Opry stage in his later career. One of the best-selling duets of all time and now a modern karaoke staple, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s “Islands in the Stream,” released 1983, was written by The Bee Gees. It hit number one on the Billboard Top 100, appealing far beyond the realm of country music.
America was hooked on the sound. It was no longer reserved for just country fans or disco dancers hidden in the corners of night clubs.
Disco country boomed in the early 1980s, just after disco’s mainstream peak — and subsequent crash. Interestingly enough, July 12, 1979, marked Disco Demolition Night, contemporary rock’s outcry against the new movement. Organized by radio programmers, thousands gathered to burn disco records. The reactionary response was largely rooted in homophobia and racism, as many prominent cultural critics of the time pointed out, because the genre famously evolved from LGBT, Latin and black dance clubs in larger, economically distraught cities. Though the disco phenomenon fell out of the limelight in mainstream American culture after this, country stars seemed to latch onto the trend and not only revive — but reinvent it.
Throughout the next two decades, country artists continued flirting the sound of disco with country music. Reba debuted her cover of the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” in 1995, securing her first dance hit on the charts.
Artists and producers were setting the stage for this crossover long before its tangible impact. Soul music crept into country production and songwriting in the decades leading up to the 1980s.
Ronnie Milsap is widely known for his crossover success, but before ever dabbling in country he appeared on the R&B charts with “Never Had It So Good.” During the 1960s, he worked as a session player for famed soul musicians Ray Charles and James Brown and lived in Memphis for a short time. In 1979 he recorded what may be the most pertinent example of disco country: “Get It Up” from his record Images. The record was disco-tinged throughout, but this sparkling B-side finale incorporated tropes of the genre such as the mention of 4–4 time, a funk-driven bass line and the raspily whispered “get it on, white boy,” at the end of the second chorus.
This early work by Milsap echoes Glen Campbell’s 1970s releases, which combined country with California pop, picking up pieces of disco’s sonic qualities along the way. In a similar canon, Waylon Jennings found continual relevance by synthesizing popular sounds into his work. His live performances throughout the 1970s scattered in some drawn-out versions of his songs with disco harmonies and guitar style.
These artists served as a precedent for country’s full swing into disco by laying groundwork for heavier rhythmic influences.
Their R&B-laced hits are no different from today’s country artists who take notes from dance and electronic music. Genre crossover expands audiences, carving out a space for a younger, more diverse set of listeners and paving a way for experimentation that operates in respect to traditionalism.
Musgraves’ left-of-center approach continues that tradition. Brett Eldredge, Thomas Rhett and Keith Urban jumped on the disco train in the past decade. In a bold divergence from classic sound, Shooter Jennings made Countach for Giorgio, a tribute to the Father of Disco done in honky-tonk fusion style and pulling guest artists from all corners of pop culture (a mix including Brandi Carlile and Marilyn Manson).
Artists at the top of country charts have always had a hand in the pop market. It can be easy for listeners to categorize music by genre or assume it operates within a vacuum — but these cultural exchanges are constantly happening in music. Country artists take cues from what’s bubbling in the underground while eyeing what sounds are topping rock and pop radio. Each artist brings their own background and influences to the table, leaving room for genre lines to converge.
Musgraves’ pairing of sleek synth with banjo licks may have turned heads initially, but no more than its predecessors that landmarked the 1980s shuffle on both country and dance charts. “High Horse” fits into a long line of disco country tradition that’s classic in the right way.
Olivia Ladd is a writer, photographer and audio producer in Nashville, Tennessee. You can find her work and more at OliviaLadd.com