Tailgates, tomatos, and and a move toward a betrayal of country’s roots. Thus went the decade of the genre from 2010–2019. But born out of bro-country and the frustration of the direction of the genre came a vibrant and revitalized independent scene centered in three locations- Texas, Kentucky, and Music Row itself in Nashville. Yet country music would first have to be brought to the brink of disaster through a variety of factors- some of which will never completely vanish.
The 2010s will be remembered as a transformative decade in the history of country music- no different than the 1970s with the Outlaw Movement or the 1990s with the neo-traditional movement and Garth and Shania and booming sales. It’s been a decade that’s seen the decline (and renaissance) of several legends on the radio and off, birth of new superstars, and emergence of new ways to hit it big. Artists have been more willing to speak their minds and embrace new risks- some in a positive manner, some that have left fans and critics shaking their heads. After a relatively tame start to the century from 2000–2009, the past ten years have ignited a productive and fiery debate over what is and isn’t country music.
This piece is meant to explore the artists and debates that spoke the loudest over the past decade. I want a summation of the 2010s- something that brings everything together in one definitive synthesis. No matter what conclusions one may come to, one thing can always be certain. The circle will never be broken.
When Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line stepped into a studio in December 2011 to record “Cruise,” I doubt the two had any idea they were about to record one of the biggest (and most divisive) country songs of all-time. Produced by Joey Moi, fittingly a man best known for his work with Nickelback, and released in August 2012, “Cruise” would break records on the charts and enjoy another run when a remix with Nelly hit radio a year later.
Filled with shallow yet catchy lines like, “Baby, you a song you make me wanna roll my windows down and cruise” and references to summers that never end, tailgates, and long, tan legs, “Cruise” would become a landmark song in the bro-country era and influence a half-decade’s worth of songwriting and radio play. And yet for all their faults, for which there are several, it can never be argued that Florida Georgia Line are being anything but themselves. Their music found a market and an audience at the perfect time. But we must go back a couple years to discover when the seeds were first being sown.
As the first decade of the 2000s came to an end, the country music world was arguably even more scattered and confused than when the decade had begun with the retirement of Garth. The decade had experienced “soccer mom” country, with syrupy production from artists like Rascal Flatts, Lonestar, Carrie Underwood, and Sugarland. The biggest stars like Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, and Keith Urban weren’t really taking risks. And the music was family-values centric with not a lot of room left for time off for bad behavior. Young artists like Eric Church, Dierks Bentley, Big and Rich, and Sara Evans broke in and tried to break some rules, but overall the decade was a quiet one.
But as the new decade rolled around, there was one artist who seemingly wanted to combine the rural values exhibited by Jason Michael Carroll’s “Where I Come From” and the rock oriented qualities of Big and Rich’s “Save A Horse (Ride a Cowboy).” Jason Aldean. Aldean had already released “Hicktown” and “Big Green Tractor” when he went into the studio to record My Kinda Party, the album that would launch Aldean to superstardom. Filled with thumping-chest anthems about his roots and parties like “Tattoos on This Town,” “Dirt Road Anthem,” and the Brantley Gilbert-penned title track, Aldean’s 2010 album set the standard for what bro-country would become. Aldean would also be outspoken in defense of his brand of country music, basically flipping the bird to critics who weren’t happy with the direction he and his buddies were taking the genre. And for Aldean himself, the defiance and blinders paid off with smash singles like “Night Train,” “Tonight Looks Good On You,” “Lights Come On,” and “A Little More Summertime.” Many of the songs spoke to the same themes for a decade and much of the production was the same. Yet there was a firm, devoted audience prepared for Aldean to continue releasing songs of similar subject matter. For whatever criticisms one may have of Aldean, he certainly knows his audience.
And while Jason Aldean (“Burnin’ It Down” and “1994” aside) would remain firmly rooted in his brand of country rock despite all his bluster, it was another guy from Georgia who would broaden his sound even further and toss the definitive matches on the fire in the fight for country music’s soul.
Listen to “All My Friends Say” and “Country Man” with what you know now about Luke Bryan. In a way it was inevitable that he was bound to become a star in 2010s. He barely says anything with his music. He’s relied on star power and name recognition for years. Even at his most fun, he can be incredibly annoying with his dancing and discography that includes songs like “That’s My Kind of Night” that bear no resemblance to the genre. And yet he has charisma- charisma that took him from a simple Georgia kid to the biggest star in country music.
In the latter part of the first decade of the 2000s and the early part of this decade, Luke Bryan was just another male country star that looked good on the cover of a magazine. His music was harmless, and his aw-shucks, affable personality proved to be a successful, albeit not superstar-level draw. That all would change with the release of Tailgates & Tanlines in August 2011. The lead single, “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” would come to kick-start and define the bro-country era. The hip-hop style of the writing and the heavy bass beat immediately signaled that Luke Bryan’s “Country Man” days were behind him. Indeed, Bryan followed up with “I Don’t Want This Night to End” and “Drunk On You,” two massive hits that could be heard everywhere and anywhere. Luke Bryan would go on to release Crash My Party in August 2013, which included “That’s My Kinda Night” and “Play It Again,” and Kill the Lights in August 2015 containing “Kick the Dust Up,” “Strip It Down,” and “Move.” All of the songs mentioned here contain at least one tenant of bro-country. Plenty of drinks, tailgates, year-round summertime, a girl riding shotgun, and a general feeling of creepiness from the narrator. And there’s the rub- the presentation and production. A love song with references to sliding on over to the middle seat of a pick-up truck or taking a ride through farmland can be totally harmless and become a classic if produced in a more traditional way. Think “Fishin’ In the Dark,” “Dixieland Delight,” or even some of the material released during the bro-country era- George Strait’s “I Got a Car” or Randy Houser’s “Runnin’ Outta Moonlight.” Yet what much of bro-country did was present rural themes over R&B styled production. Those two elements just don’t mix. It comes across as sleazy and creepy (“Move” or “Smooth”). And therein lies where much of the backlash could be found. And it was this backlash that spawned plenty of other debates.
2013 will be looked back upon as a seminal year in the underground history of country music. Three massive albums were released that year, with each having their own particular effect on the genre. The biggest, for what it allowed the artist to do with his own career, was Sturgill Simpson’s High Top Mountain. With driving backbeats and familiar themes about rambling and lost love, Sturgill (rightly, despite what he may say) earned comparisons to Waylon and Merle. But it was that voice- my, oh my, that voice- that really allowed Sturgill to make his mark. A throaty growl that was born from the mountains of Kentucky and matured in the US Navy. Emotion in each syllable. But Sturgill would never again reach the heights of High Top Mountain. With each subsequent release, he tried to further and further crawl away from the album that allowed him to be in his position in the first place. Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is widely regarded as Surgill’s magnum opus, and it really is a great album. But it wasn’t as complete as High Top Mountain and tried too hard to be edgy with certain moments- a problem that has plagued Sturgill ever since.
The second album was crafted by a young woman from Golden, Texas. Kacey Mugraves used clever lyrics, dry humor, and just a touch of sarcasm to paint a less rosy picture of small town America than her bro-country stars. Same Trailer Different Park received universal acclaim and won a Grammy for Best Country Album. Like Sturgill, Kacey would also broaden her sound on future albums but never completely severed ties with the country music community. Her newest release, Golden Hour, is solid country pop with writing a little more upbeat and happy than her other material. Yet Same Trailer Different Park would influence a new generation of young women songwriters, linking fans of Taylor Swift and later Maren Morris.
From the Americana world came a man who had walked through the hell of addiction and made it out on the other side- Jason Isbell. Isbell, a former member of modern Southern Rock icons and hard touring, hard partying Drive-By Truckers, had already provided the genre with solid solo records and standout songs (“Alabama Pines,” perhaps his greatest contribution) before entering rehab. And once he got sober, Isbell took his songwriting to an even higher level. Southeastern was released on June 11, 2013, ironically on the same day Sturgill released High Top Mountain. The album was a game changer. Southeastern was well-received by traditional country fans, urban hipsters, and everyone else in between. Unlike Sturgill and Kacey, Isbell would do little to alter his sound in the coming years, apart from adding a little more energy and electric guitar to 2017’s The Nasvhille Sound.
Despite the diverse trio of albums released in 2013, the battles being waged in country music were not even close to being defined. Lines were still blurred and the arguments from those unhappy with mainstream country’s direction were still yet to be fully taken seriously. The coming years would cause an explosion in the debate, and here we allow the narrative to follow the direction of two very different artists. One a hard-working songwriter from Kentucky who aimed to record and release a mature album for serious people. The other a son of a b-list country singer from, guess where…Georgia.
As the bro-country (a term first used by Jody Rosen of New York magazine) era began to finally wear out its welcome, artists of all pedigrees were speaking out. Gary Allan, Alan Jackson, Zac Brown, Ray Price, and Tom Petty all had something biting to say about the direction of the genre. Brad Paisley sampled himself in “4WP” off his Moonshine in the Trunk album, a clear parody of country radio at the time. And newcomers Maddie & Tae released “Girl in a Country Song” in 2014 which mocked plenty of bro-country songs on the radio including the worst offenders like “Aw Naw,” “Redneck Crazy,” “Dirt Road Anthem,” and “Boys ‘Round Here.” Of course, Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line seemed unable to laugh and responded by saying, “ All I’m gonna say about that is, I don’t know one girl who doesn’t want to be a girl in a country song. That’s all I’m gonna say to you. That’s it.”
Despite the defensiveness of artists like Florida Georgia Line, the bro-country era was dying. But even with the hard work of Sturgill, Kacey, Isbell, and many others, the battles simply moved to different territory. And Thomas Rhett became the benificiary. Rhett had released a couple of bro-country anthems himself including “It Goes Like This,” “Get Me Some of That,” and “Make Me Wanna.” But those songs never really felt authentic to him. The son of Rhett Akins, a man responsible for several other bro-country hits, Thomas Rhett decided to pursue a pop, modern Motown persona and tried to blend it with country music. He released Tangled Up in September 2015 which included straight pop material like “T-Shirt” and “Crash and Burn” and the massive hit “Die a Happy Man.” Rhett can craft a decent hook. The problem remains that his music isn’t remotely country and bears no resemblance to the genre’s past. He continued on his path by releasing Life Changes in 2017 and Center Point Road in 2019, and Rhett quickly became one of the biggest stars in country music despite a lack of charisma. Rhett and his wife (admittedly a fun couple in country music culture) broadcasted adoptions and family vacations on social media. Unlike stars of the past, Rhett was more willing to open up and invite fans in rather than letting the music speak for itself. A strategy one may find problems with? Of course. But it’s been working for him. And despite my own problems with his music, I can’t doubt Rhett is doing what he believes is authentic to himself.
Authenticity. There’s a band we’ll get to later that draws the debate over that word to a flash-point. But for now, think about what it means to be authentic. And then think about the career of Chris Stapleton. Stapleton spent the first fifteen years of the century working his way through the Nashville game, writing songs as diverse as Kenny Chesney’s “Never Wanted Nothing More,” Luke Bryan’s “Drink a Beer,” and ironically enough, Thomas Rhett’s “Crash and Burn.” Stapleton had a plan. He needed the income from writing those smash hits in order to record and release a type of album that he’d been wanting to make his whole life. After fifteen years, that album came to fruition. Traveller. A watershed moment in the country music world of the 2010s. Stapleton specifically set out to make a “pretty grown-up album.” And he succeeded with plaudits and accolades beyond what any country music fan or pundit would have imagined. Stapleton’s performance with Justin Timberlake at the 2015 CMA Awards became a true *moment* in the annals of country music, and Traveller continued to blow up, eventually being certified triple platinum. The lone negative to Stapleton’s succeess became the continued nominations of Stapleton’s old material for awards, almost as if both the CMA and ACM were holding Stapleton’s name up and saying, “See! We care about all kinds of country music!” in the face of mounting criticism.
The success of artists like Sturgill, Kacey, and Isbell and later on Chris Stapleton bolstered and influenced mainstream Nashville in attitude if not actual genuine change. Yet two of the biggest renegades in that crazy town came from directly inside the industry and were intent on doing it their own way in the 2010s. Unlike Sturgill and Isbell, Eric Church and Kip Moore wanted to be associated with country music. But like Waylon and Willie, Church and Kip saw the necessity of changing mainstream country for the better from inside the game. Church is now a superstar, selling out arenas in back-to-back nights and recording music with the same integrity he first exhibited on Sinners Like Me. The sound has changed; the attitude has not. Kip, on the other hand, has not reached superstardom. He is, however, genuinely content with where he’s at in his career. He’s got his sound, earned the freedom to do what he wants, and cultivated a loyal, dedicated fanbase in the same manner as Eric Church.
After the success of 2011’s Chief, Eric Church was unsettled. Chief was a landmark album in the young renegade’s career. He earned the right to record the album and had the scars to prove it- getting kicked off a Rascal Flatts’ tour for playing too loud and too long, recording songs like “Two Pink Lines” and “Lightning” about topics that other artists wouldn’t dream of, and refusing to conform to the gatekeepers of Music Row. Chief was one of the landmark albums of the 2010s, giving the genre classics like “Springsteen,” deep cuts for the fans like “Jack Daniels” and “Over When It’s Over,” and live standards like “Drink In My Hand” and “I’m Gettin’ Stoned.” But after winning Album of the Year at both the CMA and ACM Awards, Church had a tough decision to make about the direction of his career. He could continue to write and record material like the music found on Chief or he could take his sound to a new level and solidify his ravenous and fiercely loyal fanbase. As it turned out, the decision wasn’t all that hard. The result was The Outsiders, an album that made every corner of the industry uncomfortable- from Music Row to purists to casual listeners of country radio. Everyone except the fans. If there was anyone who questioned what he was doing, the rest of the decade put the doubts to rest. The Outsiders allowed Church to eventually release Mr. Misunderstood and Desperate Man. It allowed him to head out on the “Holdin’ My Own Tour” and “Double Down Tour.” And it allowed him to become the artist of the decade in the eyes, including those of the author of this piece, of the 2010s. Eric Church, once this generation of music has one day gone through a more extensive evaluation, will see his name among the greats of the genre and a true outlaw. He may not receive the due plaudits today, but his legacy is already solidified.
Kip Moore has also solidifed his legacy, albeit through different means. There was a point, perhaps after the success of “Somethin’ ‘Bout a Truck” or “Hey Pretty Girl,” that Kip was ready to take the next step. But something always seemed to be in the way. His record label forced him to shelve a whole album. He wasn’t willing to compromise his sound for radio success. He didn’t acquiesce to fawning radio and media profiles. Maybe some of it was his own doing. After touring behind 2015’s Wild Ones, for instance, Kip went surfing in Costa Rica and backpacking in Iceland. Wild Ones proved to be a moody, beat-driven ride through the questions and choices that every young man faces. It was a thematic record, focused on letting the listener move with the lyrics. The follow-up, Slowheart released in 2017, combined the writing of Kip’s debut Up All Night and the production of Wild Ones. More importantly, the back-to-back release of Wild Ones and Slowheart gave Kip the exact audience he was looking for. Blue-collar but not necessarily redneck. Intellectual but not snobbish. It’s the intense contradictions that form the foundation of Kip, his music, and his fanbase. Music is universal, but Kip Moore and Eric Church proved during the 2010s that no matter the decade, artists will always exist who appeal to a specific, certain type of music listener.
If Kip Moore and Eric Church require a dedicated, open-to-change fanbase, Jon Pardi, Midland, and most importantly Luke Combs, have begun a neo-traditional revival right at the end of the 2010s that more widely appeals to a country fanbase from all backgrounds. The neo-traditional revival found its base and audience quickly, and it has only continued to grow. Jon Pardi, after debuting Write You a Song in 2014, doubled down on his Bakersfield and Alan Jackson-inspired sound and released California Sunrise in 2016. Both albums were released as an antithesis to what was happening on country radio. Write You a Song established Pardi as a young singer-songwriter at the twilight of bro-country who was turning to 90s country for inspiration instead of the hip-hop and heavy metal sound permeating across the airwaves. Furthermore, California Sunrise found the California native further exploring his Bakersfield fascination with louder guitars and a twangier sound at a time country radio was struggling to find an identity with a Thomas Rhett-led pop movement. Yet it was Pardi’s third full-length album that has finally caused most of the industry to stand up and pay attention. If California Sunrise doubled down on the type of artist Jon Pardi hopes to be, 2019’s Heartache Medication tripled down. The guitars were turned way up in the production. The fiddles drove the beat, and the steel guitar was twangier than anything mainstream country has heard in a long time. If Buck Owens was alive and released a record today, Heartache Medication (production-wise) gives you a pretty good indicator of how it would sound.
While Jon Pardi defines modern traditional country music on Music Row, Luke Combs exemplifies the other side of the coin. Traditional-centric but with enough pop sensibilities to become the biggest star in the genre in just two years. Luke Combs’ rise was forecasted by not a single soul. The burly, bearded North Carolinian had only just rediscovered country music through the sounds of Eric Church when he began playing bars around Applachian State. Combs released a couple of EPs before “Hurricane” was sent to country radio in 2015; the song isn’t really anything special. It relies on the common theme of comparing a former lover to a storm. But it resonated with a huge audience. The hook was undeniably pop, but the production was country *enough* to present the singer as an artist who wanted to go a more traditional route (at least in the context of mainstream radio). Once Combs signed with Columbia Nashville, “Hurricane” was re-released and reached number one in July 2017. From then until now and beyond, it’s been, “Houston, we have no problems.” Each successive single after “Hurricane” has reached number one, and “Even Though I’m Leaving” is climbing as I write this. Combs has sold out arenas within minutes and collaborated with legends. He’s appealed to almost every segment of country music fandom. From the bros to the anti-pop country crowd to casual listeners. My own feelings on Combs are well-documented, and if it was up to me, someone that didn’t use as many drum loops or typical modern country themes would be on the front lines. But maybe that’s the point with Luke Combs. He’s traditional *enough* to appeal to everyone without causing any conflict or division. Good for artistic representation in the genre? Probably not. But good for the growth of country music within the context of its roots? Undoubtedly.
One band that seemed unable to avoid causing some controversy while throwing themselves full-bore into the neo-traditional revival has been Midland. Midland, named as such from a Dwight Yoakam song, released “Drinkin’ Problem” in February 2017 to rave reviews. The song became a smash, and despite not reaching number one on the charts, laid down a marker for the sound and image Midland would consistently pursue. And yet from the Texas Country community came shouts of the band’s lack of “authenticity.” Ironic because most Texas Country out there today is no different than what’s coming from Music Row except with maybe one or two more belt buckles and cowboy hats. For most folks, however, Midland is simply releasing music that fits their image right at the intersection of the Eagles and Dwight Yoakam. And bringing back the full, working country band in a way not seen since Alabama.
Indeed one of the greatest things to come out of the genre in 2010s was the rise of bands- each with a different sound and career trajectory. We’ve spoken about Midland, but some of the greats can be found down in the red dirt of Texas and Oklahoma. For while the “authenticity” of Texas Counry solo artists is rather overblown, the true spirit of the genre can be found in the words of bands led by figures like Evan Felker, Cody Cannon, and the blue-collar work ethic of B.J. Barham and their band members who contribute just as much to the music.
Turnpike Troubadours, founded in 2007, quickly became one of the most beloved bands of the Red Dirt scene after the release of Diamonds & Gasoline in 2010. Driven by fiddle leads from Kyle Nix, twangy guitar from Ryan Engleman, and poetic lyrics from frontman Evan Felker and bassist R.C. Edwards with a steady beat kept by drummer Gabe Pearson, Turnpike Troubadours are *the* standout artist from the 2010s. Felker’s writing draws equally from the lyrical, poetic side of Guy Clark and the hard-core country of Merle Haggard with just a tad of rock and roll thrown in for good measure. To put simply, there’s no other act in music that can do what Turnpike can. “The Bird Hunters,” one of the finest songs to be recorded and released this decade, is Turnpike at their best as it combines all of the elements I mentioned earlier. It’s country storytelling at its best. Turnpike Troubadours have recently gone on hiatus after the release of three more albums since 2010. But the music world will be much better off once Evan Felker and those boys from Oklahoma return.
If Turnpike Troubadours defined a more traditional and folksy approach to Red Dirt country, Whiskey Myers became the standard bearers for modern Southern Rock. Something often overlooked when examining Southern Rock is what it *actually is.* A Southern Rock band isn’t just loud guitars and hollering about pride in where you’re from. No, Whiskey Myers have followed the blueprint of pre-plane crash Lynyrd Skynyrd to a T with lyrics about the contradictions that come with living in the American South and guitar solos that are more than just self-indulgent. Cody Cannon’s lyrics are proud and stoic but often find the band asking questions about the quality of a rural lifestyle in a world that has seemingly left them behind. Bolstered by the technical guitar work of John Jeffers and Cody Tate, Whiskey Myers have released five standout albums while becoming one of the best live acts in music.
American Aquarium, in several different incarnations but always fronted by B.J. Barham, have gone about their path in a different way but nonetheless help define independent country music in the 2010s. Ever since Uncle Tupelo disbanded in the early 1990s, alternative country has been at a bit of a crossroads. Artists seems to predominantly lean one direction with few able to successfully mingle the punk and country sounds. Son Volt (with Uncle Tupelo alum Jay Farrar at the helm has succeeded), Old 97s, and the elder music of Steve Earle are the few who have kept that punk country spirit alive. Jeff Tweedy’s Wilco has experimented with pop and new age, Jason Isbell writes killer songs but with production that sounds much too often confined to a coffee shop, and Sturgill Simpson left behind alternative country years ago. American Aquarium, however, have joined Son Volt and been right at the intersection of punk and country since its inception. B.J. Barham’s songs are blue collar to the core. Plenty of bar room settings. Lots of hard times. With an especially angsty, electric edge. So while alternative country sneakily tries to rediscover its own identity at the same time as Nashville’s Music Row, bands like American Aquarium force the genre to deal with some of the biggest questions around, particularily at a time when 16th Avenue is having a difficult time remembering that country music represents both a female and a male audience.
I’m not sure if Tomato-gate was the start of the firestorm. To be quite honest, the mysogynistic bro-country releases probably influenced the debate over the reduced role of women in country music much more than Keith Hill’s comments. But when Hill said, “ Trust me, I play great female records, and we’ve got some right now; they’re just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban, and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females,” he opened up a huge can of worms that had been ready to burst for several years. Hill’s comments were not only ignorant; he revealed an ingrained and definitive line of thought on Music Row- according to industry executives, female country artists are expendable, dispensable, and easily replaceable.
Female country artists had, until Hill’s comments, remained mostly silent about their reduced airplay. But feeling emboldened by the support of others, artists diverse as Jennifer Nettles, Martina McBride, Loretta Lynn, Maren Morris, Brandi Carlisle, and finally Miranda Lambert began to speak up. Unfortunately, the industry has yet to really respond in an impactful manner. Sure, the upcoming CMA Awards are going to be hosted by the trio of superstar women including Reba, Carrie Underwood, and Dolly Parton. And radio hosts are devoting time to emphasizing up and coming female artists. But the numbers and data aren’t showing up. Much more has to be done. What exactly? That will remain to be seen as we move into the next decade.
Whatever does end up happening, Maren Morris will be at the forefront. Morris burst on to the scene in early 2016 with “My Church,” a jammy country rock song that celebrated heroes like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. It looked like traditional country fans would have a new artist to pin their hopes on- at least until Morris performed one of the all-time bait and switches in country history. After “My Church,” Morris stuck strictly to bubble gum country pop with a slightly sharper edge than the squeaky clean Carrie Underwood. Like Thomas Rhett and Luke Combs, Maren Morris has cultivated a heavy social media presence and embraces her role as a pop star. She’s appeared in Playboy and collaborated with Zedd on “The Middle.” Morris is outspoken and unrepentant about her kind of music. Despite her words and unapolagetic attitude, Morris’ music has proved to be lacking in anything too substancial. And yet if she wishes to become one of her pop idols, Maren Morris is on her way.
While Maren Morris sets her boots pointed toward pop superstardom, Miranda Lambert has kept at least one boot planted in traditional country. Lambert began the 2010s with arguably her best album Four the Record, had a brief pop moment with Platinum and an appearance on bro-country anthem “Boys ‘Round Here,” divorced Blake Shelton and gave country a dose of heavy songwriting with The Weight of These Wings, and now sits as an elder stateswoman in the genre as she tries her best to remain relevant across the industry. Indeed Lambert’s career in the 2010s is a neat and tidy microcosm of country music as a whole during the decade. Plenty moments of serious introspection that were much too often overshadowed by the loud, bombastic voices without substance. For while country music of the 2010s can count plenty of successes, there’s more work to be done than people may realize. Settling for above average is nothing to call home about.
At the end of Ken Burns’ Country Music, Marty Stuart said, “There will be songs that should have been hits that never were. There are hits that shoudn’t have been. There will be people that you’ll fall in love with and they’ll be gone in three weeks, or after the next record. Then there will be stars that come and get inside your heart and stay with you for the rest of your life…” Never have those words rung truer than today. “Old Town Road,” “Meant to Be,” “Body Like a Back Road,” and “Heaven” are just a few the of biggest hits of the decade- each of which should frankly have no association with country music- while some of the best songs recorded and released over the past ten years will never be heard by most of the public. Even the biggest and most acclaimed independent stars of today like Tyler Childers and Cody Jinks will never get the spotlight they deserve. Compared to the beginning of the decade, Childers and Jinks show the growth and maturation the genre has gained; yet even as they sell out venues and sit atop the iTunes charts, I can only wish more knew about the vibrant underground scene.
But maybe there’s a lesson to be learned here. 2019 is different than 1972. Waylon and Kris and Tompall Glaser changed the culture of Nashville from the inside. Full steam ahead, they busted down doors and demanded freedom and a return to what made country such an inspired genre in the first place. Today’s artists have other tools at their disposal. Social media. 24/7 access. Word of mouth. Cody Jinks, Margo Price, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Tyler Childers, and so many others have shown they don’t need Music Row to sell records and get people out to their shows. They retain their musical integrity while remaining far from the politics of 16th Avenue.
Still, as the decade comes to an end, 16th Avenue holds immense power as we’ve seen evidenced by the vignettes in this very piece. Women are struggling for airplay. The industry still craves recognition and acceptance from the pop community and Rolling Stone/New York Times crowd. And executives remain stubborn to obvious changes in the music world. Yet for the select few artists who break through in the mainstream while remaining true to themselves- Eric Church, Jon Pardi, Midland, Miranda Lambert- the rewards are indelible. Staying independent can be a wise and fair choice. But reaching for the stars is still possible and achieavable. Maybe now more than ever.
Country music won’t be going anywhere. Along with the blues, country is the one form of music in which anyone can hear artists still playing in a traditional manner. There will continue to be changes. The question, as always, will be wondering if evolution is being done in a responsible way. In a way that respects the genre’s roots. The 2010s has given us the best of evolution in the genre. And the worst of it. The debates have often been fierce. Personal in a way country music has never seen. Passions have been stoked, but the fans are better off for it.
Sure, the genre needs to evolve to remain relevant. But as long as one boot stays firmly planted in the fields of the American South or the dirt of Appalchia or a street in Bakersfield, the cirle will always remain unbroken.