Country Music’s New Era

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Sturgill Simpson, courtesy the artist

Despite obvious and stark auditory differences between hip hop and country music, the two genres are steeped in a lot of the same history. As such, they’ve both been subjected to many of the same critiques — scrutiny has been leveled at lyrical content that’s seen as celebratory of hedonistic behavior, and subtly elitist attitudes often seep into discussions of both genres. Historically, both genres have drawn on some of the same unmistakably American influences. Country emerged from Appalachian folk, but the genre also drew from the blues music of black southerners. Hip hop, as its known today, didn’t emerge until much later; but it too indirectly drew from blues. Funk-inflected artists like Afrika Bambaata and Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five were instrumental in the early stages of hip hop, and funk drew from electronica and soul. Soul drew from gospel, jazz, and of course, the blues. While the influences are multifaceted and complex, the shape of both genres are owed to working class and poor Americans.

While hip hop is obviously still subjected to elitist and often racist attitudes of some media pundits (which Kendrick Lamar directly addresses on Damn.), the genre as a whole has come to be the dominant sound of the American musical landscape. But many who celebrate hip hop as a form of cultural uplift will deride country music with the same charges from which they defend hip hop. Namely, mocking country’s working class origins typifies the same kinds of ridicule hip hop was often subjected to (minus the racist aspects). Country music as a whole largely seems to exist in a separate bubble from mainstream pop music and alternative music, such that it’s remarkably easy to forget — or ignore — the shared cultural lineage country occupies in American music. 

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Kacey Musgraves, courtesy the artist

But, even as an outsider looking in, country music is undoubtedly changing. While the genre will probably always have the type of jingoism that it’s often characterized by, a crop of younger artists are redefining country’s sound. In many ways these younger artists are making the genre more accessible to the kinds of audiences who aren’t interested in lyrics like “Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass/It’s the American way.” Lines like that make it easy to forget that Johnny Cash, one of the country’s defining figures, was an advocate for Native American rights and a defender of the imprisoned. Rather than offering a braggadocious machismo, Cash used his cultural clout to stand up for the disadvantaged. 

Many of the younger artists are bringing back a celebration of the working class and the social consciousness that Cash embodied.  For example, on Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s “White Man’s World,” from 2017’s The Nashville Sound, Isbell takes stock of his own privilege. In the song, he notes the disadvantages women face and the legacy of racism against black and Native people. In the chorus, he claims that “There’s no such thing as someone else’s war,” thus offering a sharp rebuke of privileged people who turn a blind eye to injustice. That same year, Margo Price called out gender inequality on “Pay Gap,” similarly and strongly lambasting a patriarchal system of “rich white men” who have taken advantage of women across American history.

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Margo Price, courtesy Last.FM

On the other hand, artists like Sturgill Simpson and Kacey Musgraves innovate musically — this is exemplified by the lush instrumentation of the former’s 2016 record, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth. On 2018’s critically acclaimed Golden Hour, Musgraves blends country with pop influences. The album includes the disco-ish romp of “High Horse,” and lyrics that tackle insecurity and celebrate LGBT youth. Simpson similarly traffics in diverse cultural influences. A Sailor’s Guide To Earth features a cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” which he performed on the late night circuit while wearing Yeezys.

Along with the stylistic and cultural changes these artists are bringing to the genre, their lyrics are welcome reminders of the confessional and emotional power country music still caries. There are send-ups to working class origins from Price, vivid ballads from Musgraves, and multiple songs that deal with addiction and strife.  As the genre redefines itself, the industry and pop music seems to have taken note. Some of these artists have gotten Grammy nominations in big categories, and Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, Kesha, and Lady Gaga all drew inspiration from country on their most recent albums. As a new type of country seems eager to break out of its cultural bubble, a broader audiences is more ready than ever to welcome it.