My Take on the “That Ain’t Country” Debate

One of the hottest topics about country music in 2019 is what is and what is not “country.” While the mainstream continues to drift further and further away from the style of the previous generation and beyond, the lines between the country, pop, and hip hop genres have become more skewed than ever before.

Artists like Walker Hayes, Sam Hunt, and Florida Georgia Line, to name a few, have found a lot of success in the country format, while, in my opinion, are the furthest thing from country.

It’s often said that it’s hard to put a definition on the term “country music,” but you know it when you hear it. “It” has become much harder to find in the mainstream, with traditional artists being forced to either “sell out” or fade into potential oblivion. Some artists have found success while featuring a more traditional sound, such as Midland, achieved top 3 success with “Drinkin’ Problem” and are on the precipice of a top 10 with their newest single, “Burn Out.”

However, the success stories for the traditional artists are becoming a novelty, as artists like Joe Nichols, William Michael Morgan, and Easton Corbin, among others, lost record deals in 2018. Possibly in fear of the same fate, Josh Turner, Craig Campbell, and Rodney Atkins have released the most progressive music of their careers.

These artists who have made a career with that traditional sound are now being forced to compete with artists that are releasing songs that would not turn a blind eye if they were on pop radio. As I write this, Maren Morris has the number one album in all of music.

That album, “GIRL” has made waves through the music community, and may be the next generation of music fans’ introduction into “country music,” when in actuality, in the way I hear it, couldn’t be any further from country. There is legitimately a hip hop song on the record, and no “country” to be heard.

The country genre is being infiltrated by artists who are trying to break into and pander to the country music community. I have no problem with Maren Morris, I just think that her music should be labeled as what it truly is, pop music. Just because someone is born in Texas and their parents may have had a Loretta Lynn or Patsy Cline record growing up, does not make that artist’s music country.

“Street-cred” does not make an artist country either. Artists like Thomas Rhett, whose father, Rhett Akins, had a few hits and was on the radio for a handful of years in the 90s, are making a living in a genre where they do not gel. Thomas Rhett grew up with and around the 90s-country sound. However, the music he is releasing features no trace of that sound, and in fact, features no trace of any sort of instrumentation that fans that enjoy “country” music are accustomed to hearing.

Morris was recently quoted as saying, “a banjo or fiddle doesn’t make a country song, it’s the core-cutting truth that does.” While country music is based on the “three chords and the truth” mentality, writing music with personal truths does not make a song “country.” Artists from Eminem to Ed Sheeran to Bruno Mars and beyond have written “truths” into their music, but none of them have claimed to be “country” artists, they have fallen into lanes that closer define what their music actually is, and are having massive success with it.

Morris is right, instrumentation does not definitively make or break a “country” song. One of the greatest country songs ever written, “Mama Tried,” has neither instrument, and does not have a steel guitar either, however, it is undeniably regarded as a country song, and listeners agree.

I understand that everything changes, and music genres change more than a lot of things. The sound of “country music” changed massively through the generations of country music; from the old traditional style, to the neo-traditional style, to the 90s sound and beyond, but in each of those styles, there was at least a trace of what came before that specific sound in the music, allowing listeners to trace the evolution in the sound.

If you listen to “GIRL,” and then listen to a Loretta Lynn record, or even an old Shania Twain record, there is no real “evolution point” to be found. The change is so drastic, and none of the stylings are even remotely the same. As I said before, I have no problem with Morris, but I just feel that her music should be labeled as what it is.

When these artists continue to label their music as “country,” they continue to blur the lines between genres, and take validity out of the term “country music,” which at one point in its history, was an exclusive club, and though full of diversity, were all linked by being “country.”

“Country music” has since become a swinging door for anyone to come and go as they please, and until that door is guarded better, the Sam Hunts, the Walker Hayes’, and the Florida Georgia Lines of the world will continue to further blur that line.

In an attempt to prove that they’re “country,” some of those artists, such as Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, and Easton Corbin have released songs and albums that are attempting to prove how “country” they are. There is an old Craig Campbell song that says, “If you gotta tell me how country you are, you probably ain’t,” which is how I view the songs and albums like this.

Country music has always been about lyrical content, and with the “this is how country I am” and pop writing stylings dominating mainstream “country” music, there is another level of unfamiliarity with what once was, and I feel that in order to grow, you have to remember where you came from in order to grow, but with no reminiscence in the mainstream, the past has been left in the dust. I read a comment about William Michael Morgan’s single “Missing,” which, in my opinion, is a very well-written and delivered song, that it stalled at radio because it was “too country,” and “had too much steel and fiddle to be successful,” and as sad as it is, I think that person was right.

And while the genre will naturally grow, it is still possible to be “country” yet still showcase enough modernity to remain relevant, something I feel Brad Paisley has done very well, whose stylings have definitely changed between his debut single “Who Needs Pictures” and his most recent single “Bucked Off,” but in the 19 years between the two, Paisley has stayed “country,” and still continued to be relevant both on the radio and on the road.

I make it a point to say that if you enjoy a traditional artist, buy their music, go to their shows, buy merch, tell people about them, do anything you can to support them, because it is that support that will keep the traditional artists to continue to make good, traditional music. That, more than everything, has been the ultimate goal of this blog; to shine any sort of light I can on these artists, and if one person discovers an artist that otherwise would not have, then I think I’ve done my job as a music journalist and fan. I encourage anyone who may read this to do the same.

If an army of people become more vocal about their support for their favorite traditional country artists, though the traditional sound may never be mainstream again, its influence may find its way back on to the radio. Here’s to hoping that one day, when someone talks about “country music,” this is closer to what people think of.

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