I recently read Waking Up In Nashville, a book published in 2002 by British travel writer Stephen Foehr. He came to Nashville and navigated the scene from an outsider’s perspective and expertly delved into the idea of ‘what is country music.’ This was in the early 2000s, so the traditional country fan’s anger was directed at pop-country stars like Shania Twain and Faith Hill. But the overwhelming consensus from the dozens of people he interviewed is that country music isn’t pretty. It isn’t happy endings and perfect nights. It’s real life. At the time that Foehr wrote this book, Alan Jackson had recently released his song “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning,” a song about the horrors of the September 11 attacks. Country music tackled this issue in a way no other genre did and that’s what country music always does. Country music goes into the gritty details of real life like no other genre, and that’s the reason that so many people love the genre so much. But when a ‘country’ artist releases album that has very little real life and a lot of picture-perfect high school life, it’s hard to connect that record with the heart and soul of country music. Kelsea Ballerini’s debut record The First Time doesn’t really match up to the roots of country music, but did blow up the country music scene in 2015.
When Texas-raised singer/songwriter Kacey Musgraves released her debut single in 2013, country music was a man’s man’s man’s world. “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line was the major hit the year before, bringing a wave of bro-country copy-cats along with it. All of country music radio was a cliché: trucks, boots, girls, beer, anything kind of stereotype you can associate with country music had become fully embraces by both the business of country music and its fans. These kind of songs were going No.1, winning awards and being pushed as the representation of the genre to the rest of the music world.
Kelsea Ballerini just got invited to be a member of the Grand Ole Opry. For those of you outside of the country music bubble that I seem to constantly inhabit, the general consensus is that this is the biggest honour in the genre. Becoming a member of the Opry means that this artist has the opportunity to play the Opry whenever they want, as well as being on a list of Opry Members that includes greats such as Alan Jackson and Reba McEntire. Many deserving artists have yet to receive this honour. But last month, the Opry chose to grant membership to a pretty new artist in country music, one that has constantly received criticism for not being a truly country artist. But in a twist that few people saw coming, she’s now been accepted by the pinnacle of the country music community. The only way to come to terms with this, and to figure out why an artist so constantly criticized has been deemed legitimate by such an honour is to delve into her most recent record, Unapologetically, Ballerini’s sophomore record that came out in 2017.
As a country music fan, the only way to listen to the new Maren Morris album and actually enjoy it is to pretend that she didn’t release this album under the genre label ‘country.’ Genres are so old-school at this point, but there is no possible way that this album could ever be classified as country music. Morris didn’t even try. But honestly, that’s what’s so cool about her. She could have thrown some fiddles and banjo in there and gone to the traditional country community, shouting, “Look! I’m country!” But she didn’t. She just went ahead and released a pop album. Half of me thinks that’s the most badass move in the world, and half of me wants to get really angry about the fact that she’s literally dancing on Merle Haggard and George Jones’ graves by trying to market this album in a genre where it clearly doesn’t belong. It’s a fine line. But that’s it, that’s all I’m going to say about genre because if I say any more about how this record isn’t country, you’ll think I’m a fifty-five-year-old man living in his parents basement ranting about the “good ol’ days” of country music. And I like to think that I’m a progressive young woman, so I’ll cut myself off.
In popular music, production is always the most important aspect of a song. Bad singers can be autotuned, lyrics can be sent through ten or fifteen writers to make something mediocre something somewhat relatable, but production is what makes people remember a song. That’s why acoustic music is so risky, because the production can no longer carry the song and the artist. But it also can pay off in extraordinary ways like it does on JoLivi’s brand new Raw EP.
Canadian singer/songwriter Tenille Townes isn’t Lori McKenna, but they were cut from the same cloth when it comes to songwriting. You can hear the love junkie in the specificity of Townes’s lyrics, even the vocal delivery. But these songs all straight story songs — something McKenna does exceptionally well but doesn’t do as much as she should.
Kacey Musgraves has long been hailed as one of the only young traditionalists in country music — ever since her debut “Merry Go ‘Round” in 2012. But her first album in three years has took a little bit of a different turn, steering away from the bluegrass and roots-influenced music of her past.
Songwriter Caitlyn Smith has written hundreds of songs, self-released three full-length records and worked her butt off in the music industry for years. But to the public, Starfire is their first introduction to her. And what an introduction it is.
Kalie Shorr’s latest project is a complete reinvention of her sound. Her last project, Slingshot and the Y2k Mixtape before that both embraced the pop-country sound that’s fairly popular right now among young artists. But Awake sounds unlike anything country singers are releasing these days. A couple years ago, Shorr’s little slogan was ‘A little bit country, a little bit rock and roll.’ Awake is her return to that, and the first time she’s fully embraced all of her influences on a project.
You really haven’t met Danielle Bradbery until you take a listen to her sophomore record. Forget everything you know about Bradbery from her first record: the traditional country sounds, the fiddles, the slightly-too-old-for-her lyrics. Bradbery’s second album, but in actuality the first album dictated by her, is a rebirth of her as an artist.