The Hodgepodge: Tracking the Real Evolution of Country Music

Original image created by our friends at Farce the Music
Original image created by our friends at Farce the Music

Before I dive into today’s topic, I just want to take the opportunity to express how excited I am to take over The Hodgepodge. In its short life, this weekly column has become a favorite feature to our readers. I always looked forward to reading Josh’s thoughts on whatever country music topic he tackled. I hope that I can continue to bring the excellence to this feature that Josh did week in and week out. I’m thankful that Josh passed this onto me, and I’m excited for his next great idea to take form and be delivered out through the site.

The common argument used among pop country fans to defend their favorite artists’ new crappy songs is that “country music must evolve.” And I’ll be up front about it, I agree. Despite what Darius Rucker may think, I don’t want music released today to sound like Hank Williams Sr. If I want music that sounds like Hank Williams, than I’ll play my Hank Williams’ Very Best Of two-disc collection. And Hank Williams is important because he was country music’s first big superstar with his first hits coming in the late 1940s. Taking a look a country music’s trail through history, one can see that there’s been quite the musical evolution over the almost 70 years.Willie

Johnny Cash could be considered the next big star after Hank Williams, with Cash pushing Hank’s country sound and adding a little bit of rock and roll to it. From there, we see the outlaws come in and further push away from the Nashville Sound, with Waylon Jennings blending even more rock and roll with country, and Willie Nelson providing more jazz and folk into his country-style. While neither of these two hit widespread acclaim until the 1970s, they kept pushing their sound throughout the 1960s until the Nashville suits caved for them.

During that time, George Jones found his first wave of success with “White Lightning” in 1959, and Merle Haggard found his footing with the Bakersfield sound in the mid-1960s. And while these men made their marks, ladies like Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline were breaking ground for females in the genre with hits in the 50s and early 60s. Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette broke through in the late 60s and 70s, continuing to challenge the men and become country legends in their own right. In the 1970s, Conway Twitty emerged on the scene with his country music, while Charlie Daniels and Hank Williams Jr. continued the rowdy country and southern rock blend with Waylon. These men rode high into the 1980s, where George Strait, Randy Travis, and Keith Whitley began their careers, sticking to more traditional, smoother sounds of country music. The mid 1980s also found Dwight Yoakam working outside the norm, establishing his hillbilly rock form of country. And how can we forget Reba McEntire blasting through the 1980s and 90s, becoming one of the most successful female artists in country music.

I know this is a basic overview, but as we can see thus far, we have the narrow country path paved by the likes of Hank, Cash, Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, George Strait, Randy Travis and Keith Whitley. Hank Williams and Johnny Cash also planted a bit of rock and roll roots, which were further grown by the likes of Waylon Jennings, Charlie Daniels, and Hank Jr. This rock path was a little off the country path, but their roots were the same, and they were headed in the same direction.

The Class of 1989 opened up more doors and carved new paths for country music, primarily due to the rousing success of one Garth Brooks. Alan Jackson’s emergence that same year continued down the pure country path; a path which artists like Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, and Brad Paisley started on, and continued until relevancy began to fade and cries for attention got louder. However, Garth veered off the path and opened up more pop doors for country music. The country music path through the late 1990s and early 2000s was a little wider and continued to grow, but there were still songs rooted from the music of the heroes singers today love to name-check. That is until Jason Aldean took a hard left turn and brought popular country on a whole new path, devoid of any roots from 1940s.

The success of rap country in “Dirt Road Anthem” opened up a new can of worms and possibilities for country music. Rap, pop, R&B, and rock are all the sounds you hear nowadays on country radio. Gone are the roots planted by Hank, the Possum, and Johnny Cash. Now we have Keith Urban and Jake Owen releasing pop songs, Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan further pushing hip-hop influences into country, and Jason Aldean’s slow jams. All the while, they defend their messes of songs by claiming “country music must evolve.” A loose defense their fans quickly echo.

The problem is that these songs don’t evolve the country sound, they abandon it. The electronics of “Burnin’ It Down” and pop beats of “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” carry no sounds that in any way resemble the musical stylings established in the genre of country music. Whereas, singers like Whitey Morgan, Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark, and Gretchen Peters (just to name a few) are keeping country roots alive, while adding modern Americana twists to the traditions of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. And perhaps there is no greater example of a country song using modern-day elements than Sturgill Simpson’s “Turtle’s All The Way Down” or “It Ain’t All Flowers.”

As depicted in the evolution diagrams like the one above, the theory of evolution argues that humans evolved from primates. Why? Because we share many visual characteristics and mannerisms with one another. Regardless of your beliefs, it’s not an illogical argument. The similarities between humans and primates help the argument make sense. But you aren’t going to say that a shark evolved from a gorilla because that doesn’t make sense. Saying that the pop music infecting country radio and Nashville is a true evolution of country music is like saying that Jaws is a truly evolved form of King Kong. It doesn’t work and it sounds stupid.

The point is country music has evolved, but you won’t hear the evolved country music coming out of Nashville. Most of what’s “country” nowadays are pop blends of rap, rock, and hip hop with generic images of dirt roads and southern pride to make listeners believe its country.

Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases

  • Luke Bryan’s Kill The Lights is due out August 7. Bryan recently revealed the track list for his new album, which includes 6 Luke Bryan co-writes, and a duet with Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild. All in all, the album contains 13 songs, with 27 total credited songwriters (16 and 29 including the Target edition). And as expected, Dallas Davidson has a few songs on the album as well.
  • Brandy Clark has recently announced she’s working with producer Jay Joyce for her next album. Clark hinted that it’ll be something of a concept album. She plans to release a single this fall, with the album released early next year. This is an interesting combination with Clark being a critical darling for her traditional country sounds, while Joyce has faced criticism on our site for his overproduced messes like Little Big Town’s Pain Killer or Eric Church’s The Outsiders.
  • Jerrod Niemann will be releasing a new single called “Blue Bandana” tomorrow.  This is likely a single to kick off a campaign for a new album.  Many will remember that Neimann earned Country Perspective’s Worst Song of 2014 Award with “Donkey.”  With July being a slower month, there’s a good chance we’ll have the time to review it, assuming there’s something worthwhile to say about the song (good or bad).
  • The Turnpike Troubadours have debuted a song called “Down Here” off their forthcoming eponymous album.
  • Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free and Alan Jackson’s Angels and Alcohol will be released July 17.  Both albums are available to stream on NPR First Listen.  You can expect both albums to be reviewed.
  • Ashley Monroe’s new album, The Blade, will be released July 24. We will have a review on this album when it’s released.

Throwback Thursday Song

“It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” by Kitty Wells.  With today’s discussion of evolution, it seems appropriate to jump back to the beginning stages of country music. In 1952, this tune not only gave Kitty Wells her first number one country song, but it was the first number one song for a female country singer! The lyrics are full on girl power calling out men for their reckless ways and ruining relationships. In the 1950s, this was a song with a message that was way ahead of its time.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week

Grateful Dead. This past weekend, the Grateful Dead played a 3 night stand at Chicago’s Solider Field: the place where the band played their last show with former front man, the late Jerry Garcia. This weekend’s Fare The Well reunion shows came 20 years after the passing of Garcia, and 50 years since the band’s formation. The band’s notoriety comes from their constant touring with devoted fans, “Deadheads,” following the band from show to show. The Grateful Dead are considered one of, if not, the most influential jam band of all time. American Beauty, released in 1970, is arguably the band’s best studio album (though the other 1970 album, Workingman’s Dead, is pretty great as well, and also more country influenced). However, it’s their live shows more than their studio albums that secured the Dead’s legacy.

Tweet of the Week

Double Zing!  Women are just as underrepresented in the sports’ world as they are in country music.  It’s a harsh reality, and Grady Smith has been one of the many who’ve been outspoken against Keith Hill’s comments.  Grady Smith, columnist for The Guardian, is always a treat on Twitter. You should follow him if you don’t already. Also, congratulations to the U.S. Women’s National Team on their World Cup victory!

iTunes Reviews That Will Make You Shake Your Head

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The first review was left under Kacey Musgraves’ Pageant Material. According to this reviewer, the album isn’t country music and that is what’s wrong with our society. If I had to guess, I’d bet this reviewer thinks “Kick the Dust Up” is the most groundbreaking country song since Florida Georgia Line’s “Sun Daze.”

The second review is for Kelsea Ballerini’s The First Time. Soccer986 defends this album claiming that though it sounds pop, if you listen to acoustic versions of the songs (you know, taking out all the pop instrumentation and pop music effects) than the songs sound country. Seeing as acoustic guitars have been in country music forever, you could probably make AC/DC sound country if you played “You Shook Me All Night Long” on an acoustic guitar only. That’s a terrible defense for pop “country” music.

One last note.  I’m going to interview a small town country radio DJ  for a Hodgepodge in the near future.  If you have any questions you’d like to ask a country radio DJ, feel free to submit in the comments below.  I can’t make any promises they’ll all be asked or answered, but you never know!