Modern Country Music: Does It Have a Future or Will It Fail?

A beer-swilling man in a pickup truck invites a girl wearing cutoff jeans to swill beer with him at a riverside bathed in the moonlight. If this scenario sounds familiar, you may be living in a modern pop-country song, where such scenarios play out without any apparent end in sight. The video below summarizes the overuse of such lyrical cliches better than I ever could:

Modern country music is defined by such streamlined songwriting, and it’s turned the genre into a shell of its former self. Country music is a genre that was founded on a stripped-down approach to songwriting that often incorporated acoustic instrumentation and frank storytelling, often alternating between humorous and heartbreaking.

Modern iterations of pop-country have abandoned that stripped-down aesthetic and any complexity of emotion. The production is the sleekest of the sleek, recycling production techniques that makes nearly every hit song sound like an assembly-line creation designed for more radio airplay. These are club songs, marketed toward a different demographic. They don’t exist to tell stories or express any sort of artistic vision, but to give listeners something happy and easily digestible to listen to while tailgating.

There’s an interesting thread of overcompensation within pop-country as well. Many artists and songs feel the need to insist that they are, indeed, country. See Blake Shelton’s painfully stereotypical song “Kiss My Country Ass” for one of the more obvious examples. Such songs rely upon lyrical and musical cliches of southern style — rural towns, knee-jerk patriotism, forced twang, whiny guitar solos and steel guitar — rather than any actual storytelling or musical identity. It’s a telling case of overcompensation that only highlights the fact that most of these artists don’t make actual country music.

Conversations about the dire current state of the genre have been going on for some time now, but without any noticeable impact beyond uniting detractors in their mutual distaste for radio-ready country artists like Blake Shelton, Florida-Georgia Line and Luke Bryan. In 2013, Zac Brown of the popular Zac Brown Band (one of the few popular country acts that retains some integrity) spoke candidly with Vancouver-based radio station CJJR about his negative feelings towards other popular country stars:

If I hear one more tailgate in the moonlight, Daisy Dukes song, I wanna throw up. There’s songs out right now on the radio that make me … ashamed to be even in the same format as some of those artists.

The Guardian details other instances of similar headbutting within the genre:

When Blake Shelton glibly called his detractors “old farts and jackasses” in a TV documentary, the late Ray Price rallied his fans on Facebook, starting an industry-wide conversation that led Willie Nelson to rename his tour the Old Farts and Jackasses Tour. When the CMT Awards cut short a tribute to George Jones but allowed for a full performance of Cruise by Florida Georgia Line and Nelly, Naomi Judd slammed the network in a scathing letter to the Tennessean.

There hasn’t been any measurable impact on the state of the genre so far, though the spirited discussions continue. I don’t count myself among those who wish country music, in its current pitiable state, would die and stay dead. Rather, I’d side with The Guardian’s Grady Smith, who compares modern country to ’80s hair metal and hopes for an artist who can redefine and rejuvenate the stagnant genre, a la Nirvana.

To condemn country music as too far gone is to ignore the many contemporary artists producing quality content, simply because they don’t top charts and receive their fair share of radio airplay. While Luke Bryan and other country superstars sing recycled songs about the joys of drunkenness and pickup trucks, other artists are quietly continuing the best traditions of the genre with their own unique albums, which frequently fall under the indistinct label of alt-country.

To name one, Sturgill Simpson has so far released two excellent LPs that blend hillbilly-druggie humor with a Waylon Jennings-like grit and balladry. To name a few more, Robert Ellis, Gillian Welch, Lindi Ortega, Holly Williams, Nick 13 and Josh Ritter are all artists currently working who have released worthwhile country music that synthesizes older genre influences into something new. All of them, to my mind, would be deserving of a Nirvana-esque breakthrough to prove that country music’s best days are not entirely in the past.

Perhaps the best candidate for such a breakthrough, however, is Jason Isbell — a songwriter and former member of the Drive-by Truckers, whose last two albums have been some of the genre’s best in a long while. Like his last album Southeastern, Something More Than Free finds Isbell achieving critical and now even commercial success by doing almost the exact opposite of most popular country acts today. He writes mostly acoustic songs with a crisp, clean production-style with lyrics that are unapologetically personal. Best of all, his latest album recently hit number one on the country music charts. As of now, its success is the exception to the rule, but for fans like me, it’s reason to be hopeful.

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