Country's Roots Are Showing as New Releases Embrace Old-School Sounds
The trend may not last forever and ever, amen, but traditional country music is on the rebound.
It's evident in a trio of new artists at different labels: BMLG's Riley Green and Arista Nashville's Carlton Anderson mine '90s-influenced sounds with their introductory singles, while Warner Music Nashville (WMN) just struck a deal with Texas cowboy Cody Johnson, whose last two self-released projects debuted in the top 10 on Billboard's Top Country Albums.
But established acts are utilizing older sounds as well. The new singles by Garth Brooks, Jason Aldean, Darius Rucker and Florida Georgia Line all lean more toward honky-tonk or acoustic music than their typical releases, returning old-school, guitar-based sonics to a more prominent position after several years of computer-generated foundations.
"The country sound still has the super-programmed, poppy thing," says songwriter Paul Jenkins ("Don't You Wanna Stay," "Sunny and 75"), "but it seems like with Midland and [Jon] Pardi and some of these other acts coming out, wood and wire is kind of cool again."
It follows a difficult adjustment period for the genre. Aldean, Florida Georgia Line and Sam Hunt helped lead a movement that brought significant hard-rock and hip-hop influence into the format. To some gatekeepers' ears, traditional instruments -- such as fiddle and steel guitar -- seemed out of place, so many producers minimized or eliminated them on most recordings. The occasional hard-core country title, like William Michael Morgan's "I Met a Girl" (co-written by Hunt), found its way through, but usually those titles were squeezed out before they could reach the upper tiers of the chart. With Midland and Pardi both scoring multiple hits over the last two years, the tide seems to have turned.
Midland's "Drinkin' Problem" "was sonically competitive on the radio in between Carrie Underwood and Thomas Rhett, but it also had a tip of the hat to Gary Stewart, the Urban Cowboy soundtrack and early Keith Whitley," says Big Machine Label Group senior vp A&R Allison Jones. "I think the new country fans loved it because [Mark Wystrach's] voice stood out, but for those of us who have loved country a long time, it brought a piece of nostalgia back."
The best-known example of country making a back-to-its-roots shift occurred when Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam led the New Traditionalist era in the late 1980s. Travis' truckload of three-chord songs and Yoakam's embrace of the "hillbilly" label showed that hard country could reach platinum, even multiplatinum, sales marks. They presaged the format's boom years of the early 1990s when Brooks, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Ricky Van Shelton and steady George Strait made Western boots and starched shirts hip to big swaths of America.
"People who are in their 30s rode around in the back seats of their parents' cars listening to the music of that era," says United Talent Agency (UTA) Nashville co-head Curt Motley, connecting the current trend's dots. "The sound is something they're very familiar with, and it just resonates with them."
While some country media have slammed the pop-leaning sound of the genre's last five years, the new crop of traditionalists isn't likely to do that. Aldean, Hunt, Florida Georgia Line and others introduced country to consumers who might have blanched at old-school sounds before and made them more receptive as classic sounds creep back into the format.
"Without those people doing that, a lot of people wouldn't have been introduced to the genre," says Anderson. "It's really opened up the town. I mean, the connection between New York and Los Angeles and Nashville now, I feel like it's pretty dang strong because of that."
But even when country pushed its sonic boundaries, the genre still differentiated itself from other idioms in part because of its lyrical content. Country songs tend to use more specific lyrics and weave a plot, whereas pop music is more likely to relate a feeling or a circumstance with its words.
"Sam Hunt's vernacular is very country," notes WMN senior vp A&R Cris Lacy. "Even some of the storytelling is very traditional to me."
Pardi, in particular, benefited from the paucity of traditional-sounding hits when he created his current album, California Sunrise. Plenty of retro-based country songs had been written in recent years with very few outlets for them, so the volume of available quality material was high. There are likely more trad-tilted songs ready to be cut, too, though Lacy cautions that this apparent new era needs songs with modern thematic viewpoints.
"A lot of the things in back catalogs reference lifestyles that don't exist for most people right now listening to country radio," she says. "It's about working in the factory, or there might be an antiquated view of the woman in the relationship. Musically, it could all work, but lyrically it just doesn't relate anymore."
Part of the reason the fan base has responded is because the current hitmakers have pointed to their predecessors. Unlike previous generations, current 20-somethings don't have to go buy albums to find out about older acts when Florida Georgia Line sings about Alabama or Miranda Lambert cites Merle Haggard as her biggest influence. Consumers have immediate access to those heritage acts through streaming platforms, a bevy of SiriusXM satellite channels or classic country terrestrial formats, which were scarce in previous decades. Thus, when High Valley covers John Michael Montgomery's "Be My Baby Tonight" in concert, kids who might not have been born when it was a hit in 1994 spit out the words in real time.
"Jason Aldean has a song called 'Joe Diffie' that referenced a bunch of Joe Diffie songs from the '90s," says UTA Nashville co-head Nick Meinema. "FGL, almost any time I've seen them live, has retro country T-shirts on, like merch from the '90s and early 2000s. That is exactly a part of this equation."
What may not be a part of the new movement is dominance. When Travis and his fellow New Traditionalists rose in the 1980s, the format took a dramatic turn toward the classic style they represented. But the current trend is probably less a swing of the pendulum than a simple market correction.
"I think we're going to see more of this sound penetrating the market, but I don't know if it's going to be a complete shift over to completely traditional-sounding records," notes Sony Music Nashville senior vp A&R Jim Catino. "We've got something for everybody right now, and that's really great."
It's essentially hitting the refresh button, presenting some of the genre's ideals from the rotary- and cordless-phone eras to a generation that has grown up with smartphones in hand. The embrace of traditional music isn't a sign that country is going backward. Instead, it's bringing the best of the past into the present.
"Jon Pardi was able to solidify who he is in 2017 when that album came out, and that's exactly what I'm trying to do with my music," says Anderson. "By no means is it a revival of the '70s or '80s or '90s or anything. It's just what I learned from my heroes, and I'm trying to apply it to 2018 and beyond."