Late last summer, singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson unleashed a caustic Facebook rant directed at the Academy of Country Music and Music Row, blasting them for what he called “the formulaic cannon fodder bullshit they’ve been pumping down rural America’s throat for the last 30 years.” He was responding to the fact that the ACM – which is based in California and not in Nashville – had created a special award in honor of Merle Haggard, a hero and friend to Simpson whose legacy he felt was being exploited. His suggestion was for the organizations in question to “start dedicating their programs to more actual Country Music.”
But had Simpson actually bothered to look at any recent country charts before redrawing this familiar line in the sand, he might have noticed something interesting. The Number One song on Billboard‘s Country Airplay the week before his outburst was California native Jon Pardi’s “Head Over Boots,” a rousing love song that’s one of 2016’s best country singles and – not that it’s a contest – more easily identifiable as traditionally “country” than the bulk of Simpson’s rock & soul experiments on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. Pardi’s first-time chart-topping success with “Head Over Boots” links him with a group of young artists currently reintroducing traditional sounds to the contemporary mainstream.
Chris Stapleton’s CMA Awards coup last November looked like it might signal a shift in popular taste and radio programming toward the classically-styled material on his album Traveller. That acclaimed collection has sold phenomenally well and Stapleton remains an in-demand performer on the touring circuit, but his victories haven’t yet translated to a complete overhaul of radio or, really, any massive hit singles under his own name. At the same time and much to the chagrin of purist fans, Florida Georgia Line and Cole Swindell have continued to enjoy radio success.
Massive shifts on radio rarely if ever happen overnight: they’re more gradual, incremental drifts in style that require time before becoming monolithic. Look at the neo-traditional movement of the Eighties. Ricky Skaggs, George Strait, Keith Whitley and others are rightfully recognized for contributing some important work that influenced generations to follow. But the “great credibility scare,” as it’s sometimes known, wasn’t exactly a sweeping change for radio. Thirty years ago in 1986 (three years or so past Skaggs’ first hits), Randy Travis’ “Diggin’ Up Bones” and Dwight Yoakam’s “Honky Tonk Man” were sharing the same air with Dan Seals’ Number One “Bop” and Ronnie Milsap’s “In Love,” both of which could have worked on an Eighties soft-rock playlist. This traditional streak continued through the Nineties, but got pureed in the blender with arena rock when Garth Brooks made his shows into the kind of spectacles that let Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan aim for superstardom.
With that in mind, Pardi views his Number One with optimism but doesn’t imagine country music will see a dramatic move toward only traditionalism. He’d be happy just to see the scales a little more balanced.
“People are still gonna do whatever they want,” he says. “But there will be a bigger percentage of traditional-sounding stuff along with the more poppy-sounding stuff, to where maybe one day we can meet in the middle. But it’s not gonna go back to the Nineties, let’s put it that way.”
Pardi’s California Sunrise is evidence that he and his team are savvy enough to realize this. In many ways it’s his vision of a 2010s party album: every track comes loaded with an abundance of country’s bedrock fiddle and steel, but there are also beefy drums and guitars along with subtle uses of drum programming – a trigger for many – to blend his expression of tradition with the cutting-edge sounds of the present. Pardi is equally capable of recalling George Strait on the suave bedroom number “Night Shift” and the rough, electric edges of Bakersfield on “Paycheck,” for one thing. But he pivots to a limber R&B groove on his new single “Dirt on My Boots” – in which he sings about a farmer who wants to clean up and take the woman in his life out on the town, while fiddle and guitar double up on a stinging riff. It sounds like a fresh and modern spin on traditionalism, not backward-looking or concerned with high-minded notions of authenticity.
“You take advantage of what other people are being really successful, like the FGLs and the Sam Hunts,” explains Pardi. “And pay attention to what they’re doing and what people are really digging and bring it into a traditional realm. You never know what could happen.”
Hunt, whose smooth R&B inflections and liberal use of synthetic instruments in “Break Up in a Small Town” and “Take Your Time” have made him both immensely popular and intensely hated, turned up in the most recent iteration of this ages-old argument about authenticity in country music. Curiously, this time it was Staind frontman-turned-country singer Aaron Lewis who called out Hunt and perennial whipping boy Luke Bryan for “choking all the life out of country.” Perhaps this was a strategic maneuver: Lewis’ new album Sinner, which debuted at Number One, also happened to be coming out September 15th. Conveniently, his onstage diatribe spared Florida Georgia Line, with whom he shares label resources.
Lewis launched Sinner with the pointed track “That Ain’t Country,” a deeply twangy – and undeniably hooky – shot at the poppy sound and carefree vibe of the mainstream. “It’s full of good times and happy endings, my life ain’t like that,” he sings, which is a pretty fair point considering the best-night-of-your-life subject matter of numerous recent hits. But most importantly, it cleverly aligned Lewis with a passionate group of people that feel their tastes aren’t well-represented by the current radio market. There’s even a cottage industry of blogs catering to this very vocal crowd, giving them a space to air their grievances and celebrate the talents they see as worthy successors for their heroes.
But there’s a troubling aspect of the argument, a glimpse of which can be seen in “That Ain’t Country” when Lewis takes a few bars to shout out the “real” country singers in his life. Along with the usual cast of male legends, the only woman mentioned is June Carter Cash, who is defined only by her husband’s work and not her own contributions to the genre or even as the progeny of country music’s first family. There’s no mention of Dolly, Patsy, Tammy, Loretta or any of the other women who broke new ground in country music. It is all too frequently how these debates about authenticity shape up. Performers with influences that scan as masculine tend to be filed as “real,” while anyone else (frequently women) gets tagged as having been cynically manufactured for mass exposure. In a more recent Rolling Stone Country interview, Lewis makes a point of saying how he’s “old enough to remember the country music that defined the genre,” which is funny considering he was born in 1972 – long after the genre’s establishment as a marketing construct and its incorporation of pop touches to reach a bigger audience. Maybe he’s just talking about the country music that defines his own taste profile.
As Lewis’ statements and song indicate, the battle to preserve traditionalism is often tended on one side by a very macho perspective. That means it can be a tough battle for artists like East Tennessee native Tara Thompson, a cousin of Loretta Lynn who comes from the same label family as Lewis. Harnessing Lynn’s fiery spirit, Thompson’s unaffected drawl on “Someone to Take Your Place” and “Side Effects” sounds like it was carried straight down from the Appalachian mountains, but her reference points come through a very modern lens – she isn’t the least bit prudish or coy about sex, for one thing. In “Someone to Take Your Place,” she snarls the title line followed by a series of places where the guy will be replaced (couch, bed, porch, truck and “up on the Maytag,” in that order). That line was her grandmother’s favorite.
“If she approves of it, I think we’re good. And she definitely tells it like it is,” says Thompson. “I fit in very on the traditional [side] but I hope that I also have my own sound. I want to be that person when you hear my song on the radio, it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s Tara Thompson.'”
So far, Thompson hasn’t enjoyed a hit single, but she’s starting to gain attention for her quirky songs and energetic shows. On her self-titled EP, there’s a song called “Pregnant at the Prom” that brings to mind a long-running MTV reality series upon first glance but sensitively and lovingly tells the story of a young mother – based on her own mom, who was expecting when she graduated high school – who puts her best foot forward and tries to prepare for the changes coming her way. Thompson’s songs tend to be pulled from the pages of her own life in this way, so her approach tended toward whatever feels natural.
“I don’t think anyone can really say what’s real and what’s not, because whatever you sing, if you actually like what you sing, and you feel like you’re telling something, then it’s real,” she says. “It’s just a matter of what’s real to one person is real to another. Me, I just tell my past in stories, so it really just is real. I like that my songs do, but not everyone has to be super country.”
Meanwhile, another young traditionalist just hit Number One on the Mediabase/Country Aircheck chart (a Billboard competitor) with a slicker, more polished alternative to Pardi’s often raucous sound. Vicksburg, Mississippi native William Michael Morgan appeared seemingly out of nowhere in 2015 with his single “I Met a Girl,” which describes the innocent origins of a relationship and took most of a year to make its slow ascent to the top. With his down-home demeanor and robust baritone, Morgan feels like he could have existed during the neo-traditionalist Eighties or the commercial high water mark of the Nineties – save for the fact that he only entered this world 22 years ago. With his debut album Vinyl, Morgan is placing his bets that radio will find a little room to accommodate his throwback style, which pays homage to Strait, Mark Chesnutt and Joe Nichols, among others.
“There will always be a spot for the traditional, real classic-country sound, whether it’s me [or] whoever the artist may be,” he says. “Whether it’s now or 20 years from now, we’ll always need those people that are gonna tip the hat to real country music.”
Strangely enough, Morgan’s “I Met a Girl” was written by Sam Hunt, Shane McAnally and Old Dominion’s Trevor Rosen, each of whom are responsible for quite a few pop-country smashes. It’s a trend that holds through the rest of Vinyl, the Music Row A-list songwriters (Ashley Gorley, Casey Beathard) giving it a youthful edge to complement Morgan’s more classic Telecaster-and-steel sound. In the swinging “Beer Drinker,” Morgan sings the praises of both beer and the blue-collar workers who keep everything running, while the Rhodes piano-driven “Cheap Cologne” gives him room to fret about leaving a cheating partner. Morgan sees what he’s doing not so much as defying the prevailing atmosphere on country radio as actually being unable to fake his way through anything different.
“Not knocking it in any way, shape or form – I think country music is country music, no matter who does it or how it’s done,” he says. “It’s just, that’s who I am and that’s the style that I do.”
Still, Morgan initially met some of the resistance that’s been encountered by traditionalists who arrive on the scene during a period of pop dominance – that of being “too country.” He placed his bets on unsuspecting radio programmers being willing to accommodate his music after they’d seen him perform.
“We’d go in our meetings and we’d play Haggard and Jones,” he says. “We’d go on a radio tour and our covers would be ‘Misery and Gin’ and [Mark Chesnutt’s] ‘Too Cold at Home.’ So of course we got that a lot. But we’re damn proud of who we are and damn proud of what we do.”
Unfortunately, the shifts in taste toward more traditional sounds tend to favor only the latest (read: youngest) versions of it, like Morgan or Pardi. Morgan hero Mark Chesnutt, a mainstay of the Nineties boom who charted numerous hits and eight Number Ones, emerged from a period of silence this summer to release Tradition Lives, his first full-length album since 2008. The East Texas native left the major label system in 2002 following his self-titled album for Columbia Records, though his presence on radio had begun to fade by the back half of the Nineties – a time when progressive, pop-friendly female performers like Shania Twain were capturing the attention of millions with savvy, crossover-ready spins on country music.
“I got lost because I didn’t want to do that,” says Chesnutt, though he did record a chart-topping cover of Aerosmith’s juggernaut ballad “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” that he later disavowed. “I wanted to keep doing the George Jones and Merle Haggard type music, the stuff I grew up listening to. I thought my label would stick with me and let me be who I was because we were coming off all these Number One singles, we were selling a whole bunch of albums, but it wasn’t good enough for them. They wanted me to start doing exactly what those guys were doing. I ended up recording some things I wasn’t very comfortable with over the years, just trying to play the game.”
Thus Tradition Lives is the kind of record the East Texan could have released at nearly any point in his remarkably consistent career. With hits like “It Sure Is Monday” and “Bubba Shot the Jukebox,” Chesnutt’s warm and pliable set of pipes anchored arrangements that made Garth Brooks look almost pop by comparison. But the spread-the-good-news title of Chesnutt’s album is an apt description of what’s contained inside — songs of exquisite heartbreak and alcohol-slanted decision making, plus hefty servings of fiddle and steel. Lead single “Oughta Miss Me By Now” casts him in the role of a clueless and newly single guy, lingering over the misguided notion that she’d ever reconsider. There’s even more drama: the languid “Is It Still Cheating” dares ask if infidelity on both sides offsets the betrayal. Meanwhile, on “Never Been to Texas,” Chesnutt takes aim at Music Row: “He said you can’t sell truth no more, the kind that Jones and Hag are famous for.”
And while he may have missed the recent uptick of traditional-sounding records to hit country radio, Chesnutt is correct in his assessment that many fans haven’t stopped wanting to hear more of that sound. He makes a living by touring year-round on the idea and no longer feels like he has to try on ill-fitting trends at this point in the game. He’ll leave that for someone else.
“That’s great, that’s fine if that’s what you want,” he says. “But there’s a lot of people out there who want to hear traditional country music. That’s not a dead form. Country music is still an art form that’s alive and well.”
While the debate about what precisely constitutes country and what doesn’t will continue well past programmed beats and guest stars from pop music, there will still be artists calling on the music’s past to help them extend the story in their own ways. Sturgill Simpson is a proud part of that long tradition, stretching the borders of country at the same time he plays up his influences. While he and other left-of-center sensations like Margo Price and Kelsey Waldon may still exist outside the periphery of country radio airplay, their artistic visions aren’t all that different than that of Morgan, Thompson or Pardi.
“[There are] a lot of underground guys like Cody Jinks that are making an impact and that I pay attention to, or Sturgill Simpson,” says Pardi. “It could be the start of it. It’s fun to think that, but I like to think there’s more of an awareness and an acceptance. If it’s a revival, hell, let’s do it.”