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.”