Saturday Open Thread: What is Country Anymore?

The current issue of Entertainment Weekly, which arrived in my mailbox today, has an interesting three-page feature story on Sugarland.

Titled “The Sugarland Express”, the sub-headline proclaims that “With a new album influenced by R.E.M., Marvin Gaye, and U2, Sugarland is the most exciting country act since the Dixie Chicks.”

You can make of that what you will, but what caught my attention most in the article was Jennifer Nettles’ response to the claim by an industry executive that Sugarland is “bigger than country.”

“What is country anymore?” she asks.

That’s as good an open thread question as I’ve ever heard. I’ve got my own ideas, but I’ll let y’all take a stab at it first.


  1. That’s so sad. It makes me wonder if she is saying, tragically, “What is country anymore?” as if she misses traditional country music; or if she’s asking it in a more flippant manner, “What is country anymore?” as if she doesn’t care.

    I understand the “business model” that has made mainstream country music and mainstream country radio what they are today. I spent years being upset and outraged. I’ve now learned that it’s much more productive to count our blessings for the many new places that classic country music is available: XM; Sirius; Internet Radio; Cable TV, DISH Network and Direct TV digital packages, etc.

    I don’t think we’ll ever see mainstream country embrace our heores and legends again, so we just have to support the aforementioned outlets, and work to create new ones!


  2. The station I work for is not mainstream in that we’re not owned by a huge corporation and do not employ “consultants” or programmers. I get to play what I want as dictated by our listeners.

    I’ve finished shows where I look back at the playlist and see I played Carrie Underwood and then gone to an old Opry recording of a Carl Smith and June Carter duet. Or Lady Antebellum with a Jimmy Dean classic right after it. And I’m getting calls for Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long”.

    It can be jarring at times. I prefer ‘eclectic’ and I think most radio listeners recognize it and appreciate it. Sure, there are those who only want their steady diet of Kenny, Toby and Rascal Flatts and that’s fine. There are oodles of station that will cater to them.

    What is ‘country’ anymore? I say it’s whatever the listeners want it to be.

  3. Really great question! Seems like over the years the line has become so blurry, especially now that the generation that grew up with Garth as an introduction. I’m one of those that can listen to WSM, ie. mixture of the old and new. I don’t believe every country song has to start with a steel guitar intro like the old days. At the same time, I like to think I recognize a pop song with a fiddle in attempt to pass it off as country.

    Country is just so varied anymore. It’s not just about The Opry or Tootsie’s. Today, acts like Skynyrd and the Allman Bros would definitely be called “Country”. Acts like James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt would probably even get the Music Row treatment today. I don’t think it’s so much about someone being “country” anymore so much as being “country enough”.

    Personally, I really appreciate Sugarland as they originated out of the Decatur (GA) music scene (Indigo Girls) and I’ve always appreciated that folk / singer/songwriter style.

  4. Fife – She said it in the flippant style. As in, we can push any boundaries we want and go in any direction we want, because there is no real definition of country anymore.

    Country artists that don’t sound like country artists all use this line. They say “We’re pushing the boundaries.” That’s how a group like Rascal Flatts gets away with songs like “Bob That Head.” Or Sugarland gets away with “All I Want To Do” and Big & Rich get away with “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy.” It’s all in the name of “pushing the envelope.” I really just think it’s these artists trying to shelter their undying love of 80’s power pop ballads and 80’s arena rock in the country market – where radio will play it and CDs still sell.

    But if country is the new rock, the new classic rock, the new pop, the new folk, the new rap, etc., then maybe a better question for the future is “will country even exist in 10 years?” Or will it simply be classic rock that occasionally name checks Johnny Cash and a tractor. Or power pop with a Jesus twist.

    Who knows. All I know, is the further country goes in the direction it seems to be heading, the further in the past I search for music for my iPod.

  5. Kicks 101.5 here in Atlanta just got finished playing an interview-filled preview of some of the songs from the new album of “Atlanta’s Band, Sugarland.” They played The Last Country Song, which is a sure #1 hit–a really beautiful song. And then I hear their latest POP single, All I Want to Do, and it doesn’t even seem like the same “group”…using the word “group” lightly there, but that’s another topic.

    Reading the quote from Ms. Nettles, it makes me wonder if she’s wasn’t just asking a legitamate question. Maybe she doesn’t know? I know I don’t. Well, I’m off to shuffle through my 90’s-Country-filled iTunes playlists!

  6. Just wondering how the song “The Last Country Song” goes because I’m pretty sure Blake Shelton sings and co-wrote that song. Maybe it’s just one of those deals that it has the same title, but if you could give me the chorus of that song that would be awesome! Thanks

  7. Nevermind. I googled it and found out the song is actually titled “Very Last Country Song” It sounds like a very similar concept as Blake’s song, but it has a different title.

  8. The Last Country Song starts with an aged person announcing that it’s their birthday and all they’d like to do is go through some old photographs. The photos become memories and the chorus goes on to state that if love didn’t leave, children didn’t grow up, other standard country themes–if these things didn’t happen, then the song would be the last country song. I can’t say I remember all the words from just one listen, but the song is sung with appreciation for country music…unlike that Rascal Flatts song, Backwards, which I always felt was a pop song picking on country music and it’s stereotypes.

  9. could we possibly come back to the original question and perhaps discuss the latest superstars of country music in another thread?

  10. I like Lynn’s answer, but would add that there are also some very good contemporary acts that haven’t lost sight of the things that make country distinct from other genres – Dale Watson, Wayne Hancock, Sunny Sweeney, Dwight Yoakam, Marty Stuart, and lots of others. Resisting the “it’s all relative” line of logic used to justify opportunistic crossover attempts – and also, occasionally, worthwhile experiments like the Krauss/Plant pairing – doesn’t necessarily require living in the past. If you know where to look, there are still people making good ol’ country music and unashamed to call it as such.

  11. I hope I don’t get bitched out for this, but I actually don’t care what county is anymore, maybe it’s because I was born and grew up in the 90’s and was just used to country being more pop, which I like.

    To me I don’t care if country sounds more pop or more rock as long it sounds REAL. “Come On Over” by Jessica Simpson is a fine example of something that I wouldn’t consider country not just because it sounds really pop but because it doesn’t sound real.

    I love the sounds of fiddles, guitars and all those great country instruments, but I also don’t mind pop or rock instruments or synthesizers , Rap on the other hand I can’t stand, because most of it sound real, and by real I mean genuine, something that can happen in real life more, not just some beat that the lyrics and the singer gets lost in.

    This is where I think country is having trouble, many new artists don’t sound true and real, they sound like they just want to have a number one hit on their hands and will do anything to get one, many of them don’t care just about making and singing music.

  12. Jake… great point. THAT “manufactured country” Music Row will shovel out in desperate attempts to find the next ____ (fill in the blank).

    I like the general jist of some of the responses in that country can be pretty subjective. Perhaps that’s the charm (?) of it, that my country doesn’t necessarily sound just like your country. I’ve found a good example in CMA Fest with the great diversity of acts but by the end of the day you know you’ve been entertained by country music.

  13. What is country? It depends on who you ask. If you compare the music of Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams Sr. and Patsy Cline, you would be comparing thre different styles of music and yet all of these people are considered country. Most of Patsy Cline`s recordings lean towards pop. The debate as to what counts as country music should have started to rage long before now. It upsets me to hear that country music today sounds too much like pop music when people like Jim Reeves were recording pop flavored country music 50 years ago.

  14. Now, I am not too impressed with any of this pop country stuff we’ve got going on nowadays myself, however, I have a question. I hear alot of people, not here perse, but in general, gripe about all these rock and pop acts taking over country, and ruining the purity of Willie and Waylon. I find it interesting that Willie and Waylon were that generations Sugarland and Big and Rich, really.

  15. This is just my opinion, but I’ve always felt that the best country music was about the life in rural America (hence the term “Country” [natch!]), and songs about the land. And who can forget those classic themes of heartbreak, drinking, prison, or family?

    But to hear country radio nowadays, it seems that what made country music great in the first place is now considered passe at best, and politically incorrect at worst. Indeed, what rock and roll was accused of doing for so long, valuing youth over experience, is exactly what the country music industry is doing. In my opinion, it’s not so much a matter of what country music is anymore, or whether it’s now too pop. It’s whether any of the artists in Nashville and indeed the entire industry itself has any clue as to the history of the music they say they are spreading to the masses. Are people like Patsy Cline and Hank Williams just names to drop in songs, or does their music still mean anything anymore?

    The question boils down to whether country music really still is the music of the people living in the country, or just another corporate music genre whose roots have been ploughed over. Fans of true country would do well to ask themselves that question.

  16. A quick and dirty guide to whether something is not country is the answer to this question.

    “Can you take a guitar ( or any one instrument) and perform a song with no other instruments AND have a complete song?”

    If you can it may or may not be country, but if you can’t, then it’s not country

  17. I just got home from seeing Alison Krauss and Robert Plant in concert. So to answer this question:
    Country = Alison Krauss

    She was AMAZING!!
    And Plant and the band were so complimentary to her work.

    Btw… Note to Kevin:
    I saw Pam Tillis at the show. Hard not to recognize!

  18. This took me a long time to write, sorry it’s belated!

    I like how Paul put it, and actually everyone on this thread has raised some really great points. I’m not enough of a musicologist to offer a solid technical definition of what country music is or sounds like today, but it’s clear that from a business perspective, country music has somehow become the only music medium left (besides iPod commercials, I guess) in which artists whose work falls on the fringes of other genres can hope to achieve commercial success. LJ is right; in terms of marketing, country has become the new traditional pop, the new 70’s rock, the new pop-folk – you name it. Those genres can’t compete anymore in Timbaland’s beat-heavy Top 40 landscape or in the post-grunge modern rock world. So country music gets taken advantage of, and ultimately a generation of “country music fans” develops the mistaken impression that “Me & My Gang” is a country song.

    And personally, I wouldn’t mind all that integration if it were just a little more honest. If Lyric Street Records were peddling Rascal Flatts as southern-style bubblegum-pop instead of “country,” I’d probably be more tolerant of their existence, partially because I think it might keep country radio in check a bit more. One of the reasons I think critics are generally more kind to Shania Twain than to other pop-leaning acts is that she makes no secret of the fact that her music is largely pop and just lets listeners take it or leave it, thereby sapping much of the guilt out of the guilty pleasure, if that makes sense. She and her music beats you to the punch-line.

    I guess I think the main thing that distinguishes pure country music from other genres is the storytelling element. Of course there is a particular sound to traditional country that should not be lost, but in my opinion, the story is paramount.

  19. To me, country music isn’t about the instruments on the record. It’s not about the sound. It’s the feeling and emotion behind a great song that makes country music to me. I grew up in the post-Garth era myself and I don’t really see how that makes a whole lot of difference. I still love Faron Young, Willie Nelson, Dottie West, Roger Miller and could match my country wits with the best of musicologists, but my country is not necessarily your country. My country is that of Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, Brooks & Dunn, Trisha Yearwood, Alan Jackson, Allison Krauss, and Dwight Yoakam. Each and every one of these artists has a wide range of styles. Is every track they ever recorded hard-core country in the ilk of Jones and Wynette? Not by a long shot.

    But the thing that separates a country artist from a pop or rock artist in my opinion is their approach to a song. A country artist – a real one – will pour out their heart and soul in 4 minutes. A pop artist will pour out the hooks and the rhythm in that time. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule; the fact remains that country is still the music of American life and as long as we are loving, living, and losing life, I doubt we’ll ever hear ‘the very last country song.’

  20. When I growing up ,on the beach, in the early seventies we could only get about five stations: two were country, one was an oldies, and one was pop/rock. Very often , even then, you would hear cross over. Glen Campbell, Brenda Lee, Eddy Arnold, the Eagles. Back then John Denver and Olivia Newton -John were considered country singers. The same question was asked about country then , especially after both Denver and Newton-John won major country awards. What has happened to country started when Elvis was considered country. Once the audience grew , and money poured in,the record labels and radio never looked back. Garth Brooks was an artist that was in the making for years. Country use to have a limited audience and suddenly , with the birth of televison, country reached a larger audience and the music cleaned up its act a little so more people would like it. The problem with country today is that it has become a marketing term . Country is the brand name under which Kenny Chesney , Rascal Flatts, and Sugarland deliver their music. You know where to look for them. Maybe the question should be was there ever really a music that could be called country; meaning rural, white, working class, Southern, and Christian. Yes to some degree , but like its sibling jazz, country became too popular to stay and relate to a core audience.

  21. If I’m not mistaken (and correct me if I am) Ms. Nettles may well ask that question; she came from an r&b/rock/blues background in Atlanta and did not actively seek out a Nashville career.

  22. Very sad what passes for Country nowadays…I have met many people who tell me they love Country music, but to them that means Rascal Flatts..They cannot see beyond this talented but very pop-sounding group.

    I don’t know exactly how to define it, but I know true Country when I hear it. Alan Jackson, George Strait, Patty Loveless, Brad Paisley, Dwight Yoakam are Country…Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts, Faith Hill and Martina McBride(with the exception of Timeless) and Carrie Underwood just ain’t what I call Country.

    King George may have said it best in HEARTLAND.”When you hear twin fiddles and a steel guitar, you listen to the sound of the American heart..”

    To the best of my knowledge(I could be wrong), Keith Urban has neither fiddle or steel in his band. He does play banjo occasionally, but it seems to me he plays a more folk rather than Country or Bluegrass style. To my hearing, Keith’s ONLY true Country hit was “Where the Blacktop Ends”

    And it seems that in today’s market, the ladies especially have to water down their Country with Pop sounding arrangements, and instrumentation. Brad and Alan are huge stars, playing real Country. The men seem to be able to sell this. But with the ladies, it’s another standard.

    I thought Patty’s song KEEP YOUR DISTANCE was the best pure Country single of 2005. I thought for sure this would be a #1 smash. I woke up and grew up when this amazing song didn’t even chart. Thankfully Patty continues to make the kind of true Country and Bluegrass she believes in.

    Sadly, another one of my favorites Sara Evans was not able to succeed as a true neo-traditonal purest, but had to compromise to become commercially viable. Sara’s debut THREE CHORDS AND THE TRUTH was a critical smash, but a commercial failure. It was hailed as one of the best pure Country records of the late nineties, and Sara was widely praised as being another Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline or Patty Loveless, But at some point after Three Chords foundered, Joe Galente convinced Sara to go more Pop. He told Sara that with her pure Country voice, she could take any Pop song on the charts, and by virtue of her pristine rural vocals alone it would BECOME a Country song. Sara is an amazing vocalist, but her newer stuff just doesnt stand up to her more traditional music, in my opinion. I am still waiting and hoping for Sara to return to her roots, and realize her true potential. Sadly Sara’s road band no longer includes a steel guitar, but to her credit, at least she still has a mandolin and fiddle player..

    I really miss the dynamic interplay between fiddle and steel, and the lush sound of the mandolin for textured intrumental harmony. These elements of true Country are sorely missing from much of today’s “Country.”

    To those who would call me narrow minded, let me share a little story. I was looking for the Opry gospel album at Best Buy in my area, and I had trouble finding it, because this particular store did away with all genre and category classification. There was no Country section, but rather ALL artists were arranged together alphabetically by name. Is this the future of Country, where it loses all contact with it’s roots and identity and it becomes indistingishable from pop, soft rock, folk, blues, soul, adult contemporary and even rap!?

    Identity and traditon DO matter..

    -Steve from Boston

  23. Steve,

    While I may be marrow minded as well, I tend to agree with you. What happened to Sara Evans’ music is what I’m nervous will happen with Ashton Shepherd.

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