Nineties country is having a bit of a moment.
Recent hits by Blake Shelton and Cole Swindell have tapped into nostalgia for country music’s most artistically rich and commercially successful era. However, with some of those efforts, one would think all the nineties were about were mullets, line dancing, and catchy hooks. Among more intense country music lovers, the nineties is often reduced to it being the era where the genre returned to its traditional roots after chasing the pop crossover audience, and it was pursuing that audience again that brought this golden era to an end.
I’ve got a different take on why the nineties were important. A few things came together at the same time to make country music explode during that time period. First, production standards were brought up to par with other genres, with an overdue switch to digital recording and a new standard of paying triple scale to session musicians. For the first time, country records could be played alongside rock and pop records without sounding like relics from another era.
Second, pop, rock, and R&B were all doggedly pursuing younger audiences, creating an opening for the baby boomer audience that was aging out of top 40 radio and found modern rock too jarring to the ears. It’s no coincidence that seventies rock was the biggest influence on the new country sound, with artists emulating the sound of James Taylor, the Eagles, and Linda Ronstadt on their records.
Third, and most importantly, a new generation of artists emerged that had been allowed to cultivate their talents over time. Most of the big new artists had paid their dues for years, so that when they got their big breaks, they were older and in full command of their talents. They had lives enough of their lives to have stories to tell.
The nineties produced more great country music than any other era in history because the doors swung fully open and space was made for a wide breadth of artists to flourish. There was room for artists to synthesize traditional country, sixties pop, seventies rock, and American folk music into a sound that was fully modern but deeply rooted in the music that came before. Even the most staunchly traditional artists borrowed heavily from other genres. Clint Black may have sounded like the second coming of Merle Haggard, but he could still sing the hell out of “Desperado.”
In the nineties, country music presented itself as every bit the peer of every other musical genre. It proudly claimed a prominent seat at the popular music table, and offered an invitation to all listeners, regardless of age, gender, race, or geographical location, to come and listen. For many years, I’ve been waiting for the next generation of artists to emerge that would build on that legacy.
Now, they’re finally here. In the coming days, we will be spotlighting albums from seven contemporary artists that are bringing a nineties sensibility back to country music. In terms of style, sound, and image, they’re very different from each other. But what they all have in common is that they’re making sophisticated, relevant work that is expanding the boundaries of what country music can be. They are bring a fresh perspective to a genre that has felt increasingly stagnant over the past two decades, demonstrating a new way forward for country music that is grounded in its past but has a bolder, broader vision of its future.
Simply put, they’re filling them shoes.
Here is a complete list of the seven albums that we’re going to cover in this series, alphabetically by artist. It will be updated with links to each review as they are published. The series will launch with Tami Neilson tomorrow.