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The Decade’s Country Music: Is Pop-Country Finally Over?

Over the years, the sound of country music has evolved. Is that a good thing? Maybe not all the time.

The country music our grandparents and parents loved is full of those rich tones, mostly brought together by a slide, steel, or electric guitar and drums recorded in-studio. The country our generation loves or at least hears daily has replaced those tones with snap-tracks. Welcome to mainstream country.

Throughout country music, there are sub-genres nestled within, including outlaw country, country-folk, red-dirt, Americana, and pop-country. Over the past ten years, pop-country has very quickly become the most popular amongst radio station listeners. I couldn’t quite tell you why everyone obsesses over the snap-tracks and songs that could very easily chart on pop radio as quickly as they did the country media-base but to each their own.

I will admit, at first it was fun. You had Flordia-Georgia Line, a duo formed by singers Tyler Hubbard from Monroe, Georgia, and Brian Kelley from Ormond Beach, Flordia, singing their hit song, “Cruise”.

“Baby you’re a song
You make me wanna roll my windows down and cruise.”

In 2012, everything was cheesy and fun. This song is a great example.

Before this, listeners didn’t enjoy the super pop sound mixed with their country influences. After this, every artist was trying to create something that sounded similar. And to be honest, while the lyrics side of things has gotten a little better, the sound, it’s still awful.

What happened to real country music? Where is the pedal steel, the slide guitar, the fiddle, the real drums (not the ones played on a pad in the studio)?

For a while, country radio was taken over by what many would call “Bro-Country”. Unfamiliar with the term? It’s the country songs about jacking up your truck, drinking cases of beer and asking the “tan-legged Juliet” to dance in the moonlight in the middle of a cornfield on the tailgate of a truck.

I’m not exaggerating. Those lyrics have been sung in songs.

Cue Jason Aldean, Brantley Gilbert, and Luke Bryan.

While that era of music was fun for a second, and by fun, I just mean the concert part because it was like going to a huge party, it’s got to end at some point. Right? Well, it kind of did.

In 2015, we drifted into “Boyfriend Country”. The days of tailgate dancing were over, and now it was time to fall in love. The artist to thank for that — Monroe, Georgia native, and son of hit-songwriter Rhett Akins, Thomas Rhett.

With 1.9 million streams in the United States, TR’s single “Die a Happy Man” made everyone who listened want to fall in love.

“And I know that I can’t ever tell you enough
That all I need in this life is your crazy love
If I never get to see the Northern Lights
Or if I never get to see the Eiffel Tower at night
Oh, if all I got is your hand in my hand
Baby, I could die a happy man
A happy man, baby, mmm”

It made love sound so simple and easy. Who needs all of the extravagant things of the world when you can hold hands and be in love? Not TR, not the audience. And this is what led the rest of Nashville’s dreamy-eyed country guys to start singing about the same thing. There were country songs about not living life without the girl, being the song that makes the girl feel like she’s where she belongs, and perfect kisses.

Cue Brett Young, Brett Eldredge, and Scotty McCreery.

As much as I wish the boyfriend era of country had come and gone, it hasn’t completely made its way out of the genre yet. But you know what is starting to make its way out, and rapidly? Snap-tracks.

Country music will always be about love, heartbreak, growing up, and drinking beer. It’s a story-telling genre and everyone listening has a story that they are hoping the artists can bring to life in their music.

For a second, the genre lost touch of their story-telling ability to focus on the sound. Here lately, however, there looks to be hope as songs that don’t include the pop influences are climbing the charts.

We are almost five months into 2021, and there has been an array of songs in the top thirty airplay charts that bring listeners back to what used to be considered “good country music”.

Luke Combs, who never lets listeners down, held a five-week spot at number one with “Better Together”, a song about all of the little things in life that wouldn’t be as sweet if they weren’t in a pair, with the biggest connection being him, as long as his wife is right beside him.

Thomas Rhett, who has been a top-charter in the pop-country world, changed up his game recently, with his most recent number one, “What’s Your Country Song”, which asks the listeners which song they relate to the most. TR calls out all of the prime country songs like “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound”, “Dixieland Delight” and “Mama Tried”, just to name a few.

This isn’t his only moment in the airplay chart this year, though, as he just recently released a new record, “Country Again (Side A), and the title track “Country Again”, is already sitting at number twenty-seven.

In the song, Thomas Rhett says “man it feels good to be country again”. And I’m glad he’s seen the light and has come back to his roots.

There are other artists throughout the charts who haven’t hit number one, but don’t fall short of the true country sound that has been missing over the past ten years.

Chris Stapleton’s song “Starting Over”, a song about being happy as long as you’re with the person you love, has been labeled as “Outlaw Country” and climbed the charts, its highest ranking at number two.

Lainey Wilson’s song “Things A Man Oughta Know”, a song based on everything Wilson has learned throughout life, including not giving up on love, and how a man should know the same thing, is self-labeled by Wilson as “Bell Bottom Country” and is currently sitting at number twenty-three on the charts and climbing weekly.

Eric Church’s song, “Hell Of A View”, a song about two people in love, living life on the edge, is known as “Country Rock” and is holding out at number five right now at country radio.

Mainstream country has almost killed authentic country music. Everyone wants to do what’s popular because one song climbs the chart. However, the songs that have most recently begun to climb all have their own unique sounds. Artists are beginning to share their individuality again.

It’s no longer all pop-country. Will radio be able to keep it that way?

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Made By Students from the University of Alabama at Birmingham