In the past it seemed most music genres were associated with certain groups of people. Rock music was made for white, middle class men and boys. Rap and hip hop were rooted the black community. Young girls existed to obsess over the latest, heart throbbing pop star. And country music never seemed to reach into the city limits from its large rural fan base.
But lately, the radio waves have warmed up to a more diverse selection of artists and songs. With cross-genre duets and artists recreating their sound, the top 20 stations aren’t limiting themselves to sugar pop and soft alternative rock. While hip hop at times controls playlists now, an unexpected sound may be in the running for dominance in the near future.
Country music isn’t just for farmers and cowboys any more. The songs are no longer limited to being about dogs, tractors and unattainable women. Although Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart” still won’t fly anywhere but the classic country stations, Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” has listeners of all backgrounds. Country has begun to shed its stereotypes and creep into music libraries of suburban and city homes.
This new wave of country music can thank top-selling artist Garth Brooks for putting spotlight on the country twang. , Mike Spencer, a doctoral candidate in American studies and expert on popular music said Brooks took the music away from its traditional roots and added the excitement of rock and roll to gain an unexpected audience. “He appeals to people that don’t normally listen to country,” Spencer said. “His performance style has a striking resemblance to rock artists.” He mentioned that Brooks’ extensive use of lighting, pyrotechnics, large stage and wireless microphone was unique to country music shows until that point. Because of this, he has sold more albums than Nirvana, Mariah Carey and even king of pop, Michael Jackson.
Shania Twain also contributed to the revamping of country music’s look, Spencer said. The simple fact that she was from Canada and like Brooks, didn’t come from the typical Podunk background made her very different from the rest of the country community. She let her music move toward a rock sound, and record sales boomed. Twain was not only able to draw in listeners from all parts of America and Canada, but she globalized the music by taking a two year world tour and gaining fans of every culture.
Perhaps it is solely because of the breakthroughs of Brooks and Twain that have made it possible for younger country stars to have similar success. Angela Goodman, a supply chain management junior, explained that although she usually listens to all kinds of music, country was never high on that list until recently. She said that she’s hears it more often now that it has gained popularity, so she’s grown to like it through artists like Taylor Swift. “Carrie Underwood was on American Idol, so people followed her into the country scene,” she said.
Victoria Marzec, a journalism freshman, agreed that it was the younger female singers that attracted her to the new country. Two years ago, she almost never listened to country, but now it’s the majority of the music she listens to. “I got into it when it became more popular and lost some of its down under, twangy sound,” she said. Marzec explained that the women in the country genre have moved more towards pop music, but male artists, like Brad Paisley and Brooks and Dunn, have gone towards rock and roll. “They’ve made it more glamorous than dirt and cowboy boots,” she said.
Even some rock musicians are including elements of country music into their songs. Spencer explained that Nickelback, a popular rock band, has hints of hillbilly through southern drawls, violins, themes and lyrics. Kid Rock is unique, too, because he is from urban Detroit and has incorporated hard rock, hip hop and country. Spencer explained that these things are mostly due to advances in music technology and consolidation of media outlets. “[Record companies] don’t want 10 artists that can sell 100,000 albums,” he said. “They want that one artist that will sell a million.”
Because different styles of music have become easier to get a hold of, Spencer said, regional ties to those genres have disappeared. Through mass distribution in stores like Best Buy and mp3s online, people don’t have to go out and hunt for the music of different cultures. This is part of the reason why Canadians and urban northerners have able to tap into the southern market. More people are being exposed to country and realizing it isn’t just for simple folk. “Rock was turned into a form of high art,” Spencer said. “Country music never had that.”
There are some critics to the transformation of the country twang however. Keith Billik, manager of Elderly Instruments, explained that the new country artists have changed the sound so much that it’s hard for him to even categorize it as country music. “Old country definitely had a strong emphasis on good song writing and a more genuine sound,” he said. “Modern country just sounds really produced, like people trying to make money.” While he avoids as much pop country as possible, he will occasionally listen to Brad Paisley, and understands why some people might find newer country music appealing. “It’s not that country-ish any more,” Billik said. “For someone that likes rock and roll that might be why they like country music.”
The store tends to favor country and bluegrass musicians, so there hasn’t been a drastic shift in sales to more common country instruments, but enough to notice. Billik explained that some instruments more associated with country have become more popular. For example, they have been selling more Fender Telecasters which are the more twangy electric guitars typically found in country. He’s also noticed more local country bands gaining popularity and others moving further towards the traditional roots of the style.
“People are more open-minded to be influenced by other music,” Billik said. “The lines are pretty blurry now.” Spencer said he wouldn’t be surprised if popular music genres continued to merge together, but doesn’t think that any specific style will ever cease to exist. “There will always be experimentation and more traditional preservation,” he said.
As music blends into fewer genres and media giants fuse into even fewer mega-corporations, it may be unavoidable to have top 20 radio stations playing even more similar sounding music. Perhaps this could be a good thing. With fewer styles to choose from, there would be fewer arguments over what style is better; it’d be easier to compare single groups or artists and decide who may be better. This too could break music divides between groups of people. But at the same time, one massive genre of music could take the individuality out of song writing, and the regions and groups might lose a huge part of their identity. Or, maybe this movement of country music is nothing more than a money-making fad, and music elitists can sleep safely tonight knowing their favorites will still exist in the morning and for years to come.