The Year That Country Rocked
Big changes have been taking place in country music – changes that rock fans have been getting excited about. As 2018 proved to be the year that country rocked, we get to the heart of why, and talk to some of the new scene’s movers and shakers.
We get to the heart of why country rock is enjoying something of a revival, and talk to some of the new scene’s movers and shakers.
The legendary songwriter Harlan Howard once said: “Country music is three chords and the truth.” In 2018 those three chords are ringing louder than ever, and the truth has swung back towards the whole darkand-light honesty of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. You can hear this powerful combination in the latest releases by Eric Church, Sturgill Simpson, Blackberry Smoke, Brent Cobb and Brothers Osborne, among others. And at this autumn’s Americana Festival in the US, with a record attendance of 68,000, you could hear it in the rousing performances of rising stars such as Aaron Lee Tasjan, Lilly Hiatt and Fantastic Negrito.
To understand the current state of country music, it helps to know a bit of history. After rising out of Appalachian folk songs and Protestant hymns, modern country music was born in Nashville in the late 1950s. Producers Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley started spiking the old-style hillbilly moonshine with string sections, twangy guitars and danceable back-beats. The ‘Nashville sound’, as it came to be called, was the crossover blueprint for much of what we hear today. But it also created a kind of internal tug of war within country. When the genre leaned too pop and lovey-dovey, as it did by the late 60s, in came the Outlaw movement, with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson, to pull it back to a rootsier place. After that sound played out, in came the disco-influenced Urban Cowboy trend. And so it’s gone to the present day, where the genre has been dominated for much of the 2010s by the EDM ‘bro country’ of Luke Bryan and Florida-Georgia Line. What we’ve been hearing this year is a kind of rollicking protest – music for country fans hungry for more than electronic beats and endless odes to small-town Saturday nights.
Vince Gill, one of country’s great ambassadors and now a touring member of the Eagles, summed it up: “You do get a little weary of ‘You’re hot, I’m hot, we’re in a truck.’”
John Osborne of duo Brothers Osborne agrees: “I think people are tired of the bullshit and are ready for real substance.”
Brent Cobb said: “When I write songs, I’m always thinking about dark and light and life and death.”
Sturgill Simpson, one of the most successful of the new breed, won’t even put a name on what’s happening. “I’m gonna play rock’n’roll and I’m going to build a little army, and you’ll come to my show and it’ll be four hours long and it’ll be an American music show. It won’t be a country music show, Americana music show or soul music show, we’re gonna touch it all, because I love it all.”
Loving it all is a common thread that ties all of these new artists together. The Cadillac Three’s members bonded in high school over shared love for both Alabama and the Beastie Boys. And the rocky, electrified take on southern living that’s helped them connect with audiences from Nashville to London? Frontman Jaren Johnston says: “Tom Petty is a big touchstone, but also nineties-era country like Garth Brooks”.
When I went record shopping with Blackberry Smoke for a feature in this magazine, they were scooping up albums by Merle Haggard and the Flying Burrito Brothers, but also David Bowie and the Rolling Stones. They’re a perfect example of how these present-day artists embrace old-school ideas like using albums over singles to connect.
Blackberry Smoke’s latest,
Find A Light, made the UK Top 20. Their previous record, Like An Arrow, debuted at No.1 on
“I’m gonna play rock’n’roll and build
a little army.”
the US Billboard Country chart, unseating radio titan Jason Aldean. That’s even more amazing when you consider that country radio doesn’t even play the band, and this was their second No.1 album. “Our fans are the ones who make the record Number One, not a programme director,” singer Charlie Starr said.
“And we’ve built our audience one fan at a time,” drummer Brit Turner added.
But building audiences in country music is fraught with the danger of losing them en masse if they don’t agree with your politics. And those politics tend to be right-wing Conservative across the board. In Nashville there’s a verb – to be ‘Dixie-Chicked’. It refers to the popular group the Dixie Chicks’ on-stage criticism of then president George W Bush in 2003 and his invasion of Iraq. The backlash from fans and the industry derailed the trio’s career. In a Rolling Stone cover interview in autumn 2018, Eric Church risked being DixieChicked when he shared his thoughts on the National Rifle Association (NRA) and gun control in the wake of the horrific shooting at a country music festival in
“People come to see you play, then all of a sudden they die? That is not an emotion that I was prepared to deal with. It wrecked me in a lot of ways,” Church said.
But did the incident change his mind about guns?
“A little. I’m a Second Amendment guy. That’s in the Constitution, and I don’t believe it’s negotiable. But nobody should have that many guns and that much ammunition and we don’t know about it.”
He went on to say the NRA was “a road block” and “more of a problem than a solution”.
The result was predictable: lots of anger from fans who refused to acknowledge the context of his comments. As an example, if you look at the thread of Church’s reviews on iTunes before and after the Rolling Stone piece, you see a sudden drop from five stars to one, and comments such as “Real country singers ain’t scared of guns like you!”
Amid the social-media frenzy, Church’s team spun into damage-control mode. I know, I was scheduled to interview him for this magazine and it quickly got cancelled. Whether it will affect him long-term remains to be seen. Other artists, including Brothers Osborne, Faith Hill and Garth Brooks, have also edged in the same direction on America’s gun-control
problem this year, but Church is the most outspoken.
Another political issue stirring below the surface of country has to do with #metoo and bias against female artists: for every 100 tracks played on commercial country radio, only 15 of them are by women. While this year saw great new music from Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price and Courtney Marie Andrews, there’s still a sense that they’re ‘outsiders’. And of course it’s even riskier for female artists to be outspoken on political issues, as the Dixie Chicks showed.
Recently, Taylor Swift, the biggest star that modern country music has produced, endorsed the Democratic candidate for senator in Tennessee, while denouncing the female Republican’s “anti-women policies” in no uncertain terms. Within two days, 166,000 new young voters had registered in the state. Name artists like Church and Swift can start much-needed conversations and help effect change.
In all of this – sound, content, politics – there’s an echo of the 70s outlaw movement. This autumn, Nashville’s Country Music Hall Of Fame opened a exhibit titled Outlaws & Armadillos. Although the word ‘outlaw’ is often co-opted as shorthand for tattoos, whiskey and rowdiness, it’s important to remember that what it meant then – and now – in music terms is artists outside the mainstream, who want to make music on their own terms.
Whether it was the murder ballads of the Louvin Brothers, or Johnny Cash singing of the plight of the Native American, or Loretta Lynn warning her man not to ‘come home drinkin’ with lovin’ on his mind’, country music has always been at its best when it faces its subject unflinchingly with simple emotion. And as this rising tide of newer, rockier artists start making waves on radio, it’ll be a refreshing change to hear. “We went through an era of big hit songs that no one is going to listen to ten years from now,” said TJ Osborne. “And we’re about to hit a decade of country that I think is going to be played for a long time. It’s about to hit the same stride it hit in the nineties.”
“I want people out there that are in the position I was in four years ago to know that there’s hope,” Sturgill Simpson said. “I wake up every day and feel like, ‘I wanna fuckin’ crush this game, without playing the game’, just to prove it can be done. I wanna hit Goliath in the forehead with a rock.”
“I think there’s a great change in the air, especially in the Uk… It’s like the British invasion,
but in reverse.”
John Osborne, Brothers Osborne
Brothers Osborne: among the leading pack changing the face of country music.
Blackberry Smoke: the 21st century’s answer to Lynyrd Skynyrd?
“our fans are the ones who make the record number one,not a programme director.”Charlie Starr, Blackberry Smoke
Johnny Cash and (below) Loretta Lynn: country music that faces its subject with simple emotion.
The Dixie Chicks: criticised president George W Bush in2003, and the backlash derailedtheir career.
Sturgill Simpson: one of the most successful of the new breed ofcountry artists.