The Evolution of Country Music
From Martina McBride to Miranda Lambert, Loretta Lynn to Little Big Town, country music is more than guitars and banjos, its lyrics reaching deeper than lost loves, unrequited love, cheating on your love, or simply drinking beer. Country music began it's ascent into mainstream consciousness in the 1970s and forty years later, encompasses a wide variety of sub-genres. Bluegrass and folk are two types of traditional country, and country has fused with rock music, soul, and even current pop.
Forms of country music were around long before country became popular. In the late 1940s, in the years post-war, bluegrass and folk were common types of music, and gospel roots often found a home in country. The 1950s brought a type of country music known as honky tonk, the music usually accompanied by guitars, banjos and an ocassional drum, the type of music from which country gets its stereotypical "twang." Hank Williams and George Jones, both big influences in "traditional country," were highlights in the Grand Old Opry.
The 1950s and 1960s saw country moving in a different and new direction, bringing influences from other genres like rock and soul. Rockabily was a mixture of rock and roll and hillbilly music, brought to the forefront by Elvis Presley's conversion to country music in the late 1950s. One of the top songs on the Billboard charts in that era was Elvis' own "Blue Suede Shoes," along with Johnny Cash's "I Walk The Line." Ray Charles made his own musical change in 1962, crossing from soul to country. The result was the number three single of the year, "I Can't Stop Loving You." The late 1960s saw a combination of genres to produce a new type of music: country rock. Among the many innovators of this style were Neil Young, The Allman Brothers and The Eagles, and even The Rolling Stones produced a country-rock song or two. There are many of today's country artists that prefer a rock-tinged version of country, including Garth Brooks, Brooks and Dunn, and Shania Twain.
Country pop, the greatest subgenre of country music, started in the 1970s as country artists tried to create songs and a sound that would translate to a top 40 or soft rock radio station. Though the genre started with artists like Dolly Parton and Barbara Mandrell and Willie Nelson, today the term "country-pop" could be used to describe a majority of country artists. As Paul Hemphill said in the Saturday Evening Post, "Country music isn't really country anymore; it is a hybrid of nearly every form of popular music in America." In the last two decades, country-pop has risen to the mainstream in such a fashion that many country songs only need to be remixed slightly for an artist to have a hit on both country and pop radio.
A year after teen sensation boy band N'Sync released the single "(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time On You," country band Alabama released their version of the same song. It peaked at number three on the Billboard Top 100 for N'Sync and at number 29 for Alabama. When country artists Keith Whitley and Allison Krauss both took their versions of "When You Say Nothing At All" to the top of the country charts (Whitley peaked at number one, Krauss at number three), pop star Ronan Keating used the song for his album and for the soundtrack to the "Notting Hill" film. Keating's version peaked at number one on multiple countries' charts. Bon Jovi did a duet with Jennifer Nettles (Sugarland) called "Who Says You Can't Go Home?" and Kid Rock was recently featured on a Sheryl Crow song. As country and pop become further intertwined, more collaborations are apt to occur and a variety of new hit songs are going to be created.
The evolution of country music genres notwithstanding, the greatest way country music has evolved is the gender line. The early women of country music - Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn - gave way to the "middle generation" that included Reba McEntire, Martina McBride, Shania Twain and Faith Hill, and the last couple of years has given us female talents like Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, and Taylor Swift. Carrie Underwood was only the seventh woman to win Entertainer of the Year when she won the award in 2008, and made history the next year when she became the only female artist to win the award twice. Underwood has seen every single she has released reach number one on the charts, making her the only female artist in country history to have her first thirteen (and counting) singles reach the top spot. (Underwood and Lambert were both from reality television shows - American Idol and Nashville Star, respectively.) Taylor Swift also had major successes with her singles "Love Story" and "You Belong With Me" when they both reached number one on the charts. Her sophomore album "Fearless" won a Grammy for Album of the Year, capping off a banner year for Swift - she had won Album of the Year in all of the major country award ceremonies.
The critical and mainstream success of Carrie Underwood, five years off her Idol win and still going strong, as well as the seemingly overnight rise of Taylor Swift, gives credence to the fact that women are just as strong in the country genre as men. Underwood's first post-Idol tour experience was as opener / co-headliner for Keith Urban; now she headlines her own shows and tickets to her concerts sell extremely quickly. Taylor Swift and fellow country artist (and Idol alum) Kellie Pickler were co-headliners of their own very successful tour last year.
Over the past half-century, country music has grown and evolved just like any other music genre. From the early pioneers and great successes to country's newest stars, country music has always maintained its position as a highly respected and revered genre of music.