If you were to look at the country charts, you would see an incredibly wide spectrum of styles. There are artists such as Alan Jackson and George Strait, who tend towards the more traditional end of the spectrum, alongside Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift with blatant pop infused ‘country.’ There is even country-rap, outlaw country, and guitar led country rock from the likes of Keith Urban. And that is not to mention the numerous crossover artists: Darius Rucker (of Hootie and the Blowfish), Kelly Clarkson, Sheryl Crow and Jewell. These are all artists that we are already familiar with in a pop music setting, but they too have ‘gone country’.
So what is it that makes a song ‘country’? Instrumentation is generally the first culprit to be named, as country music often brings to mind sliding steel guitars, fiddles and banjos, but when talking about contemporary country, that is not necessarily the case. Many artists have mastered the art of alluding to the country genre, without overpowering an alternative audience. Taylor Swift’s most recent country radio offering, Red, would, and will not, sound out of place in the pop charts. It has elements of country: if you listen carefully you can make out a fiddle, and a guitar solo that has slightly more twang than her pop efforts. The same could be said for any number of recent singles from artists including Carrie Underwood and Jana Kramer- they would fit in easily on other charts.
Potentially, lyrics could make a song country. It is rare to see story-telling-ballads in other mainstream genres in the same way that country has mastered the art, but nevertheless it can be hard to distinguish country lyrics. In some circumstances there are stereotypical country themes and jargon- Trucks, Rednecks, Farmers, hunting and fishing. However his is not everyone’s style. Joe Nichols latest single opens with the line:
“A yellow two piece, black Ray Bans
Going bare feet, covered in sand.”
It does not immediately sound like a country song. Joel Crouse’s debut single even contained the phrase “It’s gonna be epic.” But all of these, whether or not they contain the expected southern themed imagery, still qualify as country music.
Perhaps it is the artist, and how they perform that dictates their genre. But yet again we see huge variation. The majority of vocalists have a southern accent, and often their drawl is accentuated, but in this day and age, accent is not everything. Darius Rucker was never country before, but singing his new songs he is. We even have vocalists rapping the lyrics over country-sounding bands. Florida Georgia Line, Brantley Gilbert, Colt Ford and many others have blazed a trail for this new found country style, but despite this, it is still country.
It is a culmination of these aspects of music that make our music country, but I think there is one other crucial aspect that dictates whether or not a song is deemed country. Choice. Taylor Swifts latest single was purposefully released to country radio. Florida Georgia Line chose to be country, rather than rap artists, and Kenny Chesney chooses to wear a cowboy hat whilst singing about the beach. Country fans are loyal, and very accepting of new styles. The variation and talent on the country charts is there to be celebrated, and we should be glad that our artists chose country.