I’d like to preface this post by stating that I love traditional country music, bluegrass, and string band music. I spent much of my youth living in the countryside (albeit in England, not the American South) and have a deep love of rural culture and history. However, I’m also interested in looking at how cultures are constructed, both consciously and unconsciously. When neotraditionalists claim there is such a thing as ‘true’ country music, and when they claim that today’s radio country sound is ‘inauthentic’, I would argue that they are presenting a notion of country music that is disconnected from its actual history.
Country music’s deepest historical and cultural origins lie in the folk music of the rural South, which in turn was derived and developed in large part from the folk music of the British Isles. There were, of course, other influences that affected the development of this music, and African Americans also played an important role in its evolution. While there were black as well as white musicians who played in string bands, country would go on to forever be a largely white musical phenomenon when, in its early commercial period, a segregated recording industry emerged, presenting music by black musicians as ‘race records’ and those of whites as ‘folk’ or ‘hillbilly’ (later renamed ‘rhythm and blues’ and ‘country and western’).
While country music finds much of its roots in the music of the mountains, made by and for the people as part of an organic expression of everyday life, from the earliest moments of its transformation into a commercial commodity, a degree of artifice was present, which increased as the years went by. Even in the 1920s, as radio executives marketed ‘old time’ music as a product to be consumed by listeners in the form of radio ‘barn dances’, a deliberate process of myth-making was under way:
The barn dances tried hard to project an aura of wholesome, down-to-earth, family-style entertainment, and radio program directors and advertisers often insisted that hillbilly performers affect rustic attire and rustic names, even though the performers might have preferred to dress in a more urban manner.
Simon Bronner notes that a similar marketing strategy can be found in the ‘hillbilly’ music of the 1930s and 1940s:
The 1930s and 1940s became the “hillbilly” period in commercial folk music. But whereas the old-time music had close connections to nineteenth-century folk traditions, hillbilly music was, in the words of one reporter, “a conscious, calculated form of commercial expression.” On the hillbilly image, he commented, “Although, for the purpose of atmosphere, the performers wear blue jeans, checked shirts and gingham frocks, they live with all the conveniences of modern life.”
A similar phenomenon can be observed in the construction of an imagined ‘cowboy’ identity in the ‘Western’ genre of music that eventually fused with ‘hillbilly’ music (rebranded as ‘country music’) to become ‘country and western’, and, finally, simply ‘country’. Bill C. Malone and Tracey Laird note that before the 1930s, a few western musicians recorded songs that genuinely reflected the cowboy heritage, but that soon gave way to an ‘authenticity’ manufactured by the music industry to appeal to consumers. Indeed, many of the most successful ‘cowboy’ singers had no connection to the western ranching life at all:
The farther Americans became removed from the cowboy past, the more intense became their interest in cowboy songs and lore. Hillbilly singers and musicians did much to implant the romantic cowboy image in the minds of their American audiences…
Since the western attraction was irresistible, even young hillbilly singers from the Deep South or from the southeastern mountains, whose associations with cowboys came only through story and song, embraced the western image and imagined themselves “way out west in Texas for the roundup in the spring.”
Hollywood played a part in this, with singing cowboys such as Gene Autry becoming household names throughout the United States. This in turn led to the creation of ‘cowboys’ who never were:
Largely as a result of Hollywood exploitation, the concept of “western music” became fixed in the public mind. After the heyday of Gene Autry, the term “western” came to be applied even to southern rural music by an increasing number of people, especially by those who were ashamed to use the pejorative term “hillbilly.” Not only did the public accept the projection, but even most hillbilly singers became fascinated with the western image and eventually came to believe their own symbols. Autry was the first of a long line of country singers who clothed themselves in tailored cowboy attire; in the following decades, the costuming became increasingly elaborate and gaudy, with the brightly colored, bespangled, and rhinestone-laden uniforms created by Nudie the Tailor (Nudie Cohn, born Nuta Kotlyarenko in the Ukraine in 1902) in Los Angeles being the most favored fare. Eventually, most country performers, whether they hailed from Virginia or Mississippi, adopted cowboy regalia–usually of the gaudy, dude cowboy variety…
Along with the clothing, country bands and singers ─ particularly in the Southwest and on the West Coast ─ adopted cowboy titles. Singers with names like Tex, Slim, Hank, Red River Dave, the Utah Cowboy, and Patsy Montana, and groups with such titles as the Cowboy Ramblers, Riders of the Purple Sage, Radio Cowboys, Swift Jewel Cowboys, Lone Star Cowboys, and Girls of the Golden West (Dolly and Millie Good) abounded on radio stations (and record labels) all over the nation. Radio and record promoters, of course, were very much alive to the appeal of the western myth, and they often encouraged musicians to adopt appropriate western monikers.
Amongst these singers who adopted ‘cowboy’ stage names, we find Woodward Maurice ‘Tex’ Ritter, Sollie Paul ‘Tex’ Williams, Ottis Dewey ‘Slim’ Whitman, Clarence Eugene ‘Hank’ Snow, Henry William ‘Hank’ Thompson, Garland Perry ‘Hank’ Cochran, and, of course, Hiram King ‘Hank’ Williams.
Hank Williams is a particularly interesting example. Since his death, a mythic vision of Williams has emerged, which casts him as a tortured rural artist who expresses the essence of ‘true’ country music. However, the real Williams was very much driven by a desire for commercial success. He grew up as a member of the rural poor, but was not directly connected to the traditional rural economy, being the son of a railroad engineer. He also got out of that world as quickly as he could, entering the music business in Montgomery, Alabama, while still only a teenager. Hiram Williams went on to become ‘Hank’, donning cowboy attire and gaining success with his ‘Drifting Cowboys’ band (none of whom were cowboys or had a Western ranching background). Throughout his career, Williams was following the rags-to-riches American Dream and, far from being a voice of an authentic ‘rural’ America, was in fact a clever marketeer:
Although many writers and fans later came to consider Williams principally a creative artist who remained above crassly commercial considerations, in not one article published during his lifetime is there any mention of his artistic ambitions. Rather he is presented, and he presents himself, as a consummate professional entertainer who measured success entirely in terms of chart standings and record sales. Almost no one yet wrote of him as anything more than a successful radio and recording artist and songwriter. Now-familiar interpretations of Williams – as the folksy populist poet or the tortured, destructive outlaw – emerged later, after he had drawn his last breath.
None of that diminishes the musical talent and creativity of Hank Williams, but it does put into perspective the claim that he represents some kind of ‘true country’ musician, wholly different in nature and outlook to today’s Nashville country pop stars. Hank Williams has arguably become, as David Cantwell writes at The New Yorker, ‘not so much a country-music legend as a country-music deity’. In the process, he has taken on a mythical status unconnected to the real man who was very much a participant in the music business. Nor was he a representative of some ‘pure’, unadulterated music. While seen by many as the epitome of a ‘true’ country musician, Williams’ music, as Tom Pinnock notes, ‘is one of the great deltas of Americana, a place where country, gospel and blues first converged’. Indeed, a significant blues influence can be discerned in his work and this is no surprise, given he was taught to play by a black bluesman named Rufus ‘Tee-Tot’ Payne, of whom Williams stated: ‘All the music training I ever had was from him’. Williams sometimes mentioned ‘that old colored gentleman’ when performing on stage.
Hank Williams (and other singers of his generation) began his career at a particularly fortuitous time. While at the very start of his career, records earned little for most singers, who instead made their money primarily through radio performances and personal appearances, all this was to change in the 1940s, when ‘hillbilly’ music went ‘pop’:
During World War II… bolstered by southern working-class migrations to Midwest and West Coast cities, hillbilly music soared to unprecedented popularity. Professional opportunities for singers and musicians multiplied, and record production expanded to accommodate rising demand from fans, jukebox owners, and, eventually, disc jockeys. Following the war, what was increasingly known as “folk” or “country-and-western” music flourished as it entered what many historians have described as a “Golden Era” of commercial and creative success.
This phenomenon was covered in the national media of the day:
In 1943, Time Magazine declared that “the dominant popular music of the U.S. today is hillbilly.” Sales for the music accounted for 40 percent of all single popular music records. In 1949, Newsweek observed that New York and Pennsylvania residents rivalled the South for buying the most hillbilly records.
Confirmation of the hillbilly wave came from the Saturday Evening Post on February 12, 1944. The national magazine headlined a feature story with the announcement, “Hillbilly Boom.” The story documented the growth of the hillbilly music audience estimated at 25 million, the record-setting sales of songs such as “Pistol Packin’ Mama” by Al Dexter which had sold more than 1,600,000 copies, and the spread of hillbilly radio programming including three shows picked up by a major network, NBC, for national hookup.
Simon Bronner notes:
And neither was the music appealing narrowly to a rural market. Pointing to the music’s attraction to rural migrants and their sons and daughters in the cities, Good Housekeeping reported that hillbilly music was especially popular in “the big towns – in Cleveland, St. Louis, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, San Francisco, and even conservative Boston.”
As the Good Housekeeping writer put it: ‘Mountain music has left the mountains and gone down to the plains’.
That ‘hillbilly’ music had a very large urban audience is no surprise, given the massive migration of Southerners out of the countryside and into towns and cities, leaving behind a rural life and entering into the industrial workforce. However, it should not be assumed that this was solely a post-war phenomenon, for industrialisation had already had a profound effect on rural communities prior to World War II, as Patrick Huber notes. Huber quotes an article by journalist Bruce Crawford, reporting in the New Republic in 1933 on his visit to the White Top Folk Festival in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. Crawford reported:
Many of the present generation, having moved to mill towns and coal camps, are being cut off from their inheritance of traditional music. But they are beginning to make ‘ballets’ of their own… They have, in fact, little in common with with the older folk-songs sung in the hollows where coal mines and textile mills haven’t yet invaded.
Already, then, hillbilly music was a ‘new’ music, with traditional musicianship in evidence to be sure, but undeniably shaped by modern change.
As the migrations continued post-World War II, a large segment of the hillbilly music audience was not only dwelling in urban environments and working in factories and other industrial settings – they were also entering the middle class:
Hillbilly music, as the product of the rural South, conveyed the conflicting impulses and images of the region that gave it birth. It was a melding of rural and urban influences; it was simultaneously southern and American; and its performers and audience were torn by opposing desires, clinging to a self-image of rustic simplicity while at the same time striving to be accepted in an urban, middle-class milieu.
A fascinating New York Times article from 1973, looking at the Appalachian community in Detroit, illustrates this tension between a growing urban identity and the desire to hold true to tradition and to rural roots. The article notes that the self-described ‘hillbillies’ of Detroit were not for the most-part dirt poor ghetto-dwellers, but instead had good incomes and were putting down roots in suburbia: ‘Although there remain pockets of Appalachian poverty near downtown Detroit, most of the migrants from the hills are evidently suburbanites today’, states the article. It goes on to profile various urban hillbillies who the author encountered in a honky-tonk, drinking beer and listening to live country music:
“My wife and me make more’n $25,000 a year now,” Joe Petrey said, although he doesn’t brag about such things and dislikes people who do.
He operates a radial drill for a company that makes spot welders for use on auto assembly lines. His wife, Eva, 22‐years‐old from back home in Corbin, Ky., with a shy smile, a nearly flawless complexion, luminous blue eyes and long, light‐brown hair, sews vinyl seat upholstery at a Ford Motor Company plant…
The Petreys now live in a spotless three‐room apartment in Madison Heights, with a color television set and a combination radio and eight‐track stereo tape player that Mr. Petrey uses to record and play country‐Western music.
Joe Petrey expressed a wistful desire to return one day to the countryside, as did others. Even while living a suburban, middle class life, Petrey expressed his identification with his rural heritage by placing a ‘Hillbilly and Proud of It’ sticker on the rear window of his Chevrolet pickup truck. While some, such as Joe Petrey dreamed of one day leaving suburbia, as the article notes:
If he does go back, he may be a bit unusual. For although many say, that is their intention, Dr. James. S. Brown of the University of Kentucky, one of the relatively few social scientists who have studied the migrants, says that “once they’ve been gone six months, they’re gone for good.”
Others, however, had no intention of giving up their suburban life, even while seeing maintaining a cultural identity grounded in their roots as important:
There is, for example, Ernest Trent, who sings country and Western music here under the name of Joe Pain. He is a native of Harlan County in Kentucky, a coal‐mining region with little of the farming appeal of Joe Petrey’s neighborhood.
“Even if I weren’t having such a good time singing,” Joe Pain says, “I’d never go back. There ain’t nothin’ there for me but a hole in the ground—I don’t mean a coal mine—and I can get that here.”
And there are many, many women who have gotten used to the amenities of urban life and are not anxious to give them up. Mrs. Linda Keelen, formerly of West Virginia and now of Warren, is proud of being a hillbilly and is teaching her 3‐year‐old son to be proud, too.
But, she says, “I can’t picture bein’ back on some farm, churnin’ butter.”
Trent released a number of country records as Joe Pain, and followed an example we see in country music today. Trent had embraced the suburbs and had no desire to return to coal country. However, his music looked back to an idealised vision of the countryside. In his song ‘Sugar Creek Bottom’, released by the Nashville label Spar Records in 1969, Joe Pain sings:
I’d like to be back on the farm in Sugar Creek Bottom
Mowing cotton, plowing corn with folks I love so well
And Amy Brown waits for me there in Sugar Creek Bottom
But I’m here locked up in this prison cell
We were poor but we were thankful for our bottom land
All of us worked hard and I was proud as any man
And I could hardly wait for harvest time to roll around
‘Cause when we sold the cotton I would marry Amy Brown
All of this was romantic nonsense, of course, as Trent came from a coal mining community, rather than this type of rustic background. However, it would have sat well with the suburban hillbilly music listener, who worked within the modern industrial economy but sought to maintain a sense of identity grounded in the rural past.
Many of the big names of country music’s past provide examples of how country music was increasingly a product of people raised in a non-agrarian background. While some, such as Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, did indeed start their lives on farms, many did not: Lefty Frizzell was the son of an oilman and spent some time working in the oil fields with his father before finding success in the music industry; Johnny Paycheck was the son of a barge worker; George Jones’s father worked in a shipyard; Merle Haggard’s father worked for the Santa Fe Railroad. Country music, then, was the music of a people in transition, moving from agricultural work to industrial jobs, often ending up living in urban and suburban communities as a result. It was therefore increasingly not the music of the country, but of people who had roots in the country. As new generations of country fans were born, whose parents and grandparents raised them with tales of the countryside and instilled in them a ‘country’ identity – but who had no direct experience of life in the countryside – country music was increasingly as much an urban as a rural phenomenon. Arguably, given Nashville became the epicentre of the country music industry, and was consequently a magnet for aspiring musicians, country music itself was now integrally intertwined with urban society. When rural singers made their way to Nashville to seek fame and fortune, those who succeeded became integrated into an urban environment and into urban living. Nashville created stars, played host to numerous professional songwriters, and carefully managed the image of singers to make them commercially appealing. ‘Authenticity’ certainly helped, but where it was lacking, it could always be invented.
As we have seen, in the 1920s, barn dance performers were told to adopt ‘rustic’ names and wear ‘rustic’ clothes, and in the 1930s and 1940s, western singers were told to adopt ‘cowboy’ names and dress up in Stetsons, and hillbilly singers were told to wear blue jeans and checked shirts (work clothes) for atmospheric purposes. The music itself, while rooted in some authentic mountain and cowboy traditions, was at the same time very much a modern creation, influenced both by the dislocation from traditional musical styles caused by migration, and also by the tastes of the mass market. From early on, country music’s relationship to the ‘true’ countryside (in the old agrarian sense) and to ‘true’ music of the countryside was complicated. As the decades passed, it became ever less connected to the folk music that gave it birth, and its performers and audience increasingly came from industrial backgrounds and lived in urban areas.
It is worth noting that, outside relatively isolated enclaves in Appalachia, American rural culture had for a long time been integrally linked with commerce and the Capitalist enterprise that was headquartered in the big cities. In a 1956 article on the American agrarian myth, Richard Hofstadter noted that these changes had increased nostalgia for an imagined rural idyll:
The more commercial this society became… the more reason it found to cling in imagination to the noncommercial agrarian values. The more farming as a self-sufficient way of life was abandoned for farming as a business, the more merit men found in what was being left behind. And the more rapidly the farmers’ sons moved into the towns, the more nostalgic the whole culture became about its rural past. Throughout the Nineteenth and even in the Twentieth Century, the American was taught that rural life and farming as a vocation were something sacred.
This sentimental attachment to the rural way of life is a kind of homage that Americans have paid to the fancied innocence of their origins.
This sentimental vision of the countryside obscured the fact that American rural society was increasingly run as a business environment.
What developed in America, then, was an agricultural society whose real attachment was not, like the yeoman’s, to the land but to land values. The characteristic product of American rural society, as it developed on the prairies and the plains, was not a yeoman or a villager, but a harassed little country businessman who worked very hard, moved all too often, gambled with his land, and made his way alone.
The roots of farming as ‘agribusiness’, then, go back a long way. Farmers and rural labourers increasingly made use of the products of the industrial age:
Between 1815 and 1860 the character of American agriculture was transformed. The rise of native industry created a home market for agriculture, while demands arose abroad for American cotton and foodstuffs, and a great network of turnpikes, canals, and railroads helped link the planter and the advancing western farmer to the new markets. As the farmer moved out of the forests onto the flat, rich prairies, he found possibilities for machinery that did not exist in the forest. Before long he was cultivating the prairies with horse-drawn mechanical reapers, steel plows, wheat and corn drills, and threshers.
In the twentieth century, the notion of a sharp distinction between rural and urban America was greatly eroded:
The final change, which came only with a succession of changes in the Twentieth Century, wiped out the last traces of the yeoman of old, as the coming first of good roads and rural free delivery, and mail order catalogues, then the telephone, the automobile, and the tractor, and at length radio, movies, and television largely eliminated the difference between urban and rural experience in so many important areas of life. The city luxuries, once do derided by farmers, are now what they aspire to give to their wives and daughters.
In the twenty-first century, this difference between urban and rural America has become ever smaller. As Steven Thomma notes:
The small town of legend has largely passed into the pages of history. Today’s small-town children are exposed to the same Internet, the same games and pop music as city kids. Its people shop in the same chain stores and eat in the same chain restaurants as those in the suburbs…
Interstate highways connected small towns to cities. Cable TV connected rural living rooms to Hollywood. The Internet connected everyone to everywhere.
Small-town teens play the same video games as their urban and suburban cousins. Readers buy books from the same online outlets. Students study much the same curricula from small town to suburb to inner city.
As all these changes have taken place, mainstream country music, as found on radio stations throughout both rural and urban America today, has also radically changed. The sound is now very far removed from that of Appalachian string bands and even from that of singers such as Hank Williams, who rose to prominence during the post-war wave of migration from agricultural to industrial, and rural to urban and suburban. Contemporary country pop music that is the product of the Nashville-centred country music industry is constantly changing to incorporate new sounds, with the main sound now being more pop rock than country in the old sense, supplemented by new elements derived from hiphop and EDM, amongst other sources. Radio country is also a national phenomenon, and country is now arguably far more simply an American musical genre than one of the South, the West, or even the countryside itself. Looking at the history of commercial country music, and the social changes that have taken place in America over the last century, this should come as no surprise.
As we have seen, country music’s audience and musicians came to be increasingly found amongst workers who were part of the industrial, rather than agricultural, world. These changes were increasingly reflected in the lyrical themes of those musicians of the post-war period and beyond who have gone on to be seen as representatives of what is now commonly referred to as ‘classic country’. Merle Haggard, for example, the son of a railroad worker, expressed little in most of his songs that relates specifically to a rural life. There are plenty of songs covering the ups and downs of relationships and the hardships of life, but these are not dependent in any way on a rural setting; indeed, quite the opposite. In ‘If We Make It Through December’, Haggard sang:
Got laid off down at the factory
And there time is not the greatest in the world
Heaven knows I been workin’ hard
I wanted Christmas to be right for daddy’s girl
In ‘Big City’, he sang:
I’m tired of this dirty old city
Entirely too much work and never enough play
And I’m tired of these dirty old sidewalks
Think I’ll walk off my steady job today
Turn me loose, set me free
Somewhere in the middle of Montana
And give me all I’ve got comin’ to me
And keep your retirement
And your so called social security
Big city, turn me loose and set me free
This was music for a largely urban audience who dreamt of escaping to the imagined freedom of the countryside, and it was also nostalgic:
I wish a buck was still silver
It was back when the country was strong
Back before Elvis
Before the Vietnam war came along
Before The Beatles and ‘Yesterday’
When a man could still work, still would
The best of the free life behind us now
And are the good times really over for good?
The supposed ‘free life’ that existed prior to Elvis and the Vietnam war was, it should be remembered, only a free life for some. Haggard’s audience here were clearly sentimental white Americans, for who amongst the black community could feel any great affection for the era of Segregation? Haggard presented a fantasy image of a ‘free’ America, which was also a time in which a woman’s place was in the kitchen, back ‘before microwave ovens, when a girl could still cook and still would’.
Then there was George Jones, the son of a shipyard worker. Again, his songs relate largely to general themes surrounding relationships and are not specific to a rural setting. One key exception is found in his song ‘White Lightning’, which looks back fondly to the moonshiners of old:
Well, in North Carolina, way back in the hills
Me and my old pappy and he had him a still
We brewed white lightnin’ ’til the sun went down
Then he’d fill him a jug and he’d pass it around
Mighty, mighty pleasin, pappy’s corn squeezin’
The song, however, was not autobiographical and was written for Jones by J. P. Richardson, a pioneering rockabilly musician. Already, the ‘purity’ of the country sound was giving way to outside influences. As Nick Tosches argues in an article for Texas Monthly: ‘Though Jones would never acknowledge it, the rockabilly impulse of the early fifties had affected his sound as much as the lingering voices of Acuff and Williams’.
The growing influence of rock music on country can be heard in the songs of Waylon Jennings, another musician whose work is often cited as ‘true’ country music. As Andrew Dansby put it in Rolling Stone‘s obituary for Jennings:
All apologies to Gram Parsons — who played great, straight country wrapped in a dope-smoking hippie cloak — but should one wish to find the embodiment of the always amorphous term that is country-rock, Waylon Jennings is it. He was weaned on Ernest Tubb and Elvis Presley, he was buddies with Buddy, and he became the face of Seventies country by skillfully folding rock & roll elements into a literate rootsy mix. It’s simply impossible to imagine southern rock, from Allman to Van Zant, and fringe country from Steve Earle to Uncle Tupelo without Waylon Jennings.
When it comes to the lyrical content of Jennings’ music, there is again little to be found that is indicative of immersion in rural and agricultural life. Instead, Jennings appears in his songs as a product of the ‘sexual revolution’. Far from advocating the kind of family-orientated conservative values associated with rural America, he sang about living a rootless ‘outlaw’ lifestyle, complete with casual sexual encounters and bringing trouble to the lives of ‘good women’. In ‘Waymore’s Blues’, Jennings sang:
Well, I got a good woman, what’s the matter with me?
What makes me want to love every woman I see?
In ‘I’ve Always Been Crazy’, he sang:
Beautiful lady are you sure that you understand
The chances your taking loving a free living man
Then there’s ‘Ladies Love Outlaws’:
Bessie was a lovely child from west Tennessee
Leroy was an outlaw wild as a mink
One day she saw him starin’ and it chilled her to the bone
And she knew she had to see that look on a child of her own.
‘Cause ladies love outlaws like babies love stray dogs
Ladies touch babies like a banker touches gold
And outlaws touch the ladies
Somewhere deep down in their soul.
And, again, in ‘Ramblin’ Man’:
I’m a ramblin’ man
Don’t give your heart to a ramblin’ man…
You better move away
You’re standing too close to the flame
Once I mess with your mind
Your little heart won’t be the same
Willie Nelson, another country legend, sang about similar themes. For example, in ‘My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys’ (originally released by Waylon Jennings):
I grew up a-dreamin’ of bein’ a cowboy
And lovin’ the cowboy ways
Pursuin’ the life of my high-ridin’ heroes
I burned up my childhood days
I learned of all the rules of the modern-day drifter
Don’t you hold on to nothin’ too long
Just take what you need from the ladies, then leave them
With the words of a sad country song
My heroes have always been cowboys
And they still are, it seems
Then there’s Nelson’s hit ‘On The Road Again’:
On the road again –
Just can’t wait to get on the road again
The life I love is making music with my friends…
Like a band of gypsies, we go down the highway
We’re the best of friends
Insisting that the world keep turning our way
None of this is about the ‘country’, even if the music continued to incorporate traditional musicianship associated with country music’s history. These are the songs of the ‘Free Bird‘-listening, birth control-using ‘liberated’ generation, not those of the countryside of old. They present a dream of escaping the world of work and responsibility and embracing a fantasy of old West ‘freedom’ and individualism. As such, these songs arguably related more to the outlook of white urbanites and suburbanites than those of the people operating the farms and fields of actual rural communities.
Haggard, Jones, Jennings, and Nelson, then, were all representatives not of a timeless, unchanging tradition, but rather of the shifting sound and identity of country music. Perhaps no musician has been more significant in this regard than Hank Williams Jr, the son of the legendary Hank Williams, as David Cantwell chronicles in a thought-provoking 2016 article for The New Yorker.
While Hank Jr. was originally groomed to become a kind of second coming of his father, or a good Hank Sr. cover artist at least, he eventually went his own way, as documented in his song ‘Family Tradition’:
Country music singers
Have always been a real close family,
But lately some of my kinfolks
Have disowned a few others and me
I guess it’s because
I kind of changed my direction
Lord I guess I went and broke their family tradition
And later in the song:
I am very proud
Of my daddy’s name
Although his kind of music
And mine ain’t exactly the same
Indeed it wasn’t. Hank Jr. developed a sound that was, as Cantwell puts it, ‘Southern-and blues-rock guitars and boogie-woogie pianos atop country-soul-rockin’ and honky-tonkin’ rhythm-and-blues beats’. While Hank Jr. was far from the only artist to take country music in a direction that moved it distinctly away from the traditions of old (indeed, as noted above, many of his contemporaries such as Waylon Jennings were doing just that), his influence has in fact been significant. ‘Family Tradition’, Cantwell writes, ‘created the Hank Williams, Jr. we’ve known ever since’:
The follow-up single, “Whiskey Bent and Hellbound,” reprised the approach, except louder. “Kawliga,” from 1980, reinvented one of his dad’s songs as country funk. 1984’s “All My Rowdy Friends (Are Comin’ over Tonight)” eventually became, with new lyrics, the “Monday Night Football” theme. Three years later, the comic and self-mythologizing “Born to Boogie” became country radio’s hardest-rocking hit ever. It was the title track to an album that also included arena-rocking versions of hits by both the Rolling Stones and the Georgia Satellites.
Country music quickly followed Williams’s lead—from Shania Twain’s rock-guitar attack in the nineties to the rise, in this century, of hick-hop (a cross, basically, between Bocephus’s music and his good friend Kid Rock’s). Williams’s DNA is deep down in countless key records, from “Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)” and “Friends in Low Places” to “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” and “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” not to mention nearly every hit in the Toby Keith catalogue. The new “It’s About Time,” meanwhile, features appearances by three more of his progeny, the hard-rocking contemporary country stars Eric Church, Justin Moore, and Brantley Gilbert, and this summer Williams will tour with another descendent, the Great White Soul Hope of our country moment, Chris Stapleton.
Even the likes of country pop superstars Florida Georgia Line (a polarising act, to say the least) can be seen, argues Cantwell, to owe a debt to Hank Jr.:
Williams also complains on the new album that he’s had it with today’s “weird pop country sound.” This is unsurprising: old folks routinely express frustration with kids these days. But it’s ironic nonetheless, as bro country is just one more of Williams’s children. Take the lines “I like happy and I don’t like sad … I like the sweet young things and Old Grandad” from Williams’s “Women I’ve Never Had.” Then switch out the whiskey for beer and add “We like our country mixed with R. & B.,” a line from another hit off “Born to Boogie,” “Young Country.” Behold: a mission statement for Florida Georgia Line, one of the biggest country acts of the current decade.
Indeed, ‘Young Country’ centres on the idea of a new country music and new country people:
We are young country, we like all kinds
Of music and people, cuz we don’t draw no lines…
We like old Waylon, hey we know Van Halen
We like ZZ Top, we like country and rock
Old Hank would be proud and Elvis would too
We like our country mixed with some big city blues…
Old Hank would be proud and Elvis would too
Cuz we like our country mixed with some rhythm and blues
The incessant online debates and polemics over what is and isn’t legitimate in and as country music sometimes give the impression that it’s only a recent bunch of country artists who have created a sound based around a mixture of influences and genres, yet here was Hank Jr., singing in 1988 about that very thing. ‘New country’, it turns out, is not so new.
While Hank Jr.’s generation embraced a form of country music mixed with elements taken from ‘big city blues’ and R&B, many of today’s younger country listeners like their country mixed with some rap and EDM. The use of rap and hiphop influences in contemporary commercial country music has drawn the ire of traditionalists, but, given how culture works in the real world, it was an inevitability. As Jon Caramanica of the New York Times notes:
By the mid 2000s, thanks to the successes of the labels Bad Boy and Death Row, built upon by the dominance of Jay-Z, 50 Cent and others, rap had become the lingua franca of American popular music, especially for young people.
Young people who listen to country music are no exception to this. For generations, young people raised in the inner city, the suburbs, and rural areas have all had access to exactly the same cultural influences: MTV, TV shows, movies, and then the Internet all made up key parts of this shared cultural experience. Rural youngsters were just as familiar with rap as their urban counterparts, and just as enthusiastic. As pioneering country rapper Bubba Sparxxx put it, he was part of ‘a generation of people that love 2Pac and Hank [Williams]’. Likewise, David Peisner, reporting on his experiences at a mud bogging event in Georgia, writes:
More than a dozen off-road vehicles line the outside of the track, blasting a hazy mash-up of songs that’s pretty typical of what the music fans here play all weekend: Brad Paisley’s “Old Alabama,” Young Jeezy’s “Where I’m From,” Sam Hunt’s “House Party,” Chance the Rapper’s “No Problem,” Young Thug’s “Best Friend,” the Lacs’ “Kickin’ Up Mud.”
Country rapper Upchurch states: ‘I almost drowned in the river where Hank said we can survive’. Country rapper Swamp states: ‘Them city boys better understand, that a country boy can survive’. And then there’s this report on country rapper Yelawolf:
When I walked into his two-story condo, he was sitting on the couch, clutching a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels and blasting Waylon Jennings through his Apple TV.
Clearly, then, rural young people see no contradiction between a love of country and a love of rap. Indeed, in the age of streaming and playlists, they – as with young Americans in general – often don’t see these genre distinctions as particularly important. On the mainstream side, Florida Georgia Line have been highly successful through combining country pop with hiphop and other influences. As they put it in their smash hit ‘This Is How We Roll’: ‘The mixtape’s got a little Hank, little Drake’. And in ‘Sun Daze‘: ‘I’m gonna play some flip-cup and rock a little bit of hip-hop and Haggard and Jagger’. Even country veteran Tim McGraw put out a track in which he sings:
Got Lil’ Wayne pumpin’ on my iPod
Thumpin’ on the subs in the back of my crew cab…
Our party in the club is a honky tonk downtown
Yeah that’s where we like to hang out…
Got a mixed up playlist, DJ play this
Wanna hear a country song
Back in 2010, Chet Flippo, wrote an interesting post for CMT titled ‘Why the Term “Country Music” May Disappear’. Flippo writes:
Genre divisions in music have always existed, but they became an important marketing development over the last 100 years as the commercial recorded music industry grew and flourished and sold actual, physical product in huge numbers.
Now, as that enterprise dwindles and transforms into a song-dominated download industry, genre distinctions are becoming blurred and even non-existent for many listeners. As songs trump the notion of artists, artist loyalty may become eroded as well…
I suspect it’s pretty much a given that when albums finally disappear, so will genres, as genres… [W]hat has been defined as country will be a free-for-all.
And what about the future of country radio? They will find a way to survive. However devious it may be. They always do.
Flippo wasn’t entirely correct, given that downloading has increasingly given way to streaming, but the essential argument has turned out to be true. Mainstream country music may not yet constitute a free-for-all, but it is inching ever closer. And if country radio has indeed employed a ‘devious’ strategy of sorts, it is simply following the same strategy employed by the big Nashville record labels. That strategy has involved releasing numerous records classified as ‘country’ which manifestly either borrow heavily from other genres, or arguably really belong in other genres altogether – largely rock and pop.
The success of Sam Hunt – a hugely polarising figure in the country music blogosphere – gives an indication of how far ‘country’ music has now moved towards pop:
In Nashville, country music has been importing hip-hop flourishes since about 2012, generating signature hits for Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, among others. Before abandoning this approach in favor of neutered warm-bath ballads, Florida Georgia Line built a career on it: The remix of its megahit “Cruise,” featuring Nelly, was the pioneer of the form.
But country did not truly have a modern pop star until the breakthrough of Sam Hunt four years ago. An intuitive melodist with hip-hop in his DNA, Hunt is a fully hybrid performer, and his 2014 debut album, “Montevallo,” is the new-sound prototype. He’s recently been joined by Kane Brown, who is part country traditionalist, part genre disrupter. Country stars have been mega-popular before — Garth Brooks, Shania Twain — but the music has not sat at the leading edge of pop ideology until now.
Numerous songs of recent years that have been classified as country and played on country radio are transparently more pop than anything resembling what was previously understood by the term ‘country’. Consider, for example, the 2017 hit ‘Meant to Be
‘, performed by Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line. It was classified as country and as such received heavy airplay on mainstream country radio, yet this is clearly simply an urban pop song. It’s hard to see how Kane Brown’s ‘Good as You
‘ is country music. Dan + Shay’s ‘Speechless
‘ is pop. Thomas Rhett’s ‘Look What God Gave Her
‘ is pop. Kelsea Ballerini’s ‘Miss Me More
‘ and ‘Dibs
‘ are pop. Maren Morris’s ‘The Bones
‘ is pop.
Even the singers who are held to be more ‘traditional’ on country radio are arguably producing music that at the very least is of mixed genre. Blake Shelton’s ‘God’s Country‘ is really a Southern rock track; Justin Moore’s ‘The Ones That Didn’t Make It Back Home‘ is a rock song and even his recent ‘Why We Drink‘ is really rock music with a little twang; Jason Aldean’s ‘Rearview Town‘ is rock with a Southern accent, and ‘Big Green Tractor‘ is country-themed pop rock; Luke Combs’ ‘Beer Never Broke My Heart‘ is a rock song and he has collaborated with country rapper Upchurch; Chris Stapleton is essentially a soul singer and has collaborated with Justin Timberlake.
There are a number of reasons for this significant shift in the sound of mainstream country music. Firstly, these songs are produced for the simple reason that they are popular and they sell (or stream). Despite what some online writers might lead you to believe, there is no grand conspiracy afoot here – it’s simply old fashioned American Capitalism in action. The Nashville machine isn’t churning out these records because it has some secret hatred of ‘traditional’ country music; if that style could sell hundreds of thousands of records then they’d still be promoting dozens of Hank Williams Senior soundalikes. The country radio audience’s tastes have shifted, just as they always have. The rock-influenced Waylon Jennings and co sounded very little like Appalachian folk music, and neither, in fact, did the blues-influenced Hank Williams. Hank Williams Jr brought R&B sounds into country because his generation liked that sound – and to make money. Sam Hunt brought influences from artists such as Drake into his music because he is part of a generation raised on hiphop and because there is a ready audience for that style. Florida Georgia Line mixed country rock with rap because younger generations enjoy both styles and, like them, listen to playlists with ‘a little Hank, a little Drake’. Record labels put out records that will sell. If the new country audience likes pop, rock, and rap, then that is what they will get – and have.
Secondly, massive social changes have taken place in America over the last two centuries, during which a largely rural country has shifted to being a largely suburban country. As Kenneth Johnson of the University of New Hampshire notes:
More that 90 percent of the U.S. population was rural in 1790. By 1920, that number had dwindled to just under 50 percent. Today, only 15 percent of the population resides in rural counties.
Today, farmers and ranchers make up just 1.3% of the employed US population, totalling around 2.6 million people out of a population of more than 329 million. More than a third of rural counties have a shrinking population and the rural population growth that is occurring is increasingly non-white:
Hundreds of rural counties have far fewer people today than they did a century ago. In many, young adults have been leaving for generations, so few young women remain to have children. As a result, deaths exceed births in these counties, producing a downward spiral of population decline…
Other demographic changes are underway in rural America as well. The population is rapidly becoming more diverse. Minorities represent 21 percent of the rural population, but produced 83 percent of the growth between 2000 and 2010. Hispanics are particularly important to this growing rural diversity.
Children are in the vanguard of this change. The rural minority child population has grown significantly recently, while the number of non-Hispanic white children diminished.
This should come as no surprise, as rural whites have largely abandoned the land. While most farmers remain non-Hispanic white males, hired farmworkers (who make up less than 1 percentof all U.S. wage and salary workers) are mostly Hispanic, many of them migrants, about halfof them in the country illegally. The US Department of Agriculture notes:
Farm laborers are considerably less well educated, more likely to be Hispanic of Mexican origin, and less likely to be citizens than are workers in other occupations in agriculture, or than the U.S. wage and salary workforce as a whole.
The US rural population in 2015 was around 46 million, yet according to CMA Research, over 129 million Americans listen to country music (51% of US adults). Farmers make up a tiny proportion of the US population and most of the people they employ are Hispanic. The majority of Americans, then, now live outside rural areas and do not work in agriculture. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the majority of country music listeners also live in non-rural environments and have no involvement in agriculture. Country music has always been altering in the light of these social and economic changes. The idea that country music is in the main a manifestation of a living white rural culture that somehow exists in a state of separation from mainstream American culture is no longer plausible.
When country musicians sing about the rural life, they are providing a largely urban audience with a modern version of the agrarian myth. It’s nostalgia, not reality. Consider the case of North Alabama farmer J.D. Booker, who is cited in an article on the reliance of US agriculture on migrant labour:
J.D. Booker has owned his farm in Toney for 14 years. Booker is a former Marine and is not afraid of hard work. He said long hours is one of the reasons why there is a shortage of farm workers.
“It’s hard, hard work. Long hours. Sun up to sun down.”
Florida Georgia Line have sung:
Born and raised in the South
American and proud
Where the lost gets found
Livin’ off the land
And workin’ with our hands
Till the sun goes down
You see my roots are buried deep down in the South
And these boots don’t get muddy from sittin’ around
Out here in the holler, we work hard for a dollar,
From sun up to sun down.
Of course, in reality, farmers like J.D. Booker are not employing the singers from Florida Georgia Line, but Mexican workers instead, who don’t balk at the prospect of actually working on a farm ‘from sun up to sun down’.
As noted earlier, country music has documented the mass exodus of rural whites from the countryside and the rural economy into first a working class industrial life, and then into the suburbs. Increasingly, those Americans who vaguely look back to rural roots are actually university educated and working in white collar jobs. Modern country music illustrates this fact.
The first major transitional period in country music occurred after World War II, as ‘country’ people increasingly moved to urban areas to work industrial jobs. This period was defined by a sense of dislocation and is reflected in the often chaotic lives of singers of the time. With the shift to industrial society came relationship troubles and marital breakdowns, combined with a reliance on alcohol and other substances to get by. Looking at the lives of various key ‘classic country’ singers we see this played out in their personal lives.
Hank Williams was a twice married alcoholic who abused prescription drugs and died aged 29. Lefty Frizzell was an alcoholic and died at 47. Johnny Cash was twice married and abused alcohol and amphetamines. Johnny Paycheck was a drug user who spent time in jail and developed advanced-stage alcoholism. George Jones was married four times. Another alcoholic, Jones also abused amphetamines and cocaine, and was twice institutionalised as a result of his drinking. Merle Haggard was married five times and abused alcohol and cocaine. Such were the lives of these icons of country music.
The second major transitional period in country music has taken place in recent years, with the music’s audience shifting from being predominantly made up of members of the industrial and rural working class to being suburban, educated, and middle class. Recent CMA research confirms this shift: Country fans own their own homes at a higher rate than the general population, are employed full-time at a higher rate, are employed as executive/professional at a higher rate, and live in households with children at a higher rate. They are only marginally less likely to be graduates than the general population (35%/36%). Their average household income is more than $81,000 per annum (as opposed to $60,336 among the general population).
Today’s mainstream country stars live lives that are radically different to the blue collar divorce-ridden substance abusing singers of the past. Many country stars have attended university: Dierks Bentley (Vanderbilt), Lee Brice (Clemson), Luke Bryan (Georgia Southern), Eric Church (Appalachian State), Tyler Hubbard (Belmont), Sam Hunt (University of Alabama at Birmingham), Brian Kelley (Belmont), Dustin Lynch (Lipscomb University), Maren Morris (University of North Texas), Jake Owen (Florida State), Chase Rice (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Thomas Rhett (Lipscomb), Cole Swindell (Georgia Southern), Carrie Underwood (Northeastern State), Brett Young (Ole Miss), and Chris Young (Belmont). The singers weren’t studying agricultural subjects, but, rather, subjects such as Business Administration, Marketing, and Communications. In other words, higher education courses that would normally lead to middle class white collar work.
Many country singers are also happily married: Dierks Bentley (married since 2005), Lee Brice (married since 2013), Luke Bryan (married since 2006), Eric Church (married since 2008), Tyler Hubbard (married since 2015), Sam Hunt (married since 2017), Brian Kelley (married since 2013), Justin Moore (married since 2007), Maren Morris (married since 2018), Thomas Rhett (married since 2012), Carrie Underwood (married since 2010), Brett Young (married since 2018).
Today’s country singers and country listeners are increasingly successful and ‘respectable’ members of the American middle class. Yet, despite this shift into middle class society, the singers and fans are still drawn to an idealised image of the ‘country’. Joe Petrey lived in the city but drove a Chevrolet pickup truck with a ‘Hillbilly and Proud of It’ sticker. Many modern country fans arguably follow in that tradition. Indeed, the pickup truck remains an important signifier of a ‘country’ identity. James C. Cobb, writing for Smithsonian Magazine, argues:
With even the entry-level Dodge Ram 1500 stickering in the neighborhood of $65,000, many of today’s pampered pickups stand little chance of hauling cotton, hay, livestock, or much of anything else likely to scratch them. Though pickups continue to have some practical applications in theory, in practice, a great number of them serve their owners primarily as “lifestyle vehicles” or some might even say “lifestyle statements.” Indeed, for a sizable contingent of Americans, the pickup truck has emerged as a means of establishing their ties to a distinctly blue-collar identity in the course of flaunting their bourgeois prosperity.
Cobb compares the pickup truck of classic country with that of today:
More than 40 years later, the rusty rattletrap [David Allan] Coe had in mind is little in evidence in songs by Luke Bryan and others about good ol’ boys and gals dancing the night away to a deafening mix of country rock and hip-hop, or just sitting and sipping on the special “diamond plate” tailgate protector of a lavishly accoutered “big black, jacked-up” pickup, likely a Chevy Silverado, which Bryan himself favors.
Luke Bryan is not alone. References to Silverados turn up in the songs of, amongst others, Lee Brice (‘See About A Girl’ ), Billy Currington (‘Summer Forever’), Tyler Farr (‘Redneck Crazy’), Florida Georgia Line (‘Get Your Shine On’), and Tim McGraw (‘Lookin’ For That Girl’ ). However, auto market research shows:
The average household income of a new Silverado owner is about $76,000 per year and like the F-150, despite those romantic country images you see in advertising, the majority of new Silverados are owned in large and medium-sized cities.
Just as Cobb sees pickup trucks as ‘lifestyle vehicles’, Jon Smith argues:
Southern or otherwise, when a bourgeois man who doesn’t work with his hands affects a pickup truck or work boots, he generally expresses not an identity but a yearning for one.
This yearning for an identity is, of course, a particularly white phenomenon. Contemporary country music provides a way to claim an identity that is based largely on myth, nostalgia, and an idealised notion of ‘real America‘. It is no longer so much a manifestation of a rural culture than it is a fabrication of rural life and identity for mass consumption. Mainstream country songs do not focus on farm closures, the effects of tariffs on farmers, farming as agribusiness, the rise of the ‘mega farm’, the lives of migrant farm workers, and so on, nor do they focus on rural poverty and unemployment, or the opioid epidemic. The countryside of country music is filled with happy small towns, where people spend much of their lives partying and driving down dirt roads. The worst thing that happens in these small towns is having to deal with the aftermath of a couple breaking up. The small town, then, like the pickup truck, is more a symbol than it is a reality. It arguably represents another element in the construction of an identity for an increasingly urbanised white population.
Florida Georgia Line are particularly good at conjuring up the small town image. In ‘Y’all Boys‘ they sing:
Y’all boys with that Southern drawl, boys
Hell before you naw, rollin’ off just right
Man, that town is small, boys
But you have a ball, boys
Homemade alcohol on a Saturday night
In ‘Small Town‘:
If you leave your doors unlocked
If your garage is your body shop
If your dog’s got room to run
You might be from a small town
And if you’ve ever kissed a girl
Spinnin’ round on a Tilt-A-Whirl
At the county fair in the summer sun
You might be from a small town
And in ‘May We All’:
May we all get to grow up in a red, white, and blue little town
Get a won’t-start, hand-me-down Ford to try to fix up
With some part time cash from driving a tractor
Find a sweet little thang, wears your ball cap backwards
Kinda place you can’t wait to leave but nobody does
‘Cause you miss it too much
In reality, band members Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley grew up in Monroe, Georgia, and Ormond Beach, Florida, neither of which is a particularly small town. They met while studying at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. Far from not leaving their ‘red, white and blue little towns’ because they would ‘miss it too much’, Hubbard currently lives in ‘a lavish estate outside Nashville’, while Kelley lives in a $6.24 million compound outside Nashville that ‘features three separate homes, a 500 sq. ft. recording studio and a bevy of bars’.
In ‘Thank God For Hometowns’, Carrie Underwood sings:
Thank God for hometowns
And all the love that makes you go round
Thank God for the county lines that welcome you back in
When you were dying to get out
Thank God for Church pews
And all the faces that won’t forget you
Cause when you’re lost out in this crazy world
You got somewhere to go and get found
Thank God for hometowns
Carrie Underwood grew up in Checotah, Oklahoma, a genuinely small town. However, she sings of how she was ‘dying to get out’ of small town life, and she succeeded, winning the fourth season of American Idol in 2005. Following her TV success, Underwood embarked on a career in pop country music and has a net worth of around $80 million. She has recently moved from a 7,000 square-foot Nashville mansion, valued at over $1 million, to a $3 million 400-acre property in ‘the scenic and semi-rural suburbs of Nashville’. Underwood’s hometown may well ‘welcome her back in’, but she’s apparently got no interest in living there.
For both country music stars and urban and suburban country listeners, then, the ‘small town’, like the pickup truck, is about identity, not lived reality. The small towns of country music are not the small towns where Main Street is shuttered and most people shop at Dollar General or Walmart. They are not the small towns with high unemployment and large numbers of residents living below the poverty line. They are not Tchula, Mississippi, which has a 95% black population and 54% of its residents living below the poverty line. They are not the small towns where residents abuse oxycodone and crystal meth. They are not Clarksburg, West Virginia, AKA ‘Methburg’. They are not the small towns where a third of poor whites have abandoned church-going.
But the point of contemporary country music is primarily to entertain, not to strictly reflect reality, and that has always been the case in commercial country music. When country artists adopted cowboy names and clothing in the past, and sung about a world in which they had never lived, they were no less hypocritical or deceptive than Florida Georgia Line might be seen to be today.
The history of commercial country music is ultimately a history of white American identity, or the quest for one. It features mythical notions of the Old West, mythical notions of the family farm, mythical versions of the American small town. Its history also documents the changing tastes of white Americans and their changing social status and lifestyles. Early commercial country music called forth All American images of agrarian living and the iconic symbol of the cowboy. Country music after World War II began to incorporate elements from African American blues music, then African American rock ‘n’ roll music and R&B, and now African American hiphop music. Its history illustrates the long-running white interest in non-white music, yet these interests were rendered easier to ‘identify with’ when given the ‘country’ label and presented to whites by fellow whites. The fact that contemporary mainstream country music is now effectively a mashup of pop, rock, and hiphop is a reflection of the new world of white America. It is not so much the death of ‘true’ country music, as purists argue, but rather the inevitable evolution of a genre that has long been only vaguely related to the agrarian society in which it has its earliest roots.
The increasing marginalisation of ‘traditional’ country music styles in modern country music illustrate not so much the death of ‘true’ country music, but rather the passing away of older eras of white America and white American identity and their replacement with a new, more diverse, and less insular world: a world of shared cultural influences, of the Internet, of increasing racial tolerance (despite what the doom merchants may say in the era of ‘Trump’s America’), and even of increasing acceptance of those who are not heterosexual. Commercial country music still looks to an idealised vision of small town rural America as an image of American authenticity, complete with hard-working patriotic citizens who enjoy a cold beer or three and driving down old dirt roads in pickup trucks, but the citizens of this mythical small town are no longer racist and no longer live in a world so different from that of the suburbs. Whether or not country music can ultimately survive as a distinct genre in an increasingly urbanised world – and a world in which new methods of music consumption such as streaming and contextual playlists are continuing to take over from the traditional radio and album-based past – remains to be seen.