The Identity Of Country Music
Country music has undergone many changes throughout the years, with an ever-changing identity difficult to pinpoint. Country artists still struggle with the thought of keeping their music conservative versus exploring new sounds to reach broader audiences. With its “honky tonk” melodies and twangy instruments, in the mid-twentieth century, country music was easily characterized as its own genre and isolated to country radio. By the late 1960s, country music started incorporating elements of other genres into its music, drawing both praises and criticism from audiences. In Kim Simpson’s article, “Country Radio’s Growing Pains in the Music Trades, 1967-1977”, he explores the effect that country music’s changing sound had on country radio and its listeners.
In the late sixties and early seventies, country music faced pressure to conform to the “Top 40” style of music that was growing in popularity, leading to the ambiguity surrounding the genre. The music’s simple nature, its instrumentation, and its image were only part of what made up its identity. Therefore, when incorporating elements of “Top 40” music, it had broadened from its traditional style but lost parts of its traditional audience. Although the standardized sound of “Top 40” was good for business, the incorporation of rock and roll and soul music led “real country music” to lose its identity. Critics at the time believed the music had become “too modern to be called country”¹ as a result of other genres blurring into it. However, others debated that the essence of country music was in the instruments that accompanied the songs.
Modern country music has definitely changed from its simple structure and has adopted new characteristics, however, it has stayed true to its heartfelt storytelling structure. A modern example of the ever-changing country music identity is Taylor Swift, who began as a traditional country musician, telling personal stories through simple melodies. In 2012, when Swift released the single called “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, from her Red, album, some country radio stations were unsure how it would blend with the conventional “country” sound as it differed from what country fans were used to. Her lyrics still told stories as most traditional country songs did, however, the bubblegum-style pop music elements mixed with country music instruments revolutionized country radio. Similarly, rock and soul musicians permeated country music radio in the late sixties and seventies, changing the perception of country music. By straying from the traditional and conservative identity of country music, Taylor Swift’s Red album enjoyed great success with both pop and country radio.
Given the popularity of country music in recent years and comparing it to its humble beginnings, one can see that its identity is more complicated than it seems. Although it can be distinguished by “timbre of fiddles and steel guitars, a steady, uncomplicated shuffle or two-step rhythm”¹ its true identity is harder to discern. It is an example of a genre developing over time, and it continues to succeed in multiple contexts, both conservative and progressive.