In the 1990s, the Nashville, Tenn., invasion included Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, Shania Twain, and Billy Ray Cyrus (that’s Miley’s dad, Millennials). Now country is enjoying another boom, this time with heavy hints of rock and hip-hop.
Look no further than the recently launched website Rolling Stone Country. Yes, the bible of rock music now offers a side helping of Southern twang, lured by top-selling tours and albums from polished stars such as Brad Paisley and Keith Urban, who mix guitar-hero solos with down-home sentiment, to Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood, both capable of matching Pink and Katy Perry for brass and sass.
“You turn to country music and you get music that’s more story-oriented and guitar-oriented. And it’s fun. It doesn’t have a lot of anger,” says Michael McCall, writer and editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
Still, male-heavy playlists dominate on country radio. Female singers such as Ashley Monroe and Kacey Musgraves are heard much less than their male peers despite critical kudos and catchy, smart songs. “There’s not a lot of room on country radio for women,” says Jen Gunderman, a member of Sheryl Crow’s touring band who teaches the history of women in music at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
Signs point toward change as cross-pollination flourishes among country and pop, R&B, hip-hop (“hick-hop,” in country parlance), and even heavy metal. Eric Church sounds as much like AC/DC and Bruce Springsteen as he does anything country. Lionel Richie is fresh off a Southern-accented overhaul of his pop and R&B hits. Former Hootie & the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker, LeAnn Rimes, Gretchen Wilson, and Florida Georgia Line contributed to a just-released tribute album to hair-metal band Mötley Crüe.
“Country music’s doors are so wide open right now,” says Beville Dunkerley, senior editor at Rolling Stone Country. “It’s always infused rock and soul and a little bit of R&B, but now it’s infusing even more genres.”