If Kelsea Ballerini and Lukas Graham’s pop-country mash-up performance at this year’s Grammy Awards over the weekend didn’t prove it, I’ll say it—country music isn’t just country music anymore.
Their respective hits, Ballerini’s “Peter Pan” and Lukas Graham’s “7 Years,” effortlessly fit into one another, showcasing the genre fluidity modern country music has started to establish in recent years.
But this isn’t the first time country music has sounded more pop than its usual twangy tone. Take a look at Lady Antebellum for example, their country songs are continually featured on pop radio stations, mixed in with Britney, RiRi, Sia and all the other heavy hitters of pop music. Lady Antebellum’s songs actually sound more cohesive with mainstream pop, contrasted to classic country jams like those of Chris Stapleton and Grammy Album of the Year nominee Sturgill Simpson.
It’s not that Lady Antebellum shouldn’t be considered a country music band—they should, and they are, but they’re an example of the progression of modern country music and the commercialization of the genre as a whole. It’s not a bad thing—artistic expression should never be restricted or confined to set musical standards, but it does point to this idea that country music isn’t what it once was.
Consider the many artists who got their start in country music and are now full-fledged pop stars via the Taylor Swift Effect. Most recently, The Band Perry completed their transition from country to pop with the release of their newest single “Stay in the Dark” earlier this month, moving away from their smooth, Southern sound to an upbeat, catchy melody that’s easy to picture on pop radio.
Like in any adult relationship, country music seems to get dumped by a handful of its artists every so often. Although T-Swift has had many bad breakups and made sure to tell the whole world the details, her breakup from country music seemed much more planned.
First came 2012’s Red pop bangers, next came a world tour, then 1989 burst onto the scene and nothing was the same. Apart from other pop flings by other country artists, such as Faith Hill, LeAnn Rimes and even the great Shania Twain, there’s no denying that switching to pop music has worked for Swift and benefited her career.
Yet, it never goes the other way around; you rarely hear about artists who leave the stardom of pop music for humble country roots. The closest we get is Darius Rucker, Hootie & the Blowfish’s lead singer, swapping out his electric guitar to be a solo country artist back in 2008. As a musician, it’s important to keep reinventing yourself to stay relevant in the ever-changing world of music genres and pop culture, but why is everyone so quick to leave country music behind in the back of an old pick-up truck on a gravel road?
Maybe it shouldn’t be looked at as leaving one genre for another, but rather a slow progression. Maybe country music just has a knack for progressing into catchy pop hits. The lines between these two genres have become too blurred to differentiate where one ends and the other begins.
If you’re not convinced, take a listen to the soundtrack for Andrea Arnold’s critically acclaimed American Honey. The film won the 2016 Palme d’Or and Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival, but the music is a standout, mixing “chopped and screwed hip hop” with current trap music and popular country tracks for an intense, hazy road trip playlist—and it all works. The result is a defining soundtrack in film making, where pairing songs like Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” with Rae Sremmurd’s “No Type” somehow makes sense. None of the country songs seem out of place on the hip hop-dominated album, because country music is no longer what the public stereotypically characterize country music to be: guitar and fiddles, trucks and beer.
One country artist who repeatedly pushes the boundaries of his musical genre is Sam Hunt. Deemed by Billboard as the country version of Drake, Hunt recently released two of the singles off his forthcoming sophomore album, including “Drinkin’ Too Much,” and other than the name, it in no way resembles a country song. The song plays more “like a drunk voicemail than a single,” with Hunt’s sing-talk vocal style, and is similar to a thirst trap straight from Drake’s Views playbook. Hunt’s interest in hip hop and less-than-country aesthetic showcases a change in classic country music that both pop and country fans can enjoy.
What’s defined as country music has changed—it’s pop, it’s rock, it’s alternative, it’s emotional and powerful, but it’s catchy and fun. It’s songs to sing to and songs to cry to. It mixes every music genre into one. Is it a bad thing? Is it a good thing? To each their own, but modern country music is noteworthy and interesting in its new format. Country music isn’t just country music anymore—it’s something else entirely.