Originally published as the cover story of Tastemakers Issue #49, “Southern Comfort: Reconciling Yourself With One Of America’s Oldest Traditions.” (See link or scroll down for full spread.)
When country and western, formerly called “hillbilly” music, started its ascent into the mainstream after World War II, its listeners made up a full third of record sales across the United States. Migration north was bringing the South to wider audiences than ever before. Country and western birthed rockabilly, which evolved into the brand-new genre of rock and roll; as rock took over the pop landscape, traditional Southern sounds were carried through by champions in Southern rock and progressive and alt-country. Country music has been with us since the inception of a national pop identity. So, what happened? Why is it so unfashionable to admit to liking country music?
Two reasons, mostly. The first is that it comes from the South, an area that has historically been portrayed as uneducated, uncultured, and altogether backwards. Country music is barely, if ever, marketed as an art form; at best, it’s marketed as an insider’s connection to the South and folk traditions. It’s a kind of nostalgia that people in the urban North (read: mainstream “trendsetters”) don’t naturally access – not that they’re ever encouraged to. The second reason is the extent to which pop country has been watered down. Diagnosing this shift is a career-long undertaking, but in theory: how could a genre with such spotty industry support survive a natural transition into the 21st century? How could country music evolve within a broader mainstream that insists on preserving its antiquity? Country music has lost its way, and as pop country tries to appeal to wider audiences, even its greatest contenders have turned their backs on it, and each other. There will always be good music in any genre, but current pop country as a whole is a zombie.
But country music itself, like rock and roll, like classical, and especially like folk, will never be dead. There will always be great artists coming out of the South, an undeniable incubator of authentic American culture in music, cuisine, literature and more. There are artists every day coming out of Nashville, Memphis, New Orleans, Atlanta, who have been brought up admiring the great American traditions of the South and putting their own spin on them – without selling out. If you already love country music, pop country especially, there’s plenty out there for you. If you don’t know where to start, here are some points of entry that embrace the best of country in unique, contemporary ways that won’t cost you any cool points.
True country music is alive and well for some country artists whose passion is continuing the traditions that shaped the unique Southern culture. These artists are staying true to “real country music,” and ushering it into the 21st century with minimal bells and whistles.
One of the most exciting mainstream country songs of 2016 was a total wildcard: Beyoncé’s “Daddy Lessons.” And in case country fans (or haters) overlooked this, the Dixie Chicks stepped in to assert its country standing. Less rowdy, but equally ready for established country audiences is Hurray for the Riff Raff, offering up an elegant and buoyant dance in “Blue Ridge Mountain.” The whole album, Small Town Heroes is full of lovely country Americana.
Country music draws on some of the oldest traditions in America – but popular music isn’t usually about what’s old. The Coen Brothers movie O Brother, Where Art Thou is widely credited with bringing back bluegrass. Two traditional songs revived by Alison Krauss on the soundtrack are “I’ll Fly Away” and “Down to the River to Pray.” More simply, Steve Martin’s “Clawhammer Medley” offers bluegrass variety in a neat little two-minute package.
These contemporary arrangements sound new, but they aren’t breaking (far) out of established styles. Crooked Still puts a rhythmically driving, contemporary edge on the traditional gospel song “Ain’t No Grave.” Or check out Rhiannon Giddens’s “Hey Bébé” for some smooth New Orleans jazz. Giddens is the frontwoman of the African-American string band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who won a Grammy in 2010 for Best Traditional Folk Album.
As the limitations of art music continue to loosen, some classically-trained virtuosos are transitioning folk-country legacies to traditionally intellectualized art spaces. These artists are instrumental in using their status for proving the artistic richness of Southern music.
There’s a reason bluegrass used to be called “hillbilly jazz.” On their groundbreaking country-bluegrass album, Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile, and others perform original, sometimes dizzying compositions like the excellent opener, “Attaboy.” Béla Fleck, another champion of the fusion style who often leans into jazz, collaborates with artists like his wife, Abigail Washburn, on “New South Africa,” and with others on an instrumental version of the jazzy Flecktones tune “Big Country.”
Pop-leaning classical fusion can bring tremendous appeal in combatting stereotypes of an unintellectual South, without alienating non-classical listeners. Chris Thile and Abigail Washburn reappear here with elements of pop song structure, for more grounded public accessibility. “Smoothie Song,” by Thile’s band Nickel Creek, is an instrumental with a groovy chorus, and Washburn’s “City of Refuge” utilizes smoky vocals and a singer-songwriter feel.
Movie soundtracks can be great for experimentally reviving geographic traditions. The multi-Oscar nominee Beasts of the Southern Wild is famous for its cinematic Cajun soundtrack. “The Bathtub” (performed by the Lost Bayou Ramblers) swirls between gentle bells, thumping rhythmic strings, and creole blues shouting. More creole-classical comes from first-generation Haitian-American, Leyla McCalla in sultry songs like “Peze Café,” a borrowed folk song.
Historically Southern Genres
The South gave us much more than strictly country and western; entire genres have developed through direct contact with country through a changing 20th century. Today’s emerging artists were raised on classic rock and blues with heavy Southern influence.
Probably the biggest turning point for American popular music was the development of the blues. Valerie June is breaking out in 2017 as a singer-songwriter from Memphis fusing Appalachian, folk, blues, and more in infectious songs like “Workin’ Woman Blues.” Curiously, foreign bands like Iceland’s Kaleo, with “Broken Bones,” and Australia’s Mitch King, with “Southerly Change,” are embracing the Southern blues with growing success.
Country and folk rock took over huge portions of the classic rock culture of the ‘60s and ‘70s – now, we have artists writing in those styles so convincingly, you wonder what year you’re really listening to. Hiss Golden Messenger channels the Allman Brothers Band, Tom Petty, and Bob Dylan for 2016’s “Biloxi.” Ray LaMontagne floats between general Southern and country sounds, but really leans into the latter with 2010’s Cat Stevens-esque “Beg Steal or Borrow.”
Chris Stapleton is an undisputed current country sensation – so much so that perhaps he was almost too obvious to make the cut on this list. But the slow, indulgent “Tennessee Whiskey” is a timeless must-hear, and good news: it’s only two years old, and there’s a lot more coming. With the help of Valerie June and her songs, like the dreamy “Astral Plane,” the two will be nudging folk country (in all its twangy-accented glory) back into the mainstream.
Indie rock artists are bringing the style to unexpected places that really highlight the versatile elegance of the American country tradition. Country influence in indie music is often radically unique, and intimately tied to the subtleties of artistic identity.
Here’s an oxymoron: experimental Americana. But it works. With clean studio sounds and huge arrangements, the Barr Brothers create gorgeous country-folk journeys like “Even the Darkness Has Arms,” for fans of Fleet Foxes and The Paper Kites. For more of a post-rock fan, Ryley Walker’s “The Roundabout” contains only the slightest country flavor – but it’s there in the guitar riff, calming bass, and unhurried vocals. Country themes in both lend a mysterious sense of place.
With some of the least deliberately “country” songs of the list, these artists incorporate country elements into otherwise indie rock, so smoothly it seems almost subconscious. “Cry All Day” is a gently building anthem from Wilco’s most recent effort, Schmilco. Fruit Bats breaks out the banjo for “Humbug Mountain Song,” a darkly cheerful, stomping jam. And New Orleans guitarist Benjamin Booker breaks out with the aptly named, explosive “Violent Shiver.”
If progressive country wasn’t already what Willie Nelson played, it would be a great coinage for these spacey instrumentals – the Barr Brothers are back with “Static Orphans,” a Debussy-like, half-electronic musical soundscape. And despite being a little dated for our contemporary country hunt, “Sandusky” is a meditative gift from 1992 by Uncle Tupelo that may never get old. These songs are trance-inducing jams on a little country theme.