Greetings, June bugs,
I’ve enjoyed following along from the sidelines so far. Carl, I figured you’d eventually raise country-pop crossover as a topic of discussion, judging from how you’d zeroed in on it toward the close of your first-rate year-end essay for Billboard, and I’m glad that you did, because it’s a phenomenon I’ve been pondering from multiple angles all damn year, and even longer.
A couple of years back, it was male country acts reaching across the format aisle to duet with women who were already proven stars in pop (or pop-rock), with Kenny Chesney turning to Pink, Brad Paisley to Demi Lovato, and Dierks Bentley to Elle King. Part of the reasoning offered at the time was that years of limited country radio airplay for women had significantly thinned the ranks of potential female singing partners in their native field (and Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Kelsea Ballerini, and Maren Morris had already been enlisted fairly recently—including, in Morris’ case, on that same Bentley album). I looked at 2017 as the year that actual pop fluency—by which I mean the thorough, breezy incorporation of vocal and production approaches from pop, rap, and R&B, as opposed to the ungainly borrowing that often preceded it—reached the center of the country mainstream. But at least in that world, it’s paid far greater dividends for male stars. Morris, the reigning archetype of female country-pop swagger, has essentially been laboring at country radio promotion for three years now, beginning with “My Church” in January 2016, with a solitary No. 1 to show for it. Neither Ballerini nor Underwood were rewarded with much chart success for artfully adjusting the tones of their songwriting, the textures of their instrumentation, and the cadences and intensity of their vocal deliveries on their latest albums. This December marked the first time in 28 years that Billboard’s Country Airplay chart lacked a single female representative in the Top 20.
But 2018 was also the year that I saw Cam open for Sam Smith, Kacey Musgraves for Harry Styles, and Morris for Niall Horan, all of them either in amphitheaters or arenas. Like the big crossover dance-pop bangers you reeled off, Carl, these pairings with male, British pop stars offered both visibility and a sort of mobility. When I was doing some reporting a couple of weeks back for a soon-to-be-published story, one of the interviewees, a young woman working in the country scene and frustrated at the gender-based roadblocks, deadpanned acidly that she bets Morris doesn’t regret that massively popular, Grammy-nominated collaboration with Zedd and Grey one bit. During that same conversation, my source invoked Cam’s recent displays of self-determination as an example to be followed (Cam extricated herself from her relationship with Sony Music Nashville so that she’s now solely dealing with the New York branch of the label group, and during her headlining date at the Ryman Auditorium, she called out the “square[s]” who perpetuate sexism and homogeneity in the country music business). When I listened to Golden Hour early in the year, I heard it mostly as a victory for Musgraves, who’d made room for the complexity of her vision, with all of the gentle idiosyncrasies that Lindsay referred to, but lately I’ve come to realize that both the album and the accolades it’s received without radio support have also been claimed as a victory by a host of young women trying to build Nashville careers.
Even though the stranglehold of bro country has given way to various softer, smoother gestures, the men of the format still dominate terrestrial, satellite, and streaming playlists. But it’s not like country’s rising generation of women are content to keep following a prescribed promotional path that’s leading only to frustration and a sense of futility. I’ve found it illuminating to consider how the moves that Morris, Cam, Musgraves, and so many others are making count as artistic and professional survival strategies.
That goes for another pattern that I saw emerge in 2018: A number of newer country acts, the majority of them women, presented themselves as singer-songwriters in the classic sense of the term—not just performers who had a hand in co-writing their material, as has become common in Nashville over the last decade or so, but those connecting with audiences on the strength of their particularized perspectives. I’m thinking of major label signings like Rachel Wammack, Tenille Townes, and Kassi Ashton, and artists like Jillian Jacqueline, Bailey Bryan, and Kalie Shorr, who are either on the rosters of powerful indies or entirely independent. They’ve done everything from releasing demo-style recordings and stripped-down videos to performing solo live and introducing their songs with intimacy-stoking vignettes about what was on their minds when they wrote them, and they belong just as much to the lineage of poignant, folk-leaning narrators like Patty Griffin and Lori McKenna as they do the confessional country-pop line leading from Musgraves and Taylor Swift. These artists are asserting that their vantage points matter—and potentially setting themselves up for careers that may look different from arena-scale country stardom as we’ve known it. On some level, they’re probably also responding to the scaling down of pop into streambait that Carl brought up earlier.
Next to Golden Hour, the country album that received the most critical praise this year was Interstate Gospel, the return of the seasoned trio Pistol Annies. Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley, and Miranda Lambert were so prepared to be ignored by country radio that they playfully taunted programmers. More importantly, though, the songwriting, harmonizing, album-making, and interview-giving that they did together definitely fell in line with Ann’s notion of artists building rejuvenating retreats for themselves in plain view. They wanted us to see them momentarily stepping away from the higher stakes of their solo careers to luxuriate in a circle of solidarity that both emboldened them and helped them loosen up.
I could go on about the other places I found a welcome retreat (a Janelle Monáe show, for one) or the salve of tuneful, open-hearted melancholy that Courtney Marie Andrews’ album offered. And building on Hanif’s reflections, I could also point out one of the less expected places that I encountered fiercely grounded and complex reportage on lived black realities this year: in the gospel rap of Derek Minor. Ann also mentioned the important work done by artists of color working in roots and country veins. That’s something else I’ve been thinking and writing about a lot. Priscilla Renea, Kane Brown, Liz Vice, Leon Bridges, The Suffers collectively and frontwoman Kam Franklin individually, and Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear all released expansive projects that defied simplistic, dismissive, or exoticizing readings. But I’ve gone on long enough, and other deadlines are calling.