Is Country Music More Polarized Than Ever Before?

Chris Stapleton
Becky Fluke

Chris Stapleton

Following Sturgill Simpson's Facebook diatribe, the decades-long battle between country music's various factions continues.

Last month, Sturgill Simpson wrote a less-than-polite note to the Academy of Country Music, the institution behind the new "Merle Haggard Spirit Award," on Facebook. "Drop all the formulaic cannon fodder bullshit," he suggested, "along with all the high school pageantry, meat parade award show bullshit." Instead, Simpson encouraged the Academy to "start dedicating their programs to more actual Country Music."

This diatribe is just the latest salvo in an ongoing war. In many ways, country is a genre perpetually battling itself. But the two wings of country music may be more polarized now than ever before. Many years back, much like Willie...

Posted by Sturgill Simpson on Monday, August 29, 2016


Songwriter Brent Cobb attempts to exist with a foot in both worlds, and can testify to the increasing distance between them. He's penned tracks for mainstream acts like Luke Bryan and Frankie Ballard; as a solo act, Cobb offers an alluringly ramshackle take on '70s country. "I'm stuck in the middle here," he said recently on the phone from Georgia. When asked about the tension bristling between country's two poles, he replied, "I've asked so many people this very question — people that have been in Nashville and in the industry a lot longer than I have. Everybody's response is, 'Man, there's always been a little of that, but this time, it's the most divided it's ever been.'"

For evidence of the longstanding nature of this divide, watch an episode from The Johnny Cash Show 45 years ago. "In its 50 year history, country music has continuously been evolving into newer and different styles," Cash told his viewers. "Today, in 1971, we have what is called 'the modern sound of country music.' To some, it's been for the better, while to others, any mention of modern country is unacceptable." Cash cautioned against a knee-jerk dismissal -- "there are many sides to this modern sound" -- before introducing a singer he referred to as "clean and fresh and straight ahead": Merle Haggard

As Cash's special aired, unrest was brewing. Waylon Jennings released Ladies Love Outlaws the following year, and soon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and others would embrace the "Outlaw" title and temporarily secede from the Nashville system, which favored an orchestral pop sheen at the time.

Subsequent decades brought new iterations of this conflict. In the '80s, a fresh wave of neotraditionalists rose to counter crossover acts like Ronnie Milsap and Kenny Rogers. In the second half of '90s, the top 40-friendly songs of Shania Twain reached unprecedented levels of success; in 2000, George Strait and Alan Jackson made a case for returning to country’s old ways with a low-key polemic titled "Murder on Music Row" (originally recorded by a bluegrass group). Sample lyric: "The almighty dollar and the lust for worldwide fame/ Slowly killed tradition, and for that someone should hang."

Since then, tradition's tenuous hold on the mainstream has receded further, ground beneath 808-heavy programmed beats and half-rapped verses from Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt, Blake Shelton, and others. Established stars like Brad Paisley and Kenny Chesney now look to cross over by reaching across the aisles to collaborate with pop singers. According to an interview with the songwriter busbee, there was talk of Justin Bieber recording "H.O.L.Y." before it became a hit for Florida Georgia Line, demonstrating the negligible distance between Music Row and the Top 40 industrial complex.

Sturgill Simpson Debuts in Top 10 on Billboard 200 Chart

But the dominance of the genre's modern wing has not cowed the classicists: instead, they have responded with new levels of defiance, leading to Simpson's censorious Facebook post. "I fully realize that as I type this, meetings and conversations are taking place on Music Row to ensure I am blackballed from the industry and that's perfectly fine with me," he wrote. "They are also well aware that we don't need them. Our last albums went to #1 without any help from the Mainstream Country Music establishment… and our next albums will too."

In reality, he benefits from the establishment he excoriates — without the current sound of mainstream country, Simpson would be a boxer without a punching bag — but his point about sales bears scrutiny. Simpson's last album, A Sailor's Guide To Earth, debuted at No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart (No. 3 overall on the Billboard 200, with 124,000 copies sold so far this year, per Nielsen Music). Last month, the tradition-minded Texas singer Cody Johnson debuted at No. 2 on Top Country Albums with Gotta Be Me (No. 11 overall), and while Simpson is at least signed to a major label (though not a major country label), Johnson released his album independently. The success of these two artists indicates the presence of an underserved swathe of listeners looking for a classic-sounding fix.

Chris Stapleton Travels to Top of Country Charts Without Strong Support From Radio

Of course, the singer casting a heavily bearded shadow over the proceedings is Chris Stapleton. His Traveller album was one of 2015's top sellers; this year, it's country's most popular record by a landslide. To some extent, Stapleton’s commercial achievements suggest that country's pendulum is poised to swing back towards the traditional -- when a vintage-leaning album sells roughly twice as many copies as the nearest competitor in 2016, there is clearly a demand for this sound that's not being met by other major acts.

But it is dangerous to read too much into Stapleton's success, given his unique situation. Not only was he a veteran writer for a slew of the singers he is now outselling, generating a lot of good will from the industry, he got a prime-time launch from Justin Timberlake. And Stapleton's sound affects his success in more ways than one: a large portion of his appeal stems from the strain of blue-eyed soul, eternally palatable in the mainstream, that permeates Traveller. If Stapleton was making hard-bitten honky-tonk, it's hard to imagine him achieving much more than Simpson or Johnson: success, sure, but not total chart dominance.

Cody Johnson's 'With You I Am' Sets Up a Trad-Country Contender

Johnson's album represents a more plausible -- and for those who aren't on Timberlake's iPhone, accessible -- road to reducing country's polarization. It features establishment writers like Chris Dubois (Brad Paisley, Darius Rucker) and Jeffrey Steele (Tim McGraw, Rascal Flatts), and a pair of songs penned by the Brothers Osborne, who reached No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart this year with "Stay A Little Longer." At the same time, there's an undeniable flavor of honky-tonk to Gotta Be Me, and a cowboy nerve that nods to a vital sub-genre of country that has all but vanished from the mainstream.  

Speaking from Baton Rouge, LA, where he performed last Friday, Johnson describes his relationship with the Nashville system in practical terms. "They don't necessarily need me," he says, "but they kind of do. And I don't necessarily need them, but I kind of do. It's not black and white, one vs. the other. Eventually, they're gonna figure out how they fit with me and how I fit with them. Just 'cause I'm not with a record label, doesn't mean I'm against it."

Kevin Fowler Talks Ironic 'Sellout Song' Success & Conformity In Mainstream Country Music

He doesn't object to the crossover impulse in his genre either. "There was a lot of pop-ish music through the history of country," he notes. "It's ok. I love being able to have that variety. I think if there's room for one, there needs to be room for another."

He's right: In the past, country has been strengthened by its ability to harbor both the artists eager to take the genre to new places and those who hold on to the past with a white-knuckle grip. Without the historical grounding of the traditionalists, country’s modern edge becomes pop, and then it must fight by the rules of the pop marketplace, which moves significantly faster and more aggressively than country. Classicists, meanwhile, gain definition from battling the crossover instinct; there are no Outlaws without a mainstream to rebel against. This struggle simultaneously gives the traditionalists the authority of history -- they crusade to return a genre to its roots -- and the veneer of counterculture. In an ideal world, the two sides circle each other warily, but push each other to greater heights.

Johnson has a pleasing theory about the depth of the split in contemporary country. "I think that when people finally realize a bridge needs to be built, they start noticing the divide more," he explains. This could mean that harmonious co-habitation is just around the corner. "I'm here to build a bridge," Johnson adds. "Whoever wants to cross it can cross it with me."


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