Country's circle remains unbroken, but a number of bands are gambling that out-of-the-box thinking will help them find success inside that stylistic circle.
Fifty years after The Byrds challenged norms with Sweetheart of the Rodeo, such bands as The Wild Feathers, The Cadillac Three, Delta Rae and The Last Bandoleros are following in their footsteps, blending country and other genres in a way that makes them distinct but still allows them to fit into the ever-changing definition of country.
"We're playing Twister," says Derek James of The Last Bandoleros. "We've got all our feet on the board and all the different flavors of music that we collectively like. One of them is definitely firmly rooted in country, and then there's rock and Tejano and blues and pop and a whole lot of harmony."
In some ways, groups are more likely than solo artists or duos to break with the status quo, given that three or more people are bound to bring an even bigger swath of influences to the table. But they also have a harder path, since decision-making requires more communication and coordination.
Still, bands have had a huge role in the evolution of country, particularly on its progressive edge. Alabama, the Eagles, The Byrds and The Kentucky HeadHunters challenged and helped redefine what was acceptable in the genre, moving the fences at the outside of the circle. The risk, of course, is that the daring blend of sound may prove to be a square peg that doesn't fit into country's round hole.
"There are boxes that are made for commercial viability, and then there's art that's made for your soul," says Delta Rae vocalist Brittany Holljes. The Big Machine band launched a 16-week residency at the Basement in Nashville on Sept. 5, adding a theatrical component to a folk/Americana-tinged brand of country. "There's a huge benefit to bands and artists being on the edge," adds Holljes. "That's where you always topple over into a new generation or a new sound or break through another barrier artistically."
Several bands have broken through in recent years by melding country with other genres. Reigning Academy of Country Music vocal group of the year, Old Dominion, blended country with a healthy dose of '80s pop influence and subtle hip-hop phrasing; current Country Music Association group nominee LANCO wielded a slight Lumineers feel in its breakthrough single, "Greatest Love Story"; and A Thousand Horses used a Black Crowes style of progressive Southern rock to nab a 2015 country hit with "Smoke."
The Bandoleros' melodic, Mexicali-tipped country/rock could easily find a place in the mainstream if the genre shifted just a tad, while loud-and-proud blues-rockers The Cadillac Three, rootsy Delta Rae and The Wild Feathers, who entered Nashville's radio market first through triple A WRLT, are all negotiating in their own ways with the format's fluidity. It's a bit of a dice roll, since that outer edge of country's circle is indeterminable, and it tends to move around. Its undefinable nature creates an ongoing dilemma at the heart of an artist's core: Do you make adjustments to move toward the circle? Or wait for the circle to expand and include you?
That was a key question for The Wild Feathers, who were previously signed to Warner Music through its Los Angeles division. The band has had some country influence since its inception in 2010, but resisted chasing the country market. New manager John Peets convinced the members that they could carve out a place in country without changing their core, as Chris Stapleton and Kacey Musgraves have done in recent years. The Wild Feathers are now signed to Warner Music Nashville.
"We wanted to keep our integrity, musically, and as artists and writers," says group co-founder Taylor Burns. "Once we had that reassurance, we were all a lot more comfortable with the idea."
The band has played shows with Kip Moore, Billy Currington and Jordan Davis, and the reception has convinced the act that redirecting its efforts was the right move.
"The circle has come to us more than we've come to it over the last couple of years," adds Burns. "It has kind of evolved to include us more."
With core sounds that borrow from multiple genres, it might seem from the outside that cross-pollinated bands have a plethora of options. In fact, establishing an individual stylistic lane can present a marketing dilemma, as The Last Bandoleros discovered. When Warner Music Nashville enthusiastically sent the act on a radio promotion tour, the feedback was often mixed: "We love you, but we don't know what to do with you."
"New things sometimes take a little bit of time for people to develop a taste for them," says James. "It's like when you're a kid: You don't really love sushi so much, but you kind of develop a palate for it."
Perhaps further muddying the water, The Last Bandoleros went on tour opening for Sting just as they sent their first single to country radio.
"When Sting offers you a world tour, you don't pass it up," says James. "If we were architecting our careers, we wouldn't have necessarily written it in that order, so it kind of diverted our focus a little bit in a great way."
Through his solo career and with The Police, Sting has exemplified the concept of blending genres while creating his own unique identity. The Cadillac Three has done the same thing in its own way, using a blues/rock base to convey the trio's Southern roots, booking 150 shows a year across multiple continents. TC3 can play clubs and small theaters to a fan base that knows its material intimately, and it continues to expand that audience by opening for Dierks Bentley and Florida Georgia Line. That gives the band the ability to keep working and adapting its sound without sacrificing its identity.
"It's a whole lot better to just be us and stand on that ground, and if that happens to magically align with something larger, then great," says TC3 drummer Neil Mason. "And if it doesn't, we're not afraid to continue to grind it out and let it grow at the pace that it has. It's still growing every single year."
It is one of the difficult balancing acts faced by genre-busting bands. Conforming to current market conditions might make it easier to break into the mainstream circle, but it's tough to stand out when you're trying to fit in.
"It's really easy to look around at other people's successes and think, ‘Oh, maybe if we just did that, then we would be a bigger band,' " says Mason. "But the reality is the reason something works for Florida Georgia Line or for Eric Church isn't necessarily going to add up to the same results for us. You really have to find your own path in this industry."
Those artists who are willing to bring something new into the circle are the ones most likely to change a format, and its center.
"Willie Nelson and Alabama were disrupters at first," says Holljes. "But they came to define the genre."