Country music has traditionally fiddled with love songs and steeled itself against heartache, but in 2017, the genre has grown increasingly… well… horny.
Lady Antebellum’s “You Look Good” rode multiple stacked trumpets and trombones to No. 4 on the Country Airplay chart, and it’s hardly alone. Toby Keith has employed a three-piece horn section in his live band for at least a dozen years. Thomas Rhett’s utility player, Frank Houston, injects a sax solo into “Die a Happy Man” during their live shows. Sturgill Simpson had a trumpet player squeezing out dog-whistle notes during a January performance on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. Jake Owen’s concerts feature a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” with a trio of wind instruments replacing the mariachi trumpets in the original studio recording. Chris Janson sneaks the sound into the swampy “Little Bit of Both” on his new album, Everybody (Sept. 22, Warner Music Nashville). Charlie Worsham ladled horns onto his album Beginning of Things. And Josh Abbott Band wove the four-piece Grooveline Horns into six tracks on its Aug. 18 release Until My Voice Goes Out.
“Without really becoming a ‘thing,’ it kind of subtly crept its way into country music,” says Abbott of the trend.
Oddly enough, it’s one that has almost nothing to do with being trendy. Inevitably, the artists who’ve added horns were looking for a musical element that would breathe new life into their sound, pay homage to R&B or add depth to their concert band. In every case, they looked to brass and/or woodwinds to reach their goals.
“When horns are played live like that, it just makes the whole sound energized,” says Keith.
“It feels like a party,” agrees Lady A’s Dave Haywood. “And I think country music is moving, more so than ever, in that direction. It’s a big party out there on the road, and whenever the horns get up there and play, I’m telling you, everyone gets out of their seats.”
That shouldn’t be surprising. When teens danced the Charleston or the jitterbug in the first half of the 20th century, a big band that often featured five saxophones, four trumpets and four trombones supplied the back beat. Subsequently, The Memphis Horns were an essential component to such danceable 1960s Stax recordings as Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” and Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man.” And it’s hard to conceive of the disco era without such horn-centered acts as KC & The Sunshine Band, The Ohio Players and Earth, Wind & Fire.
In a way, that makes the current upswing in horns a natural occurrence in country. With fans increasingly mixing and matching genres in their playlists, country acts are feeling more freedom to mash up influences from other idioms.
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve just loved the sound of a big band, and just like a lot of people, my wife and I listen to Frank Sinatra daily,” says Rhett. “So going into this year, if there was any way we could rearrange some of our hits we’ve been playing for five years and make them a little more big band-slash-jazzy, we wanted to do it.”
Adding horns has its challenges. For starters, there’s the economic cost of increasing payroll, especially for an instrument that doesn’t necessarily belong onstage the entire night.
“What’s terrifying, having a horn player, is when they’re not playing, what do they do?” observes Rhett. “Do you force a horn part into the countriest song in your set? Or do you go, ‘Hey, you might need to step off the stage for 3 minutes’?”
Plus, it seems to create confusion or controversy within parts of a fan base.
“I don’t think people understand the horn’s role in music,” says Abbott. “We’ve had a couple people — like fans on -Twitter — saying, ‘Dude, what’s up with these horns? This is not country at all.’ And then we’ve had several people be like, ‘Oh, my gosh, love these horns. This is a throwback to old-school country.’ ”
Both responses have legitimacy. In earlier eras of country, horns were an occasional piece of the sonic puzzle. Trumpet legend Louis Armstrong played on a number of Jimmie Rodgers recordings, Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys featured several horn players, and Tennessee Ernie Ford put a clarinet in a key position on “Sixteen Tons.” But horns also became something of a novelty. Sax player Boots Randolph’s signature song was the cartoonish “Yakety Sax,” and Danny Davis & The Nashville Brass — prominent in the 1970s — featured a trumpet as a lead instrument, patterned as a sort of rhinestone knockoff of Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass.
Horns “have always been looked upon as an accessory instead of an integral part of the show,” says Keith.
However, not by Merle Haggard. For more than 40 years, Don Markham played sax on his records and in his concerts with The Strangers, taking up other instruments when his tenor wasn’t required. Markham was a particularly key component to “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” and “It’s All in the Movies.”
“That sax makes that song,” says Keith.
The sax — and the trumpet and trombone — are finding their place again in the genre. Kenny Chesney has at times employed a section, led by the appropriately named Jim Horn (whose credits include The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” Dan Seals’ “Bop” and Keith’s “Get Drunk and Be Somebody”), and the horn players are making a difference both in the sound and the look of country concerts.
“We really feature our horns,” says Haywood. “They aren’t just two guys that sit back there by the drummer and hide in the shadows. I mean, these guys are arguably running around just as much as Charles [Kelley] and Hillary [Scott] and I. They’re out there on the end of the thrusts and out there getting the crowd hyped up. They’re really the big feature part our show right now.”
Keith’s wind instrumentalists — sax player Roman Dudok, trumpeter Jay Jennings and trombonist Nick Laufer — have evolved from a horn section that stands on a riser behind the drums into an essential part of the concert visuals, frequently changing their station during the set and working through choreography with backup singer Mica Roberts.
“I went and got my horn section, and that’s when I finally felt like [I was] achieving what I wanted to accomplish here,” says Keith. With most of his shows booked for amphitheaters, the extra movement and thicker sound those players provide help entertain a rowdy crowd. “They come in at 3 o’clock and tailgate, they get hammered, and by the time I get there, they’re rambunctious, they’ve been hammered for four, five hours, and they want it live and in their face. The horns allowed me to get in their face.”
Whether the current surge in horns is a short-term trend in country or a long-term shift remains to be seen. But their ascent expands the playbook for country’s creators.
“The more weird stuff that we can get out there and that gets accepted and made familiar, the better,” says Worsham. “You know, if you eat a varied diet, lots of different foods, you’re likely to be healthier. If you listen to a wide variety of great music, you’re likely to be a better music fan for the planet.”