For proof of how big of a tent country music pitched this year, look no further than the Country Music Association Awards in November.
The 50th anniversary celebration brought together artists from all over the map, from Taylor Swift presenting Garth Brooks with his entertainer of the year award to Maren Morris performing a soulful rendition of her Hot Country Songs hit “My Church,” backed by gospel quartet The McCrary Sisters and The Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
But the night’s most talked-about pairing was a surprise duet from veteran stars Dixie Chicks and Beyoncé, a two-song collaboration that took down the house — but also incited an online backlash. Trolls be damned, because one thing is clear: Country music is more inclusive than ever.
It’s not just in Nashville’s televised spectacles — the genre’s landscape really is expanding. Just two years ago, bro country’s meaty riffs, feel-good lyrics and chest-thumping hooks dominated airplay to the point of headlines about “the subversion of country music.” But thanks to interaction among the commercial vanguard, the genre’s experimental and neotraditional wings, outside influences and stars of different generations, country in 2016 was one of popular music’s broadest formats.
“To my ears — especially looking at other formats and genres — country has the most different styles,” says John Marks, a terrestrial and satellite radio veteran who oversees global country programming for Spotify. “That’s country’s strength, because those varieties are able to coexist on a playlist or radio station.”
To illustrate his point, Marks reads off names of artists on Spotify’s current “Hot Country” playlist: classic-rock student Sturgill Simpson, burly soul-belter Chris Stapleton, Pharrell Williams-collaborating harmonizers Little Big Town, jammy roots-rockers Brothers Osborne and certified storyteller Miranda Lambert.
Other trend-tracking country playlists that Marks curates cast even wider nets, from the polished, post-Mumford folk-rock of High Valley to the countrified soft-rock dabbling of Lady Gaga. This stylistic porousness partly reflects the comparatively young demographics of streaming-service users; Marks says the median age of Spotify’s country followers is 26.
“They think in genre-less terms,” he adds. But even the stricter format of terrestrial radio — still a major factor in building country careers is developing more elastic boundaries. For a time, radio favored a brand of beefed-up country-pop whose party vibe attracted the coveted 18-to-24 audience, a template Florida Georgia Line perfected. But the duo steered away from that on this year’s Dig Your Roots, dialing back the macho bluster in favor of silky pop-R&B. Case in point: Lead single “H.O.L.Y.,” a worshipful ballad that enjoyed the top slot on Hot Country Songs for 18 weeks straight, was initially pitched to Justin Bieber.
“It felt like an opportunity to open up a new lane,” says FGL producer Joey Moi. “We needed to get into a deeper sound. “The hungriest veterans of country-pop are adjusting to these youthful sensibilities. Tim McGraw, still headlining arenas in the third decade of his career, has been especially savvy about redefining his relevance: In the video for his Florida Georgia Line collaboration “May We All,” he plays an old-hand mechanic trying to talk sense into a couple of dirt-track hotshots. At the CMA Awards, Jennifer Nettles and Pentatonix paid tribute to Dolly Parton, who toured extensively this year in support of her No. 1 LP Pure & Simple.
In November, Brooks & Dunn’s Ronnie Dunn landed at No. 3 on the Top Country Albums chart with Tattooed Heart, a project that gave his modern-day cowboy heroism a glossy, beat-driven sheen. “There’s still a huge demand at radio and [within] the fan base for artists like Ronnie,” says Allison Jones, senior vp A&R for Big Machine Label Group, “but you want to make sure [their new music] sounds competitive next to a Thomas Rhett or Florida Georgia Line record.”
Meanwhile, Jon Pardi’s fiddle-laced throwback “Head Over Boots” (a Country Airplay No. 1) and William Michael Morgan’s elegantly stripped-down “I Met a Girl” (a Country Airplay No. 2) led a next-generation neotraditionalist charge. “Being more traditional is starting to be a little more acceptable at country radio,” says Pardi.
The 31-year-old chose to follow “Head Over Boots” with “Dirt on My Boots,” which splits the difference between hard-shell twang and pop bounce. “When I brought it to the label, they were like, ‘You’re going to record this?’ ” says Pardi. “The demo was robot voices, dance-mix-y. And I was like, ‘I’ve got this. We’re going to make it country.’ Morgan’s “I Met a Girl” was actually a reinvention of a song Sam Hunt rapped conversationally on his 2013 mixtape; but while Morgan’s remake may have gotten greater traction, Hunt’s last five singles, including 2016’s “Make You Miss Me,” have all been hits. There’s a reason Hunt’s music shares qualities of downtempo R&B: The best new artist Grammy nom is one of many country-pop powerhouses applying pop, R&B and hip-hop techniques to the music-making process itself. Writer-producers, sometimes referred to as “track people,” spur lyrics and melodies by programming beats, making the rhythmic feel of the songs integral to their appeal.
“Now, most publishers have a track person in-house,” says Moi. “My role went from making traditional songs sound modern to taking songs that are too modern and pulling them back into the format.” Chris Lane’s “Fix,” a Country Airplay No. 1 Moi sculpted, also was a product of Nashville’s new creative practices: After trying a more aggressive country-rock approach with Lane, Moi realized his falsetto was better suited to the role of slick pop heartthrob. “‘Fix,’ ” says Moi, “was written for top 40.”
Country’s reputation for cultural conservatism did not translate to vocal support for or against Donald Trump, as country was one of the few popular genres whose performers avoided political statements in 2016. But the year’s increased diversity also makes it one of the most open-minded about gender roles: McGraw’s “Humble and Kind,” Rhett’s “Die a Happy Man” and FGL’s “H.O.L.Y.” were all expressions of male sensitivity and three of the year’s biggest country songs.
“A few years ago, everybody was complaining that country music was only about trucks, women and Bud Light,” says Big Machine’s Jones, whose label group released all three hits. “This year proved all of that wrong. The most-played songs were actually about real life.”
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 17 issue of Billboard.