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True Grit: Country Singers With Sandpaper Pipes Redefine the Genre’s Sound and Balance

"We've kind of come out of the quote-unquote 'boyfriend country' phase."

The modern country male voice is made from scratch.

The grainy sound of Luke Combs, the wild rasp of Chris Stapleton, the sandpaper tone of Thomas Rhett or the gravelly delivery of Dierks Bentley — they’re not sideline features of just a handful of country guys. Added to the voices of Brantley Gilbert, Morgan Wallen, Cole Swindell, Blake Shelton, Kip Moore, Chase Rice and Darius Rucker, the current crop of male country stars is more Don Henley than Glenn Frey, fashioned with a working-class sonic edge.

The rise of that sound is predominant enough that Pandora announced a new channel, Country Grit, on April 18. It is stocked with the likes of Stapleton, Aaron Lewis, Cody Jinks and Whiskey Myers.

“Warren Zeiders is another example of somebody who truly inspired the station,” SiriusXM/Pandora head of country talent relations Beville Dunkerley says, crediting former Pandora executive Jen Danielson (who is now at Warner Music Nashville) with creating the playlist. Its core artists “all have this sound that links them together with a rock’n’roll edge but not too many electric guitars. It’s really stripped-down production that lets you concentrate on the lyrics.”

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Zeiders is part of a wave of new rough-edged male singers, bringing additional grit to the format. HARDY, Jameson Rodgers, Jelly Roll, C.J. Solar, Chayce Beckham, ERNEST, Mitchell Tenpenny, Niko Moon, Jackson Dean, Larry Fleet and Ray Fulcher are all building on the existing model, one that has toughened up the genre’s sound after its flirtation with the pop-flavored love songs that were in vogue just a couple of years ago.

“We’ve kind of come out of the quote-unquote ‘boyfriend country’ phase,” says Zeiders’ manager, underscore works founder Charly Salvatore. “Because of the grit, it makes it feel more testosterone-driven.”

This current version of the centrist country male is a definite break from country’s past. The defining voices of the ’40s and ’50s — Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb and Webb Pierce — were twangy, usually whiny and often pitch-challenged. By the ’80s and ’90s, the typical male (to borrow a phrase from raspy pop singer Tina Turner) — George Strait, Alan Jackson, Vince Gill or Clint Black — offered smoother phrasing and tone.

While the current crop is generally better at pitch accuracy than the earliest country stars, the new class of men also resembles those forebears in that the gravel is earthy and imperfect, which fits country’s mission.

“Especially in country, great songs and great stories are just as important as somebody’s vocal ability,” says KUZZ Bakersfield, Calif., PD Brent Michaels.

And the cracks in those raspy voices are often the lanes where the songs’ emotions seep through.

“A guy once told me — [it] changed my life — he said, ‘I don’t know what it is about your singing voice, Jelly. It’s not that it’s incredible. It’s just that every time you open your mouth, I hear a lifetime of pain,’ ” Jelly Roll remembers. “That stuck with me.”

Jelly Roll’s current “Son of a Sinner” is bringing his voice from rock and rap into country, and that perhaps symbolizes what has happened with this raspy phase of country males. Rucker fronted 1990s pop/rock sensation Hootie + The Blowfish, while Lewis headed 2000s nu metal titan Staind — and their voices fit in with the grainy pain of Creed’s Scott Stapp, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder.

River House founder Lynn Oliver-Cline, who started in the music business as a Hootie intern, sees the connection between that era and today’s country firsthand. At a recent interview, she wore a T-shirt that celebrated Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, a Georgia rock band led by rough-hewn Kevn Kinney. Her company is now loaded with country singers with varying shades of rasp: Combs, Rodgers, Fulcher and Stephen Wilson Jr.

“This shirt says so much,” notes Oliver-Cline. “Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, they’re going [to open] for The Black Crowes, who are my favorite band of all time. The Black Crowes are doing some dates with Luke Combs this year. So this [shirt] alone says that’s where I’m at.”

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Notably, male fans appreciate all those acts, too. The gravelly voiced guys are, in essence, providing a little balance to the format.

“I feel like the last 15 years, ever since I moved to Nashville, they’re like, ‘You’re selling songs to soccer moms, you know. You’re selling songs to 18- to 45-year-old women,’ ” Solar says.

“And then out of nowhere, Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen are singing songs that I feel like dudes can like. I feel like things are shifting back toward songs that dudes and girls can like as opposed to just songs that are only for girls.”

Michaels agrees that the trend toward gravelly males is creating more balance against shinier sounds, traditional country, female voices and harmony acts, fulfilling more of listeners’ expectations: “I think people that are, say, 30 years old today, because they were part of an iTunes generation, they had more ability to create their own playlists of Pearl Jam followed by *NSYNC followed by Sheryl Crow, if that’s what they wanted to do.”

Meanwhile, as the younger audience has explored new platforms, the shift from Instagram to TikTok seems compatible with the increase in scratchy-throated country guys.

“Instagram is kind of known for ‘My life is perfect,’ you know, and what TikTok wanted is the imperfection,” says Salvatore. “It’s probably just a lot to do with the overall shift of what the consumer is wanting, whether they know it or not.”

Thus, even if country’s male voices are built on the scratch of rockers from a previous era, that ragged aspect of country grit is likewise a nod to the reality of old-school country.

“People have always loved country music for its honesty and relatability,” Dunkerley says. “This kind of music really takes it to a whole new level.”

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