One thing that has remained the same about country music over the years, is that it always changes. Trends have come and gone, artists reviled and then celebrated for putting a new spin on the genre. It seems that every few years, the popular sonic template adjusts itself, sometimes subtly, sometimes less so. As we start this year, it seems like the wheel is turning again and the new shift might be the most exciting trend in country music of 2013.
From pop to rock to roots
Several years ago, a new wave of pop-country dominated the charts. Rascal Flatts, Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift ruled the roost. By the start of the current decade, rock had found its way back in. Slowly but surely, audiences, and so also radio, started to gravitate towards the heavier fare produced by Jason Aldean and Eric Church. Some younger artists suddenly found themselves on the fast track to success, most notably Brantley Gilbert, who then proceeded to release a song too heavy even for a now rock-oriented country radio (‘Kick it in the Sticks’).
While the new country rockstars were filling arenas and the airwaves were laden with Van Halen guitars, something was stirring in the background. With the rock trend now at its peak (see Jason Aldean’s stadium tour), the next (sound)wave is getting ready to roll out. We are in for an exciting time as roots music makes its comeback to the big stage.
Country stars of the future
Previously, if you wanted to find out about roots music, you needed to go find out what was happening in the Americana community, listen to folk and Triple A stations, and generally ignore commercial country radio. The Americana albums released over the last decade were appreciated by Music Row, sure – most of those songwriters and executives really do know good music when they hear it. But with less than spectacular sales figures there was no business case to be made for supporting it. Enter Mumford & Sons. The British folk-rock quartet’s second album, Babel, released in September 2012, sold more copies in its first week than Justin Bieber’s latest album did in its debut week. Over 600,000 units left stores or traveled across the internet from digital retailers to people’s hard drives the world over. Their American folk-rock counterparts, The Lumineers, saw their self-titled debut achieve gold certification last month and the album is currently at #1 on the Billboard Folk Album chart. But the real indication that they are finding their way into the mainstream came when commercial country radio stations started adding these band’s singles to their playlists.
Two other young artists who find themselves on the country radio radar are Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe. Both have been writing quality material for a couple of years but they had to wait until the market was ready to hear it. That time is now. Monroe will be releasing the much-anticipated Like a Rose on March 5, and can be heard on radio stations worldwide with ‘Bruises,’ a collaboration with the band Train, about as mainstream as it gets. Musgraves is currently climbing the charts with her exquisite debut single, ‘Merry Go Round.’ She was embraced by A-list Nashville songwriters and co-penned ‘Mama’s Broken Heart,’ the new single for Miranda Lambert, currently one of the genre’s most popular artists. Both ladies make music that pays more attention to melody, composition and lyrical content, than most of the charting hits of the last two years. Previously, they would have had to ship their material to Americana or Triple A radio, but now country radio is reserving a spot for them. I am not the only one who thinks so; both artists made Billboard’s list of artists to watch in 2013 (but the new still need the old(er) to help them on their way, and Musgraves will be joining Kenny Chesney’s No Shoes Nation Tour this year.)
Power to the (young) people
So why is country radio shifting its powerful gaze to these acts now? Contrary to many people’s belief, commercial radio is not a platform for music. It is a platform for advertising. The songs are there to get you, and as many other people as possible, to listen to the ads. Commercial radio is driven by advertising and, as any marketing major will tell you, advertising is driven by what the cool kids are doing these days. In radio research, most eyes are on the preferences of the 18 – 34 age group. As that group has been moving towards the more organic rootsy sounds, commercial outlets are sure to follow. An example was provided in 2012 by Little Big Town. When the quartet was making fine harmony-heavy but sonically safe country music, they struggled to connect with a younger audience. For their 2012 project, Tornado, they let producer Jay Joyce work his magic. He ditched much of the harmonies, brought in new elements borrowed from more alternative sound mixes and, boom, #1 country radio hit (‘Pontoon‘).
This trend will infiltrate radio slowly and will probably not be reflected in the country charts too quickly. The current class of top artists still has too much momentum. The pop and rock aren’t going to go quietly. Aldean is going to play to packed stadiums as his latest release, Night Train, will continue to add to its sales figure. The frat-country of Luke Bryan, and most recently Florida Georgia Line, will still be collecting chart slots. But, like the regular changing of the seasons, Nashville is transforming again. The next group of superstars is waiting for their turn. Throughout the last twelve months, this has become more and more apparent and Nashville took notice. Word on Music Row is that several established artists are tailoring their new projects away from the rock bombast and more towards the roots sound. Bands that can cross over between those avenues of music should brace themselves for a very interesting year. Two that spring to mind are Nashville’s The Cadillac Black, for a few months now the darlings of industry insiders, and Atlanta’s Blackberry Smoke, who are gathering momentum at an accelerated rate.
With Nashville apparently the new ‘it’ city, what happens here will reverberate throughout the music industry. And what is happening here is nothing short of a roots revival!
UCN is among 10 outlets writing today about the exciting music trends of 2013. Organized by Country Music News Blog, this article is part of the first Country Music Blog Rodeo.
This article represents just one point of view, so to hear what some of the country music bloggers think, please check out their posts at the following links.
Blog Rodeo Roundup: See What Everyone Else Is Saying About Country Music in 2013!
- CountryMusicTattleTale.com: 2013 Will Bring A New Sound to Country Music!
- FocusOnThe615.com: Artist to Watch in 2013!
- TwangNation.com: Americana’s Influence On Country Music!
- UkCOUNTRYmusic.net: Country2Country Festival-A Potential Turning Point for US Country Music In The Uk!
- KeepinItCountryBlog.com: 2013 The Year of Country Crossover!
- CountryMusicPride.com: Country Music In 2013!
- ForTheCountryRecord.com: Country Music & Twitter!
- CountryMusicNewsBlog.com (HaleighT): Word of Mouth in 2013!
- CountryMusicNewsBlog.com (WhiskeyChick): 2013 – The Year of Social Media In Country Music!
- CountryMusicNewsBlog.com (MissMolly): 2013 North of Nashville – The Ozarks Go Country!
- CMchatLive.com: 2013 – Insights From Country Music Industry Experts!
- CountryMusicIsLove: Country Music Blog Rodeo: Passing the Torch in 2013!