The year’s best country album comes from Maren Morris, and if the trophy gods deliver justice at the 50th annual CMA Awards on Wednesday, she’ll win a prize for it. The 26-year-old is a straight-talking, forward-thinking fountain of dash, and she’s funneling it into some great country music.
Is it real country music? For a half-century now, the CMAs have been celebrating the excellence of country — a genre where greatness is synonymous with realness, and realness is ratified through tradition, but tradition is perpetually threatened by progress, yet progress remains inevitable. And to think that this poor snake has been chomping its tail since Hank Williams walked the Earth.
Graciously, the Country Music Association helps Nashville calibrate its compass every November. Last autumn, CMA voters heard a gust of clarity in the voice of Chris Stapleton, a respectable Kentucky songwriter whose growly twang sounds a lot like yesterday. Stapleton took home some of the evening’s heaviest hardware — for album, male vocalist and new artist of the year — and his sweep read as an industry-wide apology for overloading the airwaves with mucho macho party music. As corrective measures go, it felt weird. A tasteful traditionalist was being celebrated as a champion of change.
In Nashville, time can often feel like it’s flowing in the wrong direction, but for the songwriters on Music Row, that’s the goal. Forestalling time itself is something that good country songs do. Since the dawn of the record biz, country singers have been soundtracking our journey across modernity, memorializing the more fragile facets of American life as they obsolesce into oblivion. These stories have tremendous value, especially considering the fact that the march of human progress is a story about trading up. Accepting the gifts of the modern world requires us to loosen our grip on the past, and while some of these transactions might bruise our little hearts, our lives are routinely improved. Next time you find yourself marveling over the survival of some stray telephone booth, think about whether you’d be willing to swap that tiny computer in your pocket for a fistful of quarters.
Here’s where country’s un-realness becomes useful. It provides a fantasy space for listeners to indulge the notion that things used to be better — and it’s a much more suitable arena for parsing that irrational sentimentality than, say, politics. But the nostalgia rendered on the lyric sheet seldom runs parallel to the action of the marketplace. Country music, like every other style of pop currently on sale, validates change. We love what’s old, but we buy what’s new.
So if you’re trying to write a country hit in 2016, you’re trying to sell something new without anyone noticing how new it actually is. This is why, even against the hurry-uppity rush of our 21st-century existence, country music continues to change with such delicious slowness. The genre’s most important singers are still the ones who sound most comfortable in that slow-motion riptide between innovation and sentimentality. They’re the ones capable of carrying the most history into the brightest future. Right now, nobody is doing that job better than Morris.
Plenty of listeners in the greater country protectorate remain skeptical of Morris’s pop-gloss, which should come as no surprise. Country’s fandom is rife with watchdogs eager to defend the purity of the music. They groan whenever they hear a song leaning too close to pop, and they grouse whenever they feel the industry prioritizing dollar-sucking over tradition-building.
It’s an honorable fight, but too many babies get tossed out with that bathwater. Sam Hunt, for one. After releasing the most confident country debut in recent memory, the Georgia newcomer was inexplicably snubbed at last year’s CMAs. Instead of hearing an heir to Conway Twitty’s intimate sing-speak, voters presumably heard another country singer trying to rap. Which was too bad. Even if your ears can’t detect Hunt’s fluency in country, hip-hop and R&B, his syncretic ballads still do the work of classic country songs: They tell accessible, unambiguous stories that convey genuine emotional truths.
But on country radio, Hunt remains surrounded by less-artful bros who insist on sprinkling their singles with blunderous rap verses, and lazy listening makes it easy to hear these hits as one monolithic, hunky-dorky whole. Eric Church — a relatively outspoken star who will compete with Morris for album, song and single of the year on Wednesday — made that very complaint to the Las Vegas Sun in April: “Country has become too homogenized and too commercial. It has lost what makes it special. It’s great that it’s popular, but then it starts to become watered down.”
Funny. Church could have been a time traveler sent from the 1950s, when Chet Atkins famously took country music “uptown” by swapping steel guitars for string sections — the sonic hallmark of his once-controversial “Nashville Sound.” Or from the ’80s, when the “Urban Cowboy” boom inspired Nashville to steer its songcraft toward mainstream eardrums. Or from the ’90s, when a phalanx of ambitious “hat acts” became platinum-selling, stadium-packing powerhouses. Each of these upheavals threw Nashville into an identity crisis; each produced a glut of enduring hits; and each is currently regarded as a classic era for country music. So if the sameness of today’s “bro-country” rings foul in our ears, perhaps we should sharpen our listening and wait for tomorrow. This music will be classic to someone someday.
We can start with Florida Georgia Line, two humanoid golden retrievers who are favored to win best duo at Wednesday’s CMAs. The pair’s new album, “Dig Your Roots,” is overflowing with gaudy songs, but their current single, “May We All,” feels like an exhilarating double-shot of sweetness and gusto. Again, babes and bathwater. And even if Florida Georgia Line fails to radiate righteous conviction at every turn, when these guys sing about baseball, beer and bikinis, they’re very much singing about things that exist in reality.
So maybe it’s not reality that makes a country song “real” as much as the singer’s authenticity. But then how to make sense of our very authentic responses to seemingly inauthentic art? We’re quick to dismiss these electric feelings as guilty pleasures, but pleasure isn’t a deception. Pleasure is truth. It might be the biggest truth a country song can tell.
Nashville still seems dazed by the apotheosis of Taylor Swift, a darling planet-eater who, in the end, treated country music more like a sales floor than a cultural continuum. Either way, she conquered the genre unequivocally, then renounced it for a career in pop — a job change that she spelled out via formal declaration in 2014, as if genres were actual nation states, not demographic zones of moneymaking make-believe.
There’s some Swiftian ambition in Morris’s music, but there’s a lot more Patsy Cline, a woman who initially dismissed her own masterstroke, “Walkin’ After Midnight,” as “a little ol’ pop song.” The presumption — then and now — is that pop is a rootless music attached only to the faddish present. And while Morris seems too smart to buy into that nonsense, she clearly understands the secret of Cline’s alchemy: If “Walkin’ After Midnight” was a pop tune, Cline sang it like a country singer.
On her new album, “Hero,” Morris reanimates various country tropes by flipping them straight over. Instead of cooing another lullaby to some godforsaken pickup truck, she serenades a vintage luxury sedan — a retro kitsch-mobile with a “hula girl on the dash.” The song is called “80s Mercedes,” and it warps time by memorializing a new kind of old thing.
“Rich” pulls off a similar inversion, updating the romance-across-class-lines drama that Jeanne Pruett was singing about when she took “Satin Sheets” to No. 1 in 1973. In Pruett’s ballad, the protagonist marries rich, but quickly learns that wealth has disconnected her from real love and real life. With “Rich,” Morris turns the idea upside-down, daydreaming about ditching her no-good man for a life of “head-to-toe Prada/Benz in the driveway/yacht in the water.” Instead of being stranded in sudden wealth, she’ll finally be free.
Whether Morris wins big with all of these songs on Wednesday night, the way she sings them should remind us that reality is something country stars must transmit with their voices. The lyric sheets, the backing musicians, the studio tricks and the cultural context all play significant roles, but they aren’t as consequential as the curves in a singer’s tone — those beautifully bent notes that have been passed across generations, from Jimmie Rodgers on down. We’ll never tire of arguing about what real country music isn’t, but listening to the human voice is our best shot at understanding what real country music is. We know what’s real when it’s being delivered on a breath. The trophies are just for fun.