Granted, country fans and critics have many similar thoughts about contemporary country, frequently infused with pop, rock and, in some cases, hip-hop. But those who pay attention to the genre year-round generally have more substantive critiques, because they know that the “That’s not country music!” debate is many, many decades old. Observers have long been fretting over country music’s health and authenticity.
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which sits in the center of downtown Nashville and turns 50 this year, leans into this theme in exhibits about the history and the evolution of the format — and emphasizes that even as early as the 1930s, country singers started experimenting with sound.
“While country’s principal sound remained that of raw, fiddle-driven string bands, groups such as the Prairie Ramblers took a fresh approach, incorporating pop and jazz influences,” one exhibit reads.
Blending pop and country music continued into the 1950s, particularly with the rise of Elvis. “With rock and roll siphoning off country music’s youth market and radio clout, Nashville began using pop-oriented country productions to attract the adult audience,” the museum explains. “In the studios, fiddles and steel guitars gave way to string sections and backing vocalists.”
When country music evolved through the 1960s and 1970s, influenced by the rock-charged Johnny Cash, fans weren’t always thrilled at the genre’s shift to a more mainstream sound. For example, the Newton-John incident at the CMAs left some listeners unhappy that a pop act won a country award — although the museum noted that plenty of country artists at the time “were drawn to the lure of crossover pop success.”
Despite country musicians trying to win new audiences, in September 1985, a New York Times front page story declared that country music was in serious trouble. It argued that older listeners were dwindling, and young people were more interested in rock music.
“Country records are getting plenty of radio play,” singer Bobby Bare told the paper. “But they all sound alike and nobody’s buying them.”
After that dire proclamation, Garth Brooks came along in the early 1990s and triggered massive sales that reinvigorated the genre’s popularity. Still, people had issues with his rock-inspired sound, too.
“Now you listen to stuff like ‘Two of a Kind’ and you’re like, that’s stone country! Back then people were going, ‘That’s not country music,’ ” Brooks recently told Taste of Country. “Everybody goes through it.”
Of course, the debates have continued through present day. So if you tune in Wednesday night and don’t like what you hear? That’s fine! Just make your criticism a little bit more original than “That’s not country.”