Can Pop Artists Make Country Great Again?

27 May 2024 | 10:34 am | Anna List

Pop artists are keen to cash in with country artists, the cool kids of the music industry. But what happens when pop artists make genuinely great country music?


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The Music's sassy new regular pop culture columnist, Anna List, is here to drop truth bombs.

Genre blending and experimentation in music can open an artist to a whole new audience and introduce them to new realms of creativity and possibility.

However, the artist also runs the risk of alienating their original fans and, worse yet, making something crappy that will stain their catalogue forever.

The biggest wins in this roulette are generally found in country music: whether it be Lil Nas X’s perfect fusion of hip hop and country on Old Town Road, Florida Georgia Line’s incessant trap beats mixed with pop on tracks like Cruise and Meant To Be, or the gargantuan success of Shania Twain’s 1997 album Come On Over that seamlessly combined country, pop and rock. These have been the tastemakers - the trendsetters that have inspired countless copycat artists eager to get their own slice of the crossover pie.

But the country genre is supposed to be rooted in storytelling and authenticity - hence the backlash to the obnoxious bro-country of the 2010s, the eye-rolling at every post-Old Town Road trap song with an acoustic guitar or banjo (I’m looking at you, BRELAND & Keith Urban), the collective shame as we look back on Fancy Like and the subsequent identity crisis in mainstream country music: it’s no longer so much about an artist being authentic as it is about them telling you they’re authentic… which is why most songs are either just a list of country-themed tropes, blatant pandering or a white middle-aged man telling you how country he is. You can kiss his country ass if you don’t like it, and hey, did he mention that he’s country?

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The biggest songs of last year are quite possibly the best examples of this genre stupefaction: Jason Aldean’s Try That In A Small Town and Oliver Anthony’s Rich Men North Of Richmond both sound like South Park/Team America parodies of themselves, Luke CombsFast Car is a fine if not unnecessary cover of a beloved song (and the first #1 for a black woman in country music… but that’s for another article) and Morgan Wallen’s Last Night is a bland and malnourished shell of a song which meanders in the shadow of Old Town Road, but ultimately sounds more like a Maroon 5 reject. Today, country music has never been bigger, but it feels like it’s definitely been better.

Enter: pop artists keen to cash in.

It’s no longer the country artists begging hip-hop artists for some street cred crumbs; on the contrary, country artists are the cool kids now, and everyone from Dua Lipa to Gwen Stefani, Post Malone, and even Beyoncé want a seat at the cafeteria table.

The country folk were not pleased with Beyoncé’s initial foray into their territory when she performed her song Daddy Lessons with The Chicks at the 2016 CMA Awards, and they got their denim cut-off knickers in a knot again this year when she dropped Texas Hold ‘Em and announced a country record.

The industry gatekeepers did not deem the song country despite its being performed in the country's most popular key, D major. It features a prominent banjo and references to gambling, hoedowns, whiskey, and dive bars.

Interestingly, country music seems to be the only genre where the artists and industry folks are more concerned with whether or not a song is “real” country than whether or not it’s any good.

It’s one thing to be protective of music as a style, respecting tradition and culture, but quite another to let the concept devolve into a Nashville boys’ club devoid of artistic depth with the same handful of people writing all the songs. How is Texas Hold ‘Em any less country than the latest Megan Moroney or Lainey Wilson track?

It could be the lack of twang in her voice… but a lot of the time, that’s completely put on anyway. Taylor Swift’s earlier records in her country eras are full of southern drawl that she certainly doesn’t have. I don’t need to draw your attention to some local Aussie country artists who put on a truly hilarious deep-south-Alabama-farmhand accent to try to fit in whilst they wail on about their own authenticity. Country artists have been borrowing toys from everyone else in the musical playground forever - why can’t Beyoncé join in on their game?

With Cowboy Carter, she proved she doesn’t give a shiny white horse’s rear end what you think and consequently gave us some of the most expertly crafted, fresh-sounding country songs in years. Texas Hold ‘Em was just her The Git Up - a fun little two-step bop to ease us into this fusion of sonic textures that sometimes tick all the country boxes and, at other times, throw the box out the damn window as Beyoncé does.

She tells captivating stories of heartbreak, murder, infidelity, romance, raising a family and her own struggles with acceptance in the country music institution, which is honestly so goddamn refreshing after years of cold beer, good times, daisy dukes and redneck political commentary. II Most Wanted, a duet with Miley Cyrus, is a masterpiece of old-school country music, offering Landslide-esque acoustic guitar chords, exquisite harmonies and simple but truly lovely lyrics about lifelong devotion to each other.

If this somehow replaced Need You Now as the standard modern country duet, I would die a happy cowgirl. I challenge you to listen to Beyoncé’s Protector and Morgan Wallen’s You Proof and tell me who has done their country homework. Other highlights of the Cowboy Carter album include Bodyguard, Ya Ya, and Alliigator Tears - songs with such an undeniable country flavour but also heavy on the folk, funk and RNB influences (this is Beyoncé, after all), but once again - I’m sorry, but she’s doing it better than y’all are.

This infiltration of the gates unsuccessfully kept by the ageing white man could prove a great artistic success - potentially driving the quality up across the board. Kacey Musgraves, Chris Stapleton, Eric Church, and Zach Bryan have copped the same resistance from the country institution, but they have slowly outshone and outsold the mainstream juggernauts simply by sticking to their guns and persistently making good, tasteful country music.

The new Post Malone / Morgan Wallen collaboration is extremely decent, and we are finally seeing some black artist representation in the charts with Shaboozey’s A Bar Song (Tipsy) after his appearance on Queen Bey’s record.

Unsurprisingly, these two songs have shot up the charts. They represent the crossroads between the mainstream pop-country cheese of the 2000s and the new, fresh, grown-up genre-blending that Beyoncé has kicked the door for.

Indeed, if these pop music blow-ins can produce better country songs than the OG’s, then surely that will light a fire under the country asses we’ve previously been told to kiss?