The crisis surrounding the identity of country music has been going on for years, but recently has become an unmistakable dark spot in its history. Today, the genre is finding it difficult to establish what it’s supposed to sound or look like. It’s being faced with criticism from all corners about whether or not it has turned its back on the genre’s roots or if it’s become slightly misogynistic. This lack of identity has driven the genre into a massively divisive state that, if not mended, could very well be the end of country music as we all know it.
Throughout its rich and vibrant history, country music’s evolution has always created debates about exactly what country music should sound like. Some of the genre’s biggest superstars were accused of not sounding country including Johnny Cash, Garth Brooks, and Shania Twain. Today’s mainstream country artists are heavily faced with the same criticism from those who favor the more traditional style of country music. The result of that criticism is a massive wedge between the various sounds of country. In addition, the lack of successful female artists has also created a wedge within the industry and continues to be a strong criticism towards the genre. However, those criticisms aren’t just coming from those outside of the industry, but from within as well.
Recently, artists have also begun engaging in the ongoing debates. Sturgill Simpson recently wrote a rather lengthy and heated Facebook post about his absolute hatred towards the Academy of Country Music for naming an award in Merle Haggard’s name, despite Haggard and his cohorts’ less than friendly relationship with the organization’s tendency to favor contemporary country. In addition, Aaron Lewis recently called out some of today’s biggest artists during a concert accusing them of “choking all the life out of country music” and even released a song criticizing the themes found in most of today’s country music. Even Clay Walker, one of the few traditionalists left from the 1990s country era, has said that traditional country music is dead. Walker says that George Strait’s 2013 CMA Entertainer of the Year win signified the death of traditional country music on country radio. That statement has proven to be true in the nearly three years since.
In regards to the male vs. female debate, that has become a hot topic of conversation as well. In 2015, radio consultant Keith Hill cautioned radio stations from playing too many female artists because it would cause a loss in ratings. He went onto say that male artists are the “lettuce” of the country music salad while females are simply the “tomatoes.” This sparked a rather huge controversy within the genre and forced artists like Martina McBride to speak out against Hill. The attitude towards female artists isn’t only about getting them played on radio, but about the genre’s attitudes towards women in general. Themes found in the current “bro-country” movement depict women as simply pretty little things that are only good for dancing on tailgates. Newcomers Maddie & Tae hit number one on the chart with their debut single, “Girl in a Country Song,” that brilliantly gives a voice to females who don’t want to be objectified. Though the effects of “Tomatogate” and “bro-country” have given us more females on the radio, it’s still difficult for female artists not named Carrie Underwood or Miranda Lambert to find mainstream success.
Clearly, country music is more divided than it it has ever been before. For that reason, the Country Music Association’s decision to release a 50th anniversary single honoring the genre’s past could not have come at a better time. “Forever Country” features 30 CMA award winning artists from all facets of the genre lending their voices to a mashup of three of country music’s most timeless songs: “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “On the Road Again,” and “I Will Always Love You.” The single includes legendary voices like Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Charley Pride, George Strait, and Alan Jackson as well as bright stars like Brett Eldredge, Kacey Musgraves, and Little Big Town. Of course superstars are included as well like Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and Carrie Underwood.
The beauty of this song isn’t just in its brilliant production, done by Shane McAnally, but what it represents. Despite the genre’s current state, “Forever Country” does what John Denver wanted the country roads to do…take us home. Home for country music is all about returning to the roots that have provided the foundation for what country music should be. Country music isn’t about steel guitars and fiddles, it’s about storytelling. The three songs featured in this mega-single do just that: they tell stories about real life. The current loss of identity isn’t about whether a song is too pop or too hip hop, but rather it’s about forgetting to depict tales of real life. Life isn’t about driving out to a moonlit cornfield to get lucky in the backseat of a pickup truck. It’s about love, loss, and heartbreak.
By using three classic country songs, “Forever Country” allows artists with different styles to set aside their feelings to unite as a family. If you ask any artist how they feel about country music, more than likely they’ll say they’re thankful to be part of the family. “Forever Country” is mending the family. Its allowing the genre the chance to happily gather around the table at Thanksgiving. Its reminding country artists and fans that though mainstream country music doesn’t sound like it, it hasn’t forgotten where it came from. Simply put, “Forever Country” is reminding us that the past, present, and future should be forever country.
The single, “Forever Country,” is available for download now. The music video will premiere on September 20th.