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Is Traditional Country Music Dead?

Taylor Swift Florida Georgia Line
Jason Merritt, Getty Images / Christopher Polk, Getty Images for Wonderwall

Country music has rarely been stronger commercially — but is the crossover success country is experiencing making the genre lose its identity?

There’s no getting around the massive numbers of someone like Taylor Swift, who has come to dominate not just country music, but the music industry overall. Based on the smash overall success of her most recent album, ‘Red,’ Swift is up for a Grammy in the all-genre Album of the Year category. She’s also just received a Golden Globe nomination — her second — for her song ‘Sweeter Than Fiction,’ from the British documentary, ‘One Chance.’

Florida Georgia Line were practically unknown a year ago, but the overwhelming success of their song ‘Cruise’ has seen them smashing chart records that have stood for decades — due in no small part to a remix featuring rapper Nelly. The duo have scored three straight No. 1 singles and embarked on a headline tour of their very own, sandwiched between dates opening for acts like Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean in some of the biggest venues in the country.

The success of those acts, along with a number of other popular contemporary country artists, has touched off another round in the age-old “is it really country” debate, and perhaps rightfully so. After all, the music these acts are making is not just an embellished version of traditional country, like Patsy Cline adding strings in the ’60s, or Kenny Rogers and Ronnie Milsap experimenting with more contemporary production elements in the ’80s.

This new country is premised on completely different types of bed tracks, with the rhythms that provide the underpinnings of traditional country almost completely gone, replaced by more beat-heavy grooves that have nothing to do with the origins of the genre. That’s almost certainly a large part of its crossover appeal, but the fact is — unlike times past, when traditional and more cutting-edge artists sat side-by-side in the charts in an uneasy truce of sorts — traditional country music is all but dead as a mainstream marketplace force in 2013.

The reasons for this are many. It’s partly simply because time passes and things change, and you can’t reasonably expect a new generation to want to listen to the same kind of music their parents (or grandparents) did. It’s also due in no small part to the dominance of the internet and social media; even if you’re born in a small, rural town where country is dominant, you can experience all kinds of music by going online, and those influences are bound to gradually creep into the new music younger artists are making and blur the lines between genres until they’re no longer all that relevant.

"The culture has experienced a paradigm shift away from family-owned agriculture, and that shift is apparent in the subject matter of contemporary country."

The culture itself has also changed. Country music is the music of people’s real lives, and those real lives often used to be very difficult, which is why so much classic country contains themes of hard work, toil and sorrow. But now, except for in the most rural areas, the culture has experienced a paradigm shift away from family-owned agriculture, and that shift is apparent in the subject matter of contemporary country. It’s still the music of people’s real lives — it’s just that those real lives are more and more about partying with your friends and cruising around town showing off in your truck, as opposed to losing your crop to an early frost, or burying your brother because he died from tuberculosis.

Prominent musicians have weighed in on this from all sides, from Tom Petty to Zac Brown and many more, but nobody expressed it better than Alan Jackson — one of the most traditional stars of his generation, and an artist who would arguably have a hard time even getting signed to a deal if he were a newcomer to Nashville in today’s musical climate.

“It’s always been that constant pop-country battle. I don’t think it’s ever going to change,” he told the Baltimore Sun with resignation in September. “What makes me sad today is that I think the real country, real roots-y traditional stuff, may be gone. I don’t know if it’ll ever be back on mainstream radio. You can’t get it played anymore.”

The legendary singer-songwriter clarified that he wasn’t slamming more contemporary country. “It’s not that I’m against all that’s out there. There’s some good music, good songwriting and good artists out there, but there’s really no country stuff left.”

That said, there are actually still plenty of more traditional-leaning artists — you just have to go seek them out, as opposed to having them presented to you in the car via mainstream country radio. There are many outlets for traditional country online, via satellite radio, and performing live in venues all across the country, and the world. The Americana genre seems to be getting stronger and more organized every year, presenting fans with a very strong, roots-based alternative to mainstream pop country fare.

But as far as traditional country music as a marketplace force, as we come right to the end of 2013, it’s playing a smaller role in the overall direction of country music than it has  at perhaps any other time in the history of the genre, right or wrong.

What do you think? Sound off in the comments section below!

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