How country music went crazy: A comprehensive timeline of the genre's identity crisis

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Image Credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic; Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Are you aware that Nashville is currently embroiled in an outright civil war?

The country music genre has gone through quite a transformation in the past couple years, adopting the electric guitar sounds of nearly-defunct rock radio, the rap-infused cadences and AutoTune normally reserved for hip hop, and, most controversially, the pop elements left behind as that genre gravitated toward electronic dance music. And attitudes have become ever more contentious between traditional and modern-country fans in 2013. Lately, the frustrations have reached a boiling point.

The straw that broke the camel’s back arrived two weeks ago, when Zac Brown called Luke Bryan’s No. 1 single “That’s My Kind of Night” the “worst song I’ve ever heard.” That remark caused Jason Aldean to hop on Instagram and tell Brown, “trust me when I tell u that nobody gives a shit what u think.” The country community quickly took sides in the debate, and the resulting feud has catapulted country music’s identity crisis straight into the spotlight.

These days, pop-country is more popular than ever — but also more despised than ever. Stars like Brown, Alan Jackson, Kacey Musgraves, and Gary Allan have begun publicly expressing unhappiness with their format, which this year has become an increasingly homogenous platform for men (a few weeks ago, Carrie Underwood was the only solo female in the Top 20) singing about trucks and beers and girls and then more trucks.

Tensions have been brewing all year long (and really, much longer than that) — and there’s been no shortage of public feuding among the genre’s A-list. As country fights to figure out what it should look and sound like, its biggest stars are airing some very honest (and sometimes harsh) opinions. Here’s a timeline of country’s wild, crazy, and sometimes mud-slinging year:

January 23: Blake Shelton calls classic country fans “old farts” and “jackasses”
While speaking in a GAC special, The Voice coach angered thousands of elderly country fans when he remarked, “Nobody wants to listen to their grandpa’s music. And I don’t care how many of these old farts around Nashville going, ‘My God, that ain’t country!’ Well that’s because you don’t buy records anymore, jackass. The kids do, and they don’t want to buy the music you were buying.” The comment caused a controversy that endured for weeks and helped spark this year’s debate about traditional-country vs. pop-country.
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January 24: In response, country legend Ray Price slams Blake Shelton on his Facebook
The veteran star later accepted Shelton’s apology, but not before he threw down the gauntlet.
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January 29: Willie Nelson renames tour the “Old Farts and Jackasses Tour”
Perhaps the most underrated music-snark of 2013.

February 10: Zac Brown Band’s Uncaged wins Grammy for Best Country Album
Admittedly, the ZBB has never been the most old-school “country” group out there, but their albums have consistently featured classic Nashville storytelling and strong song craft. They’re industry faves, too. The fact that Zac Brown won a Grammy, but just seven months later became embroiled in a public feud (more on that in a bit) speaks to the passion country artists feel about the integrity of their genre. These aren’t C-listers getting into Twitter-feuds. These are giant arena-filling stars.

March 11: Jason Aldean’s “1994” draws criticism for its dumbed-down lyrics
The track became a target for people claiming popular country songs were losing their intelligence. Billy Dukes of Taste of Country skewered the song, saying it “panders to the country audience that’s willing to scoop up anything they can relate to and chant, regardless of artistic integrity.”

March 26: Blake Shelton’s “Boys Round Here” draws criticism for its country-rap stylings
Shelton’s song may have hit No. 1, but it polarized listeners for many of the same reasons as “1994.” Saving Country Music‘s indie-championing blogger Trigger posted a full on rant about the song, saying: “Blake Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here” is songwriting by algorithm and analytics, fashioning together words and sounds known to have the widest impact on mainstream radio’s weak-of-mind demo. The “boys” in the title of “Boys ‘Round Here” is fitting, because this song is rank immaturity. It’s the audio equivalent of sneaking out of your mom’s house to smoke pot behind a Pizza Hut.”

March 19: Kacey Musgraves becomes the Katniss Everdeen of Nashville
The Nashville newcomer’s critically adored album Same Trailer Different Park, which was driven by the hit single “Merry Go Round,” quickly became a rallying point for country fans unhappy with the current direction of country music. And its commercial success — the disc debuted at No. 2 behind Justin TImberlake’s The 20/20 Experience — gave the industry hope that a woman could break through into the increasingly male-dominated market.

April 18: Scott Borchetta and Dr. Luke announce joint songwriting venture
Borchetta is Nashville’s ultimate tastemaker, and that’s because he’s always thought outside of the Nashville box. The announcement of this effort promised to further blur the lines between pop and country. Here’s how the partnership was explained by Billboard: “The goal for both teams is to keep an eye open for the other, sending writers to L.A. from Nashville and vice-versa to fit the needs of the two teams. Naturally, both sides see the current landscape in pop music as receptive to the merging of the two cultures, evidenced by Swift’s use of various non-Nashville experts to assist with her music on her latest Big Machine release ‘Red.'”

April 7: Luke Bryan wins Entertainer of the Year at ACM Awards
Like I said above with Zac Brown’s Grammy win, these artists are at peak popularity right now.

April 8: Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist” sets the internet on fire
If nothing else, Paisley’s controversial track (and really, the whole of his exploratory album Wheelhouse, which encouraged listeners to venture outside their “Southern Comfort Zone”) suggested that the stalwart star was bored with the current subjects covered in country.

May 10: Kacey Musgraves says she doesn’t like what country has turned into
“My voice is undeniably country, and I love country,” she told American Songwriter. “Do I love what it’s turned into? No, not all the way. It’s a little embarrassing when people outside of the genre ask what I sing and I say country. You automatically get a negative response, a cheese factor… My favorite compliment ever is when someone says, ‘I hate country music but I love your music.’”

June 5: Nelly closes the CMT Awards
Appearing alongside newcomers Florida Georgia Line, the rapper helped end the ceremony in the performance slot typically reserved for super-established country acts. Granted, “Cruise” was a truly massive hit, but country is a very tradition-minded genre, and it was surprising that Florida Georgia Line got to close the show — much less close it with the pop remix of their song featuring a rapper.


June 8: Lenny Kravtiz flicks off crowds at CMA Fest
Nelly wasn’t the only non-country star at the CMT Awards. Kravitz was there too, and a few days later the rocker appeared as a surprise guest at CMA Fest. But when the crowd proved uninterested in his non-country set (which ran longer than some scheduled performers), Kravitz got increasingly frustrated as he tried to win them over. In the end, he stomped off the stage, middle fingers raised in the air. The whole thing was rather painful to watch. Joseph Hudak of Country Weekly questioned CMA Fest’s intentions in hiring Kravitz in the first place:

“There is nothing discernible in his brand of music that makes it a natural fit for a country music festival. And the bewildered response of the crowd on Saturday night proved just that, especially during Lenny’s laborious set-ending rendition of 1989’s “Let Love Rule.”… In the end, it felt like a transparent attempt by our genre to gain a credibility it feels it is lacking. But why? Does country have a cool complex?… We’re happy to share some of its light and warmth with Lenny Kravitz and with whatever other pop, rock or rap artist who wants to come to the party, but, please, country music, don’t feel as if you need a rock star in order to be cool. You already are.”

June 11: Naomi Judd slams CMT Awards, says they disrespected George Jones
In a letter to The Tennessean, the veteran country star took CMT to task for its 26-second tribute to George Jones — and for incorporating many non-country acts (like Nelly and Lenny Kravitz) into the CMT Awards.

“George Jones is to country music what The Beatles are to pop, the Rolling Stones to rock, Elvis to rockabilly, Mozart to classical and Aretha to soul. Yet, the ‘Country’ Music Television awards show allowed only a “by the way” mention of Jones’ death and legacy. Incongruously, they chose alternative music group the Mavericks to perform their short version of George’s ‘The Race Is On.’ True country music fans are a loyal bunch and are passionate about our roots and heritage. Every year, CMT includes artists of unrelated genres, many of whom some country music fans don’t even know. I suggest the CMT Awards show change its name. Perhaps to ‘the Multi-Genre Awards Show, Featuring Artists under 30.’ I realize speaking out will cause me to now be forever banned by CMT. But I’m tired of folks messing with my country music. Especially when it involves my dear friend George Jones.”

July 3: Laura Bell Bundy signs with Big Machine to make pop-country
“She is a natural to lead the Country Dance Music movement that is starting to blow up and I’m confident we will find great success with her many talents,” said Scott Borchetta in a press release.

July 10: Montgomery Gentry releases musical travesty “Titty’s Beer”
The song wasn’t a hit (thank goodness), but it did give traditionalists sufficient ammunition to say that the genre was getting dumber by the day.

August 1: Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” becomes longest-running country No. 1 ever
Due to changes in Billboard‘s chart rules, which now count airplay on pop radio (where the song’s Nelly-assisted remix thrived all summer) as well as country radio (where the song was a hit in 2012) on the Hot Country Songs chart, “Cruise” topped the list for 22 weeks, thus becoming the longest-running No. 1 country song of all time. Country blogger Windmills referred to the record as “meaningless” over at MJ’s Big Blog.

August 5: Tom Petty calls modern country “bad rock with a fiddle” in Rolling Stone

“Well, yeah I mean, I hate to generalize on a whole genre of music, but it does seem to be missing that magic element that it used to have. I’m sure there are people playing country that are doing it well, but they’re just not getting the attention that the shittier stuff gets… I don’t really see a George Jones or a Buck Owens or any anything that fresh coming up. I’m sure there must be somebody doing it, but most of that music reminds me of rock in the middle Eighties where it became incredibly generic and relied on videos.”

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August 11: New York Magazine‘s Jody Rosen coins the term “bro country”

“Cruise” is bro-country: music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude. It’s a movement that has been gathering steam for several years now, and we may look back on “Cruise” as a turning point, the moment when the balance of power tipped from an older generation of male country stars to the bros… Country has always been pop’s most mature genre… Bro-country breaks with that tradition. [Florida Georgia Line] pay lip service to “little farm towns” and pickup trucks and such. But what they care about is getting drunk and laid. The titles tell the story: “Tip It Back,” “Dayum, Baby,” “Party People.”

August 17: Luke Bryan’s soon-to-be controversial “That’s My Kind of Night” hits the chart
The song completely typifies both the “bro country” and country-rap trends. It finds Bryan talking about the “diamond plate tailgate” of his “big black jacked-up truck” and bumping a mixtape featuring “a little Conway, a little T-Pain.”

August 19: Kacey Musgraves chides truck songs in British GQ
When asked what musical trend needs to die out immediately, Musgraves responded: “Anyone singing about trucks, in any form, in any song, anywhere. Literally just stop – nobody cares! It’s not fun to listen to.”

September 4: Alan Jackson tells the Baltimore Sun “there’s no country stuff left” on radio

“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… It’s always been that constant pop-country battle. I don’t think it’s ever going to change… 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.”

September 10: Kacey Musgraves earns 6 CMA Award nominations
After just a few months in the mainstream consciousness, Musgraves tied Taylor Swift as the most-nominated artist of the year, clearly illustrating Nashville’s two schools of thought about the state of modern country.

September 12: Gary Allan says Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood are “pop artists
When asked by Larry King about Swift and Underwood, the singer responded, “I would say they’re pop artists making a living in the country genre… You used to be able to turn on the radio and you knew instantly it was the country station just by listening to it, and now you’ve got to leave it there for a second to figure it out.”

The star later released a handwritten note to country radio to stay in programmers’ good graces…
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September 14: Zac Brown calls “That’s My Kind of Night” the “worst song I’ve ever heard”
The beanie-wearing strummer told a Canadian radio station that Luke Bryan’s single was the worst song ever. “I love Luke Bryan and he’s had some great songs, but this new song is the worst song I’ve ever heard,” Brown said. “Country fans and country listeners deserve to have something better than that, a song that really has something to say, something that makes you feel something. Good music makes you feel something. When songs make me wanna throw up, it makes me ashamed to even be in the same genre as those songs.” Listen at the 2:00 mark.

September 17: Jason Aldean tells Zac Brown “nobody gives a shit what u think” on Instagram
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September 25: Jason Aldean says artists shouldn’t bash other artists
“There’s certain artists I really like what they do and certain artists I’m not that big of a fan,” he told The Province. “But I’m not publicly going to go out and trash ‘em. I know Zac, I don’t have anything against the guy, he’s always been cool to me, but I didn’t like that. And of course Luke’s one of my best friends and it rubbed me wrong. You don’t have to go out and say those things. I don’t agree with any artist bashing another artist.”

September 26: Scotty McCreery criticizes truck songs on new album
The American Idol winner’s new disc will include a song called “Something More,” which, according to MJ’s Big Blog, contains the lyric: “By now I think I’ve heard every line there is to hear about a truck.” When 20-year-olds start speaking out about the quality of “bro country” songs, then you know the backlash is brewing in earnest.

September 28: Sheryl Crow laments the lack of women on country radio
Though the singer, who’s making a transition into country with her latest record, told The Hollywood Reporter‘s Chris WIllman, “I can’t really be critical of the country format, because I’m the newbie there,” she did express frustration that country radio doesn’t support more women. “I’d just like to see more than three women get played at radio. And that’s not just because I’m a woman. I just feel like, gosh, there’s a huge population of record buyers are women. Why aren’t there women getting played at radio. Why aren’t there more female program directors? There’s, like, two! I don’t understand it. I’m a huge fan of Ashley Monroe; she’s got songs on that record I think are stupefying. There are a lot of great girls out there.”

What will be the result of all this fighting? I have no idea. But I have to believe that it will ultimately be good for country music. Readers, what’s your take?


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