How New Voices are Pushing the Yeehaw Agenda
Unexpected voices have been pushing the boundaries of country music lately. Breakout stars like Kacey Musgraves and Lil Nas X may be ushering in a new era of country music.
Written by Kasey Clarke
After its removal from the Billboard country charts, Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” sparked controversy over the definition of country music. Billboard stated that the song’s blending of country melodies with a trap beat and style “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music.” The dispute was heightened when ‘90s country star Billy Ray Cyrus called for the song to be reinstated on the country charts joined and Lil Nas X for a remix. Although it was never put back on the country charts, it continued to rise in popularity until hitting the No. 1 spot on the Hot 100 chart — where it has stayed for 17 weeks, breaking the all-time record for a No. 1 run.
“Old Town Road” wasn’t the first time attention has been brought to country music in the past year. Kacey Musgraves won Album of the Year at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards with her country-pop album, Golden Hour. Only three other country albums have ever won Album of the Year: Taylor Swift’s Fearless in 2010, the Dixie Chicks’ Taking the Long Way in 2007, and Glen Campbell’s By The Time I Get to Phoenix in 1969. Golden Hour has been praised for its genre-bending spirit, in lyrics and music alike, and its win potentially marked a large step forward in country music. Songs like “Velvet Elvis” and “Butterflies” mix pop beats with country style guitar and psychedelic visuals, making Golden Hour not the typical country album.
But before Kacey won, Taylor Swift won. Love or hate Taylor’s music, she is the biggest artist to make the transition from country to pop, fully leaving the genre behind with 1989, which also won Album of the Year in 2016. Taylor’s success gave rise to other country pop girls such as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini. Despite women gaining critical acclaim and award recognition, there is an ongoing disparity between men and women on the country charts and in country station radio play. Maren Morris has called the lack of equality in country music “embarrassing” and has made gender equality the focus of her new album Girl. Other artists such as Reba McIntire, Carrie Underwood and Garth Brooks have spoken out about gender inequality they have seen in their careers, calling for radio stations to be more equal in their airplay.
This shows a change in country music culture toward becoming inclusive. While pop music still has a long way to go in achieving gender equality, especially in songwriting and music production, the conversation regarding equality of all kinds is more open, and pop music is far more ethnically diverse. Country music, on the other hand, is glaringly white and male dominated. Only 16% of country artists are women and out of 136 inductees into the Country Music Hall of fame, only 3.6% are people of color.
The genre’s culture of exclusion is demonstrated by the history of the Dixie Chicks.
The Dixie Chicks were famously boycotted by country music fans after denouncing the Iraq war at a London concert in 2003, saying, “Just so you know, we're on the good side with y'all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” Although the Dixie Chicks went on to win Album of the Year in 2007, they were effectively ousted from the country music community. They were banned from radio play on many country stations, resulting in their music recieving little to no airplay until winning the Grammy in 2007. Although member Natalie Maines apologized for the specific remarks in London, the band has refused to back away from politics and has been involved in other political statements such as a Rock the Vote Campaign and Love Rocks, a compilation album in support of the LGBT+ community.
In 2016, The Dixie Chicks were featured on Beyoncé’s “Daddy Lessons,” one of the sources of the Yeehaw Agenda, which has inspired an injection of cowboy aesthetics and country music into mainstream culture. Like Lil Nas X, Beyoncé also received pushback from country fans. After her performance on the 2016 CMAs, many made comments online that she didn’t belong in country music, calling her support of the Black Lives Matter movement disrespectful. R&B singer Justin Timberlake performed at the CMAs a year prior to Beyoncé, and One Direction member Niall Horan a year after. These performances failed to stir up a controversy, proving that outsiders are welcome in country music so long as they aren’t black or female.
The majority of the genre is still white guys wearing jeans and cowboy hats singing about God and liquor, but people are growing tired of the one-note sound. In December of 2018, Grady Smith uploaded a YouTube video, titled “This beat is killing country music,” that exposed the overuse of snaps in a litany of country tracks making them all sound the same. Smith, whose entire channel is devoted to country music, described recent hits like “Meant to Be” and “Speechless” as “monotonous, droning, and lifeless” and called for innovation in the genre as well as a return to storytelling and musicianship.
So, the country music trends we see in pop music aren’t really representative of what country music is, but they do reveal a lot about where the genre is going. Media is focusing more on female country stars, black artists like Blanco Brown are releasing country hits, and a gay, black man has now held a number one spot on the country charts for a song he released independently. Assuming this trend continues, it could change how country music looks and sounds entirely. This would be beneficial for the genre that has resisted change for so long, as it would empower artists with a unique sound rather than reward artists for making repetitive, countrified regurgitations of pop hits.