Has country music moved to the city?

Sunday, September 13, 2020 - 5:46pm

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Design by Erin Ruark

“God’s Country,” “How Country Feels” and more recently “UNAPOLOGETICALLY COUNTRY AS HELL” are but a few examples of country music’s allegiance to its bucolic namesake. Not to mention the scores of songs about small towns, dirt roads and that one spot by the river no one else knows about. Sometimes, this devotion can turn hostile. Jason Aldean disparages the “guys in first class” who don’t appreciate the heartland in “Fly Over States.” Luke Bryan shakes his head at the unknowing city weatherman on “Rain is a Good Thing.”

But just how “country” is mainstream country music in 2020? Jason Aldean, for example, is probably riding first class himself. What does Luke Bryan care if it rains or not? He’s not a farmer. Additionally, for some, contemporary country music’s glossy production and heavy pop and hip-hop influences have rendered its rural roots unrecognizable, roots that several stars no longer make an effort to even nod to when they brand themselves. As of late, many plaid shirts and cowboy boots have been ditched for crisp, firm-fitting T-shirts and sneakers.

Nothing better encapsulates the country-turned-city trend than Thomas Rhett’s career. When he first found success in 2012, he was scruffy. Adorned in jeans and a baseball cap and armed with an acoustic guitar, his image and sound were firmly planted in the fields of his bro-country predecessors. By 2015 though, Rhett was better groomed and more style savvy and popular than ever. Hit songs like “Crash and Burn” and “T-Shirt” found Rhett sonically uprooted and crafting a style reliant on infectious, dance-ready drums, synths and clean-cut lyrics while leaving the thought of fiddles, steel guitar or corn fields behind him.

Despite Rhett’s success in the city, tons of country songs continue to belittle it — often in a way that’s gendered. Sometimes, the sentiment manifests in little digs. In “Singles You Up,” Jordan Davis is flirting with a girl who’s taken and taunts “does he want you to be just a little more city?”  But other times, moving to the city as something unconscionable, even for love, is the premise of the song itself. Morgan Wallen gushes about a girl on “More Than My Hometown” but ultimately has to wish her well. He loves her, but not enough to follow her and her dreams away from home.

As strange as it might seem, this country/city dichotomy narrows how women are able to participate in country music. Not only are women most often portrayed as the ones who want to leave the small town, which is decidedly uncountry of them, but they also face the universal pressure to have a more glamorous image than their male counterparts. Luke Combs will wear a tee and jeans, but that isn’t considered acceptable stage attire for artists like Carrie Underwood. This kind of double standard expands into how artists’ songs are judged sonically as well. Rhett hasn’t attracted nearly as much pushback based on the sound of his music as Maren Morris or Kelsea Ballerini for their similarly pop-inspired work and branding.

Ultimately, worrying about where the genre’s heart resides is pointless. Country music never left where it came from — the city, that is. With beginnings in Atlanta, Nashville and Chicago, even the genre’s earliest recordings are not entirely “country.” And with a long, well-established history in Nashville, neither was its in-between. Even the images we associate with country music have somewhat urbane origins. Country singers used to get dressed up in their finest clothes to play on country radio. That is, until the city-based radio executives thought that having the musicians dress up like farmers would sell their music better. Whether one likes it or not, country music, in its many evolutions, has thrived in part because of the city, not in spite of it.

Daily Arts Writer Katie Beekman can be reached at beekmank@umich.edu.