New Generation Intent In Changing Country Music
Country’s new fascination with the ’90s is no accident
Country music’s boundaries are undoubtedly on the move, now incorporating elements of EDM, power pop, alternative rock, hip-hop and even hints of ska. A big part of the reason for that may be a shift in demographics, as kids who grew up in the ’90s move into adulthood.
Hand claps and tin-can vocal effects, power chords and ironic guitar leads, dance-y polyrhythms, programming and popcorn snares, shouts, screams and even the faint beginnings of status-quo-bucking lyrical themes — it’s all seeping into Top 40 country, and it’s all familiar to fans who grew up on Stone Temple Pilots, TLC and No Doubt.
When he first came to Nashville almost a decade ago, songwriter Ross Copperman (one of those ’90s kids himself) landed some face time with one of country’s top publishing executives — who was already looking ahead. “I played him some of these quote ‘country’ songs I had been writing, and he must have heard something in them and started working with me,” Copperman tells the Scene.
Copperman’s background wasn’t in country. He’s a Virginia native and former U.K. pop artist whose two favorite bands growing up were Oasis and Third Eye Blind. As such, his style has always had more in common with modern rock than anything Alan Jackson ever wrote. “That’s all I listened to driving around in the car with my parents,” he said. “I don’t know if I mean to, but that’s what defined me, so it’s just in me.”
Fast forward to 2015 and Copperman is one of mainstream country’s up-and-coming tastemakers, and you can plainly hear strains of Clinton-era DNA in three of his most recent co-written hits. Jake Owen’s “Real Life” has a pseudo-Smash Mouth vocal vibe; A Thousand Horses’ “Smoke” takes a page from the Third Eye Blind playbook with that clean-toned, noodly guitar hook, and Keith Urban’s “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” features an active bass line that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Red Hot Chili Peppers record.
Meanwhile, Copperman’s not the only songwriter or artist gearing up for a new, millennial-driven market. Zac Brown Band has flirted with electronica on its aggressively eclectic new double-albumJekyll + Hyde; Sam Hunt’s “Take Your Time” feels like a mix of commercial hip-hop and ‘N Sync; and Eric Church has brushed up against metal à la Metallica’s Black Album with “The Outsiders.” Thomas Rhett’s funkified new album Tangled Up feels like a throwback of a throwback, while Eli Young Band has teamed with pop singer Andy Grammer for a remix of his hit “Honey, I’m Good,” which at times evokes disturbing “Macarena” flashbacks.
One producer with a keen insight into the trend is Nathan Chapman. He made his name as Taylor Swift’s producer and has also guided projects by Lady Antebellum and The Band Perry, as well as Keith Urban’s “Little Bit of Everything,” “We Were Us” and “Raise ‘Em Up.” As a child of the ’80s who helped define country’s sound in the Aughts, Chapman sees the correlation emerging again.
“The way I’ve seen it is there’s kind of a 20-year cycle of when an idea goes from out of date to throwback,” he says. “There’s evidence from the ’80s that music was borrowing from the ’60s, and evidence in about 2010 that we were borrowing from the late ’80s. … If you drew from the ’90s 10 years ago, when only 10 years had gone by, it would have been seen as out of step. But if you wait long enough, anything becomes a throwback.” Chapman is careful to point out that the ’90s were a truly multigenre era with a broad scope of popular songs — from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to Céline Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” — so a fairly broad spectrum of styles can sound like ’90s throwback, but that effect can also be seen on the charts today.
Country is currently tracking in a similar direction as rock 20 years ago, becoming more eclectic and less monolithic. After the domination of arena rock and hair metal, the genre splintered into grunge, heavy metal, pop punk, alternative and dozens of other subgenres — now country is starting to see a similar pattern. Maybe it’s a response to the formulaic nature of bro country, but more likely the trend is a natural oscillation paired with a shrewd reading of demographics.
Nineties kids raised on MTV’s TRL are all grown up, and the lifestyle changes that accompany adulthood make country music more appealing, even to former anti-country purists. It makes sense that Music Row would go after a huge batch of potential new listeners, and what better way to do that than by playing to their already demonstrated musical preferences, especially since most evidence seems to indicate that rock is comatose.
Country might look like it’s having an identity crisis right now, but if you grew up watching Boy Meets World and Goosebumps, it might not sound so weird.
By Chris Parton NashvilleScene