As a vehement supporter of open-mindedness towards new music, I've always been a bit of a hypocrite when it comes to country. Recently, however, there's been a movement away from the typically conservative, depressing music that I had always known.
For me, country has always been alcohol-soaked and tobacco-stained music about "My truck broke down, I lost my dog and my wife left me," and I usually tried to stay away from it. Artists like Faith Hill and Shania Twain seemed corny to me, and older artists like Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Conway Twitty were the people my grandparents forced me to listen to in their beat-up Toyota. They never seemed happy, and never pushed the boundaries of the topics they sang about.
Thematic conservatism is one thing that country artists are shying away from more recently. Shifts towards more upbeat, free-spirit songs are common among popular artists. Luke Bryan's "Country Girl (Shake It For Me)" became incredibly popular, with its bass-heavy beat and simple but catchy lyrics, in which he essentially tells a woman that all he wants to do is see her shake it.
Misogynistic? Perhaps. Enjoyable? Definitely.
Changes in the instrumentals aren't the only new thing in country music — a lot of it is very straightforward about sex. One of the most blatantly sexual popular country songs in recent memory is Craig Campbell's "Fish." Vague lyrics indicate that a couple is doing something for the first time, with the transition into the chorus ending with "I had everything we needed in the bed of my truck" and "if they ain't bitin' she don't give up", followed by "turns out my baby loves to …" The overtly dirty references, such as sneaking out in the middle of the night or how she looks "with that rod in her hand" differ remarkably from early country songs, like Gene Autry's "You Are My Sunshine." Not to mention the obviously intentional rhyming mistakes — truck and fish don't come close to rhyming, and they aren't intended to.
Other country musicians are sticking to the more traditionally melancholy themes, but approaching them from a more liberal angle. There are many other songs that move country away from the typical conservative stereotype. "Skinny Dippin'" by Whitney Duncan, with its rather obvious plot point, "Two Black Cadillacs", about a cheating husband and his vengeful lovers and "Last Name", about a drunken one-night stand, both by Carrie Underwood, and "Better Dig Two" by The Band Perry, in which the singer essentially admits she will commit suicide if her lover were to leave her, are all examples of more liberal themes and content. Miranda Lambert nods to a "softer generation" in "Mama's Broken Heart", in which she champions revenge and dramatics over the less appealing option to "save a little face."
New artists like Ashley Monroe, Hunter Hayes, and Kacey Musgraves are pushing the boundaries of what can be considered country music. Musgraves' "Stupid" is reminiscent of KT Tunstall, relying more on the instruments than her voice to bring the typical country twang to the song. Hayes has managed to straddle the line between teen-heartthrob and country star, with legions of screaming fangirls at all of his performances. Monroe, of Pistol Annies fame, transitioned into mainstream with her collaboration with Train on "Bruises."
Finally, it's close to impossible to talk about country music without bringing up "the Taylor Swift conundrum." Swift's most recent album Red garnered criticism from both the country music community and her devoted fans due to its almost exclusively pop track listing. The closest she comes to country is either "The Last Time" or the acoustic version of "State of Grace," and her opening act on the RED tour was British artist Ed Sheeran, known for his haunting and depressing ballads that come nowhere near touching on country music. Despite her movement towards pop, she still garnered 6 CMA nominations. Country fans are bending the strict boundaries of the genre and allowing for more movement between different styles of music.
Some artists have even gone as far as to include hip-hop in their songs. Florida Georgia Line's "Cruise" has been remixed to include rapper Nelly in one of the summer's catchiest collaborations. Jason Aldean teamed up with Ludacris on a version of "Dirt Road", a song which captures the essence of typical country music — pick-up trucks, drinking and driving, cornbread and biscuits, and tobacco. And Blake Shelton acknowledges that he and his friends do not, in fact, know "how to do the Dougie," but Luke Bryan attempted it when they hosted the ACM awards this year. The crossovers between genres is moving country away from its conservative stereotype and allowing for more blended and varied audience.
The changes in themes, the edgier lyrics, and the collaborations that have taken place in country music in recent years push the boundaries of the genre's definition and move away from the stereotypes of conservatism and depressed, alcoholic, Confederate-flag-wearing men in cowboy boots.
Although that's not always a bad thing.