The debacle over country music: What makes country ‘country’?

A collage of Kacey Musgraves' "Golden Hour" (2018), Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road" (2018), Taylor Swift's "Red" (2012), and Taylor Swift's "Fearless" (2008) is pictured. via Wikimedia Commons

After securing the Grammy Award for Best Country Album and the coveted Album of the Year, Kacey Musgraves’ “Golden Hour” (2018) was a major success for the genre. Incorporating alternative sounds and pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a country artist, Musgraves became an innovator. However, Musgraves‘ follow-up project “Star-Crossed” (2021) won’t have that same opportunity. Revealed this past month, “Star-Crossed” won’t be considered for Best Country Album at the upcoming 64th Grammy Awards. While “Golden Hour” took an alternative approach to country music, “Star-Crossed” incorporated elements of pop. Why is it that Musgraves, who labels “Star-Crossed” as a country album, is being left out of the genre she calls home?

This isn’t new.

Just a few years ago, the same debate ensued over another megahit: “Old Town Road.” Released in 2018 by Lil Nas X, “Old Town Road” incorporated elements of country, pop and trap. However, Billboard charts made it clear that “Old Town Road” doesn’t belong on the country charts. This was met with considerable controversy, with listeners asking, “What defines country music?

Music routinely changes over time. Innovations are inevitable, and no genre can remain constant for a prolonged period of time. Pop music has seen progression from synths in the ‘80s, to grunge and hip hop in the ‘0s, to trap-infused beats in the late 2010s. However, country music appears to remain constant, excluding those who shake it up with something new. There’s no question that both Musgraves and Lil Nas X were influenced by other genres of music, but it is unfair that genres such as pop and rap will take precedence in labeling a country artist’s musical ventures.

This same criticism enwrapped Taylor Swift’s “Red” (2012). Similar to Musgraves, Swift took home the Grammy awards for Best Country Album and Album of the Year for “Fearless” (2008). However, Swift’s “Red” was still nominated for country and general awards at the Grammys despite incorporating pop and dubstep elements. Swift would subsequently lose all nominations, which one can only imagine was due to the academy’s inability to accept an untraditional country album. The music landscape is ever-changing, but country fans and critics are constricting what it means to be considered a true country artist. Eventually, Swift’s original country fanbase would turn on her, as highlighted by the removal of her image from a Nashville mural at Legends Corner Bar that features prominent country music stars.

If the same artists who bring attention to country music can’t be allowed full membership in the genre, then those who criticize such artists need to reassess what it means to be a country musician. It is worth noting that the aforementioned exclusions are only women and a queer person of color. Country music, like society, has always been controlled by heterosexual, white males. When real controversies arise, such as Morgan Wallen’s use of racial slurs in Feb. 2021, the country music industry turns a blind eye. Held accountable in few tangible efforts, Wallen’s music returned to radio stations after being removed, and Wallen has gone on to receive nominations at award shows for his music despite being involved in a  controversy that happened less than a year ago.

This sends a signal of problematic complicity to marginalized artists within country music and dissuades trust in institutions such as the Recording Academy. Geoff Mann, an assistant professor of geography at Simon Fraser University, states in his paper “Why does country music sound white? Race and the voice of nostalgia” that country music actively pioneers a white agenda. He claims, “For if country sounds white, it is perhaps worth considering the possibility that something claiming the status of ‘white culture’, something like a purportedly American whiteness – however historically baseless – is not reflected in country music, but is, rather, partially produced by it.”

Amanda Petrusich cites this in her interview for The New Yorker with Mickey Guyton, the first Black female artist nominated for Best Country Solo Performance at the Grammys. Guyton expresses that if other marginalized groups aren’t overwhelmingly present in the country music industry, “then it’s just gonna be the same white guy in a pickup truck with a ball cap, maybe some sneakers.”

This is why country music remains stagnant, both sonically and racially. There is a lack of opportunity for marginalized groups in country music, and thus, a lack of visibility. When women, people of color or LGBTQ country artists attempt to create their own interpretation of country music, it’s shut down by the cis-het white male majority that still dictates what is and isn’t country.

However, with the recent successes of artists such as Musgraves, Lil Nas X, Swift and Guyton, among many others, there is still hope for flexibility in country music that other genres such as pop and rap have seen. The Recording Academy’s decision to bar Musgraves from the country categories with “Star-Crossed” is yet another roadblock on the path to progress but another motivation for artists such as herself to inspire and redefine the genre of country music.