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'This Thing Called Country Music': Tradition And Crossover In 2016

Dolly Parton, pictured with Kacey Musgraves, Reba McEntire and Jennifer Nettles (obscured), accepts the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award onstage at the CMA Awards in Nashville in November.
Gustavo Caballero
Getty Images
Dolly Parton, pictured with Kacey Musgraves, Reba McEntire and Jennifer Nettles (obscured), accepts the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award onstage at the CMA Awards in Nashville in November.

In country music, there's no escaping the past. The impulse to look back — to figures enshrined as icons, to sounds that conjure shared references, to historical dependability in general — is strong. But so is the imperative to let the music evolve with changing times and expand its reach in the process. That's because country music is simultaneously a genre defined by its spelled-out relationship to tradition and a hit-driven radio format akin to the Top 40. Built into the very foundation of the mainstream country music industry and its institutions is a tension between continuity and changeability that never really goes away.

This particular year, though, country's boundaries seemed stretched to new extremes. Consider the amount of influence wielded by exploratory pop affinities and fealty to established symbolism during the month of April alone — and how difficult it often was to tell the two orientations apart. Merle Haggard's passing inspired countless remembrances. Charlie Daniels, newly elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, did a round of interviews about what that honor meant. Dolly Parton, who decades ago perfected the art of packaging a downhome persona for glittery, discofied popular consumption, announced a back-to-roots tour and an album that placed an Adult Contemporary sheen on Appalachian folk. Chris Stapleton, held up by many as a throwback to rugged country masculinity, swept four major categories at the Academy of Country Music Awards. Jon Pardi — foremost in a group of twenty- and thirty-something neotraditionalists gaining momentum at radio for the first time this decade — highlighted the vintage leanings of his amiably shuffling single with a music video that literally stepped backwards in time.

In the same month, self-styled outsider Sturgill Simpson released an acclaimed album embroidered with sprawling soul arrangements and psychedelic rave-ups. Later in the year pop culture blogs would zero in on Simpson's impassioned Facebook essay accusing the country music industry of neglecting its legacy after the announcement of an award named for Haggard, drifting from its moorings and diluting its traditions, criticism that wouldn't carry such an emotional charge in virtually any other genre.

Vince Gill and Keith Urban also enlisted an array of acts — from Jason Isbell, the archetype of Americana singer-songwriters, to country-pop heavyweights Florida Georgia Line and Maren Morris — for an arena show benefiting the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Despite his veteran status in country's hit-making ranks, Urban released the third single from an album that positioned him at the vanguard of country-pop's rhythmic trends, while FGL, having already achieved massive popularity with a glossy hybrid of country-pop, modern rock and hip-hop, introduced a silky, new boy band-influenced direction with a worshipful slow jam initially intended for Justin Bieber. When it came down to readymade pop potential, Morris bested them both. " My Church," the lead single from an album that showcased her fluency in the seductive, syncopated swagger of R&B-pop phrasing, was certified gold in April. Her crossover success seemed inevitable. Finally, after hearing Beyoncé's then-new Lemonade, Robert Deaton, the executive producer of the Country Music Association awards, heard the potential for the album track "Daddy Lessons" to cross over in the opposite direction, and began plotting the pop supernova's appearance on this year's awards show.

Genre-focused wagon circling and trading with the fluid pop mainstream have long been dueling central priorities in country music, and each is magnified at a pair of very different events each year. The Country Music Association Awards show — considered the genre's most prestigious — mainly looks outward, flaunting the industry's achievement of broad appeal before a network television audience. The Country Music Hall of Fame medallion ceremony, closed to the public, canonizes country lineage and normalizes its past stylistic expansions. Both play roles in defining, and redefining, country music's identity and legacy.

A bit of context is helpful here: In The Selling Sound: The Rise of the Country Music Industry, historian Diane Pecknold describes how the CMA crafted the image of country as a modern, marketable music with an upwardly mobile audience — an image that would be taken seriously on Madison Avenue — while the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum unified country music's cultural sources, regional origins and commercial growth into a historical narrative that "embraced commercialism and change as a tradition in itself." As boundaries go, those drawn around the genre were highly adaptable: "Nearly anything the industry and its marketing apparatus wanted to claim," Pecknold writes, "could now become a valid part of the country music tradition." You'd think such flexibility might've rendered country's self-definition meaningless; what it did instead was spur an ongoing process of meaning-making among those who shape, market and support the music.

The myriad ways legacy was invoked at this year's CMA awards and medallion ceremony held special weight, since the awards show and museum had both arrived at the half-century mark in their existence. Ordinarily the awards show spotlights rising and ruling stars of the moment, but the 50th anniversary was an occasion to up the commemoration. "I think the biggest conundrum we had is striking the right balance between representing this year's nominees, who only get one shot at being the nominees for 2016, and making sure we could aptly cover the history," reflects the CMA's CEO Sarah Trahern.

A CMA-sponsored production titled "Forever Country" set a tone of balmy reverence during the ramp-up to the show. The three-song mashup was padded with performances from 30 different acts, ranging in age from millennial queen of western kitsch Kacey Musgraves to longhaired octogenarian virtuoso Willie Nelson. Shane McAnally, the in-demand writer-producer who was handed the recording project by his fellow CMA board members, recalls Haggard being at the top of their wish list, though the legend's failing health made his participation impossible. "You have a room full of managers and label heads and agents and people that have their own agendas on getting their artists heard," McAnally says. "But what I saw in regards to this project was that everyone kind of took their hats off in that regard and said, 'How can we pay tribute?' Losing Merle Haggard, I think it's just like in a family; when you lose such an integral part of the history, people kind of wake up and go, 'Holy s***. Are we paying enough attention here? Did we honor him properly while he was alive?' I think that he's been honored and there have been major tributes, but I do think that anytime that happens, the mortality of these great historical artists that built this genre, it [hits home]. You all [of a] sudden are reminded people don't live forever. Hopefully their music will."

The notable thing about the three songs McAnally selected to weave together — John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads," Nelson's "On the Road Again" and Parton's "I Will Always Love You" — is that they'd all been not only country hits, but pop ones too. Rather than linking country music's enduring authenticity to some notion of genre purity, the mashup toasted country's legacy of crossover. A lifelong country superfan, McAnally long ago learned to embrace these apparent contradictions. "In country music we feel like we own these people: 'This is ours,'" he muses. "Sometimes it just grows beyond that and people outside of the format who wouldn't normally listen to country start paying attention, which I think is really good and probably what's kept it thriving, is that every decade or so we have one of those moments."

The theme of country's continual popularity carried over to the awards show itself in early November, with a medley of Parton's crossover hits. Then there was the return of Taylor Swift, country music's greatest pop export, on hand to present the Entertainer of the Year trophy to Garth Brooks, whose own relationship to country music has evolved considerably over the course of his career. While his arena rock energy once raised eyebrows, he practically comes off as a traditionalist next to recent waves of beat-driven singers, and his consistent displays of respect for the country music community couldn't have hurt when it came to getting him into the Hall of Fame. His CMA acceptance speech possessed trademark gusto: "We're so darn lucky to be a part of this thing called country music!"

This had already been shaping up to be a big year for genre-bridging duets on the country charts, one of which was performed from the arena floor by thinking hit-maker Dierks Bentleyand pop-rock reveler Elle King. But the true blockbuster pairing of the night drew viewers who probably wouldn't have tuned in otherwise: A regally downhome Beyoncé sang a string band version of "Daddy Lessons" in solidarity with her chosen performing partners and fellow Texas natives, the Dixie Chicks, themselves making an intensely charged reappearance after their much-noted estrangement from the country music scene. To see the most galvanizing, politically attuned global force in 2016 pop and R&B show up and flaunt her feel for country music was no small thing, as evidenced by the feedback loop of blog buzz and social media reaction that swirled around the performance for weeks afterward. "Every year we look to have those water cooler moments, and usually those water cooler moments involve artists from outside the genre because it's that unexpected piece, like the [Justin] Timberlake and [Chris] Stapleton piece was last year, like it's been with NSYNC or Sting or any number of artists that we've had grace our stages over the years," Trahern explains with diplomatic finesse. "Dixie Chicks were 10-time award winners, so certainly having past entertainers of the year come back, that made a lot of sense." She goes on, "I'm proud of that moment. I'm glad we had it in the show. It's indicative of the kind of music that we do year after year on the CMA awards. But I'm also equally glad that it's not the only moment people are talking about."

The show was meant to speak to multiple audiences: not just casual viewers, but generations of country fans and industry insiders too. Fans who shelled out for tickets streamed into the Bridgestone Arena in semi-formal/cocktail party/church attire and made hurried trips to the bathrooms and beer stands during commercial breaks, while the artists seated down front used the brief moments when the filming stopped to socialize among themselves, schmoozing right up until a producer counted down to zero over the PA and the cameras went live again. Even more artists were in attendance than usual, since invitations had gone out to all past Entertainer of the Year winners and others besides.

The whole show served as a sweeping reaffirmation that country music has only grown bigger and better as the years have gone by, but country music devotees could also appreciate the institutional memory on display. "Honoring Charlie [sic] Pride and Alabama and Reba [McEntire] and Dwight [Yoakam] and Clint [Black] and Ricky [Skaggs] and Dolly [Parton] and Kenny [Chesney] had to be as great as it could possibly be, even if it was just for us in the room," Deaton told Billboard, "because this is not going to come around again."

Plenty of the acts that Deaton reeled off in that list congregated on stage for a meticulously choreographed medley that opened the show. After Vince Gill nodded to Haggard by tackling "Mama Tried" with the late legend's son Ben Haggard, Pride sang a snippet of his best known hit, "Kiss an Angel Good Morning," Alabama summoned nostalgia with "Mountain Music," McEntire once again played the hard-bitten working girl of "Fancy," Yoakam swivel-hipped his way through a bit of "Guitars, Cadillacs," Black revisited the modern honky-tonk of "Killin' Time" and Skaggs circled back to his chicken pickin' days with "Country Boy." But even though the transitions flew by quickly enough for viewers' antsy attention spans, sensitivity was shown to the physical unsteadiness of performers like 83-year-old Roy Clark, who sat with his banjo, then shuffled to the front of the stage with Skaggs' assistance. There they joined a cluster of other stars to sing Randy Travis's beloved ballad "Forever and Ever Amen," handing off the song's final word to Travis himself, who suffered a stroke a few years back. Travis, whose singing days had been presumed over, delivered the closing "Amen" with wobbly warmth.

Left to right: Charlie Daniels, Charley Pride, Dwight Yoakam, Carrie Underwood, Randy Travis, Brad Paisley, Reba McEntire, Vince Gill, Jeff Cook, Randy Owen and Teddy Gentry perform onstage at the 2016 CMA Awards in Nashville.
Rick Diamond / Getty Images
Getty Images
Left to right: Charlie Daniels, Charley Pride, Dwight Yoakam, Carrie Underwood, Randy Travis, Brad Paisley, Reba McEntire, Vince Gill, Jeff Cook, Randy Owen and Teddy Gentry perform onstage at the 2016 CMA Awards in Nashville.

Throughout the night, gussied-up renditions of this year's country hits were interspersed with nostalgic selections. Stapleton, Jason Aldean and Garth Brooks took part in tributes to their predecessors rather than seizing the moment to promote their own singles on national television. A medley that Brooks assembled with his wife Trisha Yearwood included songs by artists who've receded from popular memory — Lynn Anderson, Roger Miller and Keith Whitley.

The script contained no shortage of inside jokes for longtime fans. At one point, Paisley invited "Whispering" Bill Anderson — known in the '60s and '70s for a theatrically soft, satiny sung-spoken delivery — to join him in announcing the next segment. Trahern recalls, "The whole Bill Anderson inclusion piece came out of a conversation Brad had, and then he called Bill up. You have these contemporary artists who are so respectful of our community bringing their A game."

Paisley has a reputation for memorializing country mores and befriending his elders; though the late Little Jimmy Dickens was old enough to be his grandfather, Paisley often featured droll Dickens cameos in music videos. A number of Paisley's peers spent their brief acceptance speeches describing how moved they were to be surrounded by musicians they grew up on. Even Maren Morris, an artist less obviously beholden to tradition, spoke of realizing her dream of inclusion in the country music world. "I have amazing seats tonight," she gushed. "Last year I sat across the street at a bar and watched this show."

The performances of deference felt considerably more elaborate and intimate at the medallion ceremony held two weeks earlier. There was a time when CMHoF inductions were televised as a small segment of the awards show, but inductees are now honored at a nonpublic soiree instead. (Fans can watch the red carpet arrivals, but it's left to journalists in the room to report on the rest of the night.) Gill was one of the first three hall of famers feted in that invitation-only setting. "I don't know that I would say that it hurt my feelings," he chuckles good-naturedly, "but it kinda did, that the whole world didn't get to see that lifetime of accomplishment for myself and for [fellow inductees] Ralph [Emery] and Mel Tillis. ... I'm not gonna just beat on the negative, because there is the other side of it. They get to really take their time instead of sliding it into a six-minute piece for people on a TV show."

The medallion ceremony's exclusivity brings into focus its true audience — those recognized as having earned their places in the country music industry. Says Trahern, whose organization presents the honor (the event itself is produced by the scholarly staff of the CMHoF), "Something that's really unique about country music is that for a format that's so big worldwide, we can still have an intimate night that isn't about TV or the bigger piece but is about the family." Charlie Daniels, one of 2016's inductees, uses similarly homey language on the phone to describe the massive group of guests he brought to the event: "Well, that was our band, our crew, our traveling outfit and the office outfit, and then one of the guys from the ranch, the ranch manager, was there .... They're like my family."

Family business often takes place behind closed doors. As Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, put it in his opening remarks, the three inductees — Daniels plus Randy Travis and record man Fred Foster — were receiving "our music's highest honor." They were each the subject of lavish, reverential tributes in musical, spoken and videographic form. There was nothing fast-paced about the flow of the evening, nor were the production values the least bit splashy. Paisley, Parton, Brooks, Yearwood, Alan Jackson, Trace Adkins, Kris Kristofferson, Brandy Clark and Jamey Johnson gave decorous, considered performances of songs associated with the inductees. Even when a performance succeeded in captivating the room, as Yearwood's sumptuous note-bending did, the real aim seemed to be conveying her grasp of what made that piece of music consequential.

The proceedings were dignified to be sure, but space was also made for expressing a sense of personal connection to the honorees and their lives' work — like when feisty, diminutive hall of famer Brenda Lee, the presenter Daniels had requested, insisted on veering off the teleprompter into anecdotes about their friendship. "He's even got a horse named after me," she boasted, before impishly clarifying, "It's a little bitty horse."

When inducting Foster, Gill found himself in the position of conferring an honor he'd received nearly a decade ago upon a man who'd made his mark on the industry as a label head, producer and publisher long before most folks knew Gill's name. Gill was sensitive to the role reversal. After he leaned down to Foster's 85-year-old frame, slightly slumped in a wheelchair, and gently fastened the medal around his neck, Foster lifted the award to his lips and kissed it like an Olympic champion. "It was important that everybody knew how impactful he was to me when I first came to Nashville," Gill explains on the phone. "Not only for the people to understand that, but for him to understand that — to tell him, 'You have no idea [how significant it was], you taking me golfing and to Tennessee games.' Just being that young pup trying to find my way in[to the industry], it was invaluable."

Brooks, who'd gone into the Hall four years earlier, made the grand gesture of removing his cowboy hat and bowing his close-shorn head to Travis, who looked on from the front row. Brooks too felt the weight of having beaten a predecessor and personal hero to the honor. Indicating his own medal, he told Travis, "You just made this a million more times significant to me, man." He was visibly moved when Travis, whose wife Mary Davis-Travis had handled the speech-making in Travis's stead, sang an entire verse of "Amazing Grace" a cappella. It felt as though Brooks, and everyone else in the CMA Theater, was ready to catch him if his voice faltered.

The narratives that framed each of the three inductees neatly mapped their journeys from humble origins to identifying with country music early in their lives and making good on their aspirations to succeed with music that spoke to them. What they were being rewarded for, above all else, was single-minded devotion to upholding country music's continuity and authenticity.

Invoking a mid-'80s New York Times piece that predicted the decline of country music, HoF CEO Kyle Young framed Travis's success as a rebuttal of elitist condescension, a wholesale stylistic and commercial reinvigoration of the industry and the answer to an earlier generation of artists' urge to see tradition live on. "Those heroes took notice and embraced a young man they saw as an extender of their own legacies," Young declaimed at the podium. "Merle Haggard said, 'Down the road, somebody's going to idolize Randy Travis.' We're a long way down the road now, and time has proven Merle Haggard right. Haggard, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Bill Monroe, Porter Wagoner, all of them delighted in Randy's unprecedented rise, as he sold millions of albums by staying true to the emotional essence of country music." Davis-Travis echoed, "He's so devoted to country music, when [his producer] Kyle Lehning let him know one of his songs was crossing over to the pop chart, Randy ordered, 'Well, get it off there!'"

Daniels' commitments were made equally clear with vivid descriptions of the appeal that Nashville's music industry has held for him ever since his youthful obsession with Grand Ole Opry broadcasts. The fact that he'd once been considered something of an outsider, before becoming a country music institution, was beyond the scope of the narrative framing his induction. Still, on the phone days later, Daniels muses that the way the Charlie Daniels Band initially worked — not participating in major aspects of Nashville's music-making economy (i.e. not recording songs by Music Row writers in Nashville studios with the aid of session players), but developing blistering country-rock showmanship outside of the country radio format as a crack, self-contained unit--may have delayed his embrace by the industry. "Looking back to the late '60s and early '70s, nobody in Nashville was really interested in what we were doing at that time," he reflects. "I mean, it did not fit anything they could get played on the radio. When radio started kinda changing and accepting a little harder-driving stuff, that's when we started having records that fit to any extent with country radio. I wanted to be a part of what was going on in Nashville by kinda doing it on my own terms, if you will."

Despite the permanence of Hall of Fame membership, symbolized by bronze bas-relief plaques displayed for posterity, inductees often speak of feeling the need to continue demonstrating their worthiness. "There's only 130 people in it," Daniels notes. "Due to the higher visibility and everybody knowing that you're a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, I feel like I am a representative of the country music community in Nashville, and of the Grand Ole Opry. And I would never do anything that would dishonor either one of those institutions."

Though country music's most visible and viral moment of 2016 — Bey and the Chicks joining forces at the CMAs — struck some casual observers as a pop intervention in the genre, this was also very much a year for tending country music's legacy and tidying its narratives, both behind the scenes and in plain sight. In the bigger picture that emerged, the genre's increasingly complex priorities coexisted in new ways, rather than demanding reconciliation.

Coexistence comes naturally to some of country's younger hitmakers. Jon Pardi, who draws rowdy millennial crowds with rambunctious hard-edged country, has yet to take the stage at the medallion ceremony or the CMAs, but scored his first No. 1 this summer with the throwback "Head Over Boots" and followed it with a single that split the difference between R&B-style rhythmic propulsion and leathery twang. Conscious of the fact that many of his peers have staked out territory at far flung corners of the country spectrum, somewhere between progression and preservation, his self-professed goal is simple: "I wanna be able to shake hands with everybody backstage and not feel awkward."

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