Listen to Ann Powers' conversation with Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep about the new voices of crossover country at the audio link on this page.
Country music is so much more than a bunch of bros. Dirt road acolyte Jason Aldean and congenial cornball Blake Shelton may have the top two albums right now, but the genre is opening up to new sounds and stances, from the mainstream to the outliers. 2014 has been outstanding for country musicians messing with listeners' expectations, from Americana-leaning upstart Robert Ellis channeling his inner Paul Simon to Miranda Lambert generating feedback from her pink guitar, to Sturgill Simpson blending grit and psychedelia, to Eric Church (who can claim the year's fourth best-selling album) crashing through the arena circuit like one of the original Wild Ones. And the year's not over. October adds three more contenders to the list of top country challengers.
These artists range from a longtime underground favorite whose debut proves she's an heir to Lucinda Williams' crown to an already hugely popular vocal quartet with chops Fleetwood Mac would envy. Throw in a young songwriter with a genuine feel for R&B and you have a fitting representation of country music's real eclectisism. That openness reflects both the genre's history — from its beginnings, country blended black blues with the music of rural whites newly arrived in the city — and its current state and the preferred sound of a Heartland that's rapidly changing, culturally and demographically. If this is the music of what Angaleena Presley calls the American Middle Class, it's as varied and fluid as that contested term — a sound that shakes the tree of tradition, but also sows its own seeds.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Shed a tear for country music. Taylor Swift puts out a new album next week, but she has left Nashville, moved to New York and left country music behind. It's a pop record.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUT OF THE WOODS")
TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) And I remember thinking, are we out of the woods yet? Are we out of the woods yet? Are we out of the woods yet? Are we out of the woods? Are we in the clear yet?
INSKEEP: But many other artists are keeping at least one foot, if not both, in country, which we're going to talk about with NPR Music's pop critic Ann Powers. She's here with some recommendations for some new music. Hi, Ann.
ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hey, Steve. How are you doing?
INSKEEP: I'm OK, thanks. And I guess we should mention this is not necessarily country for the absolute purist. This is Nashville country, but it's country.
POWERS: Country music, Steve, has always been more eclectic than many people think. You know, I mean, it's rooted in the connection between rural white folks' music and the blues. And it's taken from soul and rock and all sorts of forms over the decades. So really, country eclecticism is nothing new.
INSKEEP: Well, let's get some of these recommendations here. The first is a group called Little Big Town. Who are they?
POWERS: Little Big Town is one of the biggest vocal groups in country right now. They've been around since 1998, and their sixth album, "Pain Killer," comes out this week. I feel they could really have a pop breakthrough, maybe the biggest one of their career with this album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUIT BREAKING UP WITH ME")
LITTLE BIG TOWN: (Singing) You say it's over with a middle finger. But then you're calling before I turn off my ringer.
INSKEEP: Rhyming finger with ringer. I like that.
POWERS: (Laughter). Yeah, the songwriting is witty. You know, it's right down the middle country. But then it's totally Sheryl Crow to me, you know? It's totally California pop. And I think Little Big Town really stands for new Nashville right in the middle of the main stream.
INSKEEP: So who else are you recommending?
POWERS: Well, Steve, here's a record that I and everyone else who loves country music is loving right now. It's called "American Middle Class." It's by Angaleena Presley. Angaleena Presley is from a coal mining family in rural Kentucky. And this album is really about growing up in a place like that, what it's like to live in the rural South today.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN MIDDLE CLASS')
ANGALEENA PRESLEY: (Singing) Only had one little pair of stonewashed jeans with a label on the back. I'm a product of the never-give-up American middle class. Tear this poor house down...
INSKEEP: You know, I should mention that this song begins with an older man speaking about his life in the coal mines.
POWERS: That's her father, actually. Angaleena went and recorded conversations with her father to try to get to his story.
INSKEEP: You've got one more artist for us.
POWERS: Well, I love this guy. This guy's name is Sam Hunt. He grew up in Georgia, played college football, tried to play pro football, but he didn't make it, ended up in Nashville writing songs for people like Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban. And now...
INSKEEP: This is sounding like a country music plot all of its own.
POWERS: (Laughter). But when you hear the song, I think you'll hear the sound of the young South and definitely young Nashville because Sam Hunt really mixes in hip-hop and R&B influences in a very natural way.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAK UP IN A SMALL TOWN")
SAM HUNT: (Singing) There's only so many streets, so many lights. I swear, it's like I can't even leave my house. Should've known all along, you've got to move or move on when you break up in a small town.
POWERS: Steve, the best artists are connecting with tradition and upholding country music's legacies. But they're also bringing in so many different elements that are just very natural to their lives.
INSKEEP: NPR's music critic Ann Powers. Thanks for bringing along your music.
POWERS: Steve, it's always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.