Hunter Hayes is part of the new wave of country singers who appeal to a younger audience.
Eddie Saenz remembers exactly what was said when he tried to change the station as he and his father were driving across their Texas ranch.
“You don’t change the radio when Willie Nelson is playing.”
Modern country music isn’t just for ranching families in Texas — other Americans are finding their down-home roots, too. Three of iTunes’ top 10 songs are by artists with country backgrounds, and this week, YouTube launched an all-things-country music channel.
The songs luring a new generation of country lovers don’t sit well with some traditionalists. Elements of pop fused with old-fashioned southern riffs are dividing country purists from the genre’s new guard.
“Country music kind of used to be this thing where you grew into it as an adult,” said Saenz, a commercial music junior at Belmont University in Nashville. “You used to hear your life stories come out more as you grew up. And I feel like it’s not really that way anymore.”
Saenz, who began playing guitar as a 9-year-old, traces his music roots to his dad not even letting him touch the dial as the two drove around the ranch in their white Ford pickup truck. Now, Saenz listens to classic “outlaw-country” artists such as Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson on his own.
“Man, I actually really love this music now,” he said. “He (his dad) kind of forced it on me, so it kind of just became what I liked, what my life is.”
But Saenz concedes today’s country music doesn’t leave much room for the classics. Country star Blake Shelton stirred up Nashville in January when he argued that “nobody wants to listen to their grandpa’s music” anymore.
“I don’t care how many of these old farts around Nashville (are) going, ‘My God, that ain’t country,’ ” Shelton said in a Great American Country TV special. “Well, that’s because you don’t buy records any more, jackass. The kids do, and they don’t want to buy the music that you were buying.”
What the kids are buying is music from artists such as Taylor Swift, Hunter Hayes and Rascal Flatts, says Belmont entertainment studies junior Amelia Varni. As an intern at Warner Brothers, Varni screens songs for rising country musicians.
Unlike Saenz, Varni said she is excited about what different genres bring to country.
“I really appreciate old country music, that’s what I grew up on,” Varni said. “But I still love to see how it’s evolving right now, and I love seeing how artists from other genres are working with country artists.”
Varni thinks new influences in country factor into its popularization throughout different areas of the country. Not everyone can relate to songs about growing up in the backwoods or plowing a field, she said, but the messages are easy to understand.
“Right now, it seems like Nashville and country music are at its peak,” she said. “I have friends in California who never liked country and were never interested in it, and now they’re watching Nashville on ABC every week.”
Dukes, 33, says he isn’t completely against new country music — he even likes some older Taylor Swift songs. Still, he says, nothing beats the Garth Brooks concert he was at nearly 20 years ago.
“They’re great artists,” Dukes said of new country stars. “I think throughout their career of writing and performing they’re growing with country music. But someone’s always going to write something that’s going to be pissing someone off.”
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