NPR

How The Sound Of Country Music Changed

Over the last five years, a gradual evolution — characterized by careful and savvy boundary pushing — has taken hold in a genre where innovation always tugs against preservation
In 2013, Kacey Musgraves emergence onto the country music scene hinted at changes that would arrive over the next five years. Musgraves' new album, Golden Hour, might signal her freedom from that same landscape. Source: Kelly Christine Sutton

Evolution follows a familiar pattern in plenty of popular music genres. Fearless newcomers or agile established stars with credibility to burn veer from the dominant aesthetic, adopting approaches to music-making that come off as savvy correctives to what everyone's used to hearing. And if what they're doing really begins to catch on, bits and pieces are absorbed into the mainstream, subtly or significantly shifting the genre's center, before something completely different comes along to catch the public's ear. Just think of how many hip-hop trends, from the street-hardened fatalism and stark beats of trap music to the punchy, triplet flow spawned by Migos' experimentalism, have bubbled up from the underground, and eventually even altered the feel of mainstream pop.

These cycles propel country music forward too, but they're unfolding at a more deliberate pace in a genre where innovation tugs against preservation and the path to success often passes through conservative terrestrial radio. That's why it's taken years for the stylistic shifts anticipated by Kacey Musgraves, Sam Hunt and Maren Morris to actually arrive. Musgraves' emergence, five years ago, generated discussion about the potential for changes in country's outlook, attitude and style, but it's only now, with the release of Golden Hour, her third proper, major label album, that she sounds truly freed from having to claim her place in the country landscape.

Pop, hip-hop and R&B have far higher turnover rates for hits, thanks to massive streaming numbers and radio programming that favors the hot and new over the familiar. But besides making the most of the digital outlets favored by young listeners, most mainstream country artists are still expected to pledge their fealty to the format and court radio's long-term support, which can be a deeply demoralizing endeavor due to programmers' tendency to stick to one thing that's working at a time and pay attention to little

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