A Portrait Of A Subtly Changing Nashville From 25 Angles

If you look at it broadly, the country music scene can appear frustratingly stagnant, with little growth for women and trailblazers. But from every corner, a rising generation is making progress.
Kacey Musgraves had one of country music's biggest albums of 2018, but it came only after she shrugged off any lingering obligation to pursue radio airplay. Source: Christopher Polk

From a distance, it was difficult to spot any motion in the country world in 2018. The definition of country-pop underwent a dramatic mutation earlier in the decade, fueled by Nashville's borrowing of beat-driven production and rhythmic vocal cadences from pop, R&B and rap. As the shift occurred, swaggering, party-hearty acts deploying that formula took up residence at the decidedly male-dominated center of the format. The hits generated by many male stars may have taken on a softer, more gentlemanly gloss since — usually without any great growth in emotional insight — but from a certain perspective, the center has essentially held. In early December, Billboard reported that none of the top 20 slots in its Country Airplay chart were occupied by women for the first time in the 28 years that that chart has tracked radio data. (Most of the major country playlists on streaming services aren't any better.)

Music criticism tends to interpret artists as either upholding or rebelling against the principles of their resident genres, but that conceptual framework breaks down when you try to apply it to contemporary country music, which to some degree maintains its own professional processes, attitudes and aesthetic values. For country artists, stylistic malleability and absorbing outside influences doesn't necessarily equate to an overall outlook of openness or optimism toward fluidity, nor is reverence for the past always linked to a worldview that resists change. To see past the appearance of stagnation to the subtle moves made on multiple fronts this year requires taking note of artists gently tweaking popular templates, altering their relationships to standard Nashville music-making practices or trying to find less mediated ways to collect and connect with audiences.

Here's where the real action was: A rising generation of singing and songwriting women has been figuring out how to circumnavigate roadblocks in the system and stake out space right in the middle of things with all sorts of shrewd professional and artistic strategies. So instead of writing a standard "best of" list, which would be too static to capture the diffuseness of these developments, I opted to zoom in on 25 music-makers adopting varied approaches at varied stages of their careers, some of which I've grouped together thematically, in hopes that I could offer a more revealing portrait of how country adjusted in 2018 – and,

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