“That ain’t country!” is a comment I often hear when I play current country hits in my songwriting workshops. It’s true that today’s country hits bear little resemblance to the songs that topped the charts by Elvis, Tammy, Waylon, Willie, and Patsy. Music evolves and the styles that rule the charts in one era become passé by the next.
So … what are the latest trends in contemporary country music?
How the Songs are Created
For many current pop and urban songs the creation of a musical track or bed is the first step in the songwriting process. A keyboard programmer (who, in many instances is the producer of the song) creates drum, percussion, bass guitar, and multiple keyboard parts. Guitars or other live instruments might be added. After the backing track is virtually complete, one or more writers known as “topliners” create the part the vocalist sings—the melody and lyric that goes on “top” of the musical bed.
In many cases musical tracks are sent via MP3 to the topliners who might be located in a different city or even a different country. The resulting song is considered a collaboration, and while the percentages are negotiable, the creator of the backing track is often granted fifty percent ownership of the song.
In contrast, songs on Music Row have historically been written by songwriters who meet in writing rooms, strum acoustic guitars, and create melodies, chord changes, and lyrics together. Country music songwriters have typically created the chord patterns, as well as the melody and lyric the vocalist sings, not relying on other writers to compose the chords, bass lines, or grooves.
After the song has been completed, Nashville session musicians create the backing track to accompany the vocal—not the other way around. Professional Nashville musicians are almost never credited as writers, despite the expectation that their contributions will include catchy melodic hooks and grooves. Their work on demos and master recordings is considered a work for hire.
But over the past several years, as more pop and hop-hop influences have filtered into Music Row, some Nashville writers have been writing songs by beginning with a musical track first. Indeed, Carrie Underwood’s chart-topping hit “Something in the Water” was written to a track that one of the writers brought to the writing session.
Another result of pop and urban musical influences on Nashville recordings is the prevalence of loops—short sections of sampled sounds (typically drums or guitars) that are used in repeated patterns. These are regularly being used in demos and master recordings of country songs, regardless of whether the songs were written with the musical track being created prior to the melody and lyric.
The most popular structures in hit country songs remain:
A significant number of songs on the country charts include a pre-chorus— sometimes referred to as a lift or a climb. This is typically comprised of four or eight musical bars and is included prior to each chorus. The pre-chorus lyric might be the same each time, or there might be a new lyric for each verse.
Some Nashville writers are incorporating a “post-chorus”—also known as a “B chorus”—a memorable additional section, typically four or eight musical bars at the end of the chorus. Widely used in pop music, the post-chorus typically hammers home the title and adds an additional hook to the song. An excellent example of this can be heard in Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off.”
Male versus Female Artists
In the 1990s the country music charts were peppered with hits by Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes, Faith Hill, Martina McBride, the Dixie Chicks, Lorrie Morgan, Pam Tillis, Trisha Yearwood, Jo Dee Messina, Alison Krauss, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kathy Mattea, Reba McEntire, the Judds, KT Oslin, Patty Loveless, Terri Clark, Tanya Tucker, Wynonna, Suzy Bogguss, Holly Dunn, and more. Today, male artists dominate the country charts.
At the time this article was written only two of the top twenty-five slots on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart were occupied by females. The top ten songs were all recorded by male artists with the exception of “Girl Crush,” which was recorded by Little Big Town, a quartet comprised of two men and two women.
Bro-country is the term coined for a style of music that has ruled the country radio airwaves for the past several years. It combines pop, hip-hop, R&B, and rock-influenced melodies with lyric themes that typically include women, pick-up trucks, tailgating, and drinking alcohol by the water. The songs are usually mid- to up-tempo and still remain popular on contemporary country radio, however some publishers are looking for a change.
Juli Newton-Griffith, V.P. of publishing at Nashville’s Magic Mustang Music, specifically instructed her staff writers not to bring in any more bro-country, stating that there’s already a glut of it out there. When asked where she sees country music headed, Juli responded, “I think we are moving towards needing more ‘furniture’ in songs. Something to sit on. Some depth!”
Melodic and Lyric Approaches
One of the most dramatic recent musical trends is the inclusion of R&B and hip-hop rhythms into mainstream country songs. 2004’s top 5 country hit “Over and Over” was a collaboration between R&B star Nelly and country star Tim McGraw. When Colt Ford released the hip-hop-influenced “Dirt Road Anthem” in 2008, it opened the door for a slew of country melodies that borrowed heavily from the rhythms and phrasings typically found in R&B and rap songs. “Dirt Road Anthem” was subsequently recorded by Ford’s co-writer Brantley Gilbert before Jason Aldean’s version topped the charts.
The hybrid that results from the melding of R&B and hip-hop with current country music is clearly evident in the melodies and rhythms of songs such as Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” and “This is How We Roll.” Keith Urban’s #1 album Fuse spawned four #1 singles that match banjos and country lyrics with hip-hop rhythms, screaming electric guitar solos, and arena-rock-influenced anthemic choruses. Songs such as Jason Aldean’s “Burnin’ It Down,” Thomas Rhett’s “Get Me Some of That,” and Lady Antebellum’s “Bartender” are among the many country hits that incorporate the syncopated rhythms associated with hip-hop music.
Jerrod Niemann’s “Drink to That All Night” features verses that are rapped. It also used the Auto-Tune vocal effect first popularized in Cher’s 1998 hit “Believe” and subsequently used extensively in R&B and pop productions.
Quite a few hit country artists have reached larger audiences and extended their chart runs by releasing remixed versions of their hits that included rappers. Examples include Jerrod Niemann’s “Drink to That All Night” featuring Pitbull, Ludacris guesting with Jason Aldean on a remixed version of “Dirt Road Anthem,” Jason DeRulo on Florida Georgia Line’s “This Is How We Roll,” and Nelly on the remix of Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” that spent a record-breaking 24 weeks atop Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, selling more than 9 million units.
The lyrics in contemporary country hits tend to include detailed descriptions that listeners can visualize. It would be hard to find a current hit country song that simply states how the singer feels—i.e., “Oh, baby, I love you so much.” Current country lyrics are more apt to tell stories and allow the listeners to witness scenes unfolding in their minds.
Instead of stating, “She sure looked pretty,” today’s country lyrics might describe a woman as having, “long tanned legs and a black ponytail that curled around a rose tattoo.” References to rapper T-Pain and a “hip-hop mixtape” in Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kinda Night, and a mention of “hip-hop” and “Jagger” in Florida Georgia Line’s “Sun Daze” illustrate that the lyrics in today’s hit country songs are likely to include jargon typically associated with genres other than country.
Many of today’s country music artists, songwriters, and listeners grew up listening to pop, R&B, rock, and hip-hop music. They also listened to country hits by artists such as Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Taylor Swift, and others who blurred the lines between pop and country. Pop influences can be heard in the hits by artists such as Hunter Hayes, Dan & Shay, and Kelsea Ballerini.
While radio airplay remains the primary way new artists are exposed to wide audiences, the Internet has provided an outlet that has brought success to acts outside the mainstream. Kacey Musgrave’s Pageant Material debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart without having a single crack the top 40 at country radio. Alan Jackson’s Angels and Alcohol, and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s collaboration Django and Jimmie achieved this same distinction. Albums by artists such as Ashley Monroe and Chris Stapleton are also enjoying significant sales without benefit of hit singles.
According to Tim Hunze, Partner/Parallel Music Publishing, “As far as the business side, it’s a little more challenging with sales being so anemic. I have hope that streaming revenues will increase, but for the time being if a publisher/writer doesn’t have any singles, they are not making money. That has led to less full time publishing opportunities and definitely lower draws for writers.”
The Nashville Songwriters Association (NSAI) has estimated that there are 80% fewer people earning their primary income from current song activity or publishing deals than there were in 2000.
Staff-writers without track records might not receive any advance when they sign exclusive publishing deals on Music Row and the advances that are doled are lower than they have been in the past. Writers might even be required to pay for their own demos. In exchange they receive credibility and opportunities for collaboration, development, and pitching that are conferred by a staff writing deal.
Hunze continued, “Even with the challenges, I always like to remind my writers and those wanting to get into the business that there will always be a hit song sung by an artist…that part hasn’t changed and you could be the next one to write it or sing it!”
Bart Herbison, Executive Director, Nashville Songwriters Association, noted that shorter verses and longer choruses seem to be a trend. He also noted observing more and more “hip-hop” type vocal portions in songs. Herbison added, “At NSAI we generally see new artists and writers before anyone else in the industry. We are seeing lots of female trios right now.”
Parallel Entertainment’s Tim Hunze said, “If I’m being real honest, I’ve not been more confused on where country is going. But I find that very exciting. We have more progressive music coming out…i.e., more pop/urban influence with artists like Sam Hunt just killing it out there, but we also have more traditional sounding acts like William Michael Morgan, Mo Pitney, and Kacey Musgraves. Big Machine has even started the Icon label so some of our most recognized artists can continue to put out great new music. Country music has not been this broad in my 20-year career.”
When asked what he sees as the next trend, Butch Baker, Sr. VP, Horipro Ent. Group, responded, “I believe we are going to see a swing back toward country. But there will still be room for progressive country. Nothing beats a hit song!!!”
It can be beneficial for songwriters and music publishers to be aware of what is currently working on radio and the music charts. But the songs that make the biggest impact are typically those that push the creative envelope and create the next trends. It’s up to songwriters to create the next big thing.
Jason Blume is the author of This Business of Songwriting and 6 Steps to Songwriting Success (Billboard Books). His songs are on three Grammy-nominated albums and have sold more than 50,000,000 copies. One of only a few writers to ever have singles on the pop, country, and R&B charts, all at the same time—his songs have been recorded by artists including Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, the Gipsy Kings, Jesse McCartney, and country stars including Collin Raye (6 cuts), the Oak Ridge Boys, Steve Azar, and John Berry (“Change My Mind,” a top 5 single that earned a BMI “Million-Aire” Award for garnering more than one million airplays). Jason’s song “Can’t Take Back the Bullet” is on Hey Violet’s new EP that debuted in the top-10 in twenty-two countries and reached #1 throughout Scandinavia and Asia. He’s had three top-10 singles in the past two years and a “Gold” record in Europe by Dutch star, BYentl, including a #1 on the Dutch R&B iTunes chart.
Jason’s songs have been included in films and TV shows including “Scrubs,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Assassination Games,” Disney’s “Kim Possible” “Dangerous Minds,” “Kickin’ it Old Skool,” “The Guiding Light,” “The Miss America Pageant,” and many more. Jason is in his nineteenth year of teaching the BMI Nashville Songwriters workshops. A regular contributor to BMI’s MusicWorld magazine, he presented a master class at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (founded by Sir Paul McCartney) and teaches songwriting throughout the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Ireland, the U.K., Canada, Bermuda, and Jamaica.
After twelve years as a staff-writer for Zomba Music, Blume now runs Moondream Music Group. For additional information about Jason’s latest books, online classes, instructional audio CDs, and workshops visit www.jasonblume.com.