As a result, a fractured and divided view of the genre is emerging: From the inside, the traditionalists hold the power. For everyone else, joyous and inclusive country music has become the norm. Country music has become more diverse, more queer, less white, less male than ever, and there is so much to celebrate. Shania Twain wants you to know that “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” is for “everybody.”
I don’t want to overstate the nascent and growing change in country music. It was so disappointing to see the CMA nominations come out this week, only to discover that only one Black artist, Breland, has a nomination while powerhouses like Mickey Guyton and Brittney Spencer were overlooked. Meanwhile, Morgan Wallen, who was caught on video drunkenly shouting the n-word in 2021, appears to have been reinstated to his perch at the top of the genre, nominated for the prestigious Entertainer of the Year award. CMA nominations are decided by people in the country music industry, many of whom are beholden to country radio and its power, and that ecosystem will not change overnight. Kacey Musgraves sold millions of records and won the Album of the Year Grammy without much support from country radio, but for now she remains the exception.
It is not a surprise, then, that Brittany Aldean was nodding along as Tucker Carlson suggested that Maren Morris be kicked out of country radio. Outside of country, it seems an almost retrograde call to action. In the context of country, it’s effectively calling for the country establishment to severely punish Morris, who has had three No. 1s and is one of relatively few women who get consistent radio play.
But the big difference is that we no longer have to treat country radio as the only arbiter of what matters. It’s been heartening to see the growth of country music media spaces run by people other than straight white men, including Apple Music Country’s Proud Radio hosted by Hunter Kelly and Record Bin Radio hosted by Kelly McCartney. The organization Black Opry has made its mission to support Black artists and audiences in country and Americana music. Music blog Country Queer has been extensively covering LGBTQ artists in country for years. Meanwhile, Marissa Moss painstakingly chronicled how women fought for their place in the genre in her new book Her Country.
It’s easy to take the old story of country music at face value. It’s also the lazy thing to do. Respected and well-known artists like Maren Morris are pushing back against anti-trans sentiments, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath it, a shift is underway to wrestle country music out of the hands of the toxic traditionalists. Yes, the gatekeepers still have the microphone. But some of us have left the room, because we want to hear ourselves, too.●