Pour Some Sugarland on Me: Why Country Music Is the New Classic Rock

In Mark Wills’ 2003 hit “19 Something”, Wills waxed nostalgic about the ’80s, cataloging Reagan-era American pop-culture touchstones, one of which was “watch[ing] MTV all afternoon”. It was a revealing claim, given what aired on MTV afternoons in the late ’80s when Wills was a teenager. What he had to have been watching, for the most part, were pop-metal videos, which at that time dominated the Dial MTV charts, which counted down the top ten most-requested videos of the day.

The fact that Wills listened to “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me” for hours on end and that his ’80s nostalgia takes him back to Adam Curry rather than Ralph Emory, shouldn’t be entirely surprising, however. After all, anyone who spends time with modern country radio understands that the bulk of today’s country hits have way more in common, sonically, with Bon Jovi than they do with George Jones.

Country artists, labels, programmers, etc., have pulled off something of a marketing revolution. It’s an industry that’s fighting for profitable business models, and that is to corner the die-hard classic-rock market. That’s quite a coup, considering the massive shift that has crossed over from rock to country, not just involving ’70s and ’80s soldiers like Wills—folks now in their 30s and 40s—but their own children, born in the ’90s and beyond, who are themselves drawn to the timeless appeal of the big drums, guitar solos, anthemic chants, hedonistic lyrics, giant choruses, and shiny production values that have sold out arenas for the last 50 years.

The accessibility of classic-rock forms defined by an incorporation of country elements is nothing particularly new, since bands like the Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd obviously proved such a blend’s viability decades ago. What’s interesting now is not that rock bands straddle a country-rock line that appeals to country listeners, or that country singers can be pop enough to crossover to pop charts the way, say, Dolly Parton occasionally would. What’s remarkable is that we’ve seen such a wholesale metamorphosis of contemporary country music into arena rock that has left only the slightest tokens of anything traditionally “country” in the music at all.

It’s a formula that is paying off, as a quarter to half of the Top 40 albums on the Billboard charts over the last three years have been country records, as was the best-selling album of 2009, Taylor Swift’s Fearless. All of this answers a question on the minds of a major segment of rock fans nostalgic for Van Halen and Journey, which is, “Why don’t they make music like that anymore?” The answer, of course, is, “They do. They just call in country music, now”.

Remember the scene from the The Wrestler when Mickey Rourke’s character, while partying to Ratt’s “Round and Round”, extols the glory days of Guns N’ Roses until “That pussy Cobain had to come around and ruin it for everyone”? It’s one of rock history’s great oversimplifications—Nirvana killed hair metal—but the sentiment points to a prevalent notion that big, catchy, accessible “classic” rock has been somehow, inexplicably, washed from the face of the earth in favor of what these fans see as angsty mook-rock, whiny emo-rock, abstruse indie-rock, crass R&B, and atonal hip-hop. Where these fans have found refuge, beyond their old Zeppelin albums, is in modern country radio, the closest thing out there to the music of their rock ‘ n’ roll good-old days.

What these rock fans have to tolerate, obviously, is whatever purely country elements have remained in the music, but in the exodus from a rock radio where Ratt has been supplanted by Rhianna, they’re clearly willing to accept a rural drawl or a buried fiddle as long as they can pump a fist to it. The music follows enough tried-and-true hard-rock archetypes to make inroads into a broad audience’s pleasure centers. At the same time, Nashville has wisely maintained decidedly red-state concerns in song themes, rolling out a steady stream of hits that celebrate small towns, God, the simple life, the way things used to be, farms, partying in the woods, etc.

In fact, contemporary country is all about looking back, the same kind of nostalgia that fueled Mark Wills’ hit about the simpler, innocent days of the ’70s and ’80s. Part of that looking back reflects the sort of paranoid raving about a mythical American past that the likes of Glenn Beck never shut up about. Political polarization doesn’t exactly make for good commerce—just ask the Dixie Chicks—so most of these artists just shut up and sing, embracing a subtle message of yearning for days gone by rather than endorsing anything specific.

The Glenn Becks of punditry confuse the simplicity of their childhoods with a gentler, better country anyway, but that kind of anti-intellectualism works perfectly for a music that isn’t spoiling for a fight, but trying to illicit wistful, breezy feelings by focusing on remembering good times, even if they break your heart now. The nostalgia in the lyrics is an important complement to the recapturing of a simulacrum of a beloved arena-rock form.

Take Josh Turner, a nice Christian boy, whose idea of rebellion is his three-day beard. His smash hit, “Why Don’t We Just Dance”, finds his trademark bass vocal lamenting all the bad news on television. His advice, since the “whole wide world has gone crazy” is to dance in the living room. The dancing that goes on in the song’s video depicts a couple dancing through the decades with costume changes—here they’re hippies; now they’re discoing. It’s a song that, true to the new-country aesthetic, laments the present and embraces the music and movements of the past.

Or how about Lady Antebellum, whose current hit “American Honey” is about as nostalgic as it gets. This trio has the #1 album in America as of this writing, likely because they push these same important buttons—the beauty of rural living, fond memories of the past, and singalong choruses. Lady A is especially adept at forging unimaginative but pleasant, melodic songcraft, which springs a bottomless well of commercial appeal of the sort that shipped gold for ’80 rock icons.

Lady Antebellum, alongside other contemporary bands like Rascal Flatts, shares an emphasis on bass, guitars, and keys, rather than on fiddles or steel guitar, that is typical of the genre’s new, slick rock edge, an element of which is old-fashioned guitar shredding. Indeed, modern country radio is the last bastion in pop music of the persecuted guitar solo.

While country music has long produced guitar legends like Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed, only recently have we seen slingers like Keith Urban and Brad Paisley control a near monopoly over mainstream pop. The flashy guitar solo never did quite survive the grunge years, with even bands like Metallica doing away with it, but Urban and Paisley and Rascal’s Joe Don Mooney play the same kinds of fast, dramatic solos that you learned to expect in every song from the guitar-hero-rich metal era.

Despite such wide-net musical appeal, bands like Lady Antebellum also know to keep bringing things back to resonating emotionally with the tens of millions of Americans who grew up in rural areas. After all, if they are going to snare the party-metal lovers, they can’t alienate the country base in order to do so. So while the Zac Brown Band might seem primed for both Parrotheads and Deadheads, they know that if they talk about eating “Chicken Fried” and drinking beer on the farm, then the country fans will embrace them.

Or Luke Bryan, who reminds us that where he comes from, “Rain Is a Good Thing” in one the year’s most exuberant tributes to farming. Or Billy Covington, who champions bar-b-que, beer, fishing, Jesus, Skoal, and giving you the shirt off their backs because “That’s How Country Boys Roll”. Or Easton Corbin, who recently hit #1 on the singles charts by explaining that he’d never cheat on his girlfriend because he’s “A Little More Country than That”.

This notion of a simple life where people treat each other right is an essential part of the new-country mythology that attracts a crowd, as long as it comes with a decent dose of shit-kicking, which helps to catch the classic rock lovers at the heart of the recent crossover resurgence. Songs like “Chicken Fried” and Justin Moore’s “Backwoods” are all about getting crazy out in the sticks at bonfire parties, and songs like “Backwoods” and Blake Shelton’s “Hillbilly Bone” (which sound very similar, all part of the tradition) bring the new country/’80s-metal hybrid to new extremes.

“Hillybilly Bone” is one of those country-boys-lost-in-the-city songs: “I got a friend in New York City / He’s never heard of Conway Twitty”, it goes. From the sound of the slamming drums and guitars in “Hillbilly Bone”, it sound as though Shelton himself has listened to far more AC/DC than he has Conway Twitty, and it’s a solid bet that modern country listeners who’ve bought this song in droves have, too.

Who do we credit (or blame) for turning country into ’80s metal? Perhaps the same guy whom people blamed for taking hard rock and turning it into pop/hair-metal back in the ’80s: Mutt Lange. As the producer of both AC/DC’s Back in Black (1980) and Def Leppard’s Pyromania (1984), Lange was a key figure in harnessing the strains of ’70s heavy rock into the commercial monster that mainstream metal became in the ’80s.

By the mid-’90s, however, with the rise of grunge and rap, the metal party was running on its last fumes, so Lange helped revive many of the key elements he helped forge with metal—rounder-than-round choruses, processed instrumentation, walloping drums, layered vocals—but this time on country radio. The album was his wife’s, Shania Twain’s Come on Over (1997), which spawned 12 (!) hit singles and went on to become the greatest-selling country album of all time.

The incredible, unprecedented success of Come on Over changed Nashville forever, not the least by redefining the kind of music that could thereafter be called “country”. Come on Over had almost nothing to do with the honky-tonking of the latest wave of neo-traditionalist country records by Randy Travis and Alan Jackson. Instead, the Twain-Lange formula was only vaguely country at all. Still, it had even less to do with the TLC and Boyz II Men singles that had taken over the pop charts. So country it became, bequeathing not only the next 15 years worth of Faith Hills and Carrie Underwoods, her direct descendants, but also the big-rock leather-and-axes of Bomshel and Rascal Flatts.

For instance, Bomshel’s new hit “19 and Crazy” is a prototypical example of the kind of nostalgic party metal that Poison would have loved to have had in 1988. In 1991, Alan Jackson claimed that his heart wasn’t ready for the Rolling Stones. By 2009, Gretchen Wilson was opening her concerts with “Rock You Like a Hurricane” and Sugarland was covering Pearl Jam. Lester Flatt would be so pissed.

CMT has further capitalized on the hybrid trend by bringing rock and country artists together on its CMT Crossroads show. At first, the pairs—Lynyrd Skynyrd with Montgomery Gentry, .38 Special with Trace Adkins—offered little contrast between the two. Lately, however, we’ve seen an acknowledgment of the pop-metal/country connection with an episode that paired Bon Jovi with Sugarland and another that brought Def Leppard and Taylor Swift together.

For Bon Jovi’s part, they made a full-blown post-Shania country album themselves with 2007’s Lost Highway, their most successful record in years. Other pop-metal artists—Brett Michaels, Kip Winger—have similarly gone country, as have other classic-rock-leaning singers like Darius Rucker and Jewel, who’ve scored major hits of late in Nashville.

However country purists or rock fans or critics might deride what has become of contemporary mainstream country radio, one thing remain clear—its popularity is growing, particularly among folks like Mark Wills who grew up on rock, and continues to fill a niche for Foreigner fans that doesn’t quite exist elsewhere, even if it means that those fans have to tolerate songs about going mudding and swimming in lakes. Furthermore, the major country labels have been far more successful than modern rock or rap labels at nurturing artists for lengthy, multiple-album careers, turning them into the kinds of artists that achieve legendary, arena-filling status.

Here’s a fun game. Name a rock or rap artist/band that has made its debut within the last 15 years that has a reasonable chance of headlining arenas 20 years from now.

Today, rock fans still file into basketball arenas to see Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Billy Joel, Fleetwood Mac, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Aerosmith, U2, Tom Petty… it’s a very long list. However, once those acts are, well, gone, what rock acts constitute the next wave? Will John Mayer fill arenas when he’s Springsteen’s age? Will high school kids 20 years from now be wearing retro Coldplay T-shirts? Perhaps, but it’s a very short list.

Over on country radio, they’re grooming an army of Underwoods, Swifts, and Antebellums, who are making music modeled closely after those aging rock gods. There are millions of rock ‘n’ roll true believers who are tuning in, taking their classic rock wherever they can get it, no matter what it’s being called these days.

Let’s get rocked! Lady Antebellum