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COUNTRY: BACK TO THE FUTURE

As we begin to roll out key content from Nashville special issue, we offer this introduction from our Music City correspondent, Holly Gleason, who dives deep into the sources informing today's country music. It's a master class in influences, styles and subgenres that will make the casual fan want to explore—and give the hardcore fanatic plenty to geek out about.

At a time when country music has seemingly never been further from its roots—Roy Acuff? Tammy Wynette? Hank Sr.? heck, even Jr.?—there’s an undertow to the R&B/hip-hop flavor that can’t be missed. Yes, Usher and Jodeci, not to mention 2 Chainz and Nelly, are bubbling up in today’s country jams, but if you listen closely, the echoes of ’80s and ’90s country are profound. Yes, Chris Stapleton, as well as non-country radio tilters Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price and Dan Auerbach, are stripping it down—and getting to the raw essence of Nashville. They have more in common with country classics than today’s stars on this rise, but today’s emerging acts draw on plenty of Music City’s finest.

And we’re not just talking George Strait, the man to whom Garth Brooks dedicated so many of his award wins; Alabama, Joe Diffie, Dwight Yoakam and—how’s this for post-modern—Rascal Flatts are permeating today’s country charts as well. That’s just a sampling of the influences on Country radio at present, but if you weren’t paying attention to the ’80s post-traditional rebirth or Patsy Cline polish, you might not recognize the thump in Jon Pardi as straight-up Yoakam-meets-David Lee Murphy.

Strip off East and West Coast-imposed definitions of what country is, in fact, and you might find a whole lot of what happened just before the millennium dawned. When you’re looking at Dan & Shay, you’re not too far off describing it as Backstreet meets Rascal Flatts: smooth arrangements and life-empowering songs without being strictly kiddie fare. And Brothers Osborne get all Waffle House: They mix Alabama’s feel-good blue-collar vibe with a dash of Diamond Rio’s bluegrass prowess, scattered, smothered and covered in The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s organic playing and song sense.

Carrying the torch: Sam Hunt, Thomas Rhett, Kane Brown, Jon Pardi, Midland

Sam Hunt, who espouses a love for the hardcore songwriters, also embodies Conway Twitty‘s romantic candor and a melodic sense informed by classic R&B, while Luke Combs works somewhere between Mark Chesnutt’s post-Haggard workingman’s ethos and Doug Supernaw’s two-by-four realism, stretched across a sweaty blue-collar realm.

Maybe the test-tube baby in all of this is burgeoning superstar Thomas Rhett, whose father was ’90s “That Ain’t My Truck” sensation Rhett Akins. Dad is now one of the Peach Pickers, the crew of Georgia songwriters churning out bushels of hits; Thomas is swerving that era’s country into a Bruno Mars fomentation that delivers suburban familiarity with an equally ubiquitous urban-contemporary feel. Just as importantly, “Die A Happy Man” evokes the great ballads of Tim McGraw, Collin Raye and Vince Gill.

Heck, Kane Brown oozes Randy Travis’ youth and resonant pipes, with a little of Daryle Singletary’s tone thrown in, while Justin Moore is pure Johnny Paycheck. Even Brett Eldredge evokes a slightly smoother Gary Morris, with songs that lean to Lee Greenwood’s better moments.

And it’s not just latter-day country’s mainstream, either. Midland channels the Eagles, Restless Heart and a fair amount of Earl Thomas Conley. Brett Young offers a straight-up shot of John Michael Montgomery and William Michael Morgan evokes Hal Ketchum tempered with Tracy Lawrence’s fairly outlying traditionalism.

It makes sense. Though this Millennial Country may not sound like the New Traditionalists who melted down Nashville in the late ’80s or found a country bolstered by Tony Brown’s updated production values, today’s emerging artists were raised on their parents’ country. The songs they fell in love to, chased around to and cried “hell, yeah” to. Again, beyond Garth Brooks—back then George Strait was more an idea than someone people beyond Texas were listening to—most folks missed all that country. And that’s OK. Today’s wave is bringing all those heroes, influences and artists back.

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