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COUNTRY TURNS A CORNER

By Holly Gleason

In a lot of ways, 2017 has been a quiet year on the country front. But don’t let the lack of an explosive breakout artist or massive scandal fool you—this will go down as the year of 
the shift.

And that shift is marked by diversity. Instead of jacked-up track after jacked-up track of 20-something dudes singing about trucks and girls and beers, we’ve seen Midland’s ’80s post-California country traditionalism with “Drinkin’ Problem,” Jon Pardi’s party-tonk with “Dirt on My Boots” and Carly Pearce’s gently searing “Every Little Thing” redrawing the borders on Country radio—sonically, musically and lyrically.

But they’re also changing the paradigm of country’s future. Yes, Keith Urban can still be counted on for artistic excavations and hits; Dierks Bentley will no doubt have another bluegrass adventure; smart money says Kenny Chesney, Eric Church, Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan will all stick to making their personal distillations of the genre.

But now you have the Southern-rock crunch of two-time CMA Duo of the Year The Brothers Osborne. The girl power is ratcheting up several notches too: Lindsay Ell offers enough guitar chops to hold stages with ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Robert Randolph and Dave Navarro, while Lauren Alaina and Danielle Bradbery build on the promise of Kelsea Ballerini as women whose music other women are going to see their own journeys in. For blue-collar girls on the verge of washing out, the tattooed Ashley McBryde offers a heroine who looks like they do and writes songs that lift up the lower rungs with earthy richness.

BroCountry’s been replaced by Brett Eldredge, Brett Young and Michael Ray, as well as Old Dominion, whose sound is sleeker and whose look is more fashion than Bubba. BroCountry isn’t dead; it’s been retooled by Luke Combs and LOCASH, who offer an even harder take on the redneck reality that was co-opted for party throw-down music. Walker Hayes brings a more grown-up sense of lyric play to fairly electronic/beat-driven country.

It’s intriguing, as Miranda Lambert and Chris Stapleton continue insisting on making country music on their own terms, Jason Isbell upsets expectations as his Nashville Sound lands among the Album of the Year nominees at the CMA Awards. Whisperers whisper that songs need more meat and artists require real presence—and I think the act’s understanding of “who they are” and “why they matter” has never been more important in a world of fame jockeys #instatweetfacegrammering.

Enter Kane Brown, the unlikeliest candidate. Raised by a single mom who had her children sit down to dinner at the table every night, the Abercrombie & Fitch model-looking baritone, whose presence is more hip-hop than downhome, delivers. His songs show an awareness of classic values and today’s reality—and his music boasts a strong sense of Conway Twitty depth, Randy Travis country and Rascal Flatt’s innocent romanticism on the love songs.

Is Nashville ready for a mixed-race superstar? Or women who walk—and cross—the line? When The Kentucky Headhunters showed up, they scared people. When Mary Chapin Carpenter arrived, she was too introspective. But it seems for Brothers Osborne, traction is their middle name, and for a bubbling underwave of female artists, a corner may be turning.

What is obvious: The music is shifting. The uniformity of what labels are releasing is moving in different directions. Where we go remains to be seen, but the future has intriguing candidates indeed.

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