A Beginner's Guide to Country Music | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

A Beginner’s Guide to Country Music

Iesha Thomas talks through the artists that prove country is more than its stereotype

Country has become the Nickelback of music; admitting you like it is social suicide. While, yes, the stereotype of songs all about truck and objectifying women in cut-off jeans are littered through the genre, contrary to popular belief, there is more to country than that.

The unique storytelling ability country artists capture in their lyrics is akin to folk and Americana music. Country is overlooked too often, and many I believe are missing out on beautiful songs that evoke nostalgia, heartbreak, love, loss and can transport you back in time or to places you’ve never been. The genre can have a hypnotising effect, once you fall in love with country, you can never get away from it.

The Founders of Country

These artists have had careers spanning over multiple decades, and have survived the ebb and flow of country traditions and new influences. From Cash’s intertwining of blues, folk and rockabilly in country, to Strait bringing back neotraditional country in the 1980s shows that country is always evolving. The artists’ venture between the ‘rambler’, the hometown dedications, and love power ballads, has defined the stories country continues to tell.

Johnny Cash: ‘Jackson’, ‘I Walk the Line’, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, ‘Tennessee’, ‘Can’t Help Wonder Where I’m Bound’.

Dolly Parton: My Tennessee Mountain Home, ‘Coat of Many Colours’, ‘A Cowboy’s Ways’, ‘Heartbreak Express’.

George Strait: ‘Amarillo by Morning’, ‘I Got a Car’, ‘Give it Away’, ‘It Takes all Kinds’, ‘When Did You Stop Loving Me’.

Garth Brooks: In Pieces – the album is definitive 90s country in ten tracks.

The Big Shots

Kenny Chesney has reigned over country for over twenty years, with only Tim McGraw as a possible rival. Chesney’s lonesome traveller, beach bum vibe takes you to the Florabama coastline in ‘Summertime’, or the winding roads of Dixie in ‘The Road and the Radio’. ‘Spirit of a Storm’, ‘Tequila Loves Me’ and ‘Wild Child’ are brimming with tragic and beautiful lyrics of the wild adventuring and wandering soul of his and the women in his life. If you hit it off with Chesney, I recommend Zac Brown Band and Chris Stapleton who also embody this side of country.

Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert are the new queens of country. Their ability to simultaneously be strong and belting yet with a traditional, sweet twang epitomises the versatility of country. Deeply moving and personal songs of Underwood’s include ‘The Girl You Think I Am’, ‘Do You Think About Me’, ‘Heartbeat’ ‘Mama’s Song’ and range to her feisty narratives such as ‘Blown Away’, ‘Two Black Cadillacs’ and ‘Before He Cheats’.

Lambert’s trio Pistol Annies take on traditional country themes and put a new twist on them in ‘Boys from the South’, ‘Trailer for Rent’, ‘I Feel a Sin Comin’ On’ and ‘I Hope You’re the End of My Story’. The precious tale of ‘The House that Built Me’ and the scorned and headstrong woman in ‘Over You’ is perhaps what has made the loudest female voice of the male dominated genre.

*Fun fact* Lambert and Blake Shelton were married before their explosive divorce in 2014, and their recent albums encompass the bitterness, heartbreak and wistful longing – which makes for some killer country records such as her most recent album The Weight of These Wings – ‘Tin Man’ is a personal favourite.

Shelton is considered by many a part of the ‘bro country’ sector of the genre – trucks, raisin’ hell, rednecks etc. – but he is a good bridge as many of his slower tracks allow his raw talent to shine such as ‘Sangria’, ‘My Eyes, ‘Home Sweet Home’ and ‘Mine Would Be You’.

The New Kids on the Block

Maren Morris’ smoky Nashville pop sound, with her husky cigarette voice earned her a Grammy last year. Having attended her gig at the O2 Institute on the 17th of November, and her duet with Niall Horan on ‘Seeing Blind’, it’s clear that the word of her talent is spreading across the Atlantic. Her smash hit ‘My Church’ is a new classic, with tracks such as ‘I Wish I Was’, ‘Once’ and ‘Bummin’ Cigarettes’ are relatable to anyone who has ever made poor decision when it comes to relationships. Her recent release ‘Dear Hate’ with big name Vince Gill in the wake of the Vegas shootings has stormed the charts, and showcased her raw vulnerability.

Kacey Musgraves is a bad ass, subverting traditions left right and centre. She sticks true to country roots, and has worked extensively with giant Willie Nelson. She talks politics, smoking marijuana and accepting same sex love, in ‘Follow Your Arrow’, and the effects of being a woman in a male dominated genre in ‘Good Ole’ Boys Club’. She also hits home hard in ‘Somebody to Love’ that will give you an existential crisis about the human need to not be alone. Deep stuff.

Brett Eldredge, along with Luke Combs are the two most vocally powerful men in country. Eldredge’s influence of old swing, combined with country and pop influences have blended together to produce great love songs, ‘Mean to Me’ and ‘Haven’t Met You Yet’, heartbreak ballads such as ‘No Stopping You’. But he also demonstrates grappling with his struggles with intimacy in ‘Castaway’, which Eldredge has said has been his most vulnerable work.

Combs has burst onto the scene in 2017 with his debut album This One’s for You. While here and there Combs has elements of bro country, his gravelly voice, and heartfelt lyrics are worth a listen to. Upbeat, feel-good, twangy tunes such as ‘Memories are Made Of’ and hit singles ‘Hurricane’ and ‘When It Rains It Pours’ are of notable mention.

Other Essential Country

Lonestar – Lonely Grill.

Sugarland – Enjoy the Ride, Love on the Inside.

Little Big Town – The Breaker. Also check out ‘Bring it on Home’, ‘Sober’ and ‘Girl Crush’.

Lady Antebellum: ‘American Honey’, ‘Down South’, ‘Downtown’, ‘Dancin’ Away with My Heart’, ‘Our Kind of Love’, ‘Heart Break’.

Rascal Flatts: ‘Bless the Broken Road’, ‘I Like the Sound of That’, ‘Yours if You Want It’, ‘Riot’, ‘Take Me There’, ‘Winner at A Losing Game’.

LANCO – ‘Greatest Love Story’.

Thomas Rhett – ‘Die a Happy Man’

Chris Young – ‘Lonely Eyes’, ‘Think of You’.

I waffle a lot about things I care about and hope it doesn't suck. Partial to writing things, going places, cult films, ranting and Cocker Spaniels. Instagram: ieshamae97


7th December 2017 at 9:00 am

Images from