Viewers of Sunday night's Academy of Country Music Awards will be forgiven if they ask during certain moments: This is country music?
The nominees and winners at this year's AT&T Stadium extravaganza in Arlington are likely to represent the wide spectrum that is country music today, from the infectiously poppy, hard rocking and hip-hop-infused to the good-timin' bro country and twangy traditionalists.
Like any ratings-obsessed awards show, the ACMs will throw in some decidedly noncountry stars. Nick Jonas and Christina Aguilera are in the show's lineup.
But you need not look far to see artists honoring their genre's story-telling traditions: You'll probably get big moments from the sonically adventurous leading nominee, Lindale's Miranda Lambert, as well as her fellow fearless Texan songstress, Kacey Musgraves of Golden. There'll be old favorites like Garth Brooks and current groundbreakers like Eric Church. Expect a rousing new tune from king of country George Strait, and possibly a tender moment or two honoring the ailing troubadour Glen Campbell.
It's true: Style-hopping party kings such as entertainer of the year nominees Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan might have tapped into a criminally large segment of the ticket-buying public for too long, but ravenous crowds still turn out and support performers repping every other flavor of country.
Despite many Chicken Little cries about the death of country music at the hands of "bros" who sing about drinking and partying, there are plenty of bright spots that help provide perspective on the state of the genre in 2015.
The artists making waves today never knew a country that wasn't cool, to paraphrase that old Barbara Mandrell hit. They've grown up hearing the traditional, the progressive and everything in between.
"We're more popular than we've ever been as a genre because there's something for everybody," Lambert said in a phone chat last month. "There are still traditionalists, and there are all the other kinds who tell stories still but have a different flair. I like it all. There's room for everyone."
ACM new artist of the year nominee Sam Hunt, who injects heaping amounts of hip-hop cadence into his melodic tunes, was thinking the same in February before he played Dallas' House of Blues.
"The best way to take in music is without any preconceived notions, without any expectations," Hunt said. "Hopefully the boundaries will break down enough so there are no arguments about what's what."
The artists making waves today never knew a country that wasn't cool, to paraphrase that old Barbara Mandrell hit.
Hunt may never see the day when there are no arguments about what "country" means, though. The history of the genre reveals a never-ending cycle of debate. The Bakersfield troubadours and the Texas outlaws rebelled against the fiddle-less pop of the 1950s and '60s Nashville sound. The new traditionalists of the '80s and '90s turned the tides toward twangier honky-tonk styles once again.
While the country establishment has always seen a push-and-pull between the poppy and the traditional, the crop of artists now is more diverse and instantly accessible than ever before. It should surprise no one that those who sell the most singles to kids and get overplayed on risk-free commercial radio are also the most formulaic. That's a sad universal truth of the music business.
We're already seeing some outstanding artistry pop up in contrast to the endless, monotonous tailgate anthems getting all that airplay. Independent players such as Sturgill Simpson and Aaron Watson are actively pushing country back to story-telling form.
Watson is a longtime Texas country artist who's just released the finest and most ambitious album of his career, The Underdog. He said in a recent interview that he wants his songs to make people "pull over to the side of the road and think about life."
A few weekends ago at Billy Bob's in Fort Worth, the Kentucky singer Simpson and his small band braved an initially chatty crowd to convey the personal struggles that inspired his Waylon-esque honky-tonk tunes. By the encore, during which he did a cover of Willie Nelson's "I'd Have to Be Crazy," he'd won over the crowd completely.
Lambert, Musgraves and Brandy Clark are building on the conversation-starting lyricism of Loretta Lynn and in turn producing the most interesting new stuff today. All three are up for Sunday night's female vocalist of the year award.
If vintage vocal stylists are your cup of sweet tea, singers Josh Turner, Jamey Johnson and Chris Young (who cut his teeth at Cowboys in Arlington) continue to produce quality recordings. You want good-timin' anthems without the mild misogyny of bro country? Try the infectious vocal group Little Big Town or the Zac Brown Band.
And there's that "Americana" stamp frequently put on bare-bones storytelling artists that country radio should get behind more often – the aforementioned Simpson, Texan Lee Ann Womack and Rosanne Cash, to name a few.
Critic Grady Smith recently penned a piece for The Guardian suggesting that the only way to stop bro country is for the genre to have a game-changing "Nirvana moment." Yet it's not necessarily one artist or specific sound that will affect the genre for the better.
Country music's "salvation," if that's what you want to call it, is really up to us.
If it still feels that the majority of the top-selling country music today is in a state of suspended adolescence with no lyrical complexity, who's to blame? Artists, radio stations and, yes, awards shows should take more risks in general. But we're the ones hitting play and buying concert tickets. We're the ones who've too often chosen mindless weekend-bender anthems over songs about pain, love and inner demons.
There are plenty of opportunities for our own course corrections as fans. While we can't always produce an adequate explanation of what country music is, we'll know it when we feel it.
The evolution of country music
Country music as a genre never stuck to one consistent style or sound. Influences from many forms of music and locales have helped create different subgenres of country, movements that have either evolved from or rebelled against the traditional rural songs of 1920s and '30s radio pioneers Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.
1930s: Texas bandleaders Milton Brown and Bob Wills blended fiddles and steel guitars with jazz structures to perfect the Western swing sound, bringing uptempo country music to dancehalls all over the south.
1930s and '40s: The singing cowboys of the silver screen had their own massive following - the soundtracks from Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter and Gene Autry flicks proved just as popular as records from dedicated music acts of the same time.
1940s and '50s: Starting with Texan Ernest Tubb's growing popularity and move to Nashville, the honky-tonk style began to take root with its barroom-fueled lyrics and electric arrangements.
1950s and '60s: Music City artists like Floyd Cramer, Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline and Eddy Arnold found success with their contributions to the Nashville Sound, which threw out fiddles and steel guitar and aimed for smoother, orchestral arrangements.
1950s and '60s: The Nashville Sound had a grittier challenger out West in California, thanks to pioneering singer-songwriters like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. The Bakersfield Sound successfully co-opted the unpredictability of rock 'n' roll.
1970s: Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and several of their fed-up contemporaries shirked the Nashville pop trends of the time by taking a rawer and more Southern-rock-heavy approach to their tunes. Operating out of Texas, they became known as outlaws and created an aesthetic that's still sought after by many a young troubadour.
1970s and '80s: As synthesizers and softer sounds began to take hold in most genres of music, the radio fed a new kind of pop-country led by accessible artists such as Barbra Mandrell, Ronnie Milsap and Dolly Parton. All managed to cross over to the pop charts.
1980s and '90s: While they weren't as rebellious by nature as the outlaws before them, a late-'80s flock of new traditionalists led by George Strait, Randy Travis, Alan Jackson and more helped guide radio country to a twangier, more authentic place.
1990s and 2000s: Garth Brooks and Shania Twain are beloved by pop-leaning fans for their experimentation and downplayed by some who say their massive crossover success effectively killed country's down-home appeal. Regardless, they did give rise to an ambitious arena country approach embraced by successors from the Dixie Chicks and Kenny Chesney all the way to Miranda Lambert.
2010s: Critic Jody Rosen cleverly dubbed it "bro country." You know it well if you listen to country radio - it's in the suspended adolescence, self-assured machismo and small-town pride of Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia-Line and their ilk. It's the most lyrically shallow of any country music movement. While its popularity has likely peaked at this point, there'll always be bros willing to carry on its formula.