By Paige Daniel
Up-and-coming country artists are often overlooked because of the stark divide between fans of country and fans of, well, every other genre of music.
Two country artists, Kacey Musgraves and Maren Morris, exemplify the arguably necessary shift in country music toward pop, while also underscoring its potential for crossover appeal.
I am no expert on country music and am only familiar with certain artists within its reaches, but its commercial iteration is easy to spot.
Commercial country’s lyrical tropes, predictable soundscape, and the cultural situations it is frequently concerned with are hard to relate to, as a general fan of pop music.
This is not to say there aren’t lovable artists; Miranda Lambert, commercial country’s unexpected secret weapon, makes a case against those who flippantly say they hate country music, along with Musgraves and Morris.
Commercial country is different from so-called classic country and folk music, in that it creates an ever-shifting template for popularity just as commercial pop does.
Musgraves and Morris seem to acknowledge that commercial country’s backbone is in pop song structures, as they redefine and rejuvenate its stale constructions.
Musgraves was said to represent a shift in country music by hopeful critics looking for change in the industry when she released her first album, “Same Trailer Different Park,” in 2013.
Her socially-conscious lyrics signaled a new kind of voice in country, one that didn’t shy away from cultural critique in its most basic elements: tradition is questioned intentionally, and playfully.
Musgraves took intense care rendering her southern community through both personal narrative and wider social commentary on “Merry Go Round.”
Her open support of gay relationships on “Follow Your Arrow” caused some conversation, underscoring Musgraves’ relatively progressive sensibilities as they stood out against country’s pretty conservative backdrop.
On her second album, “Pageant Material” (2015), Musgraves continued to tackle social issues while still writing a solid pack of love songs.
She confronted issues of femininity through a narrower personal lens, including beauty standards (“Pageant Material”) and the “good old boys club” (on the song of the same name), with a healthy dose of the snarky, smart songwriting that is characteristic of Musgraves (an exceptionally well-written song in the pop vein is “Die Fun”).
Musgraves’ instrumental constructions have always been inoffensive but never exceedingly boring or dull – there hasn’t been much risk-taking on behalf of her sound besides the lyrics. That was until she released the singles for her album “The Golden Hour,” out this week.
After proving herself as a songwriter who could puncture polarizing topics with wit on her previous work, she is now exploring a softer side with just as much lyrical punch.
Single “Space Cowboy” is a gorgeous addition to her catalogue, depicting a relationship with familiar clichés that are turned on their head. Soaked in reverb, the song’s sound appropriately matches the open space Musgraves sings about in the lyrics.
But the real surprise of the batch is “High Horse,” a disco-tinged, poppy song with the kind of assertive bass that accompanies dance tracks.
I know a good song when I hear one, and “Once” is in that category. From Morris’ debut album “Hero” (2017), “Once” and other standout tracks really hemmed in my distaste for commercial country.
Morris, like Musgraves, is not so much a good country artist but a good songwriter, and that label transcends genre.
As Musgraves goes pop, Morris blurs the lines between country and pop with songs like “I Could Use a Love Song” and “80s Mercedes.” Those tracks prioritize strong melodic and lyrical elements over surface-level signifiers of country.
This blurring she partakes in was furthered when she collaborated with EDM artists Zedd and Grey for the EDM single “The Middle,” in which no traces of country influence are found.
She also collaborated with former One Direction member Niall Horan for a soft rock duet (“Seeing Blind”), showing that she can lend herself to pop seamlessly.
Whereas other country artists who “crossover” to pop keep in some of the country influence, like Florida Georgia Line, or crossover to top 40 radio without having to alter their style, like Sam Hunt’s hit “Body Like a Back Road,” Morris seems less interested in these routes.
These women are just two examples of the exciting genre-bending that is happening in country, but they might be the worthiest of your attention.