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Kelsea Ballerini, Florida Georgia Line, Kane Brown & More: Surveying The Country Landscape
Music lovers venturing to this weekend's 2018 Stagecoach Festival in Indio, Calif., will experience first-hand the diversity in sound and style of today's country music. With 50-plus artists set to perform on three stages, the event is a microcosm of the country landscape at large.
Headliners include the genre-crossing duo Florida Georgia Line, GRAMMY-winning guitar slinger Keith Urban and neo-traditional icon Garth Brooks with wife Trisha Yearwood. For the performers, the lineup's variety is not only welcome but refreshing.
"It's a cool time to be creating and it's a cool time to be country," says Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line, who are featured on Bebe Rexha's recent pop mega-hit "Meant To Be." "The whole weekend at Stagecoach is about bringing the country community together — all the different avenues and subgenres. People come to country music with so many different influences, and then end up with their own style, and that's to be celebrated."
Breakout star Kelsea Ballerini joined her idol Shania Twain to perform a song at last year's Stagecoach, and she is returning Friday night to play her own set on the main stage. According to the Tennessee native, the festival reflects the current sounds coming out of country airwaves.
"You can turn on the radio and hear Chris Stapleton, who's really soul country, or Little Big Town, which is very folk country, or someone like me or Sam Hunt who is very pop country, as well as the greats who will always be on the radio and hold it down," says Ballerini, a former Best New Artist GRAMMY nominee. "If anything, having more influences in country music draws more ears to it, and maybe people who didn't think they liked it will hear a Chris Stapleton or Sam Hunt song, and fall in love with country music because they didn’t know exactly what it was.
"Having a festival like Stagecoach that highlights every bit of it is really important, because that's truly where country music is right now. There's something for everyone, you just have to show up and listen."
Ballerini is one of four women scheduled to perform on the festival's main stage, along with several others playing the two smaller stages. While she has notched five No. 1 country singles in recent years, other women have struggled at country radio — and it isn't due to lack of talent.
"There is a disconnect between the women receiving radio airplay and the women receiving awards and critical praise," says Beverly Keel, chair of the department of recording industry at Middle Tennessee State University and co-founder of Change The Conversation, an organization founded to support women in music. "Miranda Lambert won five Academy of Country Music Album of the Year awards in the last decade. Her last album (The Weight Of These Wings) went platinum without a Top 10 hit. Kacey Musgraves has won GRAMMYs and all sorts of awards and doesn't get a lot of radio airplay."
Adding further proof, Keel cites Billboard's 2017 year-end Hot Country Songs list, which included no solo females in the Top 10, only one in the Top 20 (newcomer Carly Pearce, also a Stagecoach performer), and seven in the Top 100.
Ken Robold, executive VP/COO of Sony Music Nashville, says trendsetting women such as Lambert and Maren Morris are "vital" to not only his company but to country's current scene.
"They are both brilliant writers," says Robold, who serves on the Recording Academy Nashville Chapter Board. "They write different kinds of songs, but both have a really meaningful impact on the genre. Miranda made this amazing record, The Weight Of These Wings, which is so pure country. She's a traditionalist but at the same time can rock.
"Maren, along with Kelsea Ballerini, is the most influential female since Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert. When we first heard Maren's music we were blown away, it was so different than anything else out there. It was so commercially accessible in terms of different genre
influences. You have a song like 'My Church,' that's straight-up country. Then you have her current song with Zedd, 'The Middle,' which is No. 1 for the third week in a row at Top 40. It has opened her up to a whole new audience. She will remain rooted in country but wants to have flexibility."
Just as Lambert and Morris bring their own brands of country, so does their labelmate Kane Brown, a newcomer who will perform at Stagecoach on Sunday.
"There are a lot of influences that made their way onto his record, but he's truly a country artist," says Robold. "Country music has been his passion since he was a kid. His career growth has been amazing to watch. Once he got that first success at country radio with 'What Ifs' it exploded, and now we're looking at maybe crossing current single 'Heaven' over to other genres."
"There's something for everyone, you just have to show up and listen." — Kelsea Ballerini
Multi-GRAMMY-nominated producer/engineer Jeff Balding, who has been watching trends in country music for decades, sees today's country music as bringing "something new with a different twist to the surface."
"I see a lot of pop, R&B and even some '90s influences in today's country," says Balding, a Nashville Chapter Trustee. "I'm fascinated with what comes in and how it comes in. With Nashville growing as a music community in the past several years, people who moved here have brought some pop influences to the way songs are written. Those influences on the ground floor are the reason things change and other genres get blended within country. Everybody feeds off really great music, we digest it and it inspires us."
"Today's consumers just like to be entertained with great music, great songs, great lyrics," he continues. "They don't have to compartmentalize it. I think we are going to continue to see more of the genre-crossing, thanks to the openness of the listener."
While country radio is still the driving factor in launching careers in country music, streaming services continue to rise in prominence, providing an ever-growing outlet. Stagecoach artists and multi-GRAMMY winners Jason Isbell and Stapleton initially connected with fans outside of terrestrial radio, a trend that will likely continue.
"Jason Isbell fits in with the truth-telling social-commenting songwriters of the '70s," says Keel, also a Recording Academy Nashville Chapter Board member. "He's doing what our songwriters should be doing. Only the industry uses the specific categories; to the listener, it's American roots music. It's got a country feel to it. That's a good thing about the world now — we're not just defined by industry gatekeepers. Where 10 years ago someone like Jason Isbell would have been left out [of Stagecoach], today they are included because their music is exposed to the masses via other means.
"Chris Stapleton was not embraced by radio early on, yet his talent was so immense it couldn’t be denied. There was this groundswell and radio was forced to get on the bandwagon after he swept the Country Music Association Awards and made the best album of the year. I'm glad to see this music festival showcasing the different styles coming out of Nashville, because that is some of the best music being made."
Despite the diversity in talent, new methods of discovery and ample genre-hopping, there's one consistent core element that will continue to bind country music's future.
"We're songwriters at heart, and we're artists," says Kelley. "We love spending the day in the writers' room or a studio because you never know what can happen and what seeds can be planted. ... It's a special time in country, because you feel like you can push the boundaries but good songs are always going to win."
(Sarah Skates lives in Nashville, Tenn., and has been writing about country music for 14 years. Her career started at MusicRow magazine, where she remains a regular contributor, as well as writing for ACM Tempo and GRAMMY.com.)