Country music is country music, and the best definition of what country music is, is that you know it when you hear it. It’s self-evident. But the genre has birthed many subgenres, many stylistic movements over the years, and at times has seen a splintering and Balkanization as artists and their fans look to carve out their niche, or attempt to offer healthier alternatives to country music’s power center on Music Row in Nashville.
This has resulted in a dizzying slew of terms that are often cited when we talk about country music, including here at Saving Country Music. So to help readers and listeners navigate the various terms, definitions, and country music’s offshoots, here’s a compendium of some, if not most of the terms for “country” and its various cousins to hopefully help shed some light whenever you see them.
Please note: Defining various styles of country music can be a contentious exercise, especially for certain terms such as “Americana” and “Red Dirt.” It goes without saying that some terms are open for interpretation, and everyone is encouraged to leave their feedback in the comments section below. Nobody is saying these definitions here are inarguable and unabridged. This is more about illustrating the wide array of terms of country music with summations on their origins and meanings. And nobody is saying these definitions are definitive or set in stone. As country music evolves, so often to the terms to describe it.
Terms are not in alphabetical order, but in order of how they tie in with each other.
Mainstream Country – Country music that is often released by major record labels located on Music Row in Nashville that enjoys mainstream country radio play and promotion, awards show representation from the Country Music Association (CMA) and Academy of Country Music (ACM), other mainstream recognition or promotion through popular culture, or that aspires to. Mainstream country is primarily or significantly focused on the commercial application of country music.
Independent Country – Country music that is often released independently or by independent record labels that does not enjoy mainstream country music radio play, awards show representation from the Country Music Association (CMA) and Academy of Country Music (ACM), nor other mainstream recognition or promotion, that is primarily or significantly focused on the creative application of country music. Due to the increased popularity of independent country in recent years, many independent country artists have been signed to major labels, though often to imprints not on Music Row in Nashville, and some have even received spotty mainstream radio play. But if the promotion of this music is still mostly handled through independent grassroots networks as opposed to mainstream ones, these artists are still considered independent country.
Pop Country – Music with a predominant or sometimes exclusive pop influence often marketed as country due to underlying Southern inflections or themes. The term can also be used for most any country music popular enough in the commercial realm to where it crosses over into the greater popular music culture. Used both descriptively and euphemistically, “pop country” is primarily the domain of major label artists and those that aspire to be, and songs targeted for mainstream country radio play.
Country Pop – Due to the often euphemistic connotations of “pop country,” songs, albums, or artists can be labeled “country pop” if they include a significant sonic or lyrical influence from popular music genres, while concurrently appealing to a more distinguishing or non-commercial crowd. This can include songs with a more substantive songwriting approach, or more traditional instrumentation that rises from being tokenary to complimentary of the pop influences.
Bro-Country – A trend in mainstream country music that emerged around 2012 with songs that commonly featured list-like lyrics (“beer,” “truck,” “tailgate,” “backroad,”) along with often heavy rock and hip-hop influences, including lyrics delivered in rap cadences with hip-hop inflections, and electronic drum beats and other more contemporary instrumentation over songs with often self-affirming rural themes. Called “checklist country” or “laundry list country” in its earliest incarnations for the consistency of cultural buzzword references in lieu of story or plot in the writing, the term was officially coined by journalist Jody Rosen in a 2013 article in New York Magazine in specific reference to the Florida Georgia Line song “Cruise,” which is given credit as a primary catalyst for the popularity of the trend. As a backlash ensued against Bro-Country, it began to wane in its dominance of mainstream country by the late 2010’s, but it remains a significant style in popular country.
Boyfriend Country – A pop country style of lyricism popularized beginning in the late 2010’s that illustrates a fawning sentimentality towards women by male performers, and that looks to capitalize off of mainstream country music’s predominantly female audience. Performers such as Dan + Shay, and singles from artists such as Kane Brown and Luke Combs embody this trend.
Metro-Bro – A rarely used term, but one to delineate the more EDM-based pop music often containing more urban themes indicative of Sam Hunt and similar artists whose rise was simultaneous, but slightly different than Bro-Country performers.
Country Rap / Hick-Hop – A fusion between country and rap, performers had dabbled with the style beginning in the 1980s, but it’s widespread proliferation began in the early 2000s culminating in the song “Dirt Road Anthem” co-written by pioneering country rap artist Colt Ford becoming a #1 hit, as well as the most popular song in country music in 2011 when released by Jason Aldean. Country rap’s popularity also directly led to the explosion of Bro-Country in the early 2010’s, which ultimately incorporated the style into its era, with pure country rap artists remaining more independent and underground. Also called hick-hop, especially in its independent/underground incarnations, the style enjoys widespread grassroots popularity throughout the Deep South, and is often synonymous with “muddin'” culture.
Red Dirt – More than any other term, Red Dirt is just as much about a region as it is a sound, though where that region ends is often debated. Named for the red soil in Oklahoma, the epicenter for Red Dirt was “The Farm” in Stillwater in the late 80s and early 90s where the “Father of Red Dirt” Bob Childers lived. Cody Canada of Cross Canadian Ragweed, Jason Boland, Stoney LaRue, and others can directly trace their origins back to The Farm, and these are the artists who can most claim a Red Dirt lineage. However, the term often extends to Oklahoma music artists who embrace an independent music spirit, and artists across the Red River in Texas are commonly (and sometimes controversially) lumped under the term. The sound of Red Dirt is as diverse as the definitions, encompassing sounds from traditional country, folk, rock, and even more jam band influences.
Texas Country – Country music emanating from Texas and surrounding regions, or artists who either embody the spirit of Texas country, or that Texas country has embraced. With it’s own touring circuits, festivals, charts, awards, and radio station networks—including ones located well outside of Texas itself—Texas Country is one of the few scenes that can boast its own infrastructure and industry to rival mainstream country in Nashville. Though many country artists are from Texas, it was the emergence and popularity of artists such as Robert Earl Keen, Wade Bowen, and The Randy Rogers Band that put Texas Country on the map in the early 2000s, and saw it emerge as an alternative to Music Row. Texas country tends to emphasize songwriting, be more independent-minded, and be more country-sounding than mainstream or pop country, while also being more open to rock and pop influences than traditional country. Some Texas artists ultimately join the mainstream, while some artists outside of Texas ultimately embrace the more open and grassroots-oriented Texas Country music scene and embrace it as their own.
Texas Music – Similar to Texas Country, this term can be used to define music that comes from Texas, but may not necessarily be akin enough to country to describe it as “Texas Country.” Artists such as Koe Wetzel and Kolby Cooper whose sound veers more towards 90s post-grunge rock, but still have cultivated their career and fan base within Texas and the Texas music industry, can be described by using that term.
Texoma – A never used term forwarded by Saving Country Music to attempt to resolve the often redundant and confusing mixing of the “Texas/ Red Dirt” terms that better illustrates the cross-state camaraderie the two subgenres enjoy.
Rodeo Country – A rarely used term, but one that can describe artists that have used the rodeo circuit to find support for their more traditional style of country music mixed with flashes of rock influences that results in big live shows, often touching on rodeo themes in the songs. Aaron Watson, Cody Johnson, Kyle Park, Chancey Williams, Ned LeDoux, and others have taken up what 80s-90s country artist Chris LeDoux started by mixing country and rock, and playing the rodeo circuit. This can also be used to describe songs by artists such as George Strait, including standards like “Amarillo By Morning” and “I Can Still Make Cheyenne.” Rodeo country artists can also be delineated by their attire of starched jeans, printed collared shirts, and wide-brimmed cowboy hats.
Outlaw Country – The style of country that emerged in the early and mid 70s after Bobby Bare, Kris Kristofferson, and later Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings challenged the Music Row status quo that put powerful producers such as Chet Atkins in charge, disallowing artists from picking their own songs to record, and from recording with their own bands. Often considered a more rock-influenced style of country, the Outlaws also paid respects to the country music greats of the pasts such as Hank Williams, while also bucking the system. The movement also spread to Austin, Texas and resulted in the planting of the Texas Country seed, and the emergence of Austin as the “Live Music Capital of the World.” Outlaw country was just as much a sound as it was approaching the music with an independent attitude. Outlaw country remains active in the present tense, both by performers who continue to adhere to the Outlaw spirit, as well as being co-opted as a marketing term in an effort to sell certain music deemed “edgy” by the mainstream.
Alt-Country – Music that is often more rock-influenced, as well as more songwriting-based that began to emerge in the late 80s during the “Great Credibility Scare.” Artists such as Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, and Lucinda Williams had success both within the mainstream country realm, as well as outside of it by attracting new listeners via the subgenre, which ultimately gave rise to bands such as Uncle Tupelo, The Old 97’s, Whiskeytown, and others that began to offer an “alternative” to the highly successful commercial country that came about from the “Class of ’89.” Considered a more deprecated term today, most bands and artists previously considered alt-country are now classified as “Americana.”
Americana – The mother of all umbrella terms that many have fought over and struggled to define, it encompasses everything from classic and traditional country, to alt-country, to Southern and classic rock, soul music, blues, Gospel, psychedelic rock, indie rock, folk, singer-songwriter, and anything/everything else that does not fit within another major American genre. This is the reason this category receives more submissions than any other but rock for the annual Grammy Awards. Though what should and shouldn’t be Americana is often debated, it generally includes any music with a prominent American roots influence that is otherwise not targeted to more commercial audiences.
Southern Rock – Rock music with a strong country influence that emerged in the 70s indicative of bands such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Marshall Tucker Band, and The Allman Brothers, or more modern bands such as Whiskey Myers and Blackberry Smoke. Southern rock bands often include self-identified country songs on their albums, and commonly collaborate with country artists, and play country music festivals, but their music is often more expansive and improvisational than conventional country.
Country Rock – Similar to Southern rock, but often without the regional requirement or Southern harmony inflections, country rock is a bit more open, and often less improvisational in nature. Overlapping with both Southern rock and California country, artists from The Byrds, to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, to acts such as The Rolling Stones have been labeled country rock in certain eras. Commonly this term is used when a band or artist otherwise considered rock chooses to record a song or album with country influences or instrumentation.
Bluegrass – A distinctly acoustic version of string band music adapted from old-time fiddle tunes and other traditional folk influences pioneered by Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys. Bluegrass remains one of country music most vibrant subgenres of country to the point where it enjoys its own festivals, radio stations, publications, awards, and community. But bluegrass still deserves to be considered a country music subset, since it very much grew out of the country music realm, utilizing institutions such as the Grand Ole Opry to find support and popularity.
Newgrass and Jamgrass – These are more progressive styles of bluegrass that took inspiration from Bill Monroe’s original idea, but often challenged the rigid ideals of only using acoustic instruments, and disallowing drums. Artists such as Sam Bush and John Hartford both performed bluegrass in the more conventional modes, as well as broke those rules to expand the scope of the genre. Merging with the jam band aspect of outfits such as The Grateful Dead, jamgrass artists and bands like Greensky Bluegrass and Leftover Salmon now enjoy just as big followings as their traditional bluegrass counterparts, and have expanded this version of country music into both sonic and geographical territories previously dismissive of Southern influences.
Old-Time (or Primitive Country) – Traditional Appalachian modes of string band music, often closely related to the Irish and Scottish reels that American immigrants brought with them to the United States. This is the earliest form of country music, and many of the standards make up the building blocks of the music that are still in practice today. Though not as popular or commercially viable as bluegrass, devotees to this discipline take the music and preserving its dialects very seriously as imperative to understanding where country music came from.
Western Swing (or Texas Swing) – One of the earliest and most original forms of country music first emerging in the 1920s, Western Swing is considered by many as one of the major subgenres of country right beside bluegrass. Though it is not as popular or prevalent as bluegrass, Western Swing enjoys a strong legacy of performers, traditions, and a deep songbook still being performed today. Rising in popularity during the big band era, and brought to its apex by Texan Bob Wills, like classic country, Western Swing is more interested in preserving traditions as opposed to pushing the music forward. The jazz progressions of Western Swing songs that are ripe for dancing is what distinguishes the music from other classic country music, and though many of its earliest acts featured horn sections, more modern artists can be as small as three or four pieces.
The Nashville Sound and Countrypolitan – Classic country music that is immediately recognizable due to the prevalence of string arrangements and choruses in highly-produced compositions behind songs written for older audiences. This was Nashville’s answer to the rise of rock ‘n roll in the mid 50s, and saw the establishment of the strong producer class that included Chet Atkins, Billy Sherrill, Owen Bradley, and others, who would often choose the songs a performer would record, while session musicians played the parts. Artists from Glen Campbell to Patsy Cline are good illustrations of this style. Though rebuked by the Outlaw era in large sum, Countrypolitan continued well into the 80s, with artists such as George Jones and David Allan Coe still recording in the style, and audiences still enjoying the music today for it’s nostalgic feel, and even younger artists adopting some of its methods to capture that retro vibe. Similar to Outlaw country, The Nashville Sound was just as much about an approach as a sound, and that approach continues to challenge the creative control of major label artists in country music even today.
The Bakersfield Sound – An era commencing in the mid to late 50s and lasting into the 70s where performers in Bakersfield, California and the greater region offered a counter-balance to the more heavily produced and genteel sounds of Countrypolitan. Championed by Capitol Records in Los Angeles, Buck Owens, Billy Mize, Bill Woods, and later Merle Haggard took the Bakersfield Sound with it’s loud and twangy guitar found in the blue-collar clubs of the interior California town to national prominence. Tight harmonies from Bonnie Owens and Don Rich, and well as Don Rich’s influential guitar playing played a pivotal role in the influence of this era. Though The Bakersfield Sound is considered confined to a specific era and region, the influence and style can still be found in more modern performers, from Dwight Yoakam, to Marty Stuart.
California Country – Similar to The Bakersfield Sound in how it emerged in California, California country distinguishes itself by being more influenced by folk and rock, and was carried forward often by musicians who either began or dabbled in the folk, rock, and pop realms. This includes bands like The Byrds, The Grateful Dead, Linda Rhonstadt and her first band The Stone Poneys, and later The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Eagles.
Traditional Country (or Real Country, or True Country) – Country music that includes a more traditional approach to the genre, including song structure and lyrical themes strongly indicative of the original forms of country music, and instrumentation featuring steel guitar, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, piano, and Telecaster. Unlike “Classic Country,” traditional country doesn’t have to be from a vintage era, and can still be performed in more contemporary contexts.
Classic Country – Country music from the genre’s classic or “Golden” era, usually considered between the postwar period and before the mid 1970s when the Grand Ole Opry came to prominence and country music was one of the most popular genres of American music. Similar to traditional country, classic country can still be utilized in the modern era. But unlike traditional country, it strives to reprise bygone modes, often adopting the musical styles, wording and phrasing, and even the dress and costuming of the time to create a greater sense of nostalgia.
Hillbilly Music – A mostly deprecated term that was originally used to describe American music mostly emanating from rural locations, and from agrarian people that was later replaced by Country & Western by the Billboard charts. The term was at times seen as euphemistic. Hank Williams famously referred to himself as a folk musician, feeling “hillbilly” was derogatory.
Honky Tonk and Hard Country – The term “honky tonk” can be used to delineate between other forms of more heavily produced country music to describe artists and songs that are more electric, traditional in nature, and stripped-down in arrangement, like a country band you would see in a smaller club or honky tonk. Usually featuring steel guitar, lead guitar, and maybe fiddle, the themes are usually about drinking and heartache. “Hard country” is a rarely used term, but one found in certain histories and biographies to describe country music that ran counter to Countrypolitan and featured a loud, twangy sound, similar to honky tonk.
Trucker Country – A subset of traditional country or honky honk, trucker country isn’t just a lyrical trope in certain songs. With multiple artists who made their entire careers off of singing country songs about truck driving including Dave Dudley, Red Sovine, Dick Curless, and C. W. McCall, it deserves to be considered its own subgenre. The lyrical style became so popular many other artists dabbled in it as well, from Red Simpson, Buck Owens, and Merle Haggard, to more contemporary artists such as Dale Watson, Junior Brown, Bob Wayne, and the Franklin County Trucking Company. Popularized mostly throughout the 60s and 70s, this subset of country still lives today for its strong nostalgic pull.
Western – The silver screen cowboys of Southern California such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers significantly helped popularize country music in its nascent years, and established what country music was for audiences around the world. Strangely, this influence in country music is often overlooked in the modern mindset for Appalachia influences and Southern blues, but there is a reason country music was known for decades as “country and Western” (insert Blues Brothers reference here). Along with the Hollywood cowboys, the real cowboys of the American West with their cowboy poetry played a pivotal role in the formation and popularity of country and Western music as well. Though the “singing cowboy” is part of a bygone era, cowboy and Western music has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years thanks to the popularity of artists such as Colter Wall.
Rockabilly – A form of rock music that emerged in the 50s that also included a heavy influence from the “hillbilly” music that eventually came to be known as country. The Sun Records era of the 50s came with a blurring of the lines between hillbilly and rock, with the difference between artists such as Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash being nuanced, with some describing Sun Records artists such as Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis as country stars just as much as rock. This is the reason both men are in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Rockabilly would lose its dominance on popular music by the 60s, but still remained in practice, with bands like The Stray Cats in the 80s, and later The Revered Horton Heat (officially ‘psychobilly’) reviving the style in the 90s, often with a few country songs found on their albums, and often with an underlying punk attitude brought to the music.
Cowpunk – A form of punk music with a country music influence that emerged with the prominence of punk music in the late 70s in Southern California with bands such as Social Distortion, The Blasters, and The Knitters, and in Nashville with bands like Jason and the Scorchers, and even later in the early music of Dwight Yoakam and Rosie Flores. Disillusioned with the stuffy nature of mainstream country, but still inspired by the old greats like Hank Williams, punks took up the cause for country-inspired music in punks clubs and circuits where they found surprising reception. Though cowpunk was only around for a short period, it helped seed underground country, which would give rise to independent country that would go on to rival mainstream country.
Underground Country – A Do-It-Yourself subset of independent country that emerged in the post-punk era of the early to late 90s, underground country saw punk and heavy metal musicians and fans embracing more traditional country music in a return to their roots, as well as more traditional country musicians who were not being embraced by either mainstream country or Americana finding support in underground circles. From Mike Ness’s country projects, to members of the punk band ‘X’ forming The Knitters, to the formation of Bloodshot Records, this wasn’t an alternative to country, it was an insurgency in country, with songs and slogans often actively protesting modern country music and Music Row. It’s was brought to its apex in the mid 2000s with the popularity of Dale Watson, Wayne “The Train” Hancock, and Hank Williams III. In recent years the energy of the movement has mostly been folded into elements of independent country, but is still carried on by some post-punk roots musicians.
Country Blues (or Deep Blues, or North Mississippi Hill Country Blues) – With the blues being a significant influence on both Hank Williams and Bill Monroe—as well as country music heavily borrowing song structures from Southern blues artists—this subgenre draws important lines in the history of country music. Though artists such as R.L. Burnside and T Model Ford, and others championed by Fat Possum Records in the 90s would be considered almost exclusively blues artists from a sonic perspective, their rural location and fusion with country themes has created its own subgenre still alive through the work of artists such as Cedric Burnside, Dan Auerbach, and Ray Wylie Hubbard. Country blues is blues music from the country.
Ameripolitan – A term coined by performer Dale Watson in the early 2000s to distinguish himself from country music, which he felt had been so co-opted by major labels and corrupted by pop country, it was irredeemable. When Blake Shelton set off a firestorm in 2013 by referring to country music’s traditional fans as “old farts” and “jackasses,” Dale Watson decided to codify the genre by creating an awards show that recognizes artists in the categories of honky-tonk, Western swing, and rockabilly annually called The Ameripolitan Awards.