Some quick ground rules: Not included here are legends who still might be considered part of the mainstream but are obvious even to independent fans like George Strait, Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, Reba, and even more contemporary names like Martina McBride and Lee Ann Womack. They go without saying. Many consider Eric Church and Miranda Lambert as exceptions to the mainstream rules, but they’re both sort of their own case studies. Same could be said for the Pistol Annies who it is unclear if they even still exist at the moment. And of course if you think there’s a mainstream artist worth listening to not mentioned here, please feel to leave their name below in the comments. And just to clarify the term “mainstream,” consider it an artist that is on a major Nashville label, or has been on a major Nashville label recently.
In many respects you can’t blame independent fans of being a little suspicious of a former American Idol contestant signed to Sony who just won Dancing With The Stars. But Kellie Pickler’s staunchly authentic album 100 Proof was so damn good, Sony dropped her and she became the poster girl for taking back the music in 2012. Since then Kellie Pickler has done nothing but re-affirm her career path of doing things her own way and fighting for the integrity of the music, measuring success not by album sales, but how true she is being to herself. Pickler may not top the Billboard charts, but she’s become a critic’s favorite and an inspirational story of what can happen when a mainstream artist stands up for themselves.
I’m not sure what is more miraculous, that Easton Corbin is able to get away with being as country as he is in the mainstream, or that’s he’s actually been able to find some commercial success with that sound. Though some independent fans might find him a little cheesy, it is hard to deny that Easton Corbin’s music has substance, and the songwriting and traditional approach to his music is refreshing. Even his big #1 “A Little More Country Than That,” which some may decry as a laundry list song is at least country as it lists out its countryisms, and was written by Roy Lee Feek of the traditional group Joey + Rory. Singed to Mercury Nashville, Easton Corbin deserves as much credit as anyone for trying to keep the mainstream honest.
Though her much-anticipated debut album maybe have been a little more cautious than what her long-time fans know she’s capable of, Kacey Musgraves still remains the symbol of how songs and songwriting are making a resurgence in 2013. Though she has yet to have one Top 10 single, with support from her label Mercury Records, she has reached the very top echelon of female performers in the country music industry, somehow becoming a perennial shoe-in for the “Female Vocalist of the Year” nominations from both the CMA and ACM Awards seemingly overnight, and getting nominated for more CMA Awards in 2013 than anyone except for Taylor Swift who she equals with 6. Though Musgraves still needs to prove her muster as a country superstar by delivering a big single, she has already proven to be a fan and critic favorite, and has springboarded to the very top of the business despite her underdog status.
They may be signed to the Country Music Anti-Christ Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records (same as Taylor Swift, Rascal Flatts, etc.), but you won’t find a better, and at times, more outspoken artist and band than Raul Malo and the Mavericks. In 1995, The Mavericks won “Vocal Group of the Year” for both the CMA’s, ACM’s, and the Grammy’s, but their hard-to-define sound proved to be too much for mainstream country to handle on its journey south to pure pop. But The Mavericks remain solid members of the mainstream world, even working as the house band for the 2013 CMT Awards. Their latest album In Time is as good as any.
The vixen-esque career songwriter with eyes the size of Cajun tires has been slaying audiences for years with her solo material and her work with the Pistol Annies, and now that she’s unleashed her much-anticipated solo album Like A Rose through Columbia Nashville, Ashley symbolizes the one glimmer of what could be considered traditional country in mainstream channels. As expected, with music as authentic as hers, the industry has been timid to get behind her and deliver the radio plays and awards she deserves, but she still remains one of traditional country’s biggest mainstream champions.
Because Gary Allan has always resided just one tier shy of country music’s top names, it’s easy to be mislead just how much commercial success he’s seen over the years. Over his 17-year career with Decca and MCA Nashville, he’s been awarded two platinum records, two gold records, eleven Top Ten hits, and four #1’s. Yes, he’s had some singles that are clearly courting of mainstream radio, and he himself would tell you his sound is just as much, if not more rock than country. But Gary Allan is one of those guys that can still get attention from country radio without making you gag, while album cuts show a real sincerity to his music. He also has been outspoken about the state of country music recently (though he did back peddle somewhat afterwards).
Say what you will about one of the co-writers of “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” Jamey Johnson was able to take a very traditional sound and authentic country songs and make it to the very top of the charts and industry awards in a business that is usually unforgiving to this type of true style. His double album opus The Guitar Song sneaked its way all the way to #1 on the Billboard charts upon its debut, and his song “In Color” won Song of the Year accolades from both the CMA and ACM Awards in 2009, and was nominated for a Grammy. Though his original output has slowed as of late and he’s apparently not writing and frustrated at his contract situation, his 2012 Hank Cochran tribute still charted #3 on the Billboard Country Albums chart.
After Zac Brown recently made some inflammatory statements about Luke Bryan’s song “That’s My Kind of Night,” his own country career came under intense scrutiny. Brown has always been out front saying he believes he is more Southern rock than country, but appreciative of all the support the country industry has given him, which has been huge to the tune of being a perennial contender for Vocal Group awards at both the CMA and ACM’s. Songs like “Chicken Fried” and his numerous beach tunes leave him open to criticism, but it is still hard to not name Zac Brown as so much better than your average mainstream country music fare.
When discussions are broached about mainstream country artists that still have substance, Dierks’ name invariably comes up. Throughout his career, he’s strived to create a balance between courting radio and creating a music legacy that isn’t devoid of creative expression. With albums like Up On The Ridge, Dierks progressive and traditional fans glimmers of hope. But then he will turn right back around on you and put out the biggest cry for commercial attention, giving listeners a headache of where they’re supposed to be with him. In the end it’s best to resolve that Dierks will likely always be a mixed bag, but is worth appreciating when he does decide to do country music right.