Pop Albums More Country Than Many Mainstream “Country” Albums
When you hear certain albums from some of country music’s mainstream performers, it’s patently clear to large portions of the audience that these albums aren’t pop country, they’re just pop, period. We’re talking about albums like Grafitti U from the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year, Keith Urban, or Girl from Maren Morris, or Boom by Walker Hayes. In fact these records are so pop, some pop records from the topmost artists in the pop realm are more country than these supposed country records.
Pop has always had its place in country, and country has often had its place in pop. There’s nothing wrong with artists dabbling in other genres or blending genres together. The problem is when you call something country when it clearly isn’t, especially due to the marketing purposes of trying to find a clearer lane to stardom at the expense of actual country performers. This is the strategy many pop stars are employing in country today, and then act flabbergasted when you say they’re not country.
But in the pop world when artist dabble in country influences, they tend to be more honest about how the end result is still pop, having too much respect for country as a whole to mislabel their efforts. Often these pop artist have more reverence, or even skill and history with country music than some of today’s supposed “country” performers.
Below is a list of just some recent albums from the pop realm that are more country than some of today’s “country” records.
Lady Gaga – Joanne
Joanne is not a country record, but it did symbolize Lady Gaga moving toward an more organic and instrumental approach to her music, and incorporating some country influences into the writing and production. The primary image of Lady Gaga on the album cover and during public performances was the pop singer adorned in a wide brimmed pink hat, paying tribute to both her aunt who the record was named after, and the more earthy textures the record came to be known for. More specifically Joanne featured songwriting contributions from Hillary Lindsey, known mostly for her compositions in the country realm that have scored her three country Grammy awards.
Joanne ushered in a big retrenching for Lady Gaga after her career began to falter in the aftermath of her Artpop album, and became a critically-lauded effort. Most importantly, the album’s release in October of 2016 is given credit for influencing a more organic approach and incorporation of country influences into other albums that would go on to be released in the pop world subsequently, including Kesha’s Rainbow and Miley Cyrus’s Younger Now among others.
Kesha – Rainbow
The question is not “if” Kesha will make a country record, but “when.” Kesha’s mom is country songwriter Pebe Sebert, and in 2010 Kesha said,
“I think people should know the classics — Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, also Townes Van Zandt, I’m a huge fan of him. [Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline is] one of my favorite albums of all time, because I grew up in Nashville, and so everything about that record is really special to me. When you listen to that record, especially on vinyl, and you’re either falling in love or waking up after a long night and you’re with all your friends, it just brings up a lot of nostalgia … I love Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash. I think at some point there might be some country collaborations or records in the future.”
Rainbow was not Kesha’s big move to country though, but there was certainly country influences incorporated into the record. Just like Lady Gaga’s Joanne, it was a striking move from electronic dance pop into more organic instrumentation, songwriting, and composition. Just like Lady Gaga, Kesha also changed her style, dressing in Nudie suits during performances. Along with working with the Dap Kings, Kesha recorded the country classic “Old Flames (Can’t Hold A Candle To You)” for the record, which was written by her mother. Dolly Parton guested with Kesha on the track.
Miley Cyrus – Younger Now
If any current pop star had the agency and birthright to switch to country, it would be Miley Cyrus. Not only was her father a major country music star, her godmother is Dolly Parton. Miley has proven both her passion and acumen with country music over the years, with the video for her cover of Dolly’s “Jolene” nearing 200 million views.
Though the media wanted to make Miley Cyrus’s Younger Now into a country record because it made for good click-bait, the cool part about the album is that it wasn’t. Instead it was a pop album with some of Miley’s country music influences intermixed. The cover featured Miley in a Nudie-style suit with lasso lettering, wearing a rockabilly pompadour. Trading her risque clothing of her Bangerz era, Miley wore full-legnth dresses in promo shoots for the record. The album was a return to Miley’s roots, but not for commercial application. Miley purposely avoid radio with the record. It also includes a duet and co-write with her Godmother Dolly Parton on the track “Rainbowland.”
Younger Now received mixed reviews and is the worst selling record in Miley’s discography. But she made it for herself, uncaring about the popularity or reception. The country influences aren’t always evident on the record, but they’re more evident than many of today’s mainstream country records.
John Mayer – Born & Raised and Paradise Valley
Possibly the most country of all of these pop selections, John Mayer’s 2012 and 2013 records carried a strong country, folk, and Southern rock component, including employing keyboardist Chuck Leavell of the Allman Brothers in his band during the era, and working with artists such as legendary steel guitar players Paul Franklin and Greg Leisz, and Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek and I’m With Her on fiddle and vocals. Don Was was the co-producer on both records. Compared to today’s country, these two records from John Mayer weren’t just country-ish, they were hardcore country. And not that it helps his case too terribly in the country department, but Mayer did date a 19-year-old Taylor Swfit during this era.
Of course all things are relative, and these records are still more fair to characterize as pop rock with country and Americana influences. But you can feel the respect Mayer had for country coming through in the music, and they remain favorites of many country and Americana fans.
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Honorable mention must be given to Justin Timberlake‘s early 2018 record Man of the Woods, which just like the above records, was a more organic effort compared to previous albums, and also included collaborations with Cris Stapleton. However in the run up to the release, Justin Timberlake way oversold the country and Americana influences the album would incorporate, and it felt more like was just part of marketing buzz and hype than honor and respect to the country genre. Man of the Woods might still be more country than many of today’s mainstream country records, but Timberlake’s over-zealousness with the record after his success with Chris Stapleton at the 2015 CMA Awards rightly didn’t sit well with many country and Americana fans. Man of the Woods also received a very mixed reception throughout music.
Beyonce‘s song “Daddy Lessons” from her 2016 album Lemonade was probably more country than most of today’s “country” hits, bu similar to Timberlake, was a bit oversold by the overzealous media in just how country it was. Nonetheless, it did capture Beyonce exploring her Texas roots, and a remix of the song incorporated the Dixie Chicks, who then performed the song with Beyonce on the 2016 CMA Awards.
And for those who like pop albums with country influences, a good under-the-radar record to check out is Priscilla Renea’s Coloured. A songwriter from the pop world, this Thirty Tigers release incorporates the collision of the pop and country world, but one where a mutual respect is brought to both art forms.
March 27, 2019 @ 8:54 am
Great to see the two John Mayer albums mentioned in this list. They are his two best works to date and proves that great music does not need to be categorized
March 27, 2019 @ 3:39 pm
Heavier Things is his best album. I will not stand for this slander.
March 27, 2019 @ 6:48 pm
“Walt Grace” is a minor masterpiece.
March 27, 2019 @ 9:15 am
You should definitely check out Tyler Hilton’s 2019 album “City on Fire.” It’s not country, but it’s definitely an organic and songwriter focused album.
March 27, 2019 @ 10:20 am
Mainstream pop music is mainstream pop music whether it’s country, EDM, pop-rock, R&B, Rap etc. Not all of it is crap but a lot of it is and is never going to change. Some of the mainstream country is relatively good – such as the recent Dierks Bentley but much of like Maren Morris is not at all to my taste whether you lump it in with country or something else. I’d rather focus on other types of albums that aren’t considered country but are fairly “country” such as H.C. McEntire’s Lionheart (How did you miss that one??) or Angel Olsen or the new Meat Puppets album, J Mascis (not country but he’s kind of twangy), Hiss Golden Messenger, or even Big Thief who are more folk rock but boy are they lovely. I could be wrong but I think a lot of people come here because they love your reviews and insight into country music and have little or no interest in or knowledge of Maren Morris or even Justin Timberlake. Ironically, Pitchfork reviewed Morris’s new album which is amazing – how do they review that but not Tyler Childers?
March 27, 2019 @ 11:16 am
The point of this article was not to recommend pop albums, it was to illustrate a deeper point. And to illustrate that deeper point I was looking for well-recognized, massive names in the pop world to underscore it. I commonly review albums that aren’t country, but are still adjacent to the country world. But I can’t review them all. I review more albums than most. I reviewed both the Meren Morris, and the Tyler Childers album, for example. And my staff is quite a bit smaller than Pitchfork.
March 27, 2019 @ 3:41 pm
I know someone who likes Maren Morris… a lot. 🙂
March 27, 2019 @ 10:22 am
None of these selections are Country at all
At best they are folk-influenced or possibly Americana
But not Country by any stretch of the imagination
And I respect that there’s a bit of a gray area between some of the underground Country scene and what we now know to be Americana
I also respect that a lot of this stuff appeals to the Country Music audience
but when you queue up a Kenny Price or Bill Anderson record and compare it against these, only a fool would call these Country Music
More Country than mainstream Country?
Sure, when you consider that a hairbrush is more closely related to a toothbrush than it is to a ring pop
But it ain’t a toothbrush
March 28, 2019 @ 3:51 am
Did you actually read the article? It clearly says that these aren’t country and the whole argument is that they’re just closer to it than a lot of mainstream efforts.
March 28, 2019 @ 7:28 am
Always super easy to figure out who replies without actually reading more than a headline and a line or 2.
His point stands, you’ll likely agree if you read it.
March 27, 2019 @ 10:26 am
Country music died several years ago. There is an occasional upstart but they are quashed soon enough by country radio. Entertainer of the year. You have to be kidding.
March 27, 2019 @ 2:02 pm
Fred buddy, Country music is not dead. I saw it last week watching Mike And The Moonpies twice and then again Friday seeing Cody Jinks. Midland is here tomorrow night playing a benefit for families of fallen Firefighters and First responders I’ll gladly donate and be happy I have something to go see walking distance from work on a Thursday night while I have a drink, hang out and see if they’ve improved or not….lol. Hayes Carll is here Friday. There’s so much fuckin Country music live and in my rotation I haven’t got time for it all!!! Everyone on here agree with you that they must be kidding with the entertainer of the year. An irrelevant award on an irrelevant show.
North Woods Country
March 27, 2019 @ 10:28 am
John Mayer had also moved to Montana at that time. He supposedly had a secluded ranch somewhere. He was said to show up in whichever little town (I can’t remember which) and sort of became so regular that people were comfortable talking with him. I have no idea if he still resides there but his music reflected his departure from Los Angeles. Those two albums are fantastic, by the way. John Mayer is and always has been the real deal as a songwriter. Heavier Things is one of my favorite albums. “Clarity” and “Something’s Missing” are must have songs for any music fan.
March 27, 2019 @ 11:35 am
Those Mayer albums are really good. I got my wife John Mayer tickets for her birthday, so later this year will be my first time seeing him. I’ve always respected him as a guitarist, but have never been a big fan of his music outside of Born & Raised, and Paradise Valley.
March 27, 2019 @ 2:23 pm
Problem is most of those albums just ended up splitting the difference and capturing none of the high points of either pop or country. Joanne is easily Lady Gaga’s worst album to date and Man Of The Woods was a total disaster.
The only one I’d recommend is the Ke$ha album because she seems to get how to make that fusion compelling
Jumpin' Jack Flash
March 27, 2019 @ 4:54 pm
Just like with the last Kip Moore album (which was great), we need to stop calling something country just because it’s less produced and more organic sounding than most music that comes out nowadays. The Lady Gaga album is about as country as Kelsea’s last effort. I’ll give John Mayer more a bit more credit. Hell, “In the Blood” was released to country radio.
March 27, 2019 @ 6:17 pm
I certainly wasn’t calling these album country. On the contrary, I was pointing out how they were purposely NOT called country, even though they have more country elements than many records sold as country. That was the entire premise of the article, though I wrote it knowing this would be mostly misunderstood, and haven’t been let down.
March 27, 2019 @ 7:24 pm
Keep up the good work, Trigger. Comment sections on your site are always like Yelp reviews to me. Often, only people who feel strongly one way or the other care to comment/review. Don’t let a small sample of misunderstanding voices get ya!
March 27, 2019 @ 6:15 pm
“Honorable mention must be given to Justin Timberlake‘s early 2018 …” NOOOOOOOO! Don’t take me back to those dark days when you’d write endlessly about Timberlake’s “country album.”
Back in 2005 when I was over country radio, I found solace in the indie rock genre. My Morning Jacket, Band of Horses, Neko Case, even the Black Keys (listen to “Things Ain’t Like They Used To Be” from Attack & Release and tell me that ain’t country). So I believe those Pop albums are be more country than what’s on country radio. But, thank God I don’t need to find out.
March 28, 2019 @ 3:57 am
Honestly I think you should check out some of them, specifically the John Mayer ones and Kesha’s, because they’re not country but they’re great in their own lanes.
March 28, 2019 @ 1:59 pm
“Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be” is a top ten Black Keys song for me. It also introduced me to one-time alt. country/indie folk darling Jessica Lea Mayfield.
March 28, 2019 @ 3:11 pm
I forgot about her!
March 27, 2019 @ 9:15 pm
I don’t care what anyone says, “You’re No One ‘Til Someone Lets You Down” from John Mayer’s Paradise Valley is one of my favorite COUNTRY songs of the last decade.
March 28, 2019 @ 3:53 am
Hell, even Aaron Watson covered a song from that album.
March 28, 2019 @ 3:19 am
Finally, someone acknowledged how hardcore country John Mayer went with those records of his you’ve mentioned. Always wondered how the CMAs or any of the other country award shows didn’t acknowledge any of these, given their tendency to include big stars come awards night. You can’t say John Mayer just “dabbled” in country, just like Gaga or Beyonce. Paradise Valley esp. is a start-to-finish country album full of melodic & chill songs that tell real-life stories.
Atomic Zombie Redneck
March 28, 2019 @ 6:42 am
They aren’t pop, but Metallica has drawn on country music for inspiration (Mama Said) and a few covers (Tuesday’s Gone) throughout their career.
March 28, 2019 @ 12:03 pm
Yep, regardless of the quality of the art, it’s hard for any outsiders to find room in the Country ghetto when the slum lord labels are content with their current rent controlled tenants. And yeah, the labels and their entrenched artists are equally to blame.
March 29, 2019 @ 9:04 am
I believe it was Bozeman, Montana. I had a friend living there and she saw him a couple times!
April 8, 2019 @ 8:49 pm
First Aid Kit’s album “Stay Gold” sounds like country to me