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.