What is ‘Real’ Country Music?

I made a comment in my Randy Travis post about ‘real country music’.  This started a few offline discussions that I thought I’d open up to the general population.

What I meant when I said ‘real country music’ is 98% of country music that was produced and released prior to Garth Brooks’ ‘No Fences’.

See, I blame ‘No Fences’ and in particular ‘Friends in Low Places’ for a major turning point in what we call country music.  Prior to that album and that song, country was limited to roughly two stations per market, and that’s about it.  There wasn’t a national appeal, and the singers really knew what they were talking about.  They lived the lives they sang about.  Think George Jones, Johnny Cash, George Strait, Hank Williams (Jr. and Sr.), David Allen Coe, Willie Nelson, Alabama, the Marshall Tucker Band, and Randy Travis.  All incredible artists that knew their subject(s) well.

Fast forward to today.  I don’t have a problem with country music that is produced today.  It is good music.  But I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that it is different.  It’s focus is much more for mass appeal.  The artists are talented musicians.  But ask yourself, would you parallel their lives with the list above?  Sure, there are exceptions, but generally speaking, it seems to be the case.  Country music has followed NASCAR in terms of national popularity, and it’s very safe to say that it has changed quite a bit since the days of Earnhardt, Yarborough, Waltrip, Petty and Awesome Bill from Dawsonville.  ‘Southern’ getting national appeal…don’t get me started on that.

Personally, I make a distinction between ‘real country’ and ‘pop country’.  Am I wrong?  What am I missing?  Let’s hear it…



  1. Dan
    07/23/2013 / 8:57 AM

    If Southern Rock ain’t country, neither is Pop Country. No matter what the redneck gentry class and Nashville pretty boys tell you.

  2. tim
    07/23/2013 / 9:47 AM

    Oh man…you’re opening a can of worms, but for all intents and purposes for this post, I think Garth Brooks is as good a line as any.

    I tend to prefer the older Honky Tonk stuff myself, Porter Wagoner, Hank Sr., Ray Price, Lefty Frizzell, and of course Roy Acuff, Harlan Howard, Buck Owens etc. and have always kind of drawn the line between the “Nashville Sound” and the earlier “Country and Western” guys myself. I think that back in the day there was actually a distinction between Country Music (kind of a catch all for blues, cajun, folky type music) and Western (Western Swing, think Bob Wills, Al Dexter etc.) In any event, this is the musical landscape that I keep returning to. Well them and their progeny.

    In reality though these are just industry appellations and today’s country music could just as easily be labeled pop music.

    Take my comments with a grain of salt because I am and always have been squarely planted in New York and New England…

    • Suzanne P
      08/12/2016 / 8:47 PM

      What is wrong with good old country music.

  3. 07/23/2013 / 9:56 AM

    “It is good music.” “The artists are talented musicians.” These statements are plain wrong. Nashville music these days is over-produced garbage (kind of like most music played on the radio) and the majority of the songs aren’t written by the artists themselves (for better or for worse…). I’d say that independent artists and a lot of the “outlaw country” artists are the only ones worth listening to today.

    • Mitch
      07/11/2018 / 11:18 AM

      Boom!  Exactly right!  Good Musicians?  These guys a manufactured, not born.  Would you say the Back Street Boys are good musicians?

  4. 07/23/2013 / 10:36 AM

    The closest you can get to ‘Real’ country music these days is guys like Ryan Bingham or Chris Knight. However, both are considered a part of the Texas Country crowd, so maybe that tells you something.

  5. Will
    07/23/2013 / 11:09 AM


  6. Phil
    07/23/2013 / 2:51 PM

    Check out some of what Texas country has to offer, it may be a little on the red dirt side (Red dirt is its own Genre with cross canadian ragweed, etc) in some cases but look at Dale Watson, Cody Johnson, Jason Boland, Aaron Watson, and Jon Wolfe. all of Jason Boland’s albums are fantastic and Aaron Watsons first one shutupanddance has a very traditional sound as well that I am sure you would like. Aaron is more like George Strait country and Jasons is more like Waylon and Willie outlaw style. Dale Watson is very traditional and I am sure that he is the one you would like the most. Jon Wolfe and Cody Johnson are both very new and only have two albums each but their sound is fantastic.

    But yes everything played in Nashville is pretty much pop country and not even the lyrics come close to the ones 20 years ago. Its about dipping and mudding now.

  7. Phil
    07/23/2013 / 2:52 PM



  8. whiskeydent
    07/23/2013 / 3:09 PM

    I was bowled over when I heard George Strait perform “Amarillo By Morning” live in an Austin dance hall before it hit the radio. He was real throwback. Unfortunately, I think he later helped draw the line you speak of.

    His first couple of albums were swing and honkey tonk. By the third album, he was doing slow, goopy love song crap — and selling a lot of records. Garth and the other “hat” guys followed him chasing the same cash.

    Today, these mainstream guys usually use more pop-rock guitars and less fiddle and steel in their songs. It’s heavily diluted Marshall Tucker and a two-step away from elevator music.

    But there are “Americana” players who rely on the old instruments, but use them in somewhat different ways. Plus. their lyrics cover different territories. Hayes Carll’s “My Wife Left Me For Jesus” is the perfect example.

    Also, there’s the singer songwriters such as Guy Clark (who has a new album out). They tilt folk, but they too incorporate steel guitars and fiddles.

    All of this is to say I never listen to country radio anymore because it ain’t country anymore.

  9. Stephen
    07/23/2013 / 4:31 PM

    Here’s a great history of Texas country music with interviews from all the important players in Texas Monthly. Very revealing re: Nashville being stuck in their ways. Waylon, Willie, Kris, etc. had to go back to Texas in order to make their music their way.

  10. Nathaniel Stubblefield
    07/23/2013 / 5:47 PM

    Depends on who you listen to, if you stick to Aaron Lewis, then that is country, Craig Morgan, that’s honkytonk country mostly, some of Kenny Chesney is true country, Toby Keith is also true country so Aaron Lewis and Craig Morgan some of Kenny Chesney, and Toby Keith is true country. Stuff like Hank, and David Allan Coe is Outlaw country, which is true country

  11. Nathaniel Stubblefield
    07/23/2013 / 5:48 PM

    Eric Church is also true country for sure

  12. Nick Miller
    07/23/2013 / 6:58 PM

    In the words of Hank III, in reference to Kid Rock: “Yeah its true he’s a yank, he ain’t no son of Hank”. Most of the stuff on CMT/GAC is junk, with the exception of Jamey Johnson & Eric Church. The King of “Real” County has to be Kris Kristofferson, the guy is the Bob Dylan of country (As in, he wrote all the good songs). Texas country has been getting the majority of my attention lately, guys like Ray Wylie Hubbard, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Robert Earl Keen have been hitting the spot.

  13. James
    07/23/2013 / 7:48 PM

    I think Jason Boland is what you’re looking for. I just downloaded his live album “High in the Rockies” and I can’t recommend it enough. The opening track, “Hank,” basically sums up my feelings on the current state of country:

    “You don’t like my music, you don’t like my songs
    You say you want to party, you say you want to rock and roll
    That carbon copy music don’t mean a damn to me
    Hank Williams wouldn’t make it now in Nashville Tennessee, Nashville Tennessee

    What happened to the music I loved so long ago
    It seems it’s been forgotten on our country radio
    Where a steel guitar and fiddle have become a novelty
    What I’d give to make things like the way they used to be….”

  14. 07/23/2013 / 9:38 PM

    JRS – “real” country music to me comes down to emotional investment. When I hear a singer and/or songwriter belt it out, to me it’s more about how much I perceive them to be wrapped up in the song than the cacaphony around them. Real country music has its roots in the blues and I would roughly equate the genesis with Robert Johnson, on to Hank Sr, Elvis, and a broad divergence through Conway Twitty, Otis Redding, The Rolling Stones, and more.

    It has nothing to do with sad songs, drinking songs, or train songs, although many a good country song have been written on those themes. So has many a bad country song.

    Some prominent artists have songs that strike me as “real” country and a large catalog of inauthentic, processed, made for radio bullshit. George Strait and Kenny Chesney are great examples of this. Strait songs like “I Can Still Make Cheyenne,” “You Look So Good In Love, “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind,” and “The Man In Love With You” belong in the annals of great country music. “Check Yes Or No,”I Hate Everything,” and “She Let Herself Go” make me shake my head at Strait’s song selection. Likewise for Chesney, “Tequila Loves Me,” “You and Tequila,” and “Anything But Mine” ring true but “There Goes My Life,” “When The Sun Goes Down,” and “There Goes My Life” strike me as pathetic radio airplay grabs.

    What’s the best “real” country music being made today? There’s a lot of good stuff out there: Drive-By Truckers, Hank 3, Lucero, Dwight Yoakam, Ray Wylie Hubbard, James McMurtry, Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett, Randy Rogers Band, Jason Isbell, Reckless Kelly, Justin Townes Earle, Asleep at the Wheel, and on and on…

    Check out Hank 3’s “Five Shots of Whiskey” for what might be the most perfect country music song ever written – even better than “Pancho & Lefty.”

    There’s not much better than good country music, and there’s not much worse than bad country music.

  15. Tim Lahey
    07/23/2013 / 9:49 PM

    Not wrong. Of course I consider real country music to be the stuff that was recorded before World War II…the Carter Family, Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, The Stonemans, etc.

  16. Blake
    07/23/2013 / 11:32 PM

    I’m going to have to disagree. I think the Nashville establishment has been watering down real country and putting out over produced crap for as long as there has been a Nashville establishment. Pegging Garth as a turning point probably just means you were not paying enough attention to mainstream country (or not old enough) pre-Garth to be aware of how non-traditional (and bad) most country was. Consider this–Kenny Rodgers is one of the best selling artist of all time. That should tell you something.

    For instance, you have a pic of Buck in the article. He made straighforward country in the 60s and it was labled as its own sub-genre (“Bakersfield” country) and widely considered a reaction to the prevailing trends of the time. Same thing with Willie and all of the others labled as “Outlaw” country.

  17. Stephen
    07/24/2013 / 9:41 AM

    I second Blake’s comment

  18. Ben
    07/25/2013 / 10:59 AM

    My rule of thumb with country music now boils down to two things. If it is played on the popular country music station in whatever town you live in then it is not “real” country music. However if you have Sirius/XM and it is played on Outlaw Country then it most likely is “real” country music.

    Not to sound like a paid advertiser for them, which I’m not, if you dislike the country station in your town get satellite radio. It’s well worth the money.

    Kenny Chesney is not real country music by the way and no one can convince me otherwise.

  19. Bill
    07/25/2013 / 12:54 PM

    Came here to make a comment and saw that Blake & others had summed it up pretty well. Nashville (born & raised there) has been putting out a lot of slop for a very long time. There is a Terry Bradshaw country album from 1979 or so somewhere at my parents’ house. The Nashville music industry i’ve always known was relatively very conservative and most focused on what would sell at any given time.

    There is a ton of great, authentic southern music out there. XM channel 60 is actually not a bad curator of whats available.

  20. Kenny
    07/25/2013 / 1:58 PM

    In order to be real country, you have to be a songwriter first and foremost. George Strait has never written a song and is just a pretty boy in Wranglers trying to sell records, which he does at a riduculous rate. Dwight, Randy, Willie, Merle, Waylon, Hank, and a host of lesser known guys fit this bill. This biggest travesty is the lack of respect that Travis Tritt always got at the hands of guy like George Strait. Today, the only real country left is played in Red Dirt country.

  21. whiskeydent
    07/25/2013 / 5:36 PM

    I don’t think we ought to be strict about songwriting as a definition of real country. George Jones, for example, wrote few of his hits. In fact, one of his hits — Yesterday’s Wine — was written by Willie.

    And a lot of the songs identified with Willie were written by others. He didn’t write Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain, Whiskey River or My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love Willie and the ones who came up with him. Hell, I live four blocks from Willie Nelson Avenue. But I also think great interpreters — such as the Possum — deserve inclusion.

    So what’s real country? I don’t know. I know it when I hear it. It hits like a shot of cheap whiskey, not a sip of fine wine.

  22. Cook
    07/26/2013 / 1:49 PM

    I’ve known for too long that country music is no longer country. While the music is still catchy it seems to only appeal to flocks of crazed women or the stereotypical, try-hard redneck. Country music was always about personal experience, struggle, or faith; todays “country” music mixes pop, rock, and in the worst cases hip hop for a toxic musical cocktail. If we can get the artists back into the tune of David Allan Coe, Marty Robbins, and Loretta Lynn things will be alright again.

  23. Matt
    07/29/2013 / 10:05 AM

    The only REAL country music that was ever produced was during its onset… The Carter Family, Roscoe Holcomb, etc. Since then, country music has always been one of hybrids. Even Ol’ Hank wasn’t a purist, incorporating jazz and blues into his sound (we call that honky tonk). Ever consider the steel-guitar? Nothing authentically southern or appalachian about it. It was popularized by traveling Hawaiian performers during the depression.

    Country music has always been aimed square at the working-class masses. Your typical modern country music fan doesn’t appreciate it academically. That’s never been what it’s about.

    The observation about NO FENCES changing the landscape of country music is dead on. I didn’t like it then, preferring what was in heavy rotation at the time; Dwight, Lyle, k.d., Asleep at the Wheel… But you know time does wonderful things to country music, and I find myself liking that album more as the years go by. I think that’s how it works.

  24. 08/07/2013 / 7:39 PM

    I think that I may be part of the problem. It’s not that I want to be; I just don’t know any better.

    First, I was not yet seven years old when “No Fences” came out. Growing up, I thought that Garth Brooks WAS country music, but my very limited experience should not have been used as anyone’s staff against which country music was measured. In high school and college I collected mp3s of a few more modern country staples, and bunch of Johnny Cash. To me country evolved from some exotic music that people on the other side of the lake listened to into the descendant of a new favorite of mine: bluegrass. After “O, Brother Where Art Thou” came out, blue grass became more accessible, and I became a bluegrass snob.

    Later, my experience with country grew when I moved to Baton Rouge (Starting with, of course, “Callin’ Baton Rouge” at every football game in Tiger Stadium – i.e., more Garth Brooks) for graduate school, but when I moved back to New Orleans, I left country there. After living back in New Orleans for several years, I got fed up with the Top 40 mix station and talk radio. I turned on the single local country station (which is pop country of course). It was better than any of my other options, and it’s been on my presets since, but it certainly hasn’t been my favorite. There are certain country artists and songs I like(Zac Brown, Kacey Musgraves, Wagon Wheel (the OCMS version more than Darius Rucker), and, of course, Johnny Cash), and certain ones I don’t like (Jason Aldean, Hunter Hayes, and the country songs quoted at the end of this list: http://totalfratmove.com/why-country-music-is-almost-as-bad-as-bieber/), but I listen to the pop country station because I don’t know any better. I’m sorry, help me be a better human being.

    And for the record, I’ve always liked Southern Rock, but never considered it to be country.

  25. Sybert
    07/10/2018 / 3:51 PM

    Modern day country is nothing but “southern” pop music. 

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