As country music cycled through a smorgasbord of trends over the last decade (Bro-Country, Metropolitan, Boyfriend, and most recently the Cobronavirus movement), it generated an inevitable backlash from listeners who prefer a more-traditional sound on the radio, and led to many asking “Why can’t country music sound like that anymore?” These days, “that” typically refers to the neotraditional movement that re-popularized a classic country sound during the 1990s (personally I’d put the late ’80s under that label as well, but I don’t make the rules). 90s nostalgia itself has been a bit of a trend over the last decade, with songs celebrating its sound (“Heartache Medication,” “Missing”), its artists (“1994,” “90s Country”), and even inspiring alternate personas (Dierks Bentley and The Hot Country Knights).
Part of this movement is run-of-the-mill nostalgia working its magic: People have a tendency to declare that things were better in “the good old days,” and the 1990s currently occupy that special place in history where those who grew up on the sound are starting to take positions as the nation’s critical tastemakers (I’m part of this group too, although calling myself a tastemaker feels overly presumptuous). However, two things about the current nostalgia push give me pause:
- The “90s country is the best” crowd is a lot louder and larger than you might expect.
- Frankly, the “90s country is the best” crowd…is wrong.
As bad as 2020 has been is so many respects, it’s actually been an underrated year for quality country music. While some artists have given in to the “nothing matters, have another drink” mindset, others have used the moment for “reflecting the seriousness of the times, making pointed statements about the nation we’ve been and the nation we should be, or by finally upping their sound and song selection enough to leave a stronger impression on the audience.” The voices and instruments involved may be different, but that doesn’t necessarily make today’s songs worse. The 1990s certainly had their share of clunkers: For example, John Michael Montgomery’s “Be My Baby Tonight” features the same pushy attitude I ripped Dan + Shay and Jimmie Allen to pieces for on “10,000 Hours” and “Make Me Want To.” (It’s also worth noting that some of the biggest stars of the 90s, like Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, were called out for “destroying” country music in the moment, much like Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, and Sam Hunt are today.) I’d posit that the airwaves both now and then fit roughly the same bell curve: Some really good songs, some really bad ones, and a lot in the middle that could go either way depending on your taste.
So what’s behind this 90s nostalgia push? Why are many listeners pining for a sound from three decades ago? Here are a few ideas:
- The flotsam from the 1990s has already sunk to the bottom. If your reaction to “Be My Baby Tonight” is “Huh?”, you’re not alone—heck, I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t know John Michael Montgomery at all. With 20-30 years of newer music to accommodate (not to mention all the decades before the 1990s), stations have had to cull their 90s playlists down to the best of the best (or at least the artists that are still relevant). If we revisit the Power Gold Top 100 from Country Aircheck, only two songs from the 1990s (Tim McGraw’s “Where The Green Grass Grows” and “Something Like That”) made the list, and only two* artists from the era (McGraw and Kenny Chesney) are present. With playlists seemingly getting smaller by the day, older generations of music don’t get a lot of room on contemporary playlists, so when a 90s song does get a spin, that song had better be the best of the best of the era. Thus, most of the stars of the era have been reduced to a handful of tracks on the radio (Alan Jackson released 33 singles between 1990 and 1999; maybe two or three ever see the light of day now), and even moderately-successful acts like Montgomery, Mark Chesnutt, and Patty Loveless are mostly forgotten, to say nothing of the one-hit wonders of the era (Ken Mellons? Ty England? Larry Stewart?). That means that if you hear a 90s country song, the chances of it being a good one are higher than if it were a contemporary song (we’re still dealing with Jon Langston on the radio, after all), which is bound to color a listener’s opinion.
*Rodney Atkins released two songs in 1997, but he didn’t really break through until 2002, so I’m not including him in this group.
- No other recent decade can claim the traditionalist mantle. The tug-of-war between fans of traditional music and those who enjoy more evolution/exploration in their sound have been going on since the beginning of time (I think Willie Nelson released his first single around 40 million B.C.), and the sound of the genre tends to bounce between the two camps. The 1990s, however, are really the last decade that adheres to the “traditional” country music sound: The 2000s tended to be a bit more pop-oriented and dominated by artists like Carrie Underwood, Rascal Flatts, and Taylor Swift, while the 2010s are defined by the Bro-Country and Metropolitan movements (Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, etc.). Because of this, the 1990s serve as the best example those in the classic country music community have when making their case for what the genre should sound like (notice that these days, only Midland seems to be harkening back to a time before the neotraditionalist sound), so that’s what gets pushed.
- Country music was a booming business in the 1990s. Zack Kephart of The Musical Divide put together a great breakdown of country music as a business last year, and he highlighted the 1990s as “the biggest era, commercially, the genre had ever seen.” This was attributed to three major factors:
- The rise of music videos and line-dance remixes of songs, which raised the profile of country music and increased its reach.
- The creation of the Soundscan system, which provided a more-accurate picture of country music sales and popularity.
- “…A larger campaign to woo new listeners by convincing them country music was cool and, more importantly, a genre for everyone.”
All of this means that country music, and especially the megastars of the era like Brooks, Twain, and George Strait, had a huge reach and were able to leave a mark on a lot on impressionable listeners. They defined what country music should be for a lot of people, and when the sound shifted during the 2000s, it left a lot of people wondering what happened to their favorite genre.
I don’t think we can discount the money angle either. Rising albums sales meant more money for labels, which (potentially) led to bigger budgets for future albums. While more money doesn’t automatically mean a higher-quality product, it affords an artist and their team the time and space to put their best foot forward: More time to look for and cut stronger material, more musicians to get exactly the sound the producer is looking for (session players ain’t cheap!), and more marketing muscle to push your product across the country. With sales falling hard across the board in the 2000s, austerity measures and budget cuts likely started to cut into an artist’s creative freedom. (There’s a part of me that thinks that the reason today’s music is so dependent on laptops and drum machines is because it’s cheaper to use them instead of real musicians.) Compromises had to be made, and the final products may have suffered as a result.
- Music may not be the only thing we miss about the 1990s. Let’s face it: The 1990s were a boom time not only for country music, but America in general. After a brief, relatively-mild recession early in the decade, the US embarked on what was then the longest economic expansion in history before finally coming back to earth when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union left America as the sole superpower on the world stage, primed to lead the world into a new age of prosperity. As Joseph Stiglitz put it, “There is no question that the nineties were good years. Jobs were created, technology prospered, inflation fell, poverty was reduced.” These good feelings were reflected in the music of the era: Songs like Brooks and Dunn’s “Hard Workin’ Man” and Aaron Tippin’s “Workin’ Man’s PhD” and “I Got It Honest” had a glass-half-full perspective on the struggle of “the working man,” and even Travis Tritt’s “Lord Have Mercy On The Working Man” gave off a surprisingly playful vibe despite its social criticisms. The 1990s were seen as a darn good time, and country music served as its soundtrack.
Fast forward to 2020, and saying that our idyllic 1990s vision of America has been shattered is an understatement. 9/11 destroyed our sense of security, the Second Iraq War undermined confidence in our government both at home and abroad, the Great Recession destroyed the economy, and we’ve all been forced to confront the reality that we are a deeply-flawed nation with a number of longstanding problems (stagnating wages, increasing inequality, pervasive drug use, systemic racism, etc.) that we can no longer ignore. Pile a global pandemic on top of all this, and you can kind of understand why people are looking backward rather than forwards. As a result, the music of the new millennium may suffer from some guilt by association.
- There’s the matter of a Crazy Little Thing Called Love The Internet. This issue pops into my head a lot in relation to my favorite game of all time, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. The game was released nearly twenty-five years ago and never got a direct sequel, but a lot of people (including major game outlets like GameXplain) continue to talk breathlessly about this game, especially when it comes to Geno’s candidacy for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. My question is always this: Is Geno really that popular a character, or is his popularity driven by the fact that a lot of his fans have platforms and can drive the conversation?
Millennials are generally recognized as much more tech-savvy than their predecessors, and they’ve seen the Internet grow from a niche research network to one of the most important pieces of infrastructure in the world, standing alongside our power grids and water systems. With the proliferation of podcasts, YouTube videos, social media accounts of every type, and *ahem* blogs like this one, the Internet provides a megaphone to anyone who cares to use one, and many children of the 90s are seizing the opportunity to talk about the games, movies, TV shows, and the music we grew up with. Fans of previous generations might love their favorite artists just as much, but they may lack the digital clout that 90s fans have.
There are certainly other reasons why people prefer the 1990s sound above today’s country music, but the bigger point I’d like to make here is that great songs can appear in any era (heck, I’ve already given out a pair of perfect 10s this year), so don’t throw the song out with the cassette tape and ignore it just because it was released after 1999. Try to keep an open mind when you approach a new song—you’ll find that quality tracks aren’t bound by simple timelines.