In Nashville, 'Outlaw' Country Artists Push Back on Tradition

Alternative performers pigeonholed as 'Americana' try to break into the mainstream—but it's not easy
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 29, 2023 1:20 PM CDT
In Nashville, 'Bro Country' Music Has New Competition
Stock photo.   (Getty Images/BrianAJackson)

When you hear "Tennessee," it's hard not to think of "Music City"—the nickname for the state capital of Nashville, home to the Grand Ole Opry and the heart of country music. But while that may call forth visions of white dudes in cowboy boots and Stetsons crooning about boozing away their heartache, the music landscape in Nashville is experiencing a shift that's posing a challenge to what Emily Nussbaum calls the "bro country" sound. In her piece for the New Yorker, Nussbaum shines a light on the "outlaw" country music performers vying for space onstage alongside more conservative, big-name performers (think Jason Aldean and Morgan Wallen), despite a system seemingly stacked against them. These alternative performers, often female, Black, liberal, and/or LGBTQ+, are usually deemed "Americana"—"an umbrella term for country music outside the mainstream," per Nussbaum.

It's a label many don't want, as those who get tagged with it are often shut out on Nashville's Music Row and get little airplay on country stations. If women in country wanted to hear their songs on the radio even just a few years ago, "they needed to be sweet and bat their eyes at the male gatekeepers at local radio affiliates," Nussbaum writes. As it stands today, the proportion of women heard on country radio has fallen from 33% in 2000 to about 11% (Black women account for just 0.03%). Nussbaum adds that the music scene in Nashville, a "blue bubble within a red state," is functioning amid a greater political maelstrom that's been swirling over the past few years in Tennessee, with right-wing backlash on everything from abortion rights and gun laws to drag queen acts and medical care for trans youth. Still, defiant performers like progressive singer Allison Russell soldier on, with a goal "broader and deeper than party politics": to let fans know they're not on their own "in dangerous times. Nussbaum's piece in its entirety here. (More Longform stories.)

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