Country pop (also known as pop country) is a fusion genre of country music and pop music that was developed by members of the country genre out of a desire to reach a larger, mainstream audience. By producing country songs that employed many styles and sounds found in pop music, the country music industry was effective in gaining new listeners without alienating its traditional country audience. Country pop music is often known for genres like rock, pop, and country combined. It is a continuation of similar efforts that began in the late 1950s originally known as Nashville sound and later on Countrypolitan. By the mid-1970s, many country artists were transitioning to the pop-country sound which led to some records charting high on mainstream top 40 as well as country Billboard charts.
|Cultural origins||1960s in Nashville, Tennessee|
|Typical instruments||Keyboard instrument/organ|
Beginnings: Nashville sound
The joining of country and pop began in the 1950s when studio executives Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley wanted to create a new kind of music for the young adult crowd after "rockabilly stole away much of country music's youth audience". According to Bill Ivey, this innovative genre originated in Nashville, Tennessee and thus became known as the Nashville Sound. He believes that the "Nashville Sound often produced records that sounded more pop than country", after the removal of the fiddle and banjo. Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, and Eddy Arnold were among the most popular artists during this time. This was intended to have country singers gain more success in pop music and sell more records. The first male artists to come out of this new genre were Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold, who both grew to have widespread acceptance among both country and pop music listeners. Both Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold had major influence on their RCA labelmate Elvis Presley, apparent not only in secular songs, but even more so in country gospel songs. The first female country singer to emerge from this new genre was Patsy Cline in the early 1960s. The example she created was followed by other female country artists, such as Lynn Anderson, Crystal Gayle, and Shania Twain, who gained prominence in later years. Even though Cline also gained widespread acceptance from country and pop audiences alike, the Nashville Sound was not well received by country purists, and faced competition, first from the Bakersfield Sound and later the outlaw movement on that front; on the pop side, the format was overshadowed by the British Invasion, which was taking place during the same time that Cline and Reeves, two of the biggest names associated with the Nashville sound, died in separate airplane crashes.
The Nashville sound eventually evolved into countrypolitan during the late 1960s and 1970s and had varying levels of success, with several artists recording in the style, many of whom were otherwise country purists or outlaws: Ray Price ("For the Good Times"), Charley Pride ("Kiss an Angel Good Morning"), Charlie Rich (three such hits), Jessi Colter ("I'm Not Lisa"), Crystal Gayle ("Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue"), Kris Kristofferson, and Lynn Anderson all charted pop-influenced country hits during the 1970s.
Late 1970s and 1980s
Country pop found its first widespread acceptance during the 1970s. It started when pop music singers, like Glen Campbell, John Denver, Olivia Newton-John, and Anne Murray, began having hits on the country charts. Songs like Campbell's "Rhinestone Cowboy" were among the biggest crossover hits in country music history. These pop-oriented singers thought that they could gain higher record sales and a larger audience if they crossed over into the country world. One of the artists who did this was Olivia Newton-John, who emerged from Australia in the mid-1970s, hoping to make it big in the United States. When her single "Let Me Be There" became a big pop-country crossover hit in 1974, it became quite controversial, especially after Newton-John won a Grammy award for "Best Female Country Vocal Performance" for the song, and also won the Country Music Association's most coveted award for females, "Female Vocalist of the Year" (beating out established Nashville artists Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Tanya Tucker, as well as Canadian transplant Anne Murray). Newton-John began moving away from country in the late 1970s after starring in Grease and focused mostly on pop music from then onward.
A group of artists, troubled by this trend, formed the Association of Country Entertainers (ACE) in 1974. The debate raged into 1975, and reached its apex at that year's Country Music Association Awards when reigning Entertainer of the Year Charlie Rich (who himself had a series of crossover hits) presented the award to his successor, John Denver. As he read Denver's name, Rich set fire to the envelope with a cigarette lighter. The action was taken in some quarters as a protest against the increasing pop style in country music; Rich himself cited medication as reason for his behavior. The ACE would only last two years; its two biggest backers, firm traditionalists George Jones and Tammy Wynette, faced a bitter divorce, and Jean Shepard, the other major backer of the ACE, closed down the organization when she could not find others that shared her enthusiasm for the association's purpose.
In 1977, Kenny Rogers, former frontman of the rock band The First Edition, burst onto the country charts with "Lucille" and would go on to become the most successful of the country pop performers, topping charts all over the world and taking the genre to the zenith internationally, selling more than 130 million records. After "Lucille", Rogers had a string of songs that did well on both the country and pop charts around the world, including "Daytime Friends", "The Gambler", and "Coward of the County", all of which were produced by Larry Butler. Rogers would go on to push the boundaries of pop influence in country music, having records produced by the likes of The Bee Gees, Lionel Richie, David Foster, and George Martin, all of which did well in both the pop and country markets. In 1979 Barbara Mandrell had her highest crossover hit with her number 1 song "(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don't Want to Be Right" It charted number 31 on the Billboard Top 40. Several of her other hits charted well on the adult contemporary charts and the Bubbling under 100 charts. Mandrell also did countrypolitan style music on her Barbara Mandrell & the Mandrell Sisters show. She had R & B artists, pop artists, and country artists featured every week. It was the last successful musical variety show on TV. (Running from 1980 to 1982 – Mandrell had to quit the show because of health reasons.) She is also known for her "Blue-Eyed Soul" sound. She was given the nickname The Princess of Steel, for her ability at the steel guitar. She was one of country music's most successful crossover artists during the 1970s and 1980s. Like many of her contemporaries at the time, she sang crossover country material, that either was well-liked or highly criticized. Her biggest hits include "Sleeping Single In a Double Bed", "(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don't Want to Be Right", "Years", and "Crackers". Some traditional country artists accused Mandrell of being too glitzy, too "Hollywood" with her pop-influenced sound.
Dolly Parton, who had already achieved considerable success as a mainstream country artist, wanted to expand her audience and go in new directions, so she decided to make a change in 1977, crossing over into the pop music world with No. 1 country and No. 3 pop hit that year, "Here You Come Again". She followed it up with a number of additional crossover pop hits, including "Two Doors Down" and "Heartbreaker" (both 1978), "Baby I'm Burning" (1979), "Starting Over Again" (1980), and "9 to 5", which topped both the country and pop singles charts in early 1981. (Despite her being one of the most successful practitioners of country pop crossover during the late 1970s and 1980s, Parton, because of her upbringing and mountain roots, is regarded by most critics as one of country's most authentic performers.)
Country pop reached an early peak immediately following the movie Urban Cowboy in the early 1980s. Urban Cowboy was the third music-themed hit film to star John Travolta, each from a different genre; much like Saturday Night Fever did for disco and 'Grease did for oldies, Urban Cowboy likewise popularized pop-country, helping to boost the career of Mickey Gilley in particular (whose real-life bar and music were featured in the film), along with other songs that appeared on the film's soundtrack.
Some older artists from the 1960s and 1970s converted their sound to country pop or 'countrypolitan', such as Parton, Willie Nelson, and Dottie West. West, who had been around since the 1960s, completely changed her image into a more sexy and risky profile in the early 1980s, following a series of hit duets with Kenny Rogers. (Rogers also had a duet hit with Parton, the Bee Gees-penned "Islands in the Stream", which topped the country and pop singles charts in late 1983. The Bee Gees themselves have one credited country hit to their name, 1978's "Rest Your Love on Me," which was made an even bigger hit by Conway Twitty in 1980.) After the success with Rogers, West wanted to remain on top, so in order to keep up with current country music, she continued to record more pop-sounding material. Because of this, West achieved her biggest success as a country singer during this time, acquiring her first No. 1 hit as a solo artist thanks to her music in 1980 titled "A Lesson in Leaving".
Alabama, Eddie Rabbitt, Juice Newton, and Ronnie Milsap also began experiencing crossover success during the early 1980s. Four of Alabama's most successful songs of the early 1980s—"Feels So Right", "Love in the First Degree", Take Me Down", and "The Closer You Get" (the last two of which were covers of songs by then-pop band Exile)—all reached the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100, while four of Ronnie Milsap's No. 1 songs between 1980 and 1982 reached the Hot 100s Top 20, the most successful of which was the No. 5 hit "(There's) No Gettin' Over Me". Rabbitt had three top-5 pop songs in 1980–1981, and "I Love a Rainy Night" reached No. 1 on both the Hot 100 and Billboard Hot Country Singles chart. Country star Juice Newton also achieved country-pop success with several crossover hits in the early '80s, including "Queen of Hearts", "The Sweetest Thing (I've Ever Known)", and Grammy-winner "Break It To Me Gently," also penning "Sweet Sweet Smile," the only country hit for easy-listening act The Carpenters. Former pop acts, such as Exile, Merrill Osmond (both solo and with his fellow Osmond Brothers; sister Marie Osmond also had a career renaissance in this period), Bill Medley (formerly of The Righteous Brothers), Tom Jones, Michael Johnson, Billy Joe Royal, B. J. Thomas, Nicolette Larson, Paul Davis and Dan Seals ("England Dan" of England Dan and John Ford Coley) began targeting their music at the country market in the early 1980s with a country-pop sound. Engelbert Humperdinck, who had recorded several Nashville country ballads in his earlier career but had never charted any of them on the country charts, recorded his first and only country top-40 hit when his easy listening hit "After the Lovin'" crossed over to reach the bottom of the country top 40.
Although a number of country pop artists continued to have hits, most notably Alabama, Parton, Mandrell, Rabbitt, and Milsap, the mid-1980s saw a major sea change within the country music industry and the revival of traditional country sounds, as the boost in country's crossover popularity had collapsed; by 1984, country record sales had fallen to the point they were before Urban Cowboy was released. For most of the late 1980s through 1990, traditional-sounding country acts that were not as conducive to pop crossover dominated the country charts.
Country pop enjoyed a resurgence in the 1990s, primarily because of the beginning proliferation of country music to the FM radio dial, which in turn was aided by the increase of FCC licenses for suburban and rural FM stations in the late 1980s and an increase in talk radio on the AM dial, as well as a decision by Billboard to no longer count record sales toward the country singles chart, giving country radio full power to determine a chart ranking by their collective airplay. The commercial boom in the industry during this time was also attributable to the rise of talented artists who coincided with the implementation of new marketing strategies that were meant to attract a larger fan base; this further pushed the genre into a pop musical style with an emerging new image. Garth Brooks rose to fame during the 1990s with a string of several extremely successful albums and songs. Shania Twain would rival this success with her three albums The Woman in Me, Come On Over, and Up!. In the last few years, country singer LeAnn Rimes has proved her ability to sing country pop songs such as the record-setting "How Do I Live", which spent 69 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, the second longest single in the record history. This achievement came in spite of the fact that a nearly identical version of the same song by Trisha Yearwood was released at the same time and was also a hit. Rimes also had a hit with the pop songs "Can't Fight the Moonlight" and "I Need You", the latter of which required a remix to be suitable for country radio.
Incorporating elements of pop into country music became extremely popular by the late '90s, thus producing many crossover hits and artists, especially on the adult contemporary charts. Country love songs also became more popular with songs like "To Make You Feel My Love", "Cowboy Take Me Away", "I Love You", "Breathe", "It's Your Love", "Just to See You Smile", "This Kiss", "The Way You Love Me", "You're Still the One", "From This Moment On", "You've Got a Way", "Valentine", etc.
In the 1990s, many country artists experienced huge crossover success. In addition to Brooks, Twain, McBride and Rimes, Billy Ray Cyrus, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Dixie Chicks, Jo Dee Messina, Martina McBride, Lonestar, Mary-Chapin Carpenter and Wynonna Judd all had songs cross over to Top 40 and/or Adult Contemporary radio, sometimes with remixes eliminating steel guitars and other "country" elements to be more suitable for pop radio. Brooks, Reba McEntire, and other artists also maintained high profiles on the album charts despite having less radio crossover success.
2000s and 2010s
The early 2000s also saw continued success of these artists. Lee Ann Womack scored a big hit with "I Hope You Dance". The Dixie Chicks had continued success with a less mainstream country-pop sound when they released their bluegrass-influenced album Home in 2002. However, by the mid-2000s there were fewer country acts having crossover success.
With her exposure on TV's American Idol, Carrie Underwood became a crossover success in 2006 and 2007 though, with her hit single "Before He Cheats", which was notable for becoming a success on mainstream pop radio without a more "pop-friendly" remix. Underwood has had additional, but more spotty, success on pop radio since. Taylor Swift and Rascal Flatts have also had crossover success in the late 2000s.
In 2009, British pop singer Lily Allen had a large international hit on the pop charts with the bluegrass inspired "Not Fair". Allen later returned to country music with the country pop song "As Long As I Got You" from her third studio album Sheezus.
In the 2010s, Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum achieved success, including winning numerous Grammy Awards. Taylor Swift's 2010 album Speak Now and 2012's Red had become top charters in multiple charts, including the Top Country Albums and Billboard 200; both of those album sold 1 million copies in their debut week sales, opening 1.0 million for Speak Now and 1.2 million for Red. On Red, Swift also incorporated some elements of dance sounds such as dubstep into her music and worked with pop co-writers/co-producers Max Martin and Shellback on several tracks, including the hits "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together", "I Knew You Were Trouble", and "22", which were more favored by pop radio over country radio. By the time of her subsequent album 1989 (2014), Reputation (2017), and Lover (2019), Swift had abandoned all attachment to country music and aimed her music exclusively at the pop market. Uncle Kracker also achieved success when his number 3 adult contemporary hit "Smile" also became a number 6 country hit. Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson hit number 3 on adult contemporary, 9 on adult pop and 1 on country charts with the song "Don't You Wanna Stay". Other recent records to hit on both the pop and country charts have included Miley Cyrus' "The Climb", Lady Antebellum's "Just A Kiss", The Band Perry's "If I Die Young", Kelly Clarkson's "Mr. Know It All", Hunter Hayes' "Wanted", and Florida Georgia Line's "Cruise".
Sam Hunt has also earned significant crossover appeal. His 2014 debut album Montevallo reached #1 on Top Country Albums and #3 on the Billboard 200. His 2017 single "Body Like a Back Road" reached #1 on Hot Country Songs, #6 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #11 on Adult Top 40.
In 2018, many country artists achieved international pop hit singles in collaborations with mainstream pop artists. This included Chris Stapleton who collaborated with Justin Timberlake on Hot 100 top ten single "Say Something"; Urban-pop star Bebe Rexha whose duet with the country duo Florida Georgia Line "Meant to Be" reached #2 both in Australia and in the U.S.; and German DJ Zedd whose dance hit "The Middle" feature main vocals from Maren Morris.
Of particular note, in 2012, Billboard restored recording sales to the chart formula but also added airplay from non-country stations, giving an inherent advantage to country pop crossover songs, at the same time maintaining the 1990 formula solely to measure country radio airplay. After the change, crossover songs have increasingly set the record for the longest run atop the country chart for longer and longer stretches; "Meant to Be" currently holds the record, 50 weeks and counting as of November 2018, more than double the pre-2012 record (Leroy Van Dyke's "Walk On By" was atop the chart for 19 weeks in 1963, during the 1958-1990 period of a unified sales, jukebox and airplay chart; three songs topped the various separate country charts for 21 weeks each between 1948 and 1955).
Despite receiving little airplay for her singles sent to country radio, Kacey Musgraves won the Grammy award for Album of the Year in 2019, for her fourth studio album Golden Hour. Musgraves’ success was unprecedented in the sense that she earned fans from both the pop and country genres without the benefit of airplay on country radio, instead promoting her music through social media platforms such as YouTube and Apple Music.
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- Gerald W. Haslam; Alexandra Russell Haslam; Richard Chon (1999-04-01). Workin' Man Blues: Country Music in California. University of California Press. p. 259. ISBN 978-0-520-21800-0.
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- "Taylor Swift says 'Bye' to country, hello to urban pop with '1989'". www.buffaloNews.com.