Real Country Music: The Honest Truth About Country Music Sub-Genres

It’s difficult to properly define just what exactly country music is today—especially without offending anyone. Heck, just ask Blake Shelton.

But the truth is that our beloved genre is constantly evolving, just as it did in the decades leading up to this age of rock, soul and hip-hop-influenced country. Ten years on, there will no doubt be another new offshoot, one that thrills some fans and tweaks others, who grumble and long for the days when their music was “real country.”

For now, however, there’s not much to do but sit back and—as Sugarland once said—enjoy the ride. 

Here is a look at some of the major movements of the genre, including their key players, defining traits and, yep, the controversies they spawned. 

HONKY-TONK – 1950s

Key Players: Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Thompson

Defining Sound: Honky-tonk described a style of music, popular during the 1950s and early 1960s, that was played mainly in beer joints and dance halls. How the term evolved is still up for interpretation, but certain unmistakable features defined the style. The music was turned up loud and the songs evoked themes of drinking, marital infidelity (“cheating,” if you will) and similar slice-of-life topics. Because the music was made mainly for dancing, the beats were strong and rhythmic. Honky-tonk was essentially a man’s province. The clubs where honky-tonk thrived (many were simply called “honky-tonks”) were populated mostly by men, often transplanted Southerners who were now working in big-city factories following World War II. Honky-tonk took them back to their country roots while addressing the new realities of life they were now facing. 

Stirring the Pot: Purists objected to honky-tonk because it did not reflect the rustic tone or core values of country music’s early days. It dared to talk about subjects such as cheating, drinking and loose women (referred to as “honky tonk angels” in Hank Thompson’s mega-hit “The Wild Side of Life”), while skirting topics like religion and family. The sound was also more electrified and beat-heavy than traditional country. But fans found honky-tonk to be a more realistic portrayal of modern American life. Plus, they just loved to dance to it.  

Recommended Listening: “The Wild Side of Life,” Hank Thompson; “There Stands the Glass,” Webb Pierce; “Honky Tonk Blues,” Hank Williams

COUNTRYPOLITAN – 1960s

Key players: Patsy Cline, Eddy Arnold, Glen Campbell, Barbara Mandrell

Defining Sound: “Countrypolitan” is at times confused with the term “Nashville Sound,” but both carry the same basic meaning. The Nashville Sound was an attempt, and a hugely successful one, to broaden country music’s audience with a more mainstream sound, employing strings and horn sections and excluding traditional instruments such as fiddle and banjo. It came along in the early 1960s and made stars out of Patsy Cline, Eddy Arnold and many others. Countrypolitan was more of a late 1960s and 1970s movement, but it also featured the same sonic characteristics. It went even further than the Nashville Sound, with a greater pop sensibility in the songwriting and arrangements. 

Stirring the Pot: However you referred to the growing infusion of pop music into country, traditionalists hated it. Lush strings and smooth background vocals? How could you dare call that “country”? There could be no doubt, though, that the fresh sound drew new listeners to country music by removing the rural influences, making the music more palatable to the masses. You can still hear the offsprings of the Nashville Sound and Countrypolitan in today’s music. 

Recommended listening: “Crazy,” Patsy Cline; “Make the World Go Away,” Eddy Arnold; “For the Good Times,” Ray Price

OUTLAW COUNTRY – 1970s

Key Players: Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard

Defining Sound: Coming from the slick, polished production and lush arrangements of the Countrypolitan movement, Outlaw Country had a grittier sound and more sparse instrumentation. The lyrics may have been, on the surface, simple, but their depth revealed itself upon further listens. Often utilizing western or a specifically Texan imagery, the songs told tales of a faster lifestyle that included struggle, heartbreak and even crime. 

Stirring the Pot: For those who had been lulled into the orchestral trance of the Countrypolitan movement, with its smooth vocal choruses and complete string sections, Outlaw Country could be an assault on the system. Frightenin even. In contrast, it seemed more rock ‘n’ roll and dangerous than its predecessor.

Recommended Listening: “Good Hearted Woman,” Waylon Jennings & Willie Nelson; “Me & Paul,” Willie Nelson; “Mama Tried,” Merle Haggard

POP COUNTRY – 1980s

Key Players: Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Crystal Gayle, Barbara Mandrell

Defining Sound: The edge and grit of Outlaw Country and the rich production of Countrypolitan gave way to a subgenre of country music whose rhythms and instrumentation were more representative of what was heard on pop radio. Electric guitars, keyboards and even horns found their way into arrangements and country hits frequently found their way onto pop radio.

Stirring the Pot: Many asked if artists in the largest niche format in the music industry were commercializing their sound for the sake of greater sales and more listeners? Likewise, the nationwide popularity of the 1980 John Travolta movie Urban Cowboy had the entire country music lifestyle wondering if it had become a joke. This wasn’t the first time—and wouldn’t be the last—that artists were accused of “selling out.”

Recommended Listening: “Here You Come Again,” Dolly Parton; “She Believes in Me,” Kenny Rogers; “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” Crystal Gayle; “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed,” Barbara Mandrell

NEO-TRADITIONAL COUNTRY – 1980s

Key Players: George Strait, Randy Travis, Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, John Anderson 

Defining Sound: Vintage instrumentation, classic country arrangements, and twangy singing, inspired by the honky-tonk and traditional styles of yore, combined with modern production techniques.

Stirring the Pot: Neo-traditional (or “New Traditional”) country was, like the punk rock movement in rock ‘n’ roll, a reaction to the pop-oriented sounds that were the status quo in country music at the time. Practitioners looked to honky-tonk forebears like Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb for musical and styling cues, often dressing themselves in old-school fashions to make the connection clear. Ricky Skaggs (and his friend the late Keith Whitley) built legitimate bluegrass credibility playing with Ralph Stanley before embarking on solo careers and demonstrating that audiences had an appetite for country music that kept an eye in the rearview even as it moved forward. The incredible success of traditionalists like Randy Travis and George Strait that followed in their wake proved it even further.

Recommended Listening: “Hard Livin’”, Keith Whitley; “Crying My Heart Out Over You,” Ricky Skaggs; “On the Other Hand,” Randy Travis; “Amarillo by Morning,” George Strait

ARENA COUNTRY – 1990s

Key Players: Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, Dixie Chicks

Defining Sound: A mixture of honky-tonk and folky songwriting with a healthy dose of the theatrics of ’70s arena rock and big choruses, just crying out to be sung at top volume.

Stirring the Pot: It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Garth and Shania Era on modern-day country music, with blockbuster sales setting the bar impossibly (or tantalizingly) high for all who came afterward. Garth’s massive crossover appeal made him the best-selling artist in the United States in the Soundscan era (after 1991), and Shania’s Come On Over was a global smash that is still the best-selling solo recording by a female artist of all time. Yet country music purists at the time were none too thrilled with Garth’s penchant for adding dramatic rock touches to his arena concerts, nor Shania’s exploitation of the MTV generation with her sexy videos—and bare midriff. Regardless, the pair provided an extended high for the country music industry, which continues to chase that incredibly elusive crossover success to this day.

Recommended Listening: “Friends in Low Places,” Garth Brooks; “Any Man of Mine,” Shania Twain; “Goodbye Earl,” Dixie Chicks.

COUNTRY WIDE? – 2000s

Key Players: Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Hunter Hayes, Blake Shelton, Taylor Swift, Zac Brown Band.

Defining Sound: Too diverse to nail down. Country is an enormous umbrella, covering the guitar and piano pop of Hunter Hayes to the country rap peddled by Colt Ford. And it’s precisely because of the genre’s catch-all quality that artists like Jamey Johnson and Toby Keith can, at least theoretically, appear on the same charts and radio stations as Keith Urban and Taylor Swift. Put simply, country can be whatever it wants to be.

Stirring the Pot: Pick practically any of the Key Players above. Each has brought their own brand of change—and upheaval—to country music. Jason rapped, Luke went “boom boom,” and FGL cruised into hip-hop, while Hunter reintroduced the heartthrob image, Blake harnessed the power of the Internet, Taylor became a pop star, and Zac embraced a jam-band sensibility.

Recommended Listening: “Dirt Road Anthem,” Jason Aldean; “Drunk on You,” Luke Bryan; “Cruise,” Florida Georgia Line; “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” Taylor Swift; “Honey Bee,” Blake Shelton. 

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