“Y’all Means All”, except in country music

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Country music has been a staple of American culture for decades. Stars like Blake Shelton, Garth Brooks, and Tim McGraw have made a name for themselves in this genre, singing about blue-collar life and Southern American lifestyles.

As the nation’s veterans watched their careers culminate, a new generation of fresh blood began to fill in the gaps with their own takes. Chris Stapleton continued the styles of his predecessors while adding rock and soul to the genre. Kane Brown introduced elements of R&B and trap beats to the country, diversifying its soundscape. But while country music as a whole is progressing musically, it is still associated with the values ​​and politics of its veteran stars, namely those of the conservative South.

At the beginning of September this year, we saw this clash between the old and the new country at its height. Industry newcomer Maren Morris has applauded country veteran Jason Aldean after Aldean’s wife posted a transphobic comment on Instagram. The two sides have sparked an unprecedented spat over the defense of LGBTQ rights in country music, drawing support for their positions, questioning: does “all of you” really mean all of you?

For the majority of country music history, the answer is no. For decades, the country was dominated by white men. The music certainly reflects this, oversaturated with songs about beer, brothers and girls. Women make up a small portion of country music, with racial minorities being even less represented. A new generation of artists are beginning to speak out on progressive issues in the industry and have recently begun to address the lack of diversity within the genre, in particular the lack of BIPOC representation.

Likewise, the number of LGBTQ country stars is very limited. It wasn’t until recently that some stars, like Ty Herndon, Billy Gilman and Chely Wright, felt comfortable enough to come out. However, these artists only did so at the end of their careers, meaning they saw fewer spin-offs as a result. The only artists out of mainstream country, like TJ Osbourne of Brothers Osbourne or Brandi Carlile, have a smaller overall following compared to the big names in the genre.

Perhaps the most successful country song of recent years is “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X featuring Billy Ray Cyrus. Still, the song sparked debate over whether it was “country enough”. Billboard pulled the song from its country charts, deeming it ineligible the same week it would have reached number one on the Hot Country Songs chart. Lil Nas X, a black gay artist with also a hip-hop and rap background, doesn’t fit the mold of a “typical” country artist. Perhaps this narrow-mindedness in the music industry could explain why the song was not considered “country enough”. But several white country artists have used trap-inspired beats in their songs, like Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” and Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem.” Unlike “Old Town Road”, these are classified as country songs without a doubt.

It’s not that no one in country music champions marginalized bands. Dolly Parton is known for her advocacy for education, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights. Her vocal support of these causes made her a pioneering figure, as she was simultaneously able to receive industry respect while continuing to establish her legacy. Miranda Lambert, whose brother identifies as gay, is using her platform as a country veteran to speak out for equality for the LGBTQ community. Brothers Osbourne won a Grammy Award for Best Country Duo/Group Performance of 2022 for “Younger Me,” a song about young Osbourne’s experience in the closet.

However, there is not much a new star can do. Days after Morris spoke out against the Aldeans, Brittany Aldean was a guest on Tucker Carlson tonight, where Carlson called Morris a “crazy country musician.” Although Morris used this situation to raise money for trans youth, it significantly affected his popularity among the major country music demographics. Likewise, while Morgan Wallen was blacklisted from country radio, the effects were only temporary. Recently, he made a comeback, which means saying racial slurs isn’t offensive to most country music fans.

So what can country music do to adapt to changing times? Many have ignited the spark, but more needs to be done to keep the fuse burning. A broader and systematic inclusion of people of color and LGBTQ artists in mainstream country music should be a top priority. For example, the country music of the Latino community incorporates influences from the Hispanic South and the Mexican style, diversifying its sound. Yet it is rarely played on the radio, and any reference to the Latinx community in the country is based on existing stereotypes. Incorporating these artists and sounds will make country music much better, richer and more universal, perfecting respect for the genre’s fundamental goals.

There is a long way to go to fully include minorities in a category of music long dominated by one group of people. Ultimately, though, if the country industry wants to express “y’all” in its music, it must commit to including everyone.

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