This Article Originally Published March 1999

by Rex Benson

The country music umbrella now encompasses a wide spectrum of musical styles. From an urban pre-teen to a rural senior, the country music fan is more diverse than ever. And while there may be no specific definition for each of those styles of music, we will define "Country Music," for the purposes of this discussion, as that music which falls under the jurisdiction of 1999 Mainstream Country Radio.

Now that leaves a lot of related musical formats out in the cold. Used to be that the medium was referred to as "Country & Western". But you rarely hear any western music on mainstream country radio anymore, so it's now in a category of its own. If you want to hear Michael Martin Murphey sing a cowboy song, you probably shouldn't tune in Mainstream Country Radio.

There are three basic styles of current country music: Traditional, Mainstream and Contemporary (pop-country). Try looking at it like the American Political System—on the right are the Conservative Republicans (Traditional) , on the left are the Liberal Democrats (Contemporary/Pop-Country), and in the middle are the Moderates (Mainstream). Think of Alan Jackson as the George Bush of country music. Get the idea?

If you take that visual approach to the industry, you will realize that there are basically three idealized types of music within the format. But in the same way that three Primary colors make up all the other colors by mixing, so too are musical styles mixed to create more categories. These categories don't all have names or definitions, but I can give you examples...

Traditional artists by 1999 standards would include George Jones, Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, Lee Ann Womack, and others. However, what makes them Traditional may be a combination of things: vocal stylings, musical tracks, subject matter, instrumentation, etc. You may have Randy Travis who has been labeled "The First of the New Traditionalists" (and who undoubtedly has a traditional country voice) recording a song that is more mainstream—as he did recently with "Spirit of a Boy, Wisdom of A Man," (written by TAXI member Glen Burtnik,) and that will affect the feel of the song. Is that Traditional Country Music? I think so. You can't hide Randy's traditional vocals.

And what about when LeAnn Rimes, who has been recording more and more contemporary songs, decides to record an album of Traditional Country standards? Will they still be contemporary? Probably not as contemporary as they would be had they been more pop oriented songs. But not as traditional as they would be if it were Lee Ann Womack singing them. It's a mixture. Let's go back to our color analogy. Once you add the tiniest drop of yellow to pure blue, it will never be pure blue again. And, no matter how much yellow you add to pure blue, it will never be pure yellow. In addition to LeAnn Rimes, other contemporary country artists of today include Shania Twain, Mindy McCready, Collin Raye and John Berry.

That leaves the most compelling category: Mainstream Country. This includes the widest spectrum of artists. Take for example, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, George Strait, Pam Tillis and Joe Diffie. Each of these artists may cross over the lines between mainstream and traditional or between mainstream and contemporary. Some, like Patty & Pam, may cross both ways. The truth is, it's not the artists that put these labels on the music—it's usually radio or other peripheral folks doing it. To the artists, it's just music.

Another prevalent term in country music is "Crossover." And one of the things that country music has lost is the true crossover artist. We don't have a 1980s version of Kenny Rogers anymore, where he could release one song to pop-A/C radio and another, from the same album, to country radio. Due to the tremendous rigors of promoting a song to just one musical format (with a promotional blitz, marketing and interviews), crossing over an artist has become quite rare. Additionally, country radio is incestuous. As an artist, you're either "one of us," or "you're not"! They like to keep it in the family.

As for describing the term "edgy," let's just say that it's what you hear in Tim McGraw's voice, it's what you get in Hal Ketchum's tracks and in Diamond Rio's harmonies. It's the feeling you get from a Walt Aldridge production.

So just what is the definition of country? You tell me!

As a writer/publisher/song plugger, Rex Benson has placed songs with country artists such as Garth Brooks, Joe Diffie, Tammy Wynette, Kenny Rogers and others. Rex currently represents his songs and songs of other writers, in both Nashville and Los Angeles. He is also a member of the TAXI A&R staff.