How Taylor Swift’s latest album shows the rebirth of America’s Country genre
‘I’m doing good, I’m on some new sh*t,’ Taylor Swift lilts on the opening track. Indeed, it seems she is. Swift recently released her eighth album out to the world – Folklore – a strikingly different work to her much lauded previous efforts. Evoking a whimsical fairytale, ‘cottage-core’, aesthetic that has gained traction amid lockdown measures, this sixteen-track album falls on the alternative spectrum; between alternative rock and indie folk.
Fans who have been there from the beginning and miss her country past will find solace in this lockdown-borne production. Swift has circled back to her roots after experimenting with different formats of pop across previous albums and has peppered it with a twist, incorporating elements of indie and rock that echo influences of past decades.
Swift is seen standing alone in the middle of a forest in her album cover, in a black and white filter, suggesting both the rediscovery and transformation of her country past.
In a hit-tip to her country music roots, the singer-songwriter delves deep into story-telling and personal narratives. Together with co-writers, Jack Antonoff, and Aaron Dessner of The National, she veers out of her tradition of writing about heartbreaks and indulges the listener with stories with fictional, third-person narratives and personal tidbits from her current relationship. ‘Swift’s return to her truest self – both musically and stylistically – in Folklore is a sign of the times.’
The Nashville sound, a subgenre of country characterised by smooth melodies and backing vocals, and typically played by acoustic instruments, can be picked up on in Folklore.
The Last Great American Dynasty is more representative of this sound within the beginning tracks, with its more upbeat tempo and melody. American motifs also run throughout the song (Standard Oil and Rhode Island, for example), and included with the title, complete the track’s country vibe.
With Mirrorball, we cannot help but think of a ballad similarly employed in country music. One that teenagers can slow-dance to at high school proms.
Like The Last Great American Dynasty, August has a quick tempo that before you know it takes you from verse to chorus to the repeated bridge. “Remember when I pulled up and said get in the car?”, Swift asks in echoing vocals – accompanied by an acoustic guitar, it also calls to the mind imagery of rustic summer days that for sure belong to the sub-country genre.
In Illicit Affairs, she softly sings in a heartfelt manner over a melody that is finger-plucked on a guitar; Invisible String is also plucked on banjo, and manages to capture a nostalgic, day-dream like quality when she fondly shares memories and her fateful relationship with Joe Alwyn.
Finally, Betty is a perfect reminder of where the artist grew up, containing the sounds of a harmonica and a simple guitar strumming pattern that belong to Nashville.
But Swift is not the only one who is recalling old country influences. Tennessee-born singer Miley Cyrus went back to her own country roots three years ago in her sixth album, Younger Now.
Tracks like Week Without You and Inspired involve that country twang that has once or twice drawn comparisons with the works of Shania Twain. Week Without You and Miss You So Much have led many to call these songs “full-out country in its production”; Inspired is composed of typical country instruments – a plucked guitar and a violin – along with intimate, soulful vocals in the latter mentioned track; Rainbowland presents a double whammy in that it not only sounds country, but includes the vocals of iconic country queen and godmother, Dolly Parton. Cyrus is affirmed as “leaning into her roots”, affirms her father with his own iconic career in country music, Billy Ray Cyrus.
Speaking of, the patriarch of the singer-studded family went viral a little while ago with his collaboration with Lil Nas X. The Old Town Road song had already belonged to the country genre, even if it was to the subgenre, country-trap. But Billboard had deemed it not having enough country elements to it, and quietly removed it from their country chart category. Once Billy Ray chimed in with his familiar vocals, however, the song achieved and reigned the number one spot, where it stayed for nineteen consecutive weeks in the Billboard Hot 100.
Although Old Town Road might not be a traditional country song due to its mixture of trap and hip-hop, it is interesting to note how the country scene is evolving by prominently including a black artist. Historically, the country genre has been dominated by white artists even though the South (birthplace of country music), has a significant black population. Country is not only making re-appearances in the charts, but more importantly it is going further in adapting to modern times.
Like Swift, Kacey Musgraves and Kelsea Ballerini are also young, female, artists that are steadily reviving the genre back to popularity.
Musgraves, for instance, already boasts six Grammy Award wins. Golden Hour, her critically acclaimed fourth album, was responsible for elevating her in the charts and achieving a remarkable feat – winning all four of its nominated categories at the coveted music awards ceremony.
Perhaps it is the subject matter of the artist’s lyrics that have given new life to the often conservative genre. Musgraves does not shy away from including her progressive views in her work, such as her alliance with the LGBT community and thus generating new interest and new fans into the genre. Like Swift, Musgraves has also simultaneously added elements of other genres – from electro-pop to yacht rock – into her music, giving the impression that a fusion of country with other genres can draw in a larger audience.
Ballerini is also someone who can be considered a versatile country artist thanks to her collaborations with Halsey and The Chainsmokers (with whom she performed at the 2018 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show). Kelsea, her most recent album, blends country with pop making it more digestible but staying true to traditional country songwriting style with tracks like A Country Song. Rolling Stone Magazine said of her last album; “She’s simultaneously the most country, and the least, she’s ever been.”
Last but not least, we cannot talk about the comeback of country music without mentioning Shania Twain. Along with Cyrus’ Younger Now, Twain’s new album, Now, was released in 2017. Debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, loyal listeners show that the queen of country pop can still wield influence, even after years of inactivity.
More recently at the American Music Awards, crowds erupted when she delivered a medley of her greatest hits, including That Don’t Impress Me Much and Man! I Feel Like A Woman. Twain also performed covers of songs from artists of other genres, Drake and Post Malone.
Amidst the time when new genres like trap and kpop, are taking over the radio, it is harder for the country genre to achieve the same viral consumption. Nowadays, country is seen at the bottom of the food chain – if you listen to it, there must be something wrong with your music taste. But Old Town Road has shown that it is possible for country to stay relevant, if it were to reinvent itself – something it might not have done had it not been threatened by the novelty and dynamism other genres offer.
Altogether, Cyrus, Twain and Swift, as prominent female singers with a country background, have demonstrated that this type of western sound can be revisited after a time, and not be dismissed by audiences – especially by loyal fans.
In Swift’s case, it was country that first established her fan base, and throughout time, her fans have grown with her and her music. (As Hannah Montana, Cyrus dabbled between country and pop). Collectively, however, Cyrus and Swift have shown that revisiting the Nashville sound offers for them – after the turbulence of past romantic relationships and struggles with their identity in front of the entire world (including fans who have had to watch) – a chance to revisit their childhood, and go back to who they are at the core.
Indeed, Swift has managed to create an indie album that’s ‘much cooler than’ her country pop albums, but that also pays homage to what got her started out in the first place.
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