Sam Hunt performing at the Tortuga Musical Festival back in 2015. Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road” was on the Billboard Top 10 for most of the summer. JOSH RHINEHART/FLICKR VIA CC BY-NC 2.0

Country artists have increasingly enlisted the help of mainstream pop artists or pop sound to achieve cross over appeal. It’s a gradual evolution; it doesn’t happen overnight. The Taylor Swift model is easy to emulate and it’s building a new generation of country artists. The shift is causing a civil war within the country music scene.

You might have seen it on Monday Night Football before the Dallas Cowboys and their manager, Jerry Jones, took a knee. Country group Florida Georgia Line has a Frankenstein monster version of “Are You Ready for Some Football,” with pop artist Jason Derulo and traditional country music artist Hank Williams Jr.. The song is rough on the ears because it fuses two sounds that aren’t traditionally combined.

However, artists like Sam Hunt, Thomas Rhett, Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan  have tweaked their sound over time to be more conventional mainstream. Country music is extremely niche, and to pay the bills, the music has to not make you want to change the radio dial. Country music has a very limited reach. For perspective, New York City got its first full time country radio station in 2013.

Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road,” spent most of the summer on the Billboard top ten. The song has no discernible country features, and all of the instrumentals are non-acoustic.

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Another one of Hunt’s songs, “Break Up in a Small Town,” sounds alien on country stations too. There’s rapping over dubstep breakdowns and a rap delivery over the rest of the song’s lyrics. Nonetheless, it got country station airplay because Hunt’s label released it to country radio. “Break Up in a Small Town,” was perfectly at home on top 40 radio.

Tim McGraw, Blake Shelton and other country mainstays rarely have that crossover success. Country music is its own unique kingdom; it has its own award shows and culture. The Country Music Awards may seem like an Alabama Crimson Tide football game, but it’s country’s Grammy awards. Pop country culture is about cracking open a cold one with the boys and turning up on a Saturday afternoon.

It’s where the new artists cut their teeth and gain national exposure. New artists get nominated for awards and perform with more established acts. The CMAs give birth to unique and outright bizarre collaborations like Florida Georgia Line and Nelly’s version of “Cruise.” Nelly collaborating on that song ultimately led to him going on tour with Florida Georgia Line. Yes, the “Hot in Herre” singer had a second life as an opening act for country artists.

Florida Georgia Line and Sam Hunt’s studio heavy sound sours conventional country fans. But to get wider recognition and airplay, those studio reliant artists will continue to develop an outright pop sound.

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The pop country is mindless fun, it’s not going to inspire deep reflection. The songs about romance are similar to “Body like a Back Road,” it’s about intimacy in a juvenile high school way.

The typical country song will feature live instruments, as in not generated by a machine. The subject matter is not diverse, it’s typically the same as the pop country. However, the themes are more mature. See Miranda Lambert’s “The Weight Of These Wings,” an album about her public divorce from fellow country artist Blake Shelton.

Both sub-genres have worth in the music spectrum. Sometimes you’re in the mood to cry by yourself and sometimes you’re at a house party and want to mindlessly sing along to pop music masquerading as country music. 

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