NASHVILLE — On any given Thursday night in Nashville, you can stand on a neon-soaked, tourist-packed block of Lower Broadway and hear Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart” blasting from a band at Layla’s Honky Tonk. Brooks & Dunn’s “Red Dirt Road” from Legends Corner. Clay Walker’s “If I Could Make a Living” from Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” from a passing car. Big & Rich’s “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” from the speakers of a pedal tavern filled with bros, who loudly boo when they pedal past and you decline to give them a high-five.
And just up the street, if you step out of the party zone and into the historic Ryman Auditorium, you can hear the audience’s ear-shattering screams at Carly Pearce’s Oct. 28 concert when Trisha Yearwood stops by to croon “How Do I Live,” Ronnie Dunn arrives to sing “Cowgirls Don’t Cry” and Kelsea Ballerini shows up to cover the Chicks’s 1999 classic “Cowboy Take Me Away.”
It doesn’t really matter where you are: In country music, the genre’s iconic ′90s and early 2000s hits — and the acts that sing them — continue to reign supreme. After all, it was the era when country’s biggest acts became chart-topping, stadium-filling superstars, bringing country music to its widest audience ever — so it makes sense that singers, songwriters, executives and even fans cling to that time.
“That might be the loudest thing I’ve ever heard,” Martina McBride said to the roar of the sold-out crowd the following night across the street at Bridgestone Arena, where she was the opening act for Wynonna Judd. McBride sounded choked up as thousands gave her a standing ovation after she belted out “A Broken Wing,” her famous ballad from 1997. “God, I love Nashville,” she said.
“You have no idea how much you mean to the world,” Yearwood, the concert’s special guest singer, told Judd, who collected 14 No. 1 hits between 1984 and 1991 with her mother and duo partner, the late Naomi Judd. The noise level at Bridgestone was only rivaled the next night at the tour stop at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., where Judd’s guest singer was Faith Hill. Her husband, Tim McGraw, watched the show from the floor seats, and briefly entertained the audience by dancing between sets to Brooks & Dunn’s 1991 line dance anthem “Boot Scootin’ Boogie.”
Spend some time in Nashville and you will see this nostalgia obsession play out repeatedly and eventually televised on a national platform at Wednesday’s 2022 Country Music Association Awards. The three-hour broadcast on ABC came alive about a half-hour in when Jo Dee Messina strolled onstage during Cole Swindell’s performance of his five-week No. 1 single “She Had Me At Heads Carolina,” a reimagining of Messina’s 1996 smash “Heads Carolina, Tails California.” (“She’s a ′90s country fan, like I am,” Swindell sings approvingly in his song about a girl he meets in a karaoke bar.)
“Y’all give it up for Jo Dee Messina!” Swindell yelled at the end and bowed to Messina, who beamed and waved to the screaming crowd. A similar reaction occurred later when Chris Stapleton collaborated with Patty Loveless on “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” which she recorded in 2001. Ditto during the Alan Jackson lifetime achievement award tribute when the cameras could barely keep up with the number of country stars dancing in the audience, as various artists performed his hits spanning from “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow” (1990) to “Remember When” (2003).
While observing all of this, the question arises: If a genre is this fixated on the past, what does that mean for its future? After talking to many people in the industry, as well as those industry-adjacent who count themselves as superfans, the answer is complicated.
First, it should be noted that country is far from alone when it comes to being obsessed with the past. The broader culture is going through a ′90s and 2000s nostalgia craze, from re-watch podcasts to TV and movie reboots and band reunion tours. But country music stands out as a place that was already fixated on its past.
Countless songs reminisce about the good old days, like McGraw’s “Back When” — and wonder why things can’t be as simple as they used to be, even if it’s recalling a fictional problem-free town that never actually existed, such as Rascal Flatts’s “Mayberry.” As a result, country music’s determination to constantly pay tribute to past legends and celebrate its history can make it difficult to move forward, and particularly now as the industry that likes to bill itself as one big family is more divided than ever as it grapples with complex issues like the rest of America.
The unpleasantness that has rankled Nashville was successfully swept under the rug on the CMAs broadcast. Nominees Jason Aldean and Maren Morris were both in the audience just two months after a rare social media blowup when Aldean’s wife, Brittany, posted an Instagram video that Morris criticized as transphobic.
About six weeks later, Aldean leaned into the controversy as he sarcastically told the crowd at a Bridgestone concert that he might bring Morris up onstage, and flashed a smile when fans booed — and then proceeded to welcome to the stage Morgan Wallen, best known to mainstream audiences as the singer who was caught on TMZ video last year saying the n-word and only becoming more popular when fans (and some Nashville singers and industry executives) fretted he was being unfairly “canceled.”
Both controversies made national news and spotlighted the larger issues that the format has yet to fully deal with, from the overwhelmingly White genre’s extreme lack of diversity to how LGBTQ singers have been marginalized by the industry for decades. Such incidents are discussed at length behind the scenes, and has caused a lot of soul-searching in Nashville as some have realized they have to work closely with people whose views they despise — while others wish everyone could just focus on the music, because they are at a loss to solve these problems.
In other whispered conversations — where people furtively glance over their shoulders at events and restaurants, because you never know who might be standing right behind you in this industry town — there’s further anxiety over how to respond to these issues publicly. Multiple people in the industry were unimpressed by CMA co-host Luke Bryan’s defensive statement last month after he saw backlash for inviting the “very polarizing” (his words) Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) onstage at a concert, seemingly trying to argue that it wasn’t a political statement because he was promoting awareness for hurricane relief.
And of course, it’s all compounded by the fact that country music, like all genres, is struggling to adapt to the future of streaming, confronting a touring industry that was crippled by the pandemic and struggling with how to break new music stars other than advising them to somehow go viral on TikTok — a frustration that has spilled into public as musicians vent about this new pressure placed upon them.
So it’s no wonder that the day before the CMAs at the BMI Country Awards (a star-studded private industry event that honors songwriters), everyone preferred to bask in nostalgic times. Toby Keith was awarded the BMI Icon Award, and stars from Eric Church to Carrie Underwood performed covers of his hits and raved about his rise to stardom. Discussion of the difficulties songwriters face as royalties dry up in the streaming era were left to another night.
“It was artists like you that taught kids like me that greatness was possible if you work hard, give it all you got,” Underwood said before putting her spin on “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” Keith’s first No. 1 single in 1993.
It was more of the same the following night when CMA voters awarded the entertainer of the year prize (for the second year in a row) to Luke Combs. He’s the genre’s newest megastar who speaks frequently about legendary ‘′90s duo Brooks & Dunn as one of his biggest inspirations — and has found massive success by combining modern production with (you guessed it) a traditional ’90s country sound.