Arts & Events

Y’allternative: Who Does Country Belong To?

Album cover for Beyonce’s 2024 album “COWBOY CARTER”

By Ari Lauer-Frey

  To some, country is the voice of a nation – patriotic music at its core (though whether patriotism is defined by Toby Keith’s uncritical praise in songs like “Courtesy Of The Red, White, and Blue,” or in Johnny Cash’s calls for prison reform, is another point of contention). To others, it is whitewashed pop for the masses characterized by ultra-produced anthems about trucks, beers, and summer skies. In reality, country music is much more than any one angle suggests; the histories and identities comprising it are as diverse and complicated as everything else in this country. Country music belongs to anyone and everyone who finds a use for it, and it seems that more and more musicians and audiences are claiming this ownership – exemplified in the recent popularization of the term “y’allternative.” As Gita Jackson explains in her Vice article titled “Y’Allternative Tiktokers Are A Little Bit Country, A Little Bit Rock N Roll,” the y’allternative approach is “one part appreciation of where you grew up, and one part reclaiming something that rejected you.” For music, the term seems to be a way of describing and declaring the vast possibilities of what can emerge from a country aesthetic. 

  Tracking country music’s origins would take a lifetime of scholarship to truly do it justice, as the genre’s influence can be found in every facet of American life, going back to the very beginnings of the project that is the United States. However, country music’s most essential elements can be traced to the folk tales, songs, and instruments brought to the Americas by European immigrants and enslaved Africans and the ways in which these traditions changed and coalesced through the centuries. The banjo, for example, developed from narrow-necked string instruments of Africa (most likely the akonting, a folk lute from West Africa). Similarly, the structurally and thematically simple (yet dramatic) tone that is recognizable in most country music calls back to the old ballad traditions of the British Isles, the spirituals of Black churches, and the soulful language of the blues. The mixing and mashing of culture and tradition produced a strong, diverse musical landscape. The creation of country music was not just one sound,one thing or one people, but rather many: country blues, bluegrass, folk, southern gospel, honky-tonk, rockabilly, outlaw country, Americana, countrypolitan – all children of the same family.

  It was with the introduction and broad utilization of recording equipment in the 1920s that country music gained a new presence in America, largely through national radio stations – notably the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville (the world’s longest-running public radio program). The radio allowed country music to transcend the informality of oral tradition and enter the commercialized space of recorded tradition. But, of course, a commercialized space also meant an increasingly racialized and gendered space; the majority of recording opportunities went to white and, particularly, male artists, such as Gene Autry, Hank Williams, and Waylon Jennings. Some space was made for female artists as well, including Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and June Carter, but the mainstream world of country music remained predominantly white. This continuity can be seen in the popularization of the “countrypolitan” style, which has dominated country music for approximately two decades now and is led by acts like Garth Brooks, Florida Georgia Line, and Tim McGraw.

  Though the history of commercial country paints the genre as the musical space of white, heteronormative, and often conservative men (and to some degree it is), its roots and essence stretch much further. Country music belongs to anyone passionate for it, and this pool seems to be growing; this new proclivity was seen and heard in the pop realm in 2018 with Lil Nas X and his combination of country drawl and trap beat on the immensely popular song “Old Town Road.” And we see it again all over Beyonce’s recently released album “COWBOY CARTER,” which includes features from artists such as Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Linda Martell. Popular music critic Anthony Fantano describes this situation in his album review for “COWBOY CARTER,” saying, The country industry has lost complete touch with the soul of the genre for well over a decade now, as it has repeatedly pumped out all this bro-country, commercial sludge. And thankfully, you have a new generation of commercially successful artists who are finally bringing it back to basics again.” This increased musical willingness to play with the elements of country is creating a self-feeding cycle: people of more diverse backgrounds are making country, breaking down established normativities and assumptions regarding country music artists and fans, which in turn is inspiring more people of diverse backgrounds to contribute and listen. 

  The trend of country embracement is particularly clear in the recent popularization of the term “Y’allternative,” used across a plethora of platforms as a means of stating identity and describing aesthetic. As Gita Jackson further states in her article analyzing the use of the term on TikTok, “The ‘y’allternative’ hashtag is for everyone who’s ever wondered if a country boy can love an emo girl.” Y’allternative seems to be used as a sort of counternarrative against the generalization of what “country” people are like (namely white and conservative); it is an assertion that country people are not as homogenous as such generalizations make them out to be – that country includes goths, punks, nerds, leftists, Queer people, and people of color; country can mean people of a variety of backgrounds, beliefs, and conceptions of personal identity. It is no surprise, then, that the musical communities of Indie and Alternative have been perhaps the most frequent and ambitious utilizers of country sounds and aesthetics. Here are some artists to give you a taste of what this sonic combination can sound like. 

Pony – Orville Peck

Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Orville Peck is the deep-voiced country persona of Daniel Pitout, a former member of the Canadian punk band Nu Sensae. On “Pony,” Peck takes the tried-and-true outlaw aesthetic and recontextualizes it on this stripped-back, at times shoegaze-y album.   

Why Does the Earth Give Us People to Love? – Kara Jackson

This debut album from Kara Jackson is a masterful singer-songwriter project; the sparse instrumentation – with subtle implementation of the slide guitar throughout – and thoughtful production leave all the attention on Jackson’s strong voice and even stronger lyricism.

Mowing the Leaves Instead of Piling ‘em Up – Wednesday

As they state in their Spotify biography, Wednesday’s music is like “A short story collection, a half-memory, a patchwork of portraits of the American South, disparate moments that somehow make sense as a whole.” This statement is particularly true of their album, “Mowing the Leaves Instead of Piling ‘em Up,” in which the communication across time, culture, and moments is clear in the meld of old-school twang and new-school noise – they completely reimagine a handful of old country hits, such as Gary Stewart’s “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Double).” 

The Second Death – Evil

Full of intimately religious lyricism, Evil’s 2022 EP “The Second Death” melds the strings of country with the production techniques of bedroom pop and electronica in a wholly entertaining way.

Soon – Hana Stretton

On her debut album “Soon,” Hana Stretton takes scattered instrumentation and vocals, combines them with sometimes folksy and sometimes gospel-esque choices, and presses them together into a project of soundscapes that places the listener somewhere within a natural landscape of fields and sunset.