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The changing face of country music

The changing face of country music — Sarah Evans, Big & Rich, and Gretchen Wilson are a few of the artists bringing new life to the genre

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When Sara Evans was recording her 2003 album, Restless, there was one ugly duckling of a song that almost didn’t make the cut — ”Suds in the Bucket,” a winsome ditty about a small-town girl who elopes. ”We had too many songs,” says Evans, ”and a bunch of people kept saying we should drop that one.” The fiddle-and-steel-guitar-driven hillbilly tune was eventually tacked on to the end of an otherwise pop-rock-leaning disc. Recalls producer Paul Worley: ”I raised my hand and said, ‘Look, I could be wrong, but it might be good to have something country on your album. Just might come in handy!’ I don’t know why, but it felt like the seasons were changing.”

Good weather vane. When it came time to release a third single off Evans’ album, her label, RCA, decided to take a long shot and went with ”Suds.” It went to No. 1 last fall, becoming Evans’ biggest hit and affording her bragging rights as country radio’s most-played female artist of 2004. All this because a curious trend had quietly developed: Country music started sounding like country music again.

Turn on the radio and you’ll find that suddenly — unlike during most of the blanded-out ’90s — there’s no balking at banjos, no trepidation about twang. Just a few years ago, mainstream country was dominated by smooth, pop-leaning superstars like Garth and Faith, leaving George Strait and Alan Jackson as lonely old-school anomalies. But now, neotraditionalist anthems like Gretchen Wilson’s ”When I Think About Cheatin”’ and ”Homewrecker” and Lee Ann Womack’s ”I May Hate Myself in the Morning” are the pride of the format. ”Eight years ago, when Faith and Shania exploded big, the transformation was to turn ’em into divas,” says R.J. Curtis, program director of KZLA in Los Angeles, the nation’s biggest country station. ”Now it’s not about that, as Gretchen has proven. She’s a hard-ass! The pendulum is definitely swinging back in the general direction of traditional-sounding country.”

Some young rebels are even taking country places it’s never before dared to go. That’s where the Big & Rich revolution comes in. These progressive classicists have their roots firmly in pre-1975 country but lace it with hard rock and even hip-hop. The first signing to their own label is the ”hick-hop” Texas rapper Cowboy Troy, who also appears on their album. ”What Big & Rich and I have done is just open doors for some different flavors,” says Wilson, whose debut album, Here for the Party, is the best-selling country album released last year. ”If you listen to other genres of music, you hear all sorts of different styles; you can listen to pop music and the songs can be drastically different from each other. That’s all that we’re doing — stepping outside of the typical country box for something that hasn’t been heard before.” Or as Big Kenny puts it, ”It’s like the bear humping the log says: If it feels good, do it.”

It’s not that mainstream country suddenly lacks for crap. For every ”Suds in the Bucket,” there’s something as onerous as Phil Vassar’s current chart climber, ”Hot Tub Song.” And the scene still needs a new singer-songwriter on the level of a Willie or Merle or Tom T. Hall whose depth will stand over decades. But for sheer fun, there’s more good country music in the mainstream than there has been at any time since the mid-1970s. Just listen: From tear-in-your-beer ballads like Strait’s ”I Hate Everything” to pun-driven comic romps like Blake Shelton’s ”Some Beach” to the cheerful sex and sass of Gary Allan’s ”Nothing on but the Radio” — all No. 1 chart-toppers since last fall — there have been solid hits for every sensibility, be it retro or rebellious, spiritual or salacious.