What does Chely Wright’s changing musical style say about the state of country music?
Published at Newsweek.com.
This week, singer Chely Wright will come out not just once, but twice. The musician who had country-radio hits a few years back, including “Single White Female” and the pro-military “Bumper of My SUV,” reveals to People magazine that she is a lesbian. This announcement coincides with the release of her first album in five years, Lifted Off the Ground. The album is a coming out of a second kind: a quick listen makes clear that she is breaking from country music as defined by mainstream country radio and instead casting her lot in the genre known as Americana.
Americana—also known as alternative-country—is now roughly two decades old, and it remains a delightfully ill-defined sound. No Depression magazine, the leading publication for the genre, long described itself as covering “alternative-country music (whatever that is).” Today, Americana is home to bluegrassers (and sometimes bluesmen) who reach hipster audiences, country singers popular in the 1970s who have been left behind by country radio, and singer-songwriters too idiosyncratic for the cookie-cutter hits churned out by the Nashville factory system. But some artists have sought refuge in Americana primarily because Nashville became politically uncomfortable. The Dixie Chicks are the most notable act in this camp: always a little heavy on the mandolin and Patty Griffin covers that are at home in alt-country, they would have likely remained the queens of country radio were it not for an offhand quip against the Iraq War in 2003 that instantly got them effectively banned from the mainstream country airwaves.
If Americana is a refugee camp for political liberals in Music City, it is ironic that the genre’s political impulse has evolved much the way mainstream country’s did. Continue reading