How the Rise of “the Nashville Sound” Sparked a Rift Between Purists and Pop

Once upon a time, country music was pretty straightforward. Acoustic instruments with an emphasis on strings like violin and banjo were par for the course. Starting in the 1970s, however, a new form of country music started to emerge. This was defined by a glitzier image and artists incorporating electronic elements and other musical styles into their otherwise rootsy songs. 

Videos by American Songwriter

Over the decades, country music has gone in many directions. Today, we have not just country, but country-pop, country-rock, and even country-metal! Unsurprisingly, these shifts have proven controversial. It turns out that many people, both at home and within the music industry, have strong feelings about what country music should be. Let’s look at the rise of “commercial” country, and how it sparked a fight among musicians. 

The Evolution of Country Music 

The earliest forms of country music had their roots in the folk songs of Ireland, England, Scotland, and eventually America. Some styles were influenced by the musical traditions of regions within the United States—for example, bluegrass stems from the music of Appalachia. 

Modern country was also influenced by African-American gospel music and even jazz and blues. In this way, it was the ultimate melting pot of a genre from the very beginning. 

Country music stayed more or less the same for many years. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the more honky-tonk style began to be threatened by a newcomer approach soon known as “the Nashville Sound.” 

The Nashville Sound partly arose in response to the growing popularity of rock and roll. Musicians like Elvis Presley were dominating the charts, and pushing country singers into the background. The style was more polished in some ways than traditional country music. It used a more commercial structure, professional background vocals, and sleek string accompaniments. 

Country-Pop and Backlash

By the 1970s, pop-flavored country was on the rise. The goal? To attract a mainstream audience and produce hits that had a home on both country and pop radio. In addition to dedicated country-pop (or “Countrypolitan”) artists, there were also pop musicians finding their way into country—or at least a country-adjacent sound. 

One case in point: Olivia Newton-John, an Australian pop singer who rather abruptly arrived at releasing country material. Newton-John’s “Let Me Be There” hit big and won her a Grammy Award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. The next year, 1974, she also clinched Female Vocalist of the Year from the Country Music Association.

The country community didn’t care for the development. Many musicians saw the win as an outright insult—especially when Newton-John had been up against long-established singers like Tammy Wynette, Marie Osmond, and Dottie Fairchild. Nominees for the CMA Award included Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Anne Murray, and Tanya Tucker. To say she was among country royalty is an understatement. 

Newton-John didn’t have long-term career goals in country music, but it didn’t matter. Led by George Jones and Tammy Wynette, country musicians founded the Association of Country Entertainers. The goal: to fight against the rise of country-pop and stand up for what country music was really all about. 


The Association of Country Entertainers mostly consisted of members of the Grand Ole Opry. They were respected and established titans of country music with strong opinions about what the genre should be. 

The ACE didn’t have a long life, however. By the early 1980s, it had collapsed entirely. The reason was probably that its members were trying to fight the turning tide of making country music “mainstream”—which was exactly what executives wanted it to be. 

Regardless of its long-term success, its members did manage to make themselves heard. The next year, after announcing John Denver had won the CMA for Entertainer of the Year, presenter Charlie Rich whipped out a lighter and burned the card onstage. 

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, country increasingly became a crossover genre. With every new generation, musicians protested that it wasn’t the same. In the 1990s, artists such as Shania Twain gained widespread appeal thanks to their blend of country, rock, and pop. 

In 1994, Alan Jackson protested against the commercialization of country music by appearing in blue jeans and a Hank Williams T-shirt at the ACM Awards. He also sent his drummer onstage without any drumsticks to protest against being forced to perform to a prerecorded track. 

[RELATED: Remember When: Alan Jackson Protests on Behalf of His Idol at the CMA Awards]

Five years later, Jackson made an infamous stand on behalf of his friend George Jones. At the CMAs that year, he interrupted his own performance to play Jones’s “Choices.” His point was made pretty clear: commercial country artists should not be pushing aside the titans of the genre who deserved the utmost respect. 

As for Jones, he remained vocal about his views on country music until his death. In 2009, when asked his thoughts about country-pop singers like Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift by, he had a blunt response. 

“They’ve stolen our identity,” he said. “They had to use something that was established already, and that’s traditional country music. So what they need to do really, I think, is find their own title, because they’re definitely not traditional country music.”

However, Jones did add that he enjoyed many kinds of music—he just didn’t think country-pop deserved to be included in the country genre. 

People on both sides of the argument still have strong feelings about what country music is, or what it should be. But there’s no sign of its evolution toward appealing to the broadest fanbase possible slowing down. 

Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images

Leave a Reply

Greetings from Barcelona: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Announce Second 2024 Show in Spanish City