Country » Country-Pop » Country-Pop
Prior to the rise of rock & roll, country music was rarely heard outside of its intended market, effectively isolating it from any concerns about wide accessibility. When rockabilly took off, however, country musicians were forced to consider whether their true affinities lay with traditional country or with this popular new style, which allowed artists to reach crossover audiences for the first time. This flirtation with the mainstream marked the beginnings of country-pop, which grew out of the realization that country-influenced music (as opposed to straight-ahead honky tonk) could be hybridized and smoothed out for mass consumption. RCA Records producer Chet Atkins was the most important figure in the initial cross-breeding of country and pop, creating a sound that was dubbed "countrypolitan" for its blend of rural sensibility and urban sophistication. Because the melodies and song structures of country music were usually very simple and catchy, they worked well when placed in a pop-oriented format; Atkins' productions often placed the songs in orchestral arrangements heavy on the strings, which sometimes blended with country instrumentation and sometimes stood alone. This approach resulted in a bevy of pop crossover hits for singers who could make the transition to Atkins' smooth, polished style, most notably Jim Reeves. Decca Records producer Owen Bradley crafted an even lusher sound for his artists, most importantly providing the sympathetic sonic environment that best showcased the angelic voice of Patsy Cline, and making her a star in the process. Countrypolitan pop eventually came to be tagged "the Nashville Sound," since nearly all of its records were produced there. But even as its practitioners racked up hit after hit, the first of many backlashes against country-pop began to form in the 1960s among artists frustrated at not fitting into the Nashville mold; the biggest came in the form of the Bakersfield sound, with its hard-driving beat, electric instrumentation, and love of old-style honky tonk. Nevertheless, the Nashville sound continued to prosper among fans of mainstream-oriented country. In fact, it became more popular than ever during the '70s thanks to producer Billy Sherrill, whose orchestrations and recordings were even more grandiose and detailed, and owed as much to "Wall of Sound" rock producer Phil Spector as they did to Atkins and Bradley; George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Charlie Rich, and Conway Twitty all benefited immensely from his touch. A simpler country-pop sound, which more closely resembled pop/rock with country trappings, also made inroads on non-country radio during the decade, thanks in part to country-rock fusion efforts by Bob Dylan, the Byrds, and the Flying Burrito Brothers; this sound was spearheaded by artists like Glen Campbell, John Denver and B.J. Thomas. The mid-'70s saw another rebellion in the edgier, more eclectic form of outlaw country, but by the end of the decade, the film Urban Cowboy had popularized a new variation on country-pop (named after the film), which smoothed the music out even more by blending it with soft-rock influences. During the mid- to late '80s, the new traditionalist movement sought to return country to its honky tonk roots, but its polished (yet not elaborate) production helped lay the groundwork for a new breed of country-pop that was informed by rock & roll, both in its driving beat and its big-sounding production techniques. This sound made Garth Brooks a superstar during the '90s and brought pop crossover success to Billy Ray Cyrus; toward the end of the decade, the emphasis had shifted to female vocalists like Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes, and Faith Hill, whose brands of country-pop could encompass soft-rock covers, roots-rock, or arena-rock-style production.