Using Pandora’s Genome, we spotlight artists ushering in country music’s bold new sounds
Country music is getting synthier by the day.
While artists across genres started featuring the synth predominantly soon after the invention of the Moog Synthesizer in the late 1960s, country has taken its time to embrace it. There were early experimentations by artists like Townes van Zandt (“Snake Song”) and Gil Trythall, who released a country record using only synths with 1972’s Country Moog + Nashville Gold. But for the most part, the instrument hasn’t had much of a voice in popular country music.
But newer country acts have been embracing the synth in recent years, like Kacey Musgraves on her genre-blending fourth studio album Golden Hour — specifically, the synthy “Butterflies” and “Space Cowboy” — or Sam Hunt on his recent hit “Downtown’s Dead.”
Taking notice of this trend, we used data from Pandora’s Music Genome to look at the synth’s presence in the genre from 1965 to now to figure out if the things are indeed synthier than they used to be. And our hunch was right: The number of synth-laden country tunes started to rise about five years ago. Here’s the raw number of country songs that have a predominant synth presence, according to Pandora’s Genome:
(Even when we look at this trend based on the percentage of synth-y country songs compared to total songs released every year, the trend still holds up.) The most dramatic jump came in 2013, when the number of synth-y country tunes nearly doubled compared to 2012. Last year was the synth-iest year to date for the genre, with nearly 700 country songs with heavy synth presence.
So what happened in 2013? The expansion of streaming encouraged artists to push beyond their country-radio boundaries. People have pondered how streaming has changed pop songwriting, but not much has been said about its influence on country. But Rachel Whitney, head of country programming at Pandora, says streaming has “blown the doors wide open for new, and old, sounds in country music.”
“Now, artists like Chris Stapleton and Margo Price can experience unprecedented success without mainstream radio support,” she says. “This also extends to newer musical influences that radio might have been more tentative to play. Kacey Musgraves has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, it doesn’t need to have a mainstream sound to be enormously successful, and we’re hearing a lot more sonic creativity coming out of indie and major labels alike.”
2013 saw the release of Musgraves’ debut album, Same Trailer Different Park, which pushed boundaries both sonically and lyrically. In late 2012, Taylor Swift released her first proper pop album in October 2012 with Red. Around that same time, Keith Urban released his aptly titled eighth studio album, Fuse, on which he ventured beyond his signature sound to work with a wide range of producers including Stargate and Benny Blanco.
But the synth isn’t the only one having a moment in country music. Disco and funk influences have been making their way into the genre again over the past few years. Musgraves’ “High Horse” has serious disco fever, and the singer even said in an interview with the Boot that she was “on a huge Bee Gees kick” while she was working on Golden Hour. And Urban’s “Never Comin Down” is awfully funky.
You’ll see that unlike the synth, disco and funk already had a big moment in country music, back in the late 70s and early 80s. That’s around the time the Country Funk compilation albums were released, featuring songs like Willie Nelson’s “Shotgun Willie” and Dolly Parton’s “Getting Happy.” Now, we might be seeing a bit of a comeback.
Clearly, country has traveled far from its acoustic roots. Need audio proof? Listen to our synth country playlist, which looks at the use of the synthesizer over the years in the genre.