Country-Pop Music: Chet Atkins and the Nashville Sound

Critics of the ‘Nashville/ Taylor Swift effect’ often argue that it has led to an identity crisis in country music. Debates over the last few years have centred around the idea that the genre has moved so far toward pop that it has somehow lost its soul. Songs such as ‘Meant to Be’ by Florida Georgia Line ft. Bebe Rexha and ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X ft. Billy Rae Cyrus have only added fuel to the fire. Maren Morris is often accused of not being a country artist. And Kacey Musgraves’ latest release was declared ineligible for Best Country Album at this year’s Grammys.

Far from being a unique event in its history, however, the incorporation of pop elements into country music actually forms part of its tradition. Go back to the 1960s, for example, and what is known as “The Nashville Sound” was akin to that which is happening today. Back then, it was a virtuoso guitar player by the name of Chet Atkins who was leading the charge. Described by one author as “a formidable solo performer whose polished country licks were abetted by his interest in classical, Latin, and pop guitar”, Atkins’ openness to orchestral sounds, vocal choruses and smooth tempos saw him make an indelible mark on the industry*. By introducing these elements into the songs of people like Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves and Charley Pride, as primary producer at RCA Nashville, he made a conscious choice to appeal to the mainstream market. By also taking the “twang” out of it, as Atkins described it, the effect was to usher in a new era in country music.

“The Nashville Sound” was famously described by Atkins through the jangling of coins in his pocket. Some would argue that this belies a genre famed for its authenticity and rural Southern roots. Yet this trend toward commercial appeal, both then and now, is as much a part of country music’s identity. Nashville’s undisputed place today as “Music City”, for example, owes a huge debt to the likes of Chet Atkins and fellow producer Owen Bradley who, by recording country songs as though they were standards, made country music big business in the process.

*quote from ‘In the Country of Country: A Journey to the Roots of American Music’ (1997) by Nicholas Dawidoff

Originally written for and published on Belles & Gals on December 3rd 2021.

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