Country music plumbs the history of soul in search of a new direction


Sam Hunt's genre-busting "Take Your Time," with spoken-word sections that seem to borrow from modern hiphop phrasing and Isaac Hayes' laid-back recitations, spent 11 weeks at No. 1 on Hot Country Songs. It's the most successful example in a wave of new blue-eyed soul releases that have bent the sound of the format in 2015.

Soul, R&B or hip-hop influences can be picked up in the synthetic percussion of Kelsea Ballerini's "Love Me Like You Mean It" (No. 8 on the May 23 Country Airplay chart), the chunky rhythm guitar in Zac Brown Band's "Loving You Easy" (No. 20), the syncopation in the verses of Old Dominion's "Break Up With Him" (No. 36), the reedy vocal tone and danceable groove of Brett Eldredge's "Lose My Mind" (No.30) and the Motown derivations of Gary Allan's "Hangover Tonight" (No. 48). On top of that, Thomas Rhett's "Crash and Burn" (No. 25) engages the spirit of the late Sam Cooke, following on the heels of "Make Me Wanna," a Rhett song inspired by the Bee Gees' disco track "Stayin' Alive" that reached No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart dated March 7.

A soul man has "always been trapped deep down inside me," says Rhett. "It wasn't really until 'Make Me Wanna' that I started to do all that stuff live."

That's true on a professional level, though when Rhett was still 8 or 9 years old, he did play rapper onstage at some of father Rhett Akins' concerts, covering Will Smith's "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It."

"I was in my thug phase back then," says Rhett. "Dad turned me on to [rapper] DMX -- probably a horrible thing to listen to at 8 years old; I didn't know what half of it meant -- but I loved it. And Will Smith was huge in my life at the age of 8."

Country has historically folded influences from other popular genres about 10-15 years after those trends peaked in those formats, which helps explain why hip-hop phrasing has become a de facto part of the country genre some 17 years after Smith got jiggy wit it. Rhett's peers of a similar age range picked up some of the same influences, some of which were introduced to the format during the bro-country trend.

The bro-country label was applied to songs with escapist attitudes and lyrics that celebrated alcohol, pickup trucks, pickup lines, make-out sessions on the river bank and parties in open fields. Though the lyrical cliches have started to disappear in recent months, some of the sonic pieces -- the disco bass in Luke Bryan's "That's My Kind of Night," the synthesizer background in Cole Swindell's "Chillin' It," the chill percussion in Jason Aldean's "Burnin' It Down" and the rapid-fire lyrics in Chase Rice's "Ready, Set, Roll" -- remain relevant in the format. Florida Georgia Line, citing Alabama and Wiz Khalifa among its influences, helped redefine country's stylistic boundaries.

"The bro-country stuff probably opened [the format] up to those things being acceptable," says songwriter Josh Osborne ("Take Your Time," "Sangria"). "Then it gives you that evolutionary [mind-set]: 'OK, if they can do that, then maybe we can do this.' "

But it's not like country's operating in a vacuum. Beats have likewise been central to such recent pop hits as Bruno Mars' collaboration with Mark Ronson, "Uptown Funk," and to two women who were based in Nashville when they hit their commercial stride: Taylor Swift and Meghan Trainor. And Keith Urban plays ganjo on the new Jason Derulo single "Broke," which also features Stevie Wonder.

"Everything seems to lean rhythmic right now," notes songwriter Josh Hoge. He penned Chris Young's new single, "I'm Comin' Over," which places the singer's traditional country voice atop a track that includes a drum machine. "If you listen to pop radio, everything seems dance-oriented."

In some ways, country's move toward R&B can be considered a full-circle journey for the two genres. In its more mournful days, country was referred to as "the white man's blues," and many of its pioneers -- including Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and Bill Monroe -- learned to play from African-American men who shared their Southern poverty. Elvis Presley, whose country chart career predated his pop success, was signed to Sun Records because producer Sam Phillips felt there was commercial potential in a white man who sounded black. Ray Charles famously reversed roles when he reimagined country songs for the pop audience on Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music. Charles in turn encouraged Ronnie Milsap to abandon law school in favor of a music career that started at the New York R&B label Scepter. Milsap, who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2014, applied soul shadings to such No. 1 country singles as "(There's) No Gettin' Over Me" and "How Do I Turn You On."

Several other acts have incorporated a blue-eyed soul twist with varying degrees of success, including Con Hunley, T. Graham Brown, James Otto, Jimmy Wayne, Lady Antebellum vocalist Charles Kelley and the disbanded duo Steel Magnolia. Barbara Mandrell named her touring band The DoRites after covering Aretha Franklin's "Do Right Woman -- Do Right Man," and subsequently remade such R&B singles as Luther Ingram's "(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don't Want to Be Right," Shirley Brown's "Woman to Woman" and Hot's "Angel in Your Arms."

Thus, while the increased volume of R&B sounds on modern country might seem like a shift from the not-so-distant past, it's actually a recurring trend that helps refresh the genre.

"I listen to so many different kinds of music, and it all kind of blends together," says Eldredge. "That's the beauty of making music and putting your soul out there."

This article first appeared in the Billboard Country Update -- sign up here.