History of Neotraditional Country Music

Country music finds its roots in the 1980s

George Strait
Bede735/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons

In the 1980s a new crop of country artists emerged who eschewed the pop-laden sounds of Nashville. Neotraditional country, also referred to as new traditional country and new country, takes inspiration from country music's traditional roots - hence "traditional" - especially the honky tonk and bluegrass-tinged sounds of Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb and Kitty Wells.

This new style of country music blended old school instrumentation with contemporary, smooth production - hence "neo." The sound was very appealing to modern-day listeners. In addition to the sound, the neotraditional movement encompassed stage presence. Many neotraditional artists sported styles typical of the '40s, '50s and '60s.

Neotraditional country music is often associated with the alternative country movement. While the style had a vital role with that musical offshoot, it's important to note that neotraditional country music is its own entity.

Ricky Skaggs Paves the Way

For many, neotraditional country music is synonymous with Ricky Skaggs. As a bluegrass player, Skaggs did the seemingly impossible: he became a multi-platinum recording artist, proving numerous music label excutives wrong about what listeners really wanted.

Skaggs' impressive commercial success helped pave the way for other neotraditional acts, including Keith Whitley, who happened to be Skaggs' childhood friend, Patty Loveless and Alan Jackson.

Nashville Under New Management

While this sort of creative renaissance is attributed to a talented new bunch of country artists, quite a lot of it is due to a fresh influx of Nashville music executives. Many of these new names came far from Music Row: an already established group of labels who dictated what country music was supposed to sound like. Some of these new execs, including Garth Fundis and Jimmy Bowen, were producers and working studio musicians with strong foundations in classic country music.

As is the case with many things, money was also a huge factor. Longtime sellers like Tammy Wynette and Don Williams were getting older; Nashville simply needed to sign more new artists just to keep going. This provided ample opportunities for musicians with different sounds.

Country Stars Rediscover Their Roots

While much of the neotraditional country vanguard was comprised of young artists, veteran country singers also found grittier voices in the '80s. For example, George Jones, whose recent failures to produce No. 1 hits had led to a lull in his career, scored a major comeback with his back-to-basics 1980 album I Am What I Am. Similarly, Reba McEntire stripped her sound to its essence with My Kind of Country. It became the country queen's most successful record up until then.

Neotraditional Country Singers

Although neotraditional country music emerged in the 1980s, not every artist from that decade can be categorized as a neotraditiona artist. These are a few acts that are true neotraditionalists: