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The 90's Country Comeback: why cowboy hats and honky-tonks are striking a chord with Gen-Z
When you think of ‘Generation-Z’ - the (often negative) title given to those born from 1997 onwards - what comes to mind? Progressive attitudes towards social issues? A love of Tik-Tok? Cancel culture?
I can almost guarantee that what you don’t think of is a deep appreciation for Country music - at all - let alone 90’s Country music. Although I personally love this era of Country, it is known for its stereotypically corny lyrics, its flamboyant dress sense, and - above all - for being definitively, unashamedly uncool.
If you want a whistle-stop tour through all the stereotypes of this era of Country music, then have a watch of Alan Jackson’s Chattahoochee music video.
But recent Spotify stats show that 90’s Country has become increasingly popular with Gen-Z listeners, and this trend shows no sign of slowing down - in fact, quite the opposite.
And if you’re still not convinced of the Retro-Country Revolution, just take a look around. For better or for worse, mullets are back. If your beanie doesn’t have the Carhartt logo - a fashion brand frequently referenced in Country music as being the working man’s clothing choice - then it isn’t trendy.
It seems there’s something in the air - but why? Why does Gen-Z like old-school Country culture? As hard (and hilarious) as it might be to picture a collaboration between Olivia Rodrigo, Billie Eilish and Jimmy Buffett, I’m here to argue that, in a weird way, it kind of makes sense.
Although, in my view, a lot of modern Country is great, I think it’s still too tainted by the ‘Bro-Country’ wave of the 2010’s, which was labelled by many as aggressively macho and chauvinistic, for it to fit into the woke worldview of Gen-Z.
By contrast, 90’s Country music had substance, charm and an underlying respect for women. George Strait’s affable and gentlemanly ‘Check Yes or No’ epitomises this (“Do you love me? Do you wanna be my friend? And if you do, well then don’t be afraid to take me by the hand - if you want to”).
But can we really say that this period of Country was more ‘woke’ than modern Country? The 90’s saw the rise of female powerhouses such as Shania Twain, Trisha Yearwood, Reba McEntire, Martina McBride and Faith Hill, to name just a few. But even so, the Country charts were male-dominated, and the often conservative and right-leaning political views of the era’s superstars would hardly fare too well under Gen-Z scrutiny. So I don’t think this is necessarily what makes 90’s Country so alluring.
As my name is not Daniel Ek, Tim Cook or Jeff Bezos, I unfortunately don’t have all the streaming stats and figures and algorithms that would help determine the hard, cold facts about the reasons behind Gen-Z’s listening habits. So I have to speak mainly from my own experience as a Country aficionado who would (sometimes begrudgingly, and sometimes willingly) be classified as being part of ‘Gen-Z’.
Personally, I love classic Country music for a number of reasons. But a key aspect that draws me to it is the charm of its simplicity. There’s an innocence about the way the artists sing about the complexities of life and love. And this isn’t by any means because they avoid the difficult topics - Country music is renowned for facing up to gritty, real-life struggles concerning grief, ageing, infidelity, and so on. But they tackle these topics with a glint in their eye and a straight-forward, front-porch wisdom that seems to boil down and simplify the issues, assembling them into bitesize, 3-minute-long sermons that you can take with you through your day. It’s like your headphones are giving you a warm, reassuring hug.
This is undoubtedly a form of escapism, of losing yourself in another time where everything seemed a little simpler, a little slower and a little easier. Because let’s face it, the world today is complicated, to say the least. Social media, globalisation, 24-hour news telling us all the horrors that humanity is capable of - oh, and that other little-known thorn in our side, Covid.
In reality, I’m sure ‘The Good Ole’ Days’ probably weren’t as rosy and easygoing as the image we have of them, and the world had plenty of pressing problems to rival the ones we’re dealing with today. But even if it wasn’t really as great as it’s made out to be, it still seems that way in the music that came from that era. So why can’t we treat it as such, for our own benefit?
If anything, the exaggeration of Country culture in the 90’s - the huge Stetsons, the flannel shirts, the Wrangler jeans, and the tales of rodeo men missing their loves at home - only helps to make this feel like a whole other world, which adds to the escapism of it all.
In a way, I think the fact that this culture might be considered ‘uncool’, as I mentioned at the start of this article, only makes it more appealing to today’s generation. Being ‘cool’ isn’t really ‘in’ anymore, to the extent that being counterculture and wearing things that are a little out of the ordinary is the new cool. The irony is, when George Strait starting donning the typical cowboy look, it was a time when it was out of fashion to dress like this - Country singers were being encouraged to wear more reserved outfits and leave their snakeskin boots in the past. So this was already uncool, then Strait made it cool, then it became uncool again in the 2010’s, and now it’s still uncool, but that actually means it’s…cool?
…Okay, I’ve lost track a little, but you hopefully get the gist!
The final point I want to make about 90’s Country is kind of ‘meta’, in that what I’m going to say cuts through all the noise and reduces it down to its basics, much in the same way that the music of that era itself did.
I’m going through a massive George Strait phase at the moment, eagerly devouring all of the hits and double-hits and triple-hits that pervade his colossal discography. And if you asked me why I’m really into him at the moment, it’s partially for the reasons I’ve been outlining in this article. But at the heart of it all is a simple truth - at least for me - about these songs. Yes, they have an endearing simplicity and innocence about them. Yes, I think the somehow wacky and eccentric yet at the same time down-home and authentic culture surrounding that period of Country music is fantastic.
But above all, at the risk of sounding overly sentimental and nostalgic, it’s just great music. Simple as that. Some of the songs are lyrical gems, telling stories with an unrivalled dexterity and tenderness, like Strait’s ‘So Much Like My Dad’ and Reba’s ‘Fancy’, while others are just plain, good, silly fun, like our old friend, ‘Chattahoochee’ and Buffett’s ‘Margaritaville’.
So whether you’re a member of Gen-Z or not, if you want to momentarily get away from the often unnerving, disheartening truths of modern life, then dive headfirst into the weird and wonderful world of 90’s Country music. It’ll get silly, it’ll get emotional, and - take it from me - it’ll probably make you cry. Whether they’re tears of laughter or tears of catharsis depends on whether you’re playfully rejecting rocket scientists and Brad Pitt on Shania’s ‘That Don’t Impress Me Much’, or eavesdropping on an AA meeting in Kenny Chesney’s ‘That’s Why I’m Here’.
There also seems to be an deep-rooted sense of admiration and respect in modern Country for the artists that came before - something that isn’t necessarily mirrored in other genres. Today’s Country stars, such as HARDY (‘To Hank’) and Logan Mize (‘George Strait Songs’), to name just a couple, are keeping the old-school Country spirit alive by continuing to tip their baseball caps to the greats of the genre. In the process, they’re encouraging new generations to test out these retro offerings, and judging by the aforementioned Spotify stats, it certainly seems to be working. On a personal level, it was Scotty McCreery’s ‘Damn Strait’, which is full of George Strait references, that sparked my newfound interest in delving into the so-called ‘King of Country’'s repertoire.
Given the fact that the 90’s Country resurgence seems to be here to stay, I’d highly recommend you hop onto the trend. Otherwise you might be branded as being - heaven forbid - ‘cool’. And we all know how Gen-Z feel about that…
Here’s a playlist of some of my favourite classic Country tracks to get you started…
Maxim's 90's Country Playlist
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