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New Traditionalist Country Music

Country music finds its roots in the 1980s


george strait album cover

George Strait - 'Strait County' (1981)

Image courtesy of Universal Records

What is New Traditionalist Country?

In the 1980s, country artists emerged who eschewed the pop-laden sounds of Nashville. As the "traditional" part of the name suggests, they looked back to honky-tonk and bluegrass-tinged music. But the old-school instrumentation was often paired with smooth, modern production (where the "new" comes in) -- creating a blend that appealed to modern-day listeners.

Ricky Skaggs Paves the Way

New traditional country music is often associated with Ricky Skaggs. As a bluegrass player, he did the seemingly impossible: He became multi-platinum recording artist -- proving numerous music execs wrong about what the listening public wanted. Skaggs' commercial success helped clear the path for other acts including Keith Whitley (a childhood friend), Patty Loveless, and Alan Jackson.

Nashville Under New Management

While some of the creative renaissance of new traditional country is attributable to the artists, quite a lot was due to a fresh influx Nashville music execs. Many of these new players came far afield of the Music Row establishment and didn't have a fixed idea of what country music should sound like. Some, including Garth Fundis and Jimmy Bowen, were producers and working studio musicians with a strong founding in classic country music.

There was also a financial imperative. Longtime sellers like Tammy Wynette and Don Williams were getting older, Nashville simply had to sign more new artists to survive. This provided ample opportunities for musicians sporting a different sound.

Country Stars Rediscover Their Roots

While much of the New Traditionalist vanguard came from young artists, veteran country singers also found a grittier voice in the '80s. George Jones scored a comeback with his back-to-basics album I Am What I Am. Similarly, Reba McEntire stripped her sound to its essence with My Kind of Country; it became her most successful record up until then.

List of New Traditionalist Country Singers

Not all artists or country albums from the '80s should be called new traditionalist. So here's a list of acts commonly associated with the label.

Other Names

The new traditionalist movement is sometimes called neo-traditionalism.

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