Brittany Aldean, Maren Morris and the struggle for who country music is

As a result, a fractured and divided image of the genre emerges: from within, the traditionalists are in power. For everyone else, upbeat and inclusive country music has become the norm. Country music has become more diverse, queer, less white, less masculine than ever, and there is so much to celebrate. Shania Twain wants you to know that “Man! I feel like a woman” is for “everybody.”

I don’t want to exaggerate the burgeoning and growing change in country music. It was so disappointing to see the CMA nominations come out this week, to find that only one black artist, Breland, has a nomination, while powerhouses like Mickey Guyton and Brittney Spencer were overlooked. Meanwhile, Morgan Wallen, who was caught on video in 2021 drunkenly shouting the n-word, appears to have recovered to his top spot in the genre, nominated for the prestigious Entertainer of the Year award. CMA nominations are set by people in the country music industry, many of whom depend on country radio and its power, and that ecosystem isn’t going to change overnight. Kacey Musgraves sold millions of records and won the Album of the Year Grammy without much support from country radio, but for now she remains the exception.

It’s no surprise, then, that Brittany Aldean nodded when Tucker Carlson suggested that Maren Morris be kicked off national radio. Outside of the country, it seems like an almost retrograde call to action. In the country context, it’s actually calling on the nationwide establishment to severely punish Morris, who has had three No. 1s and is one of the relatively few women to get consistent radio play.

But the big difference is that we no longer have to regard national radio as the sole arbiter of what matters. It was heartening to see the growth of country music media spaces run by people other than straight white men, including Apple Music Country’s Proud Radio hosted by Hunter Kelly and Record Bin Radio hosted by Kelly McCartney. The organization Black Opry has made its mission to support Black performers and audiences in country and Americana music. Music blog Country Queer has been reporting extensively on LGBTQ artists in the country for years. Meanwhile, in her new book, Marissa Moss has detailed how women fought for their place in the genre her country.

It’s easy to take the old story of country music at face value. It’s also the lazy thing to do. Respected and well-known artists like Maren Morris oppose anti-trans sentiment, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Below that is a shift to wrestle country music out of the hands of the toxic traditionalists. Yes, the gatekeepers still have the microphone. But some of us have left the room because we want to hear ourselves too.●