Pickup trucks. Dirt roads. Cowboy hats…Electric guitar solos?
Since its inception, the definition of what constitutes “country music” has been ever-evolving.
In its early days, country was called “hillbilly music,” created by European immigrants who settled in the foothills of Appalachia with their folksy ballads and fiddles in tow. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, the heart of country was cowboy songs and bluegrass. Then, the ‘50s and ‘60s rolled around, possessed by Rock & Roll mania. Country music borrowed some of that hip-swingin’ rhythm, giving birth to rockabilly, the Bakersfield sound, and country soul.
And when country artists of the ‘80s and ‘90s started selling out stadiums and amping up the volume, the genre did what it always had done. It evolved.
This season, FST’s newest Cabaret, Friends in Low Places, is shining a spotlight on the musicians who pushed the genre forward once more. This time, they shattered all of the genre’s previous molds, adding electricity, spectacle, and sex appeal along the way.
“Friends in Low Places explores the artists who took country mainstream,” said Rebecca Hopkins, the show’s Lead Developer. “Today, country is one of the most listened to music genres in the United States. There are more American radio stations specializing in country music than any other style. There’s no question: the music is American-made and it’s popular.”
One of the artists who was key to making country so popular was Garth Brooks. In 1992, Brooks’ third album, Ropin’ the Wind, landed at number one on both Billboard’s pop and country charts. The album even held onto the top spot after U2 and Michael Jackson released their own new tracks. Rolling Stone wrote about this occurrence, calling it a story of “David and Goliath,” writing that “a pudgy country singer from Yukon, OK, [had] dethroned the King of Pop.”
“Garth Brooks transformed country music by adding in elements of Rock & Roll,” said Hopkins. “Suddenly there was an increased emphasis on the band. The drums and bass had a bigger presence, and you started to see electric guitar solos as well.”
These changes brought country music into the mainstream, creating and converting millions of new fans to the re-imagined genre. But even with a more electric sound and more belting vocals (thanks to gospel and R&B’s influence on the genre), the artists highlighted in Friends in Low Places never lost track of country’s deep roots: great storytelling.
“These artists are telling our story,” said Hopkins. “Just as they were in country’s early days, their lyrics are still rooted in the lives of everyday people. They talk about the challenges and successes we all face. The music hits home.”
Perhaps it is country’s emphasis on telling authentic stories that is the ticket to the genre’s lasting power.
“Country music will always withstand the test of time because people will always have the burning desire to tell their story,” said cast member Madalyn McHugh. “Country meets people where they are. You can be rough around the edges, poised, sad, happy, confused, excited, content, or miserable—and country music will always meet you there.”