Looking to explore the world of country music? Check out our guide to the most popular country music styles, from classic country and honky-tonk to alternative country and progressive country. Discover the unique sounds and characteristics of each subgenre and learn about some of the top artists who have made significant contributions to the genre’s history and evolution.
The Core Elements of Country Music
The four elements that form the foundation of country music are folk, bluegrass, blues, and rural dance music.
- Folk music is a traditional style of music that has been passed down through generations and often tells stories of everyday life. It is characterized by its simple instrumentation and acoustic sound, and its themes often reflect the struggles and triumphs of rural living.
- Bluegrass is a country music style that emerged in the 1940s and is characterized by its fast-paced, virtuosic instrumentation. It often features banjo, mandolin, and fiddle, and its songs tell stories of love, heartbreak, and loss.
- Blues is a genre that originated in African-American communities in the South and is characterized by its use of the 12-bar blues progression and soulful vocals. It has a significant impact on the development of country music, influencing artists such as Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.
- Rural dance music refers to the music played at barn dances and other social events in rural communities. It often features lively fiddle tunes and upbeat rhythms to get people into dancing.
Together, these four elements form the foundation of country music, and their influence can be heard in the music of countless artists throughout the genre’s history. By blending elements of folk, bluegrass, blues, and rural dance music, country music has created a unique and distinct sound that has resonated with listeners for generations.
Most Popular Country Music Styles
Country music is a genre that has been popular in the United States for many decades. It originated in the rural areas of the southern United States and has evolved into a diverse and varied genre over time.
While country music has many subgenres, popularity can vary depending on time, region, and personal taste. However, based on general popularity and recognition, here are 15 of the most popular types of country music:
- Traditional Country
- Contemporary Country
- Country Pop
- Outlaw Country
- Western Swing
- Red Dirt
- Neo-Traditional Country
- Bakersfield Sound
- Country Rock
- Country Blues
- Gospel Country
- Country Soul
Each of these subgenres has its unique sound, style, and artists that have contributed to the history and evolution of country music.
Traditional country music forms the foundation of many subgenres explored in this list and is widely regarded as the genre’s first-ever type of country music.
It features simple instrumentation, including acoustic guitars, fiddles, and sometimes a steel guitar. The lyrics often tell stories of heartbreak, love, and rural life. Some well-known traditional country artists include Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, and Johnny Cash.
Contemporary country music, also known as a new country, emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. It features a more polished sound with a mix of traditional country elements and modern production techniques, including the use of electric guitars and drums. The lyrics focus on a wider range of subjects, including partying, relationships, and personal struggles. Examples of contemporary country artists include Garth Brooks, Luke Bryan, and Keith Urban.
Country pop is a country music subgenre that emerged in the 1960s and became popular in the 1970s.
Country pop is also referred to as pop country or urban cowboy. It is a blend of classic country music and pop music, and often features lush, polished production and catchy hooks.
It was created with the intention of expanding the genre’s appeal to a wider, younger mainstream audience to keep the genre thriving.
Country pop artists often cross over into the mainstream pop charts. Some examples of country pop artists include Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, and Lady A.
Outlaw country, also known as a progressive country, is a country music style that draws from the honky-tonk, Red Dirt, New Mexico, Tejano, and Texas country styles of the 1950s and 1960s.
Outlaw country emerged in the 1970s as a reaction to the polished Nashville sound. It features a rougher, more rebellious sound and lyrics that often tackle political and social issues. Outlaw country artists include Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.
Bluegrass music originated in the Appalachian region of the United States in the 1940s. It features acoustic string instruments and often incorporates vocal harmonies.
Bluegrass music is characterized by its fast tempos and skilled instrumental performances. Some well-known bluegrass artists include Bill Monroe, Alison Krauss, and the Stanley Brothers.
Honky-tonk, or simply tonk, music emerged in the 1940s and is characterized by its danceable rhythms and lyrics about drinking, partying, and relationships. It is a simplified form of traditional country music that typically features a minimal set of instruments.
Honky-tonk music often features a piano or a steel guitar, and it has been influential in the development of rock and roll. Examples of honky-tonk artists include George Jones, Lefty Frizzell, and Hank Williams.
Americana is a country music subgenre that encompasses a broad range of styles, that blends elements of folk, rock, and blues. At its core, Americana is a genre that celebrates the diversity and depth of American music, blending different traditions to create something that is both timeless and new.
America offers a refreshing alternative to the often formulaic and commercialized sound of mainstream country music, instead focusing on authenticity, individuality, and the power of storytelling.
The genre gained popularity in the 1990s and has since produced some of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful country artists of recent times. Some of the most notable names in the Americana genre include Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton, each of whom has brought a unique spin to the genre.
Western swing emerged in the 1930s and 1940s and blended country music with jazz and swing music.
If you’re a fan of jazz music, you’ll find that western swing has its roots in this genre. But western swing music is unique in its own right, with vocals and other instruments following the lead of the fiddle.
One of the things that make western swing stand out is that it’s a fusion of many different styles of music, including rural, cowboy, polka, old-time, Dixieland jazz, and blues. This blend of styles creates a distinct sound, with electrically amplified stringed instruments, particularly the steel guitar, playing a big role in the music.
Western swing artists include Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Asleep at the Wheel, and The Time Jumpers.
Red Dirt music originated in Oklahoma and Texas. It features a mix of country, rock, bluegrass, blues, honky tonk, western swing, and folk music. Red Dirt music often features a raw, unpolished sound that highlights the genre’s down-to-earth nature. It’s not just about the music but the emotion and authenticity it conveys.
Unlike some mainstream music, Red Dirt is not contrived; it’s about real-life experiences that are relatable to many people. The result is a unique and genuine musical style that continues to resonate with fans of all ages.
Red Dirt artists often focus on the themes of the American West and the struggles of rural life. Examples of Red Dirt artists include Stoney LaRue, Cross Canadian Ragweed, and Turnpike Troubadours.
The neo-traditional country, also referred to as a new traditional country, gained popularity in the 1980s as a reaction to the slick production of contemporary country music.
Bringing a modern twist to the classic country music sound and instrumentation, the neo-traditional country features the traditional vocal styles and instruments that have defined the genre for decades. Neo-traditional country artists include George Strait, Alan Jackson, and Randy Travis.
Bakersfield sound originated in California in the 1950s and 1960s and was a reaction to the polished Nashville sound.
The Bakersfield country music subgenre was the pioneer in fusing rock and roll and country music, often incorporating electric guitars and drums. Bakersfield sound artists include Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and Wynn Stewart.
Country rock emerged in the late 1960s and blended elements of country music with rock and roll. It often features electric guitars and drums and has a more upbeat, energetic sound.
Some of the most well-known country rock bands include The Eagles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, all of whom achieved great commercial success in the 1970s. Today, country rock remains popular among country music and rock music fans and continues to influence artists in both genres.
Country Blues is a country music style that developed in the early 20th century in the rural South. The genre is characterized by mainly solo vocals accompanied by acoustic fingerstyle guitar, and it was one of the earliest forms of blues music.
Some notable country blues artists include Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt, and Big Bill Broonzy. Country blues has had a significant influence on the development of other genres, such as rock and roll and folk music, and continues to be a beloved and important part of country music history.
Gospel country, also known as Christian Country, is a country music style that incorporates religious themes and lyrics. It often features simple instrumentation and vocal harmonies.
Christian country music shares similarities with traditional country music but with religious lyrics. A mainstream country band can be considered a Christian country band if its songs have Christian themes.
Some examples of gospel country artists include Johnny Cash, Randy Travis, and Carrie Underwood.
Country soul blends elements of country music with soul and R&B. It often features horn sections and a more laid-back, soulful sound.
Ray Charles is often credited with pioneering country soul music, with his groundbreaking recordings of songs such as “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Georgia On My Mind.” His recordings blurred the lines between country and soul music.
Thanks for taking the time to learn about the different country music styles. Whether you’re a lifelong country fan or just starting to explore the genre, we hope you’ve discovered something new and exciting through this guide.
Now that you’ve tasted what country music offers, it’s time to get countryfied! Whether that means adding some classic country to your playlist, checking out the latest alternative country artists, or attending a live show, there are plenty of ways to immerse yourself in the world of country music.
So, what are you waiting for? Grab your hat and boots and start exploring the rich sounds and stories of country music. Whether you’re in the car, at home, or out on the town, let the music take you on a journey through the heart of America. Get countryfied today!