When HARDY hit No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart dated Feb. 4 with the mockingbird & THE CROW, he shined a light on country’s move toward the hard edge of the overlapping rock format.
HARDY’s album opens squarely in country territory, shifting midway on the title track into angry messages, crunchy chords and sections that feature the harsh screaming associated with the metal genre. The development is part of a bigger-picture revival.
“Rock’n’roll has kind of come back, even in pop music a little bit,” HARDY says, pointing to Machine Gun Kelly and the Billie Eilish track “Happier Than Ever.” “It’s a good time for rock to make its way back into the mainstream. It hasn’t been that way for a long time.”
Country’s embrace of rock elements and symbolism is nothing new. Alabama, now considered traditional country, was viewed as revolutionary when it applied Creedence Clearwater Revival and Lynyrd Skynyrd influences to early-’80s country singles. The entire country/rock subgenre — featuring Eagles, Poco and The Flying Burrito Brothers — made the mixture fashionable in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Still, country has grabbed increasingly harder rock inspiration over time. Billy Ray Cyrus grafted Led Zeppelin‘s “Heartbreaker” riff onto “Achy Breaky Heart” performances in the 1990s, Garth Brooks covered Aerosmith‘s untethered “The Fever” in 1995, and Jason Aldean drew comparisons to AC/DC with his thunderous 2008 single “She’s Country.”
Brantley Gilbert concerts felt more metal than country when he emerged shortly after Aldean with heavy guitar chords and dark imagery.
“I’ve always told people there’s a box that is country music,” says Gilbert. “Where we belong is right on the outside of it, close enough to touch it.”
The genre edges even further toward the end of the rock’n’roll plank with Country Goes Metal, a five-song EP recorded under the banner of metalcore act Righteous Vendetta. Due in May through 8 Track Entertainment, the project has already been teased with a harsh, blistering cover of Rodney Atkins‘ “If You’re Going Through Hell.” A frenetic remake of Dustin Lynch‘s “Small Town Boy” will be released May 10, and the full project includes raucous versions of songs associated with Sam Hunt, Chris Young and Montgomery Gentry.
“HARDY, in my opinion, he’s one of the best things going,” 8 Track co-founder Noah Gordon says. “If people are digging that, then the pump is primed for this hybrid music.”
On the surface, the two genres would not seem to fit together well. Country originated in rural areas, while the sound of metal better reflects industrial buildings and urban isolation.
But Righteous Vendetta lead vocalist Ryan Hayes attended a show on Gilbert’s recent tour with Five Finger Death Punch and was convinced that 75% of ticket buyers were fans of both acts.
“Five Finger Death Punch is a certain demographic, like hard-working guys just trying to make ends meet,” says Hayes. “Those are the same people that I think [follow] Brantley Gilbert, like really rough around the edges. That’s the audience that I think they share.”
The country/hard-rock bond has appeared periodically in different ways since around 2010. Staind frontman Aaron Lewis, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Foo Fighters founder Dave Grohl appeared on country charts, the latter through a collaboration with Zac Brown Band. Jelly Roll scored a No. 1 country single while riding the rock charts, and Cody Jinks and Devin Dawson have found country success after starting out in metal bands. Eric Church‘s “The Outsiders” made it to No. 6 on Hot Country Songs, Blackberry Smoke and The Cadillac Three mixed hard Southern rock and blues into a country framework, and Carrie Underwood shared the stage with Guns N’ Roses. Additionally, Chris Stapleton, Darius Rucker and Jon Pardi participated in the cover project The Metallica Blacklist;Luke Bryan has made “Enter Sandman” a part of his “All My Friends Say” live performance; and a host of country acts — including LeAnn Rimes, Justin Moore and Florida Georgia Line — took part in Nashville Outlaws: A Tribute to Mötley Crüe.
The growing confluence of country with rock’s harder edge is just another version of music’s natural evolution.
“In the ’70s, when Black Sabbath was doing their thing, that was considered heavy metal then, and now you listen to heavy metal, and it’s so much heavier,” Hayes says. “So I think, as this progresses, we’re going to see an entire subgenre come out of this, like country metal. I think it’s going to get heavier, and it’s going to get more crazy.”
It already has. Brantley pushed some of his existing material further over the hard-rock edge during the Five Finger Death Punch tour, and he anticipates it will become a permanent part of the show during his upcoming outing with Nickelback.
“When we went through songs like ‘My Kind of Party’ and ‘Kick It in the Sticks,’ my guitar player, Noah [Henson] — he’s got dreads hanging down to his calf muscles — he came from the metal world, and he does the screaming thing behind me on some of them,” says Gilbert. “The energy behind it was so crazy, we’ve kept it.”
Gilbert’s live revision, the impending Country Goes Metal project and HARDY’s country-metal mixture all suggest that a day may be on the horizon when banjos and fiddles could be completely welcome at a headbangers’ ball.
“There have been people that have really pushed the boundary with the whole rock thing, especially — in my era — FGL and Brantley Gilbert,” HARDY says. “With the screams and the breakdowns and stuff, I’m just pushing it a little bit further.”