The brief walk from dressing room 9 to the stage of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry takes about 20 seconds, but passes decades of country music’s most prized heritage. There’s the photo of Dolly Parton with Paul McCartney, next to the piano Richard Nixon played and just down the hall from the “duets” room inspired by Johnny and June. On this autumn evening, you might bump into bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, or the Riders in the Sky, decked out in Stetsons and fringed western shirts. It’s a walk down memory lane here in country music’s home church, a study in nostalgia and past glory.
But the spunky, kinetic Hunter Hayes brings a new energy to the scene, and as he takes the stage at 9 PM, a gaggle of young fans – perhaps oblivious to the musical history infusing this space, perhaps not – reflexively unsheathe their iPhones. Hayes’s performance is in many ways emblematic of country’s new wave, a movement that has seen the genre rise to a new level of national popularity while attempting to navigate the tension between a rapidly changing demographic – of performers, songwriters, and fans – and a longstanding embrace of tradition.
It wasn’t inevitable that country music would thrive in the globalized world of perpetual Facebook updates, a world whose frenetic pace can be felt in electronica, or whose nouveau riche aspirations are extolled in hip-hop. In fact, the co-occurrence of spiraling technological advances and the continued rise of the country genre – which traditionally has valued more off-the-grid sensibilities – seems almost paradoxical. In what is an increasingly impressive balancing act, the country music industry has straddled the line between tradition and novelty, avoiding Luddite instincts while preserving the social structure and sense of comfort that has resonated in the heartland for decades.