How Nashville ‘Killed’ Traditional Country Music—and Then Reinvented It

The Genre Created by 'Hillbillies' and Folkies Now Speaks to Pickup-Driving Suburbanites

25 years ago, American Heritage writer Tony Scherman declared traditional country music dead and done with, asking, “How far from its social origins can an art form grow before it loses meaning?”

Scherman’s impassioned farewell created something of a stir—but he was not the first and certainly not the last of the music’s obituarists who erred in assuming that cultures and cultural forms survive by resisting change rather than accommodating it.

While the very name of “country” music emphasizes its cultural roots, it’s been shaped by commerce from the outset. …