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3 songs prove just how elastic the definition of country music has become

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Rock critic Ken Tucker has been noticing how elastic the definition of country music has become. To show what he means, he's picked three new songs ranging from a tradition-rooted hit single by Kane Brown, a duet that teams Wynonna Judd with the alt-rocker Waxahatchee and the title song of indie singer-songwriter Angel Olsen's new album, "Big Time." Ken says it's all country. Here's his review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE I LOVE COUNTRY MUSIC")

KANE BROWN: Let's get it. (Singing) Girl, you gone and done it to me. Hotter than a hoochie coochie - got me like that first time I heard Alan Jackson, "Chattahoochee." I was never the same again. I'm a lifelong fan. Yes, I am. Baby, I love you like I love country music.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: To anyone who's a country music fan and says they don't make them like they used to, I offer Kane Brown, whose new single called "Like I Love Country Music" is a breezily self-conscious throwback to 1990s country. Brown is one of the young artists who's broken into the industry via social media. His new song, a substantial hit, operates like an old-fashioned novelty tune, wedging the names of veteran country stars like Johnny Cash, Alan Jackson and Brooks & Dunn into its lyric. This plus Brown's gravelly voice atop a hand-clapping beat seals the deal.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE I LOVE COUNTRY MUSIC")

BROWN: (Singing) 'Causе I can never live without you or my favoritе songs about the top-to-bottom perfect - you're like Brooks & Dunn's debut album. You got me feelin' like I'm a brand-new man.

RONNIE DUNN: (Singing) Oh, I'm a brand-new man.

BROWN: (Singing) Yes, I am. Baby, I love you like I love country music.

DUNN: (Singing) Yeah, I love country music.

TUCKER: This past April, Naomi Judd, half of the mother-daughter duo The Judds, died by suicide at the age of 76. The Judds made some of the most lovely, catchy hits of the '80s, powered by the exceptionally strong, supple voice of daughter Wynonna. In her first release since the death of her mother, Wynonna has teamed with Waxahatchee, otherwise known as Katie Crutchfield, to record a beautiful ballad called "Other Side." Where the music she made with her mother was pure pop country, Wynonna emphasizes the rhythm and blues in her phrasing here, reminding me at times of Al Green.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OTHER SIDE")

WYNONNA JUDD: (Singing) So you're at the end of your wits, the end of your rope. You just can't fix everything that's broke. You got to turn it loose, babe. Hey. Just let it ride 'cause it ain't about pride now. It ain't about guilt. You've just come to a bridge that you still ain't built. Sit down here with me. I'll tell you about the other side, the other side of loneliness, the other side of the blues. There really is a place like this where the sun is gonna shine for you. And you'll feel that old restlessness. Your tears have all been cried. You'll find your way over this, and you'll make it to the other side.

TUCKER: The indie singer-songwriter Angel Olsen has decorated her new album with some very effective country music flourishes. The title song of "Big Time" sounds like a roadhouse honky-tonk number from the '60s but slowed down and infused with a wide range of emotions. "Big Time" is that rare country thing, a song about enduring a lot of pain only to come out the other side in a solid, exciting relationship, which is to say, loving you big time, baby.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIG TIME")

ANGEL OLSEN: (Singing) Good morning kisses, giving you all mine. Pull back the curtains. Show me the sunshine. Needing this coffee. Needing some nature. Need it right now. It can't wait until later. We're always busy. Baby, not this time. Lay in the tall grass talkin' with your eyes, talking with your eyes before we knew we were thinking the same things. I'm a believer, and I'm losing. I'm losing. I've left it behind - guess I had to be losing to get here on time. And I'm living. I'm loving. I've loved long before. And I'm loving you big timе. I'm loving you more.

TUCKER: Is "Big Time" a song that's going to storm up the country charts? No. But that doesn't mean it's not country music. Like Kane Brown and Wynonna, Angel Olsen can tap into the history of country and use it to speak with great power to whatever is going on in their lives. And if it's really good, it speaks to your life as well.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed new songs by Kane Brown, Wynonna Judd and Angel Olsen. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how lonely, exhausting and bankrupting parenting can be and how nannies, daycare workers and preschool teachers are typically really underpaid. My guest will be Angela Garbes, who says it shouldn't have to be that way. Her new book, "Essential Labor," is about the difficulties faced by parents and caregivers. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON BATISTE'S "KINDERGARTEN")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON BATISTE'S "KINDERGARTEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.
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