Like any great living tradition, country music is passed from one generation to the next, changing and growing with each new crop of fans. And that evolution occurs at an ever-increasing pace: not only are the sounds coming out of Nashville today a far cry from the twangy stuff that your parents (or their parents) called country, there's a good chance it barely resembles the country that your older siblings loved. Still, the age-old elements of early country will always be an influence to some degree. But so will almost every iteration that followed it, from the outlaws of the ‘70s like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash to the pop-country crossover kings and queens of the late '80s and early ‘90s, like Reba McEntire, Shania Twain, and beyond. And all of those inspirations come together in a constantly shifting blend that, for all its roots-conscious down-home qualities, keeps the music moving forward to broader and broader audiences.

Even in the current scene, there are nearly as many definitions of the music as there are country artists out there making it. For some, country is about brassy belters like Carrie Underwood; for others, it's all about the rough-hewn roar of Miranda Lambert. Millions have pledged their allegiances to Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan's hard-partying blend of country, pop, and hip-hop, but the more old-school sounds of rugged renegades like Toby Keith and Gary Allan still pull plenty of weight too. And while today’s charts show lots of love for the sweet, soulful harmonies of groups like Dan + Shay and Lady Antebellum, there's no discounting the barnstorming, rock-inflected arena-country anthems of Kip Moore or the guy-next-door appeal of pop-savvy artists like Jake Owen. And that's just the mainstream; once you add in the underdogs of alt-country and the high lonesome heroes of bluegrass and nu-grass, contemporary country is a place of endless possibilities.