From left, Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley perform onstage during the 2010 CMA Awards in Nashville.

Story highlights

Authenticity is what defines country music, radio host says

Grace Potter, Natasha Bedingfield and Lionel Richie will perform at CMA Awards

Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Adele have all gone country this year

CNN  — 

There’s a standing joke that if you play a country song backward, the singer gets re-hired, wins back his girl, finds whatever he’s lost, quits crying and leaves the bar.

Employed, happily married and sober? Doesn’t sound much like America these days.

Authenticity is what defines country music, says Karla Lawson, a morning host for Nashville’s WSIX country radio station.

“It’s so real and accessible and down-to-earth and relatable,” she says. “It’s really the most honest music out there.”

The Country Music Association’s 45th annual awards show airs live on Wednesday, November 9, at 8 p.m. on ABC. The show consistently ranks in the top four among the most-watched awards shows on television, alongside the Oscars, Grammys and Golden Globes, says CMA media relations director Scott Stem.

Joining favorites like Rascal Flatts and Kenny Chesney on stage this year will be rock singer Grace Potter, pop artist Natasha Bedingfield and Motown mogul Lionel Richie, who has an upcoming country duets album called “Tuskegee.”

“Country as a genre has changed … and the audience has reflected that,” Lawson says.

To be fair, country music’s popularity has been on a steady incline for more than 20 years, Billboard country chart manager Wade Jessen says.

Singers like Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood broke down the barrier between plaid and pleather in the early 1990s. Even if you weren’t stompin’ your boots just yet, you were probably secretly humming Shania Twain’s “I Feel Like a Woman,” Billy Ray Cryus’ “Achy Breaky Heart,” or Faith Hill’s “This Kiss.”

The list of artists who have gone country since then is lengthy: Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow, Bon Jovi, Uncle Kracker, Hootie & the Blowfish’s Darius Rucker, Jewel – even Jessica Simpson. But if the last year has shown us anything, it’s that America’s gone a little bit country and a little less rock ‘n’ roll. As Brantley Gilbert sings, “Country must be country-wide.”

Things really heated up in late 2010, when viewers tuned in to watch actress Gwyneth Paltrow make her live singing debut with “Country Strong” at the CMAs. Then Justin Bieber sent a million tweens into a frenzy when he announced that he’d be teaming up with country group Rascal Flatts to record a duet in 2011.

In February, Lady Antebellum swept the Grammys, winning record of the year and song of the year. In March, Lady Gaga put out a country version of her single “Born This Way” (although I have to say, Little Big Town did it better).

Even “Footloose,” originally pure ’80s pop, got in on the action. The movie was country-fied in its 2011 remake. Blake Shelton sang the movie’s theme song and was joined on the soundtrack by country artists Zac Brown, Big & Rich, Jana Kramer, Ella Mae Bowen and more. Shelton has invited Kenny Loggins – the original “Footloose” singer – to perform with him at the CMAs.

But wait, the roundup is not done yet. The first three national anthem singers at the World Series were country artists: “American Idol” winner Scotty McCreery, Trace Adkins and Ronnie Dunn (of the former Brooks and Dunn). Bieber added a song featuring The Band Perry to his new Christmas album. Jason Aldean and Lady Gaga were the first artists announced for the Grammy nominations concert.

Oh yeah, and Adele wants in on the country action as well.

The 23-year-old reportedly plans to go country for her next album, saying discovering American country musicians was “like (being) a 4-year-old in a candy shop who’s discovering sweets again.”

CMA’s Stem isn’t surprised. “I always claim that everyone likes country music – they just don’t want to admit it,” he says with a laugh.

Artists like Taylor Swift have certainly added a “hip” factor to the country music industry. But it’s the stories and the soul that keeps fans coming back, Stem says.

“We are a very real-life music, based on real-life experiences. Who among us hasn’t had our hearts broken? Who hasn’t lost a loved one, found love or not gotten the job we wanted? It covers (everything from) the sad to the happy to the silly.”

Now that sounds more like America.