Earlier this month, country legend Merle Haggard died on his 79th birthday. He left behind 47 solo albums filled with songs about hard living, countless anecdotes like how he escaped from prison 17 times, and at least one photo of him wearing an "I ♥ Haters" sweatshirt. He was the living embodiment of the term "outlaw country," and it's easy to think country music lost an essential, hater-loving part of its history when he boarded the big tour bus in the sky.
If you worship at the dude-centric altar of Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson, it might be disorienting to survey the complex, billion-dollar industry of modern country. There are so many options and sub-genres: bro-country, hick-hop, alt-country, country metal, and Ryan Adams singing Taylor Swift-core. Out of exhaustion, you might even be tempted to throw up your hands, burn your Johnny Cash-giving-the-finger poster, and declare the genre "dead."