Calling a song "country" can mean a lot of things — nasal-inflected honky tonk, fancy bluegrass picking, a lone and moaning acoustic guitar, even smooth and creamy countrypolitan arrangements. The genre dates back to the 1920s, when it got its commercial start in the rural Southeast; but careful calling it old-fashioned or associating it too closely with pickup trucks and grandma's cooking, as today country is as strong, solid and diverse as ever. It's true that, like it or not, slick, polished artists like Faith Hill and Kenny Chesney have a firm grip on the mainstream. But take a look beneath and beyond all that high-gloss production and vast new musical worlds open up. In the last decade alone legends like Merle Haggard and Billy Joe Shaver have released some of the finest music of their careers, and Dwight Yoakam continues to crank out some serious Bakersfield twang. Del McCoury is currently leading the sharpest band in contemporary bluegrass; and Freakwater and Dale Watson are proving that many alt-country artists are closer to the music's roots and soul than run-of-the-mill Top 40 stars. The albums here were all released in the mid 1990s or later, proving country music is still as timely as its sound is timeless.