Trend Alert: K-Pop Meets Country Music (and New Jersey)

From country-music sounds to American-born stars, the U.S. is a growing presence on the Korean pop-music scene

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CUBE Entertainment

The K-pop duo 2YOON, Jiyoon and Gayoon

On these shores, Korean pop music—more popularly known as K-Pop—is perhaps most identified with the club-ready electronic beats and slickly tuxedoed look of global phenomenon (and newly crowned “King of YouTube”) PSY. So why is K-Pop duo 2YOON heel-toeing in a barnyard in their new video? Why are they wearing overalls? Why is there a saloon in the background? And more important: what’s with their new K-Pop-goes-country sound?

Country music and K-Pop may seem like strange bedfellows right now, but musicians and producers are betting that this unlikely union could yield the next chart-busting hit. Meaning: we could start hearing American-music influences in one of the world’s most popular and dynamic pop genres.

In a recent interview with TIME, 2YOON’s Gayoon (who, seemingly inspired by Dr. Seuss, shares the stage with a partner named Jiyoon) explains that the duo listened to country music before recording their first album, Harvest Moon, released in January. Artists like Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift, they thought, seemed to have something that was missing from the music they made as members of the girl group 4minute (from which 2YOON splintered). “Country music is very easy listening and very relaxed,” she says, through a translator, noting that K-pop music and dance are much more regimented.

More than that, both found something fresh in contemporary country music. The sound “was unfamiliar to the Korean audience,” says Gayoon. “We were the first to mix country and K-pop. It was a brand-new genre.” A genre they—as the newly formed 2YOON—hoped would differentiate themselves in an already crowded market. “It was time for us to show a different side,” says Jiyoon.

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And country music isn’t the only American sound heard on K-pop charts these days.

Singer Ailee, featured on a track that recently topped the Billboard K-Pop Hot 100, is a bona fide K-Pop star who just happens to have grown up in New Jersey. The Denver-born artist, now 23, moved to Korea in 2010, after a music executive contacted her after seeing one of her YouTube clips.

“I would listen and watch everything that went on in the K-Pop industry. I always knew that I wanted to be a singer and I knew that I wanted to be in Korea some day,” Ailee says. “It was really hard to go to a different country by yourself and start a career, but everything worked out well.” She’d like to have a career in the country of her birth, but Korea, she says, gives her a chance to get in touch with her roots find a measure of self-awareness.

More non-native Koreans will soon follow in her footsteps, says Ted Kim, CEO of Mnet America, a stateside distributor of “Asian cool.” Diversification is inevitable, he says, the result of producers scouring music from around the world and the growing global strength of K-Pop. “There’s been a lot of focus on how the major labels have been able to design and create these K-pop bands, but you’re seeing single performers gaining in popularity now,” he says. “If you browse through the Top 10 you see much more variety now. It’s not just the Wonder Girls, Girls’ Generation and 2NE1 dominating those charts anymore.”

K-pop, he says, offers a pop-music sound that has been largely left behind in the West, along with positive messages and forward-looking fashion, so it will continue to pull a growing variety of sounds under its umbrella. “The idea of what K-pop is continues to change,” he says. “I don’t see how it can’t.”

(MOREPSY Prepares His Next Hit — And It’ll Be in English This Time)