The classic country format can actually be further divided into two formats. The first specializes in hits from the 1920s through the early 1970s (thus including music that is older than almost any other radio format in the United States), and focus primarily on innovators and artists from country music's Golden Age (including Hank Williams, George Jones and Johnny Cash). The other focuses on hits from the 1960s (including some the above-mentioned performers) through early 1990s, some pre-1960 music, latter-day Golden Age stars and innovators such as Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard) to newer recurrent hits from current-day artists such as George Strait, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson and Reba McEntire.
The format resulted largely from changes in the sound of country music in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, as it began moving to FM radio stations in and around major cities and absorbing some of the electric sound of rock music; similar pressures also were a factor in the development of the Americana format at around the same time. These new FM country stations excluded older "classic" country artists from their playlists, despite the fact that artists such as Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers and Emmylou Harris were still actively performing and releasing new recordings, some of which were significant hits. When mainstream country radio began this practice in the mid-1990s, a large segment of older country fans felt alienated and turned away from mainstream country. Whereas modern country began moving to FM around this time, classic country remained (and still remains) one of the few formats that has proven ideal for AM radio, particularly in rural areas; prior to this transition, country was primarily an AM radio phenomenon and was most widely popular in rural areas.
In 1998, Robert Unmacht, editor of the M Street Journal, said that thirty stations around the United States had switched to the format because many longtime country fans did not like what country radio was doing.
The same practice has seemed to follow to television, where Country Music Television and Great American Country rarely play any music videos produced before 1996, leaving heritage and "classic" artists to networks such as RFD-TV, which features a heavy complement of older programming such as Pop! Goes the Country, Porter Wagoner's programs and Hee Haw, along with newer performances from heritage acts. CMT Pure Country, the all-music counterpart to CMT, relegated its classic country programming to a daily half-hour block known as "Pure Vintage" before abandoning classic country altogether by 2015. (Complicating matters somewhat is a relative lack of music videos for country music songs prior to the 1980s.)
Classic country remains a popular block format on mainstream country stations, usually on weekends.
As is the case with rock music (where classic rock, mainstream rock, and active rock all have varying amounts of older music), country music stations also can vary in the amount of "classic" content in their playlist, and formats exist for such stations. In addition to pure "classic country" stations, which play little to no current or recurrent country hits (i.e., recorded after about 2000), country music-formatted stations tend to fall under one of these formats:
- Traditional country: Primarily plays classic country but also plays newer country songs. The station is generally not bound to play all of the songs on a top 40 chart but will cherry-pick the best songs that fit the format; due to the modern state of country music, these stations tend to skew more toward male artists, due to there being more of them playing traditional-sounding country music. Whereas the classic country format is practically extinct in Canada, several stations (e.g. CFCW and CJDL) still carry traditional country formats.
- Mainstream country (or modern country): The most common country music format. Unlike traditional country, mainstream country is generally bound to a top 40 chart for the majority of its playlist, but the format allows stations to fill out the remaining playlists with a mix of classic and recent recurrent songs.
- Hot country: Focuses exclusively on top 40 country music and – with the exception of a small number of recurrent hits no older than two or three years old – plays very little, if any, older music. Hot country stations may also include non-country pop songs in their rotation.
With a few exceptions, the classic country genre has struggled as a radio format (unlike mainstream country stations). While it has a fiercely loyal audience, classic country stations often struggle to find advertisers. While advertisers are primarily interested in the 18 to 49-year-old demographic age group, classic country usually attracts an older audience. For perhaps that reason, country music fans are often (stereotypically) divided into two camps:
- The younger country music fan, especially if he or she is younger than 30 years old, who is largely unfamiliar with the older country music sounds, especially from the 1980s and earlier, and will find earlier pre-1960s "hillbilly" music (such as that by Hank Williams and Kitty Wells) and its unpolished, Appalachian influences over-the-top and unlistenable.
- The classic country fan, frequently over the age of 50, who—with a few exceptions—often dislikes country music produced after 1990, when the genre began incorporating more rock influence. Such fans often bemoan the electrification of popular country music with the addition of heavier guitars, grungier voices and harder percussion (for example, the music of Brantley Gilbert and some of Jason Aldean's discography), and in more recent years even hip hop influences. Other complaints from this era include the increased cliché-driven songwriting ("Achy Breaky Heart" by Billy Ray Cyrus, one of the biggest country hits of the 1990s, was notorious in this respect) and, although pop/country crossover complaints have occurred since even the late 1940s with artists such as Eddy Arnold and Elvis Presley, the blatant marketing of pop songs with little or even no country influence as "country" songs solely because the artists have previously performed country songs (modern examples of this include Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood, the latter of whom entered the country music business by winning a pop music reality show).
Although this 1990-era dividing line, to a certain extent, exists, it is not necessarily universal. "Classic" era country artists such as Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton continued producing hits well into the 2000s that received mainstream country radio airplay (sometimes in collaborations). Other artists from the era that did not continue to receive wider radio airplay after their heyday maintained strong cult followings from fans of all ages; an example of this is Johnny Cash, who remains in high regard several years after his 2003 death. Artists that began their careers in the 1980s, near the dividing line of the classic/modern divide, enjoy followings among both audiences; examples include George Strait and Reba McEntire, both of whom (as of 2014) are still active and performing hit songs. Neotraditional country, a style of country that arose in the 1980s, continues to produce hit songs and artists that draw from the sounds of the classic country era.
In part due to changing demographic pressures, "classic country" radio programs have begun adding 1990s music into their playlists since the late 2000s and phasing out music from the early 1960s and earlier.
Syndicated radio programs
- The Country Oldies Show - Three-hour weekend show, also available stripped as hourlong daily shows, hosted by Steve Warren. Music aired is from the 1950s through the 1980s.
- Country Music Greats Radio Show - Two-hour weekend show hosted by Jim Ed Brown; it has aired in reruns since Brown's death in 2015.
- Country Gold - Four-hour weekend show hosted by Randy Owen on Dial Global. Music aired is from the 1970s through the 1990s. Show traces its history to Westwood One's Country Gold Saturday Night, a live five-hour request show that launched in the early 1990s, although most of the series no longer resembles its original format.
- Classic Country Today - Two-hour weekend show, hosted by Keith Bilbrey.
- Rick Jackson's Country Classics - Three-hour weekend show, hosted by Rick Jackson on United Stations Radio Networks.
- Sweetland, Phil (June 3, 2003). "The Loyalty of Country Music Fans Knows No Age Limits". The New York Times. Retrieved April 20, 2011.
- Jeri Rowe, "WFMY Introduces New Weekend Anchors," Greensboro News & Record, July 9, 1998.
- Ross, Sean (March 23, 2015). "Country Radio Goes Pop: How Formats Shift When Genres Cross". Billboard. Retrieved March 24, 2015.