By 2016, mainstream country music found itself in a post-bro-country world and once again directionless. The artists who rose to prominence in country music’s A-list remained fine: Florida Georgia Line pivoted towards something of an unexpected soulful Christian sound with “H.O.L.Y.” (an amalgamation of “high on loving you”) and teamed up with Tim McGraw for “May We All,” which, still true to the duo’s style, referenced both country and hip-hop influences in Travis Tritt and Tupac Shakur; Jason Aldean returned to the loud, rocking sound he broke through with a decade earlier on “Lights Come On,” after a foray in R&B through 2014’s “Burnin’ it Down”; and Luke Bryan returned to emphasizing his country roots on a more personal, distinctive level with hits like “Huntin,’ Fishin,’ and Lovin’ Every Day.”
None of the artists mentioned, though, would top their former success, and even newer artists associated with them that adopted the same bro-ish formula – Cole Swindell, Chase Rice, and Tyler Farr, for a few examples – wouldn’t find much further success outside of that label. Acts who chose to distance themselves from the trend – like Brett Eldredge or Randy Houser – would later find career rebirths through personal passion projects – 2020’s Sunday Drive, for Eldredge, and 2019’s Magnolia, for Houser – despite not quite attaining the commercial success to match it. As far as a defining trend or sound was concerned, the mainstream was scattershot. Country music’s current and rising A and B-list acts, then, would find success through their own means.
Carrie Underwood entered the decade with arguably her darkest collection of songs yet. 2012’s Blown Away featured a title track about spousal abuse (child abuse, in the music video) with a vengeful plot that became something of a signature song for her. It also featured the elaborate cheating song-turned-murder-mystery of “Two Black Cadillacs.” A greatest hits project followed in 2014. Then, in 2015, she issued Storyteller, a noticeably more laid-back project that still found room for another dark moment – the album’s biggest single, “Church Bells,” another track that addressed spousal abuse and, like most of her story songs, ended with a dramatic twist. It became her 15th No. 1 hit. After taking time off in 2017 to focus on her family, Underwood signed with Capitol Records after being with Arista Nashville for around 12 years. And though her label debut – 2018’s Cry Pretty – did not perform as well as her previous albums, Underwood once again remained one of the best-selling and best-charting female artists within country music in the 2010s.
One of its former best-sellers, on the other hand, did something she hadn’t before. In July 2016, Taylor Swift pitched her song “Better Man” to Little Big Town, originally intended for inclusion on Swift’s 2012 album, Red, but never released. The mixed-gender band, comprised of Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Phillip Sweet, and Jimi Westbrook, found moderate success in the 2000s from huge smash-hits like 2005’s “Boondocks” and 2010’s “Little White Church.” But, for whatever reason, the band was never able to sustain consistent momentum off of those huge smash hits, and would continue that odd streak into the 2010s. The band finally attained its first No. 1 single in 2012 through the summer-ready “Pontoon” and followed it up with the top five title track to an album released that year, Tornado. Little Big Town wouldn’t attain its next big hit until 2014, through “Girl Crush,” featuring a co-write from Lori McKenna and lyrics about a woman’s obsession with another woman who stole her significant other. It would not only become the band’s biggest single yet, but also one of the biggest songs of 2015. And though not originally intended this way, the song was looked upon as something of an LGBTQ+ anthem alongside Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow,” due to its suggestive framing. Swift, on the other hand, would close out the decade by leaving her Big Machine Records home by signing with Universal Music Group, over disputes regarding ownership of her masters. She continuously fought for creators’ rights throughout her first two decades in music, and now was prepared to do it for herself.
By late 2016, Miranda Lambert’s career was in something of a tailspin. Coming off the success of “The House that Built Me,” Lambert entered the decade at the height of her career. She steamrolled that momentum into her next record, 2011’s Four the Record, bolstered by several top five singles, including the No. 1 “Over You,” written with Blake Shelton as a dedication to his older brother, who was killed in a car accident as a teenager. That same year, she debuted an all-female trio, the Pistol Annies, with Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe – who themselves were independent artists that would release several critically acclaimed projects throughout the decade. Far from a side project, the group’s debut album, Hell on Hells, debuted at No. 1 on the country albums chart. “It’s not your typical girl trio,” Lambert told The Boot. “We definitely have an edge.”
A sophomore project for the group followed in 2013, and the trio attained its first No. 1 hit after being featured on Blake Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here.” For Lambert specifically, Platinum followed in 2014, bolstered mainly by its lead single, “Automatic” and the Carrie Underwood duet “Somethin’ Bad.” But starting with third single “Little Red Wagon,” Lambert hit a commercial snag at country radio, and wouldn’t even the crack the top 30 with her next single, the Little Big Town collaboration of “Smokin’ and Drinkin’.”
A high-profile divorce from Blake Shelton only complicated matters for both artists, given that the marriage itself was high-profile all throughout its run. Shelton bounced back with 2016’s If I’m Honest while Lambert followed with The Weight of These Wings, an ambitious double album that, while not as huge of a commercial success as past projects, arguably became her most well-received album to date. “I could have done something shiny and covered it up, but that wouldn’t have been honest,” she said. “I’ve always been brutally honest about myself. I couldn’t start hiding things at that point.”
The album’s tone was noticeably more somber compared to past Lambert projects and singles, and aimed to showcase a stronger singer-songwriter side of hers. Singles ranged from the self-critical grappling of “Vice” and the Jack Ingram co-penned “Tin Man,” the latter released following her performance of the song at the 52nd Academy of Country Music Awards in April 2017. She refused to promote the record through interviews, and would only address the pain that shaped the record in later interviews. “It was hell putting it on paper, putting my words on paper,” she told Pop Culture in 2018. “So I didn’t want to rehash. I’d finally gotten to a place where I wasn’t sad anymore. All the sad moments were there, all the truths were right in those songs. All you had to do was listen. I didn’t need to say anything.”
Following the critical success of the album, Lambert was ready to put the past behind her. She earned a No. 1 hit through a Jason Aldean duet, “Drowns the Whiskey,” released another critical acclaimed project with the Pistol Annies, 2018’s Interstate Gospel, remarried in 2019, and bounced back later that year with Wildcard, a noticeably more upbeat effort that hearkened back to her earliest country-rock days. She recruited Jay Joyce for production duties and reaped the benefits, when second single “Bluebird” became her first solo No. 1 hit since 2012’s “Over You.” “Sometimes you’ve got to switch it up and I felt like I had to do something a little different,” she told Songwriting Magazine in 2019. “It was a risk that was a little scary to take but I think it was worth it.”
Similarly, another artist would make a comeback of both a personal and commercial variety. Following the release of 2014’s Montevallo, Sam Hunt was reportedly miserable and had split from his girlfriend to follow his career. Nonstop touring and promotion for the album and its singles sent him into a tailspin, and he retreated from the spotlight to rekindle his relationship and focus on his personal life, rather than new music. Success, he said, was mentally taxing. Even off his 2017 return, he admitted “I’m in a place in my career and in my life where I’m not willing to give music 100 percent of me anymore,” he told The Boot. “I did that for four years, and it was fruitful as far as my career goes, but everything else in my life had to be put on hold, and I’m just not willing to do that for years and years at a time.”
When he returned to promote new music, though, he was bigger than ever. New Year’s Eve 2016 brought “Drinkin’ Too Much,” framed as an apology for a life gone awry, while “Body Like a Backroad” followed just a few months later. Following in the same vein as other hits like Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” and Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” “Body Like a Backroad” was a half-sung, half-spoken, breezy, light-hearted song that spent 34 weeks atop the Hot Country Songs chart, becoming the longest-running song on the chart and earning Hunt his largest crossover hit yet, peaking at No. 6 on the pop chart, as well as two Grammy nominations.
Naturally, the easy criticism for the single was that it lacked a connection to country music’s roots, and that, following the bro-country era, it drew unfavorable comparisons between a woman’s body and a backroad and wasn’t a needed perspective in country music. Nevertheless, the single became not only Hunt’s biggest single, but also the biggest single of 2017, and one of the biggest hits of the 2010s. Once again, Hunt didn’t immediately capitalize off the momentum, and following the release of 2018’s “Downtown’s Dead,” which peaked outside of the airplay top 10 and marked his lowest-charting hit to date, he remained silent until late 2019, when he released “Kinfolks,” which finally led to a sophomore album release of 2020’s Southside.
New Hats Walking Down Old Roads
By 2017, country music was filled with a diverse cast of new artists that would push the genre forward, even if old debates of authenticity and traditionalism versus country music’s “popification” remained constant forces behind those conversations.
By then, for example, conversations surrounding a new traditionalist movement had budded, thanks to the success of artists like Jon Pardi, William Michael Morgan, Maddie & Tae, and Mo Pitney, among others, including the Texas-based band Midland, named after Dwight Yoakam’s “Fair to Midland” and signed to Big Machine Records, as evidence again that the label could present a paradoxical lineup of acts that could ignite new trends while also catering to those on the opposite end of the spectrum. Morgan, a hat-wearing Mississippian who fleshed out his love for country music through the neotraditionalist movement of the ‘80s and ‘90s, earned his first and only top 5 single in late 2016, with the decidedly warm, traditional “I Met a Girl.” The irony: It was co-penned by Sam Hunt. Pitney fostered a bluegrass background and signed with Curb Records early in his career, pushing the Bill Anderson co-penned “Country” as his debut single. His straight-down-the-middle, old-school approach never took to radio, though, and as of this writing, Lee Brice remains the label’s only current success story. Brice, a South Carolina native, began his career as a songwriter for artists like Jason Aldean and Garth Brooks and helped pen the latter artist’s 2007 comeback single “More Than a Memory.” His 2009 single “Love Like Crazy” made history as the longest-charting song ever, entering the top ten during its forty-sixth week and ultimately staying for fifty-six weeks. And while he contributed to the bro-country era with “Parking Lot Party,” he also released the more thoughtful “I Drive Your Truck” at the movement’s peak, a song about coping with the death of a sibling who died in action in the United States Army.
The most successful story from that aforementioned bunch, though, was Pardi, and while there hasn’t been a full-blown neo-traditionalist revival as was once predicted, he has been an advocate for traditionalism nevertheless. Breakout success eluded him in his earliest years. His debut album, 2014’s Write You a Song, received considerable attention for its clear country sound that, combined with a Bakersfield edge, helped differentiate him among his other male contemporaries. But its biggest single was “Up All Night,” which fit in line lyrically with the bro-country era but didn’t garner enough momentum to propel follow-up singles to further success. Just as he was ready to give up, Pardi found inspiration from an icon and hero. Pardi toured with Alan Jackson, who said of the young upstart that “Of all the new guys I’ve heard, I like that Jon is closer to country than most of the others and I thought his songwriting was better than what I’ve heard in a while.”
The determination paid off, and Pardi, encouraged by Jackson’s words, stuck true to his style. He led his next album with “Head Over Boots,” a jaunty, acoustic-led tune bolstered by pedal steel and fiddle. True to the style, too, its music video began with someone inserting a quarter into a jukebox, then transported the imagery and performance back to black-and-white, so as to capture the vintage honky-tonk spirit of the ‘40s and early ‘50s. Ahead of his 2016 sophomore album California Sunrise, he said, “As with traditional country music, much of the appeal comes from a compelling narrative. As a songwriter, we’re looking for a good story, and we’re always looking to push the limits. I love having those lyrics that at first make you think it’s about one thing, but it’s really about something so much more.”
“Head Over Boots” became a popular wedding staple and Pardi’s first No. 1 single, nearly a year after its release in September 2015. A second one followed with the similarly titled “Dirt on My Boots” as well as two more top five singles with “Heartache on the Dance Floor” and “Night Shift.” And while his penchant for vintage stylings has likely, as of this writing, kept him from ascending to outright superstardom, Pardi has nevertheless remained a staunch advocate for his preferred style and has fostered success on his own terms with it. According to him, “I always want to have the traditional country soul while meeting the new standards of country music.”
Like decades before, country music found its best footing from its balancing of styles. Duo Brothers Osborne, comprised of brothers TJ and John Osborne, the former an openly gay artist within country music, was primed to take off in the bro-country era, given that its name could be amalgamated to spell “BROS.” Instead, the duo stood out thanks to TJ’s rich, deeply distinctive baritone and John’s blues-rock-country-inspired approach to his guitar playing, and broke through with “Stay A Little Longer” in 2015, going so far as to break Florida Georgia Line’s win streak for Vocal Duo of the Year at both the Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music awards starting in 2016, until being bested by Dan + Shay. And while the duo hasn’t broken through to radio just yet, it remains a consistent presence in the industry nonetheless.
In her first year on the country charts, a new talent would not only become a country music superstar in record time, but also a crossover icon. Dallas native Maren Morris found success in the unlikeliest of places as country music headed into the modern age – Spotify. “Just from being placed on a playlist, it [debut single “My Church”] caught like wildfire,” she told Rolling Stone in 2016. “It made all the labels in Nashville say, ‘Who is this girl and what is happening with this song’? Spotify really changed the game in that it put an unknown artist’s song on a much bigger platform, with more eyes than country radio was doing at the time. It was an amazing experiment of testing out songs before research ever came into play.”
Before her career began, Morris grew up singing along to her favorite country artists on the radio, and counted LeAnn Rimes and Patsy Cline as her two favorite artists. By age 12 she had learned how to play guitar and started writing songs, attaining early success by performing in local clubs around Texas. After releasing a few scattered independent albums, Morris, at age 20, was Nashville bound, eager to pursue a country music career after being encouraged by friend and fellow Texas native Kacey Musgraves. Rather than take the conventional route to success, though, she tried out for both American Idol and The Voice but was rejected by both shows. She was eventually offered a publishing deal and found early success after Tim McGraw recorded her own “Last Turn Home” for his 2014 Sundown Heaven Town album. Further exposure came from Kelly Clarkson, who recorded “Second Wind” for her Piece by Piece album.
By late 2015, after garnering more than 2.5 million Spotify streams for a self-titled EP, Morris signed to Columbia Nashville, which re-released the EP and sent out “My Church” as her debut single. Her radio success only loosely mirrored her actual success. “My Church” was certified double platinum and led a platinum-selling debut album, 2016’s HERO, but only barely made its way to the top 10. Her first No. 1 hit, in fact, came from a collaboration with Thomas Rhett for his own “Craving You,” in 2017. That same year, she earned her own – “I Could Use a Love Song.” If anything, Morris found further exposure from outlets outside of radio and outside of country music channels. She collaborated with EDM producer Zedd and musical duo Grey on “The Middle,” which charted at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in April 2018. She also opened for One Direction member Niall Horan in the summer of 2018 after collaborating for his own “Seeing Blind.”
Morris wasn’t the only female country performer to find opportunities touring with male pop artists, either. In the summer of 2017, Kacey Musgraves landed a touring opportunity opening for One Direction’s Harry Styles. Meanwhile, country singer Cam (Cameron Ochs) opened for pop singer Sam Smith that same year. Musgraves’ radio success had gone from diminished to virtually nonexistent since her debut single, and despite Cam earning a No. 2 hit on the Country Airplay chart with her platinum-certified single “Burning House,” a poetic acoustic ballad that broke through in the summer of 2015, of all times, she was not able to follow-up that success. Follow-up single “Mayday” only reached No. 36 on the airplay chart. The ambition was there, as evidenced by “Diane,” framed as an answer song to Dolly Parton’s classic “Jolene,” but these tomatoes apparently had no room in country radio’s salad.
Morris’ sophomore album GIRL was released on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2019, and was bolstered by the success of its lead single, the anthemic title track, as well as a second single, “The Bones,” that found a second life through a remix with Hozier. In November 2020, after winning her first Female Vocalist of the Year award at the Country Music Association Awards, she chose to honor under-acknowledged Black women in country music through her acceptance speech. “Linda Martell, Yola, Mickey Guyton, Rissi Palmer, Brittany Spencer, Rhiannon Giddens … there are so many amazing Black women who pioneered and continued to pioneer the genre … I hope you know that we see you.”
Of the names mentioned by Morris, none broke through to mainstream country radio. In a post-Carolina Chocolate Drops career, Rhiannon Giddens released Freedom Highway in 2017, aiming to explore Black American history through narrative-driven stories, and found critical success doing so. She’d follow it up by forming the Our Native Daughters collective alongside Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell, which released its self-titled debut album in 2019, an album informed by the slave accounts Giddens read in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture as well as the film The Birth of a Nation. Another name, Charley Crockett, a distant relative of Davy Crockett, spent a decade crisscrossing the country, performing on the streets of New Orleans and the subway cars of New York, navigating run-ins with the law, and dealing with health crises before returning to Texas to self-release his debut album. Several more followed, and it’s fair to say that no one keeps up with the pace Crockett does when it comes to releasing new music, a throwback blend of blues, ragtime, country, and cajun influences and a reverence for yesterday’s music that’s served him well thus far. He finally found a breakthrough moment in 2020’s Welcome to Hard Times, thanks to a title track that spoke to the angst felt by the global pandemic, despite not being written about it.
Mickey Guyton came the closest to breaking through. A Texas native who faced racial discrimination throughout her childhood, Guyton looked to music as a refuge from the hatred and often performed in church choirs. She was inspired to pursue a music career after watching LeAnn Rimes perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the start of a Texas Rangers game, and made the move to Nashville in 2011. She auditioned for UMG Nashville and was signed to Capitol Records soon after, but faced more barriers before she even made her debut. She was asked to sing “happy” and “fluffy” songs by radio DJs, denied the chance to release a proper debut album, and was subjected to further racism, resulting in a drinking problem and bouts of insomnia that halted further progress.
Her debut single, “Better Than You Left Me,” was finally released in 2015, which reached No. 34 on the country airplay chart. Thus far, she hasn’t been able to top that success, and after follow-up releases failed to garner attention, she shifted direction. “I did Nashville the Nashville way for so long, and I had seen so many women do Nashville the Nashville way, with very little results,” she told NPR in 2020. The results and experiences led to “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?,” which addressed sex discrimination, and “Black Like Me,” which addressed racial discrimination from her own personal perspective and caught greater attention following the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020.
One artist who did break through was Kane Brown, and he initially did it without country radio. He leveraged social media to his advantage by sharing performance videos through Facebook, which quickly racked up views, shares, and a passionate fan base, even if he didn’t always see that success reflected in his radio singles. Brown’s debut single, “Used To Love You Sober,” was a commercial success, but peaked merely at No. 35 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. Music historian Bob Oermann theorized that Brown’s lack of radio success could be attributed to the fact that he used social media for his launch medium rather than radio, which, even by the late 2010s, still preferred to be the dominant medium for breakout success. Eventually, his success was too large to ignore. He earned his first No. 1 single in 2017 through “What Ifs,” a duet with Lauren Alaina that launched a string of No. 1 hits to come, all of which were multi-platinum successes.
Jimmie Allen is the latest Black artist to find mainstream country music success. He moved to Nashville in 2007 and experienced poverty in his first few years there, often living out of his car. He auditioned for American Idol but didn’t make the cut, and found redemption through a publishing deal, which eventually led to a record deal with Broken Bow Records’ Stoney Creek imprint. With debut single “Best Shot,” he became the first Black artist since Darius Rucker to send his debut country single to the top of the charts. He followed it up with another, “Make Me Want To,” in 2019.
The Universal Sound
As the 2010s progressed, country music’s independent scene continued to thrive, thanks to the breakout success of artists like Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price and more helping to draw more attention to artists not found on FM radio dials; all while Chris Stapleton worked from the outside in, as a reminder that “independent” was more of a mindset than a term to take literally. This didn’t necessarily signify an “all-for-one” mentality, though. Isbell has often shunned the notion that he is a country artist or has much of anything to do with it, and both Simpson and Price have deviated from country music with their most recent works. And while these artists weren’t necessarily cut from the same cloth as independent country acts from decades before, once again, regionalism continued to be an important discussion topic for the underground in the latter half of the 2010s.
Kentucky in particular has birthed a plethora of talent in recent years, from Simpson and Stapleton all the way to others, as well as being home to the formation of bluegrass music. Kelsey Waldon, for instance, is from Monkey’s Eyebrow and is signed to folk icon John Prine’s Oh Boy Records. The struggle of rural America’s heartland is evident in her material. Angaleena Presley, one third of the Pistol Annies collective, released a self-described “fuck it” record in 2017 called Wrangled which spoke directly to the way Music Row wrangled artists while challenging the “bros” benefiting from a system that marginalized others. Dillon Carmichael, nephew of John Michael and Eddie Montgomery, of Montgomery Gentry, has also been a name to watch, after the release of a Dave Cobb-produced debut album in 2018. The biggest name in recent years would come from Lawrence Country, though, and while some felt Sturgill Simpson had abandoned country music with A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, his protégé would pick up right where he left off and take his music in his own direction.
The son of a strip miner, Tyler Childers started playing guitar and writing songs in his teens. He learned blue collar trades along the way, including de-nailing boards for hardwood flooring and working odd landscaping jobs. He originally wanted to be a journalist or English teacher, influenced by a teacher he had who exposed him to Kentucky writers, but music stuck the most. “My first song was a hardcore knock-off of ‘Tangled Up in Blue,’ ” he told Rolling Stone in 2018. “It was based on a story maybe I had heard before. I was 13. The woman died in the end – she was sleeping on the railroad tracks. Pretty edgy, ya know.”
His childhood was musically shaped by everything from Nirvana to bluegrass to Southern gospel to the Drive-By Truckers, and his early albums – 2011’s Bottles and Bibles, released when he was 19 years old, and two EPs later combined as one project, Live on Red Barn Radio I & II – helped him build a strong fan base in his home state based off songs that melded a forlorn, Appalachian howl with stories of characters led astray. His childhood enabled him as a songwriter not to glamorize Appalachia, and he wouldn’t stand to see the rest of the world portray it or blue-collar America with the stereotypical lens that it did. As he sings on “Hard Times,” off of Bottles and Bibles, “Hell’s probably better than trying to get by.” His local attraction was formed off of a connection from people who knew he understood their plights as well as he did his own, and that he would sing the truth for both himself and them.
While not true breakout collections, his earliest albums did help spread word of mouth and reached all the way to Nashville, including to Sturgill Simpson’s drummer, Miles Miller. Childers began booking gigs there, and after a gig at the Basement, he met Miller, who further introduced him to Simpson. Together, Childers and Simpson made that needed breakout collection. With Simpson on production duties alongside former Johnny Cash engineer Dave Ferguson, the team crafted Purgatory, recorded at the Butcher Shoppe. Miller played drums on the album. Unlike past independent album successes, which may have debuted at No. 1 but were unable to sustain momentum, Purgatory continues, as of this writing, to sell an unprecedented amount of units for someone with no mainstream country radio airplay, still selling thousands of copies every week in 2020, three years after its release. Not only was the album bolstered by live crowd favorites like “I Swear (to God),” and “Whitehouse Road,” but also by songs true to Childers’ style, of characters caught in “hell with hope.”
The success was enough for the album for a top five debut on the Billboard Country Albums chart. The success was also enough for Childers to be named as the 2018 Americana Awards’ Emerging Artist of the Year, but it wasn’t enough to squelch his honesty. Upon receiving the award, he said that “Americana ain’t no part of nothin.’ It’s a distraction from the issues that we are facing on a bigger level as country music singers.” What Childers referred to was a growing frustration with how “good country music” now fell under a too-wide musical umbrella, when, to him, “We’ve not fixed the problem of bad country. The problem with country is we’ve turned the props into the play,” referring to the increased commercialization of the music over the decade. “Let’s not just Solo cup and pickup truck it to death. Let’s handle this in a smart way. Nobody is thinking about lyrical content, or how we’re moving people, or what’s going on in the background of their minds.”
Breakout success was also evidenced by a run of sold-out shows that required new dates to be added, only for them to quickly sell out as well. Childers signed to RCA Records in 2019 and announced a follow-up project, Country Squire, that was released in August and debuted at No. 1 on the charts. A tour with Sturgill Simpson was supposed to happen in 2020 to capitalize off of the success, but was cancelled early on in its run due to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, in 2020, Childers dropped another album – a surprise album called Long Violent History, released in September, that housed old traditional fiddle tunes leading up to a title track that addressed systemic racism in the United States, following the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests. Its proceeds were used to establish the Hickman Holler Appalachian College Fund, to help underprivileged students in the Appalachian region.
As for Simpson, he continued following his own muse post-A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. At the Country Music Association awards in 2017, Simpson was there … outside of Bridgestone Arena, with only his guitar, his Grammy award for Album of the Year from 2016, and the inclination to perform a busking set as the whole affair was broadcast via Facebook Live. He also took questions from fans, but not requests. The “why” behind it wasn’t so much about the event itself – Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, after all, was nominated for Album of the Year, for The Nashville Sound – but rather the proposed, then rescinded, requests by the Country Music Association for the media to hold off asking artists political questions, following the 2016 Presidential election. When asked about working with Childers and possibly touring with Cody Jinks, he replied, “I’m glad somebody came along and did what a lot of people probably wish I was still doing. But my head is just headed in a completely different direction artistically … I kind of feel like my work is done in that realm.”
As of this writing, that appears to be true. In interviews conducted in late 2019 and early 2020 promoting his Sound & Fury rock project and accompanying anime production, Simpson discounted his former producer Dave Cobb, his then-current label Elektra, his previous label Thirty Tigers, as well as his solo debut album, High Top Mountain. He also admitted to falling back into substance abuse, depression, and burn out in 2017. Though Simpson’s interview persona has largely been inconsistent and scattershot over the years, almost to the point of being nonsensical and often contradictory, this appeared to truly be the last straw. He, like Childers, also released surprise projects in 2020 – a two-volume bluegrass collection featuring re-recordings of both his solo cuts as well as long-forgotten Sunday Valley songs. It was his way, he says, of “starting back the way I started out, on my own record label … The real benefit is that I’ve completely fallen back in love with music again. I was really burnt out for a long while, due to so many variables that had absolutely nothing to do with making music, and as a result had started associating music with some of the headaches behind the curtains that came with it. But with all that now in the rearview, I am feeling extremely healthy and happy.”
And just as Kentucky had proven instrumental in birthing some of the biggest talents to impact country music in recent years, so, too, did Texas Country and Red Dirt – two distinct scenes that have largely intertwined with one another in recent years. The difference is important, though. Texas Country could be applied to anything that came from Texas long before the current times, from Willie Nelson to Jerry Jeff Walker to Townes Van Zandt and beyond. Though Texan artists are headstrong about their regional pride and fairly insular about who can be included within, the scene has made inroads in mainstream country music in recent years, from Aaron Watson’s independent success, Cody Johnson’s journey from independence to major label success, and Parker McCollum’s rise from independence as the self-described “limestone kid” to eventually scoring a No. 1 hit with 2020’s “Pretty Heart.”
Red Dirt, on the other hand, as explained in Josh Crutchmer’s Red Dirt: Roots Music, Born in Oklahoma, Raised in Texas, at Home Anywhere – which in and of itself explains the difference fairly well in its title – was born in Oklahoma and migrated all over the United States, framed through its concept of forming a musical family where one artist supports another. Garth Brooks, for example, got his start within the Red Dirt scene, forming a band called Santa Fe after his first failed Nashville experience in 1985. The band became local heroes in Stillwater, home to venues like Bink’s and Cimarron Ballroom, and Brooks largely credited the band and his time in Stillwater to launching his eventual rise in Nashville. Like with country music itself, there is a distinct line drawn between performers in Red Dirt, from its forefathers, Tom Skinner and Bob Childers, to rising acts of the 2000s, like Cross Canadian Ragweed and Stoney LaRue, to modern day aficionados that will be discussed.
Sadly, both scenes provide even less women to discuss than mainstream country music or its other independent realms. Jamie Lin Wilson remains a welcome exception, a solo success and former member of the Trishas, a band that blazed trails through Oklahoma and Texas. She got her start later, though, in college. “When I was little, I would think to myself, ‘If I could do anything in the whole world, I would be a singer.’ But singers wear ballgowns and go on TV, you know? That was Reba McEntire and Lorrie Morgan. That wasn’t something that was really feasible to a small-town kid from Southeast Texas.”
What was feasible for her was watching the Chicks in concert and hearing Natalie Maines sing “Cold Day in July” by herself, with just a guitar. She started with the Gougers, then the Trishas, and in 2015 released her solo debut, Holidays and Wedding Rings, known for its sparse production carried by powerful songwriting. Jumping Over Rocks followed in 2018, carried by the powerful “Death & Life,” about the complex, individualistic grieving process we take to when faced with loss and left to question our own existence.
One band that bridges the aforementioned divide is the North Carolina-based American Aquarium, a band that’s endured several lineup changes but has always been fronted by lead singer BJ Barham, who moved to Raleigh in 2002 to form an alt-country band and now remains its only original member. The band built a strong following from a relentless touring schedule, and after encouragement from a booking agent, played in Texas and Oklahoma and opened for bands like Jason Boland and the Stragglers and Cross Canadian Ragweed. The band’s name was taken from Wilco’s “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” and though it found success through albums like 2008’s The Bible and the Bottle and 2010’s Dances for the Lonely – particularly for the fan favorite cut, “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart” – 2012’s Burn. Flicker. Die. was intended to be the band’s final album. Produced by Jason Isbell and featuring fiddle play from Amanda Shires, the album became the band’s commercial and critical breakthrough – not its final project. Perseverance continuously won out for the outfit, even when the on-the-nose “Losing Side of Twenty-Five,” featured on 2015’s Wolves, said otherwise, and even when the entire band (minus Barham) disbanded in 2017, a change reflected in 2018’s bluntly titled Things Change.
“For us, it had been like going to a frat party,” Barham said in the aforementioned Red Dirt. “When you go to the front door, they won’t let you in. But if you try and walk in with one of the guys from the fraternity, then you’re in. Well, we got in by going through that door with the fucking founders of the fraternity.” Bands like American Aquarium were welcome even despite originating elsewhere, but it would be another band with closer regional ties to completely redefine the entire umbrella of country and Red Dirt.
The Turnpike Troubadours launched in 2005 and has remained independent throughout its entire career. Named after Oklahoma’s Indian Nation Turnpike, which connects Tulsa to all points east and south in the state and to, you guessed it, Texas and beyond, the band got its start later than most, led by lead singer Evan Felker, who “got into country music a little later on,” in his twenties. “I remember the first time I heard Cross Canadian [Ragweed] and Jason Boland and realizing you could sort of play any kind of music you wanted to and be creative in your own way and still get to play gigs,” he told Tulsa World in 2015. “I didn’t know that was a real thing. I’ve said it before, I thought you needed to be Garth Brooks or Kurt Cobain.”
The band was also led by the following in its most recent lineup: R.C. Edwards, who named the band alongside Felker, played bass, contributed some vocals and was a frequent songwriter for the band; fiddler Kyle Nix, who came from a musically inclined family and released his solo debut, Lightning on the Mountain & Other Short Stories, in 2020; guitarist Ryan Engleman; steel guitarist Hank Early; and drummer Gabe Pearson. The band formed later than most, with every member out of college by the time they decided to make a go with the band. Felker originally worked at a welding shop before pursuing music and opened for Edwards in various venues, who himself played with his Awesome Possum Band. The two quickly became friends and formed their own band, tearing up venues with fiddle-and-steel-drenched country music with a rock ‘n’ roll edge to it. In time, the Turnpike Troubadours would become known for its energetic live shows, often opening for Jason Boland and the Stragglers, which, together, would form Red Dirt’s premier live music event Medicine Stone in 2013, as well as infectious, radio-ready, fan-favorite hits like “Every Girl” and “7 & 7.” The band released the now out-of-print Bossier City in 2007, which, according to the band members, didn’t represent what they wanted their sound to be. Diamonds and Gasoline, released in 2010, is considered the true debut and breakout collection. Years after its release, nearly every track from the album usually found its way into the band’s live show. Songs like “Shreveport,” the aforementioned “Bossier City,” and “Easton & Main,” among others, largely referenced Oklahoman culture, the last of which was written specifically about Cain’s Ballroom.
Off the road, the band’s songwriting would also become points of intrigue for fans, especially regarding the infamous “Lorrie” character that would frequently pop up in various songs. “I’d like to say it’s all Hemingway short stories,” Felker said about the character. “And it is, but part of it is, Stephen King’s got this thing where everything is one giant universe and everything’s canon. Maybe it was sitting around drinking beer that made me think that all those characters could be cool.”
The band received another unlikely boost in stature, when St. Louis Cardinals All-Star second baseman Matt Carpenter chose its version of “Long Hot Summer Day,” originally written and performed by bluegrass icon John Hartford, for the walk-up music during his plate appearance, and took it further, when he headed to the 2013 World Series versus the Boston Red Sox.
Further success came when the band’s 2015 self-titled release debuted at No. 3 on the country albums chart, marking another independent success story in a year that was full of them. A Long Way From Your Heart followed in 2017, but also, as of this writing, marked the band’s last album. In 2018, Felker split from his wife, Staci. He struggled with addiction and also missed concerts. The band took various breaks throughout the year, regrouping in 2019 to find short-lived success, but also another dark period that ended with an announcement of an indefinite hiatus. Edwards moved forward with his own R.C. and the Ambers, Engleman joined Reckless Kelly, Nix recorded a solo album, and other members of the band and crew found work elsewhere. Felker, on the other hand, took time to find himself. “The past year, nearly, has been some of the best moments and best parts of my life,” he said in 2020. “First and foremost, I found sobriety and recovery. And I stepped away from the road and got a clearer view of the world. I got back to just being me. I could not have ever done that while we were touring like we were.” Felker got back together with his wife, and though there isn’t an official announcement yet on a Turnpike Troubadours reunion, many remain optimistic that the group will return.
And as for Texas, despite singer/songwriter Granger Smith dubbing it the “minor leagues” in 2016, the regional scene thrived, thanks to stronger regional radio airplay, festival support, and a tighter connection between its artists. Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers, for instance, not only supported their own careers (Rogers being the lead singer of his titular band), but have also teamed up together on numerous occasions. In 2015, the two released the collaborative effort Hold My Beer Vol. 1 (Vol. 2 followed in 2020), a top five country chart success that included fun, self-deprecating tunes like “I Had My Hopes Up High,” masterful story songs like “El Dorado,” and also a song that poked fun at the mainstream country music industry through its best-known song, “Standards.” Watch This followed, capturing the duo’s annual acoustic tours together in its best form.
One of the largest names to emerge over the past few years associated with Texas but with a reach far wider is former thrash metal singer Cody Jinks, who grew up with country music and in 2005 decided to pursue a solo career playing it, all while keeping his anti-mainstream demeanor in his work. Early albums paved the way to breakout success in 2015, when songs like “David,” “Loud & Heavy,” and “Cast No Stones” propelled success for his Adobe Sessions album and garnered attention toward his rich, deep voice and stance against mainstream country music that appealed to increasingly disgruntled fans. His 2016 I’m Not the Devil album debuted at No. 4 on the albums chart, by then not an unprecedented move, but still impressive for an artist working outside the major label system who calls his own shots and owns his own record label. To put it another way, the same week that I’m Not the Devil debuted, another album was released by Chris Lane, a mainstream country artist who released his debut album following the No. 1 single “Fix” … and sold less units than Jinks. He launched his own “Loud & Heavy Fest” in 2018, which blew away expectations regarding organization and attendance rates, and signed to Rounder Records that same year to release Lifers, which met with mixed reception from long-time fans, prompting him to return to independent status the next year. He’s also known for his work ethic: He released two albums a week apart from each other in 2019, and, as of this writing, has planned multiple projects spanning from a rock project, a Lefty Frizzell tribute project, a live album, more studio music, and more.
Finally, from Swift Current, Saskatchewan just north of the border, Colter Wall, like Jinks, grew up with both country and rock music as well as blues and folk music and has achieved notable acclaim and a boost in stature in recent years. Unlike Jinks, Wall thus far has sought to honor the past through his music. Listening to Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” in high school inspired him to write songs. He attended the University of Saskatchewan to pursue education, but took a break at age 19 to pursue music, and released an EP, Imaginary Appalachia, in 2015. His interest in folk music history and a growing focus on American roots music styles immediately earned stylistic comparisons to acts like Johnny Cash and Tom Waits, but what stood out even more was Wall’s booming, thick baritone that made him sound far older than his age would imply.
“People often say it’s the voice at first that grips them, which is a huge compliment because I’ve never thought of myself as much of a singer. I think I shock some people sometimes just with the way I sound,” he told Prairie Post in 2015. “Singing for me has always been sort of tricky. It took a while for me to be able to access a lower register, but once I found it, it’s not a strain to do it.”
Success for the project came from the unlikeliest of places, when American professional wrestler Brock Lesnar promoted Wall’s music to his own fans and when multiple songs from the project were featured in various films, including 2016’s Hell or High Water. The success was enough for his streaming numbers to massively increase, and in 2017, he released a proper full-length, self-titled debut, produced by Dave Cobb. Noticeably more sparse than Wall’s previous collection, the album garnered acclaim for its increased focus on Wall’s vocals and songwriting. Breakout success, however, is going to come on Wall’s own terms. In 2018, he issued Songs for the Plains, an even more sparse collection of songs that aimed to capture the lonesome, dark feel of the Canadian prairies he still calls home. According to music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine, “Steel guitars are used as howling accents, not solos; he occasionally gooses his band to follow a train track rhythm.” Wall took it further with 2020’s Western Swings & Waltzes and Other Punchy Songs, which brought a fuller sound to the mix and aimed to capture the pure roots of cowboy music, this time without Cobb. His music now is a long way away from the sound captured on Imaginary Appalachia, a self-described move by Wall to find his own sound and carve his own path through time and experience. And as long as his career thrives, Wall will surely continue to make music that first and foremost honors the time-honored country & western tagline.
A Dark and Heavy Cloud Looms Above …
Just as Johnny Cash’s death echoed across the nation in 2003, so, too, did Merle Haggard’s in 2016. Like Cash’s death, Haggard’s passing was a sobering reminder of every legend lost up to that point. Throughout the 2010s, the country music industry mourned the passing of, among others, “Little” Jimmy Dickens, George Jones, Ray Price, Guy Clark, Dr. Ralph Stanley, Jean Shepard, Mel Tillis, and both Don Williams and Montgomery Gentry’s Troy Gentry, on the same day, September 8, 2017. Josh Turner succinctly put it best, when he noted that it was “a heavy day for country music.”
It was also that year that country music fans were subject to the deadliest mass shooting in United States modern history. On the evening of Oct. 1, 2017, a gunman opened fire upon the crowd attending the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Las Vegas strip in Nevada as Jason Aldean was performing, killing 58 people and injuring 800 more. Six days after the event, he shared a heartfelt message with viewers on Saturday Night Live before performing Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” as a tribute.
Eric Church headlined the first night of the festival, and said to the Associated Press in 2018 that, “In all honesty, there’s not a day that goes by since that day that I have not thought of it and thought of the people and the victims. That being our last show of the year, I took it in differently than I have maybe taken in other shows. I savored it. I remember everything about it. Mass shootings, they happen every year, unfortunately. But this year was a little bit unique in that you had two happen at music events and one of those was the largest mass shooting in U.S. history. It’s been a tragic year.”
Church wrote “Why Not Me” immediately afterward in remembrance of the victims, some of which he knew because they were members of his tight knit “church choir” fan club – a friend even sent him a video of a woman who lost her husband in the shooting. His name was Sonny Melton, and “Why Not Me” was written in part for him. The two were there specifically to see Church. “I felt like the bait,” he told Taste of Country in 2018. “People come to see you play, then all of a sudden they die? … It wrecked me in a lot of ways.” At a Grand Ole Opry performance on Oct. 4, Church debuted the song. As he told the crowd beforehand, “The only way I’ve ever fixed anything that’s been broken in me is with music.”
Maren Morris also performed at the festival, during the night before the shooting, and wrote “Dear Hate” just two days after the news broke, at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the site of another horrific shooting in June of 2015. She recorded it with Vince Gill and donated sales and proceeds from the song to the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee’s Nashville’s Music City Cares Fun, benefiting shooting victims and their families. “Hate is everywhere, and I’m sick of not doing enough,” she said in a social media post. “In the darkest tunnel, there is still love and music. That’s what it’s here for.”
At the 2018 Grammy Awards, both Church and Morris, along with Brothers Osborne, teamed up for a special collaboration to honor the victims. Country music, as it has proven throughout its history, was ready to speak to something very harrowing and all too real and provide a voice for the voiceless.
… But There’s Always Been a Rainbow Hanging Over Your Head
Just as bro-country had been termed in 2013 to depict the growing trend of party-ready music, another term was coined in 2019 to describe the slick, sweetly lovestruck platitudes that found their way into hits from rising names like Dan + Shay and Brett Young, only this one wasn’t used negatively, and it didn’t come from a music critic.
“Boyfriend country” was first termed in a November 2019 Billboard article by Tom Roland as a way of describing songs about “extolling the values of their [male country artists’] wives or girlfriends,” citing Russell Dickerson’s “Every Little Thing,” Thomas Rhett’s “Die a Happy Man,” Dan + Shay’s “Speechless,” and Kane Brown’s “Homesick” as a few examples. While comprised mainly of newcomers like Dickerson and Brett Young, several male country acts made the transition from bros to boyfriends. Rhett, for example, started his career with a bro-country debut album that catapulted him to success thanks to hits like “It Goes Like This” and the more obvious “Get Me Some of That” before finding his biggest hit yet with the wedding staple “Die a Happy Man.” Since then, he’s embraced his pop and hip-hop influences to pivot toward a more mature, thoughtful lyrical perspective, even if the old-as-time criticism for him is that he strays too far from country music’s roots, despite being the son of country music songwriter Rhett Akins. Critics of the boyfriend country sound noted it was sappy and featured lifeless, inorganic production that also affected the bro-country era, and its lasting influence years later is likely due to its general inoffensiveness, despite providing a relatively successful commercial formula thus far.
But though boyfriend country was cited as a counter to the blatant misogyny evident throughout the bro-country era and allowed women a better spotlight than before, it still did little to promote actual women. Another criticism for it was that it made the gender gap worse by framing songs about women as “respectful,” even though they were all sung by male country artists. The data supported the criticism, when on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart dated for December 8, 2018, for the first time since the radio-based survey launched in January 1990, the top 20 featured no female artists. The highest position belonged to Carrie Underwood’s “Love Wins,” which sat at No. 22 for the week. The three years that had passed since Keith Hill’s tomato comments had not seemed to change much within the industry.
It was tough for female artists to break through during the 2010s, particularly for newer artists, and that feels like an understatement. After competing on American Idol, North Carolina-native Kellie Pickler notched several hits in the 2000s that reflected a bubbly, upbeat country-pop personality. In 2012, she released 100 Proof, a noticeably hard-country effort heralded by critics as an artistic triumph, even though it continued her downward commercial trend in the early 2010s. She was dropped by her label on her 26th birthday by Black River Entertainment. Kelsea Ballerini fared much better on the label. Her debut single, “Love Me Like You Mean It,” hit No. 1 at country radio, making her the first female artist to send her debut single to the summit since Carrie Underwood’s 2006 hit “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” and the first solo female artist to attain a No. 1 hit since Underwood’s 2012 hit “Blown Away.”
Carly Pearce has also been one to watch in recent years, and will likely require a lengthier discussion as the 2020s unfold. A Kentucky native with a bluegrass background, Pearce signed a record deal in 2012 but was let go shortly afterward. She took part-time jobs to keep her dream afloat, including cleaning Airbnbs. Early success came from being featured on Texas act Josh Abbott Band’s “Wasn’t That Drunk” in 2015, which led to further attention from record labels. Her debut single, “Every Little Thing,” hit the top of the charts, but follow-up singles – which were more polished and pop-inspired – didn’t fare as well. She wanted to record music more emblematic of her upbringing, and as of 2020, is doing it. “I want to be a purist in the format. I want to be the country female and I feel like this is what Patty Loveless would do in 2020 in the best way,” she said of her single “Next Girl.”
At any rate, breakout success for female artists remained an exception in the 2010s, rather than the rule. Things certainly hadn’t changed much for Kacey Musgraves, who, despite not having a top single since “Merry Go ‘Round,” was doing just fine as she prepped her third major studio album, Golden Hour. The album was marketed to country but released without the support of a traditional radio single – unsurprising, given Musgraves’ lack of follow-up support from the entity. The marketing for her newest effort was largely based off both previous critical acclaim as well as social media marketing. On March 10, 2018, Musgraves announced the Oh, What A World Tour in support of the album while touring in London. The album became another No. 1 country album for Musgraves, and a top-five all-genre one.
Its success strengthened at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards in 2019, when Musgraves won awards for Best Country Solo Performance with her song, “Butterflies,” Best Country Song with her song, “Space Cowboy,” Best Country Album and finally, Best Album Of The Year. Afterwards, sales for Golden Hour increased dramatically, and Musgraves and her team announced they would be sending the single “Rainbow” to radio, the final song off of the album and a love letter to her growing LBGTQ+ fan base. Perhaps predictably, the song only made it to the upper thirties on the airplay chart, further reflecting the odd dichotomy between Musgraves’ success and radio airplay that’s followed her post-“Merry Go ‘Round.”
With Golden Hour, Musgraves was becoming more of a cultural icon than a strictly country one, especially coming off of her tour with Harry Styles. The album experimented with pop textures and other studio effects like the vocoder-laced “Oh, What a World” and the disco-leaning “High Horse.” And while its content was framed around love, it was also a hazy, ambiguous journey through life and death. The general country community accepted it, when the album took home the 2018 CMA Album of the Year Award, beating out the artist who had since become a crowd favorite to win any award he was nominated for: Chris Stapleton. Like Dolly Parton, Musgraves was too big to hold down. “It was really important for me to bring my version of country music to a different group of people,” Musgraves told Rolling Stone in 2018. “I didn’t want to leave country behind. I just wanted to look at it a different way.”
The same day Golden Hour was released, March 30, 2018, another album was released that cemented a fresh, new talent. With a debut single called “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega,” Ashley McBryde, like Musgraves, reminded country fans that a song with hardscrabble detail and a sincere emotional pathos belonged on country radio. Upon moving to Nashville, McBryde worked a day job at Guitar Center while making her rounds at night, playing various venues like the Blue Bar and the Rusty Nail hoping to connect. She started as a seasoned opening act for Wynonna Judd, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams Jr., and Chris Stapleton, self-releasing her first album in 2006 and a second one, Elsebound, in 2011. It would be her 2016 EP Jalopies & Expensive Cars to break through and find fans.
Eric Church took notice of that EP and asked her to join him one night on his Holdin’ My Own Tour. She joined him onstage not to sing one of his songs, but one of her own – “Bible and a .44.” A video of the performance went viral, and McBryde’s music benefited from the success; a tour with Brothers Osborne followed, as did a label bidding war that ended with her signing with Warner Nashville. She struggled for 11 years and had the scars to prove it, and the title track to her full-length debut album Girl Going Nowhere addressed that in intimate detail. “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” did, too. “There’s a reason why every label in town wanted to sign Ashley,” CEO and President of Warner Music Nashville John Esposito said. “It’s because she’s that good. She’s a powerful Southern vocalist and amazing songwriter where no word or phrase written is disposable.”
She made her first Grand Ole Opry appearance in 2017, a place she called “my Hollywood, my Mt. Rushmore” as a child. She also credited the radio for her childhood musical love, as heard in “Radioland,” noting that it was an important source of information and entertainment. Country radio was the last entity to embrace McBryde, though. “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” only made it to No. 30 on the airplay chart, and “Radioland” didn’t chart at all. Like Musgraves, she broke through the noise anyway, becoming the Country Music Association’s 2019 New Artist of the Year and the Academy of Country Music’s New Female Vocalist of the Year. She opened for Eric Church on tour once again. Still, she was told to lose weight, straighten her hair, add more pop flourishes to her music, and use Music Row writers to win over country radio.
Her response framed her follow-up album: “I didn’t. I don’t. I never will,” which she sang fiercely on the title track to 2020’s Never Will. Her songwriting and overall focus was sharper, and despite the advice given, “One Night Standards” became her biggest hit yet thus far, peaking just outside of the top ten. “I was told that your second album has to prove your first wasn’t a fluke,” she told Nashville Scene in 2020. “But you have to be mindful that you should only change what you want to change and stay true to who you are … We don’t need to be all artsy and Shakespearean, but we don’t have to be dumb either. If we just talk to them [country music fans] about real life in their own language, it’s gonna be all right.”
And whereas McBryde’s sincerity has both supported and hindered success in certain circles, it’s that same quality that would catapult one of country music’s biggest superstars seen since the days of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain. Since his debut with 2017’s “Hurricane,” all of Luke Combs’ singles have become No. 1 hits – most of them crossover smashes – and multi-platinum-selling successes, and have supported a career run thus far that is undeniably meteoric. An only child who grew up in North Carolina and performed a little as a teeanger, Combs grew up with musical ambitions but didn’t act on them until later in life. While attending Appalachian State University to study criminal justice, the same alma mater as one of his musical heroes, Eric Church, he worked as a bouncer at a bar, the same bar where he earned stage time and decided music was the path he wanted to follow in life. He hadn’t picked up a guitar until college, and with less than a month until graduation, he packed his bags and headed to Nashville in 2014. He built his following by touring college towns and posting performance videos on Facebook and Vine and released a debut EP online.
Three more followed before he was noticed by songwriter Jonathan Singleton at a chance performance in a Nashville bar, who signed him to a publishing deal, which eventually led to a record deal with Sony Music’s Columbia Nashville. “Hurricane” was launched as his lead single, intended only to fuel a six-song EP, given that he didn’t yet have the money to master the project for production. Its huge success allowed him to finish it. Titled This One’s For You, the album went on to become the highest-selling country album of 2018 and helped promote a run of sold-tour tours on his first headlining run.
Like Garth Brooks, Combs’ success is largely attributed to his down-the-middle approach that feels more relatable to everyday country music fans. His large stature and average looks put him more in line visually with Chris Stapleton, but his music is somewhere between neotraditional – like the ‘90s-inspired “When it Rains it Pours” – and modern – like the overly dark, brooding “One Number Away” – and he doesn’t write with the most immediately recognizable names in Nashville, either. Also like Brooks, his success came much quicker than expected, even if it was still a long time coming. But in the modern age, Combs is able to release new music much more quickly to fans and rely on social media and his live shows to help showcase possible future singles, like he did with 2018’s “Beautiful Crazy,” testing the waters and acting on them. He’s prone to releasing EPs and deluxe editions of his projects to add more new music, including to 2019’s What You See is What You Get, which went from featuring 17 songs to a whopping 23 after its deluxe release. One of the new tracks was “Forever After All,” which has already become his biggest hit to date. And with his noticeably younger fan base and authentic appeal, it’s safe to say there’s more to come. “I’m a lucky dude, I think,” he told The Boot in 2019. “It’s not anything that I do different or better than anyone else. It’s just been [that] we have something right now that fans at country radio love and our fans wanna buy tickets for, so we’re just gonna enjoy it while it’s here.”
As of this writing, Combs’ commercial rival is Morgan Wallen, a country music artist who started as a landscaper and, like Combs, has leveraged social media marketing to his advantage. He broke through with the Florida Georgia Line collaboration of “Up Down,” then cemented his superstar status with a follow-up single, “Whiskey Glasses,” the top country radio song of 2019. Also like Combs, Wallen sports a look that appeals to everyday fans, often sporting a mullet and plaid flannel shirt that puts him somewhere between, according to The New Yorker, Bruce Springsteen and Larry the Cable Guy. The launch of the social media app TikTok has helped him even more, with fans reacting to snippets of his own songs and recording their own versions. Unlike Combs, though, Wallen’s career thus far has been controversial, due to personal decisions – like being arrested for disorderly conduct in May 2020, showing up at an Alabama bar during the coronavirus pandemic to perform and kiss multiple women in October, and uttering a racial slur in February 2021. Though he’s released numerous apology videos over time, Wallen’s success hasn’t faltered. Dangerous: The Double Album has already broken Luke Combs’ records for streaming success and Garth Brooks’ record for the longest run atop the Billboard 200 for a country album since 1992’s The Chase. But only time will tell if his actions lead to a short-lived success or career longevity, given his refusal to amend and hold himself accountable for those actions.
By the end of the 2010s, streaming became not just important to supporting careers, but crucial to driving them forward. Streaming data has been used to determine single choices and touring set lists. Through streaming, country artist Brent Cobb’s manager, Don VanCleave, noticed that Stockholm was Cobb’s biggest streaming market, noting to Rolling Stone in 2017, “he hasn’t headlined America yet and he’s selling out Amsterdam and it’s only because of streaming.” While streaming impacted pop and rap significantly by launching them into viral stars, country music became one of the last adopters in the 2010s, because, according to Sony Music chairman/CEO Randy Goodman, “historically, country music always lags behind in terms of technology adoption.”
Perhaps country music’s slow rise to embrace technology can be attributed to a statement made by chief executive officer of Universal Music Group Doug Morris in Steve Knopper’s Appetite For Self-Destruction. As he discussed major record labels in the late 1990s and why he and his contemporaries didn’t plunge into internet music more quickly, Morris said, “there’s no one in the record company that’s a technologist. That’s a misconception writers make all the time, that the record industry missed this. They didn’t. They just didn’t know what to do. It’s like if you were suddenly asked to operate on your dog to remove his kidney. What would you do?”
Redesigning the Conversation
By 2019, mainstream country music was more diverse than it had been in recent years, but it still wasn’t much of an actual musical melting pot. Artists like Luke Combs and Jon Pardi brought an organic appeal that had long been missing from radio airwaves, and an artist like Maren Morris brought a pop sensibility to her music that provided a balance. But women overall still struggled, and boyfriend country became an increasingly popular trend – even with Combs, through “Beautiful Crazy,” even if his take still included country instrumentation such as fiddle and steel guitar. The genre was overall caught in a transitional phase with no clear direction for what its next decade would bring, not helped by the widespread impact of the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc for the entire industry by 2020.
In simpler times before the pandemic, debates over what did and didn’t constitute real country music continued to rage, and they would find their tipping point at the tail end of the decade from an outsider who worked the system to his advantage, with a song that lasted only one minute and fifty three seconds yet resonated long afterward. Controversy ensued when Atlanta-based artist Lil Nas X’s hit single “Old Town Road” debuted at No. 19 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart in March 2019 before being switched to the Hot Rap Songs chart by March 18. Nas X chose to label the track as country in metadata listings because it would have less competition there than in the rap format. Not that it mattered in the long run – the music video for “Old Town Road” went viral for featuring random scenes from the Wild West video game Red Dead Redemption 2 as well as through meme videos from Instagram and other social media platforms incorporating the song.
Circling back to country music, the song’s exclusion from the country charts led to claims of racism, even though the decision was handled solely by Billboard and its chart managers, and that a Texas string-band named Green River Ordinance was also refused inclusion on the Billboard Country Albums chart in 2016 for its album, Fifteen. Debates over whether or not “Old Town Road” was a country song or not dominated the year, and unearthed conversations over needed racial representation in country music once again, though perhaps not in the intended manner. Darius Rucker, Jimmie Allen, and Kane Brown enjoyed success, and Beyonce’s performance with the Chicks at the 2016 CMA Awards was a noted focal point of the show, but overall representation remained slim. Certain critics of “Old Town Road” argued it was a hip-hop song that featured western imagery but no actual ties to country music, while others argued its lyrical perspective and progressive attitude is what made it belong, and that because mainstream country music no longer really reflected the genre’s working-class roots anyway, that they may as well as include the song, given the genre’s own flirtation with hip-hop music earlier in the decade. Its critics included, among others, Brothers Osborne and Luke Combs. Its unlikely champion was Billy Ray Cyrus, who benefited from a remix (with several more to follow) that dropped in April and topped the Billboard Hot 100 for 19 consecutive weeks, marking the longest run atop the charts, and a diamond-certified success.
Another high-profile event of 2019 came at the beginning of the year, when Amanda Shires prematurely let news of a possible collaboration with Brandi Carlile and Margo Price slip, in an interview with radio station 91.9 WFPK. “We’ve been writing some songs together for a new project I started with Brandi Carlile. Me, her, and Margo Price. We’ve got a new group called the Highwomen coming up … We’re recording it in March, so we were writing some songs.”
Price was ultimately not a part of the group, which was named to honor the Highwaymen collective that once included Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings but marketed as a method of female empowerment through music. The group ultimately featured Shires, Carlile, songwriter Natalie Hemby, and Maren Morris – star power and critical acclaim in all. Carlile almost literally found solace and salvation in music. At age five, she contracted bacterial meningitis, which almost took her life. As an openly gay teenager, Carlile, as noted in her memoir, Broken Horses, “grappled with the tension between her sexuality and her faith,” and found comfort in music. She grew up idolizing musicians like Patsy Cline and Elton John, and sang backup in an Elvis Presley tribute band early on in her career. She eventually teamed up with brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth, and together they built such a huge cult-like following that, by the time Carlile signed a contract with Columbia Records in 2005 and released her self-titled debut album, she and the brothers debuted with critical acclaim and commercial longevity to ensure more projects would come. She steamrolled the momentum to her follow-up releases into 2018’s By The Way, I Forgive You, which received six Grammy nominations. Since then, between her roles as a solo artist, producer, and part of the Highwomen collective, she’s been a dominant force in country music.
The Highwomen released its first taste of music from the upcoming project in July, titled “Redesigning Women.” The self-titled album was released in September. As its members declare on the opening title track, a reinterpretation of the Jimmy Webb-penned “Highwayman,” “We are the highwomen, we sing a story still untold.” And just as female artists of the ‘90s inspired female artists of the modern day, Morris said, “I feel like little girls will hear the Highwomen and be changed by it. It’s going to be the background music and the defining music of their youth.”
Unlike the Americana leanings of Carlile and Shires and the pop leanings of Morris, The Highwomen was a decidedly old-school country album; “Redesigning Women” drew comparisons to Loretta Lynn’s work. And though the group is officially comprised of its four members, its reach is vast. The music video for “Redesigning Women,” for instance, featured, among others, Cam, Wynonna Judd, and Tanya Tucker, who herself was having a major year thanks to her Carlile-produced comeback effort, While I’m Livin’. The Highwomen album featured Yola and Sheryl Crow as well as contributions from several female writers like Lori McKenna and Miranda Lambert. In an interview with Sirius XM, the group members said that while the project was still in its infancy, they hoped it could act as a way to highlight fellow women artists in country music through future albums and singles. “We’ve got our core members,” Morris said. “But all are welcome.” With a No. 1 album debut on the country charts, the potential is unlimited.
Sadly, all of the stories told here were halted by the end of the year. The COVID-19 global pandemic paralyzed the world by early 2020, and instead of touring in support of new music or focusing on it at all, the focus for artists and the world in general instead shifted toward navigating through a new normal. Now it’s tasked with navigating a new decade, with endless possibilities and new names and music that will fill the next chapters.
Throughout its last 30 years, country music has shifted both sonically and technologically. It remains popular not in spite of its stereotypes or because of its politics, but because it speaks to fans in a simple, singable fashion in a way they understand. Still, greater stylistic, sexual, and racial representation remains a key goal for the genre to achieve in the new decade. Thanks to Internet discoveries and a cast of diverse musical characters, many of whom are new or just now breaking out, the genre has what it needs to move forward, stay relevant, and, perhaps most importantly, evolve. And though there is much to celebrate over these last 30 years, country music’s history has also arguably reached its darkest points on several levels throughout this time period. The new decade gives cause for hope, though, thanks to its varied roster of new talent looking to usher a way forward. Certain debates have remained as essential to mapping out the genre’s continued growth as they were in its humble beginnings, while others have morphed themselves to fit the needs of the modern day.
It’s tough to end on an optimistic note during a global pandemic that’s largely and negatively affected the music industry as a whole – country music specifically, when one considers its commitment to concert halls and bars. Even then, we’ve witnessed artists adapt to new mediums and strategically release new music to best benefit fans. As far as its sound is concerned, country music in both its mainstream and independent realms is vast but directionless, in part due to the rise of new technological innovations that make discovery easier and are slowly beginning to make a medium like country radio somewhat irrelevant, even though it still remains the key way to break out new artists. Even still, country music is in a weird holding place as of this writing, not led by any one particular artist or sound, but arguably divided more than it has ever been before, and it’s best to describe the here and now as somewhat of a transitional era for the genre as a whole. Still, from that divide comes passionate debates like never before, many of which remain rooted in popular age-old traditions for country music, but also remain an active, healthy way for the genre to move forward.
Breakout years halted in 2020, but they weren’t squelched. Country music was born out of hard times, and though that is not meant as a way of sugarcoating the devastating impacts the pandemic has had and will continue to have on the industry, it is a way of saying that as long as artists continue to care about the importance of country music, it will continue to thrive in any capacity it chooses to, and, to end on an important cliché, the circle will remain unbroken.