'Not rock 'n' roll's little sister': Inside country music's new golden era — and what comes next

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This combination of photos shows Jelly Roll performing during the Times Square New Year's Eve celebration in New York on Dec. 31, 2023, left, Megan Moroney performing at the Windy City Smokeout festival in Chicago on July 15, 2023, center, and Morgan Wallen performing at the 57th Annual CMA Awards on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo)

LOS ANGELES – It was an unexpected musical success story last year, one that has only continued to snowball: Country music, with its loyal listenership on the margins of pop's mainstream, had a crossover moment.

Some of the biggest albums and songs of the year are credited to country musicians like Morgan Wallen, Zach Bryan and Luke Combs, whose hits went beyond country radio stations and onto pop rotations.

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But when the 2024 Grammy nominations were announced in November, something seemed amiss. Country was not represented in the main categories — except for Jelly Roll and The War and Treaty, who are up for best new artist. It seemed like a notable absence for a genre that topped the charts all year. The lack of nominations surprised Recording Academy CEO and President Harvey Mason jr.

“We need to do more work with our country voters and continue to invite more country voters to the process,” he told The Associated Press at the time.

That hasn't always been the case: In 2019, Kacey Musgraves won album of the year at the Grammys for her “Golden Hour," a release celebrated for its innovative take on the country genre that combined elements of pop and disco. It's the kind of innovation often celebrated by the Recording Academy.

Still, country music has broken new ground. In July, country acts held the top three spots on the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time in the chart's 65-year history: Controversy hoisted Jason Aldean’s “Try That In a Small Town” to No. 1 for a short week, followed by Wallen’s “Last Night” and Combs’ cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” The latter also won song of the year at the 2023 Country Music Awards, despite the fact that the original was written in 1988.

Oliver Anthony’s viral hit “Rich Men North of Richmond” also made it to No. 1, making him the first artist without any prior chart history.

Wallen is in a league of his own. His latest album, with its inventive exploration of trap beats over heartbreaking country, titled “One Thing at a Time,” spent 16 weeks at the top of the Billboard 200 in 2023 — which meant he held the top spot for 30% of the year ... and his record was released in March. It also means that Wallen’s album spent the more time at No. 1 than any other album since Adele’s “21” dominated over a decade ago. Unsurprisingly, “One Thing at a Time” was the most-consumed album in the U.S. last year.

Across iHeartRadio stations, Wallen accounted for 2.1 billion total audience spins.

Beyond Wallen and those other chart-toppers, newer country talent has begun experiencing some crossover success, like the hip-hop head Jelly Roll (with “Need a Favor”), Lainey Wilson’s Deana Carter-referencing “Watermelon Moonshine," and Bailey Zimmerman’s hard rock rasp on “Rock and A Hard Place." (Wilson is the only woman on the list, but additional attention can and should be given to other newcomers, like Gabby Barrett, Carly Pearce, Ingrid Andress, among others.)

If pop has begun embracing a “genreless” approach to music, it seems like that unconventionality is opening doors for country as well — and it is accounting for the music's popularity. At least, that's what Dan Smyers of the three-time Grammy award winning duo Dan + Shay believes. “There’s so many different sounds in country happening right now,” he says, which has inspired “crossover” moments over the last few years — like his group's song “10,000 Hours," which featured Justin Bieber and got Top 40 radio play.

Getting in those all-genre spaces allows for discovery. “Somebody who might have been listening to the top 40 station in their town goes like, ‘Oh, that’s cool. I dig that song. I’ve never really listened to country,'" Smyers says. "And then they start digging into the catalog and listening to our back catalog, or to other country acts, and they fall in love with it. And now it’s like this perfect storm with streaming.”

“Since I’ve been in the game, I can confidently say country is bigger than ever. I think we’re in a really strong spot,” says award-winning, “Small Town Boy” singer Dustin Lynch. Particularly in that country acts can now play with different sounds. “I’ve been able to do very traditional country leaning (music) and had success with that, and a straight up rock song as well."

He says country music is now in a position where people who “maybe never gave us a chance” are listening to country music with an open-mindedness.

And there's something to that: According to Luminate, country music experienced its biggest streaming week ever in 2023, a whopping 2.26 billion, the data and analytics platform’s Midyear Music Report found. In the first 26 weeks of 2023, the data and analytics platform found that country music consumption in the United States was up 20.3% year-over-year, a number Wallen is particularly responsible for: He accounted for 40% of the growth in country consumption last year.

The genre has historically been enjoyed by English-speaking Americans, but Luminate's reporting also shows growth in the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Brazil, Mexico, Germany and Vietnam. That's something Darius Rucker has noticed firsthand. “I've seen what country is doing, especially in Europe. It's crazy. I tour Europe and you know, we do well. And it’s just great to see what America has known forever," he says, “And people just didn’t want to embrace, and so many people are embracing now.”

“It just shows that country music is not rock and roll’s little sister anymore,” he adds.

Smyers has his own theories to why country music is experiencing this explosive period. “Western culture is having a moment,” he theorizes, referencing the success of the popular television show “Yellowstone.” “It was a big movement for that kind of rootsy Americana country sound,” he says, which served as another platform for viewers to potentially become country music fans.

But ultimately, he believes “people are starved for authenticity in just everything in life, in TV and movies, especially in music,” he says. “And I feel like country music kind of does the authenticity thing better than any other genre.”

Up-and-comer Megan Moroney agrees. “I think people are just like really drawn more towards authenticity nowadays,” she says, highlighting country music's “real life lyrics.”

Thanks to social media, where there's “so much fake stuff,” she believes there's a hunger for truth-telling. It's why she describes her single “I'm Not Pretty,” not as a “country song,” but as a “cultural song,” one with lyrics that tackle universal concerns like doom scrolling and insecurity.

Veterans of the genre, too, have taken note of country's big year. Reba McEntire, who joined “The Voice” as a coach for the first time in 2023, taking over from Blake Shelton, views her role there as an opportunity to champion this era of country music performers. “I just kind of stay in my lane and do the best I can with supporting country music,” she told AP. Next month, Dan + Shay will join her, John Legend and Chance the Rapper as season 25's coaches — marking the first-time half of the four spots will have been occupied by country musicians.

Garth Brooks, too, has watched as country music enjoys a new kind of crossover moment — and he's meeting it in a big way. In May of last year, Brooks announced he was launching his own radio station with the streaming platform TuneIn called The Big 615, with a focus on traditional country music unbeholden to major labels, which dominate terrestrial radio. He’s hoping to use it to promote more women on the airwaves as well as have a positive influence on country music’s growing global footprint.

“If you’re in country music," he says, "They’re going to try and fix your music if they take it outside of the United States — which usually means steel (guitars) and fiddles get taken off. Now, that doesn’t work for us,” Brooks told AP, referring to archaic radio structures.

“So, what I love, it’s fresh(ly) baked out of Nashville and it’s a global station. So, you’re hearing it the moment it hits the streets. Very proud of it.”

And if his career can be used as evidence of country music's enduring appeal, this new class of performers only have more exciting things ahead.

___ The 2024 Grammy Awards will air Feb. 4 live on CBS and Paramount+ from the Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles. For more coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/grammy-awards

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