Over the summer, Nashville seemed poised for another season of polarization. Jason Aldean, a country music superstar, released “Try That in a Small Town,” a single accompanied by a controversial music video featuring scenes of urban unrest and culture-war references. Simultaneously, “Rich Men North of Richmond,” a surprising anti-government and anti-elitist statement by an unknown musician known as Oliver Anthony Music, went viral, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The juxtaposition of these two tracks, along with subsequent releases, hinted at a more complex narrative within country music. While Aldean’s video and Oliver Anthony’s track initially suggested a conservative tilt in the genre, subsequent releases by other artists hinted at a more ecumenical approach.
The rapid shift in the reception of “Rich Men North of Richmond” was notable. Played at the first Republican presidential primary debate, the song initially seemed aligned with a certain political ideology. However, Anthony’s response revealed a reluctance to be neatly categorized. This nuanced stance challenged preconceived notions about the political affiliations of country musicians.
Tyler Childers, a few weeks after Aldean’s release, unveiled a video for “In Your Love” that featured a romantic story centered around two male miners, sparking discussions about gender roles in country music. These conflicting messages suggested a more diverse and inclusive space within the genre.
Country music, which has historically leaned toward jingoism, has been experiencing a nuanced transformation. While grappling with gender and racial diversity issues, the genre is moving away from overtly political narratives. Recent chart-toppers reflect this shift, with Luke Combs covering Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” and Zach Bryan collaborating with Kacey Musgraves on “I Remember Everything.” Combs’ cover, though lacking Chapman’s uncertainty, carries a hopeful core about individuals overcoming systemic struggles. Bryan’s duet with Musgraves, a reluctant back-and-forth about a shattered relationship, indicates a more introspective and melancholic direction for country music.
The industry is also witnessing progress on gender and racial diversity, with Tracy Chapman becoming the first Black woman to write a No. 1 country hit through Combs’ cover. Despite resistance from some quarters, collaborations like Bryan and Musgraves’ suggest a broader and more inclusive vision for the genre.
While radio remains more conservative, artists like Morgan Wallen have had a significant impact, dominating airwaves with multiple chart-topping songs. Wallen’s influence is evident in the success of his followers, such as Bailey Zimmerman and Jelly Roll, who won the CMA award for new artist of the year.
Looking ahead, country music seems poised for a resizing post-Bryan, with younger artists favoring a rawer and less polished approach. Changes are subtle but discernible in the singers’ vocal styles and production choices. The emergence of artists like Dylan Gossett and Sam Barber, with their performances filmed in nature, signifies a shift towards a rural aesthetic and a new form of piety within the genre. These artists, with their rustic caps and stripped-down performances, suggest that making country music may now mean retreating from the city and embodying a country lifestyle.
In conclusion, the recent trajectory of country music reflects a genre in transition. While grappling with political and social complexities, artists are moving away from overtly political narratives and embracing a more diverse and introspective approach. The industry is witnessing progress in gender and racial diversity, and a new generation of artists is shaping a rawer, more inclusive sound. Country music is evolving, and its future appears to be more nuanced and eclectic than ever before.