When the coronavirus hit the United States, Gabby Barrett’s breakout year was thrown into peril. The 20-year-old country singer-songwriter had just found her footing in Nashville with the steady rise of her fiery breakup single, “I Hope.” She planned to build on the momentum with a debut album and a global tour with country idol Brad Paisley. Instead, the tour was canceled, forcing Barrett into the longest break of her life. “It was strange not being on the road,” she says. “It’s pretty much all that I know.”
It looked like country music itself was facing hard times. The scaling back of the physical spaces where the genre thrives—concert halls and bars; radio and concert tours—emphasized its vulnerability in the virtual realm. Having long prided itself on resisting the technological changes that have transformed the music industry, country risked falling even further behind hip-hop and pop, which dominate the apps like TikTok and streaming services that now represent 80% of total music-industry revenue. Barrett, for her part, settled into home life, soon to learn that she would be expecting her first child.
Then something unexpected happened: “I Hope” exploded in popularity, topping the three major Billboard country charts and becoming the first debut single by a woman to top Billboard’s Country Streaming Songs chart. Meanwhile, the genre broke out at large, hitting a record number of streams for three weeks in a row, while pop, hip-hop and Latin all sunk below their baseline averages. iHeartRadio’s country stations, too, rose 7.4% from winter to spring.
Country’s popularity has only grown during the pandemic. While the overall industry has risen only 2.6% on streaming services compared with its baseline pre-COVID numbers, country music has soared 15.8%, according to MRC Data/Nielsen Music. Country music concerts have been among the first to spring back across the U.S.—at varying levels of social distancing—while rising stars like Luke Combs, Morgan Wallen and Barrett are racking up huge streaming numbers and crossing over into mainstream success. “Country music has thrived,” says Tom Poleman, iHeartRadio’s chief programming officer.
Experts suggest the reasons for this are both emotional and technological, as some listeners seek comfort in the soothing, nostalgic qualities of the genre, while others who previously disdained streaming platforms finally caved and subscribed. But while these factors might be temporary, they are also building a new foundation for country’s digital-era resurgence. Its fans’ increasing willingness to engage on digital platforms, combined with its artists’ explorations beyond Nashville conventions of songwriting and sound, could move the genre back toward the center of mainstream consciousness. “Because all these writers and singer-songwriters are stuck at home, I fully expect Nashville to start pumping out some of its best work in years,” says Johnny Chiang, director of operations at Cox Media Group Houston, which includes country stations KKBQ and KTHT.
“A lot of catching up to do”
It’s not a new phenomenon for country music to rise and fall with the seasons. A representative for Nielsen says they expect country music listenership to increase during the warmer half of the year, when the genre serves as the soundtrack for cookouts, road trips and tailgates. Summer also is when touring giants like Garth Brooks and Jason Aldean hit the road, raking in millions in revenue from new and old fans alike.
While the pandemic erased many of those events, people still turned to country in droves, perhaps precisely because it represented a normalcy in turbulent times. “Country music is authentic, relatable, and gives you comfort,” says Brittany Schaffer, Spotify’s head of artist & label marketing in Nashville. “You want to be in a place that feels like home at a time when the world feels uncertain.”
However, the places and times where listeners sought out country music changed. In Houston, Chiang’s stations’ ratings during the previously crucial morning-commute block fell sharply. Conversely, streaming services have seen a sharp uptick, with listeners tuning in from their home workstations. On Spotify, country has been the second fastest growing genre of music globally since February (behind electronic), with most of its gains made in the U.S. and Canada.
“Partially what we’re seeing is the natural progression of country fans starting to catch up with these other formats—and the country market had a lot of catching up to do,” says Melinda Newman, Billboard’s executive editor of West Coast and Nashville.
In other genres, back catalogs are indexing higher than usual as fans seek familiar melodies. But in the country world, a new generation of stream-first artists are racking up impressive statistics, satiating younger fans’ appetites for something new while also offering wistful, nostalgic sounds to country diehards. Luke Combs has led the charge: his album What You See Is What You Get has been a streaming juggernaut since its release last November, with at least five of its songs passing 50 million Spotify streams.
Wallen, a mullet-sporting 27-year-old born in Sneedville, Tenn., likewise broke out this summer in ways that might sound strange to the old guard of Nashville. In July, a snippet of his “7 Summers” caused a sensation on TikTok before the song was even released, racking up over 20 million views on the platform. The following month, the full song stormed to the Top 3 of the Apple Music song charts—an echelon almost exclusively reserved for pop and hip-hop—and became the first song solely by a country singer to crack the Top 10 of the Billboard 100 since Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road” did the same in 2017. (It’s worth noting that Hunt’s song is sonically indistinguishable from many songs on pop or R&B radio.) Wallen’s invitation to play Saturday Night Live in October, however, was rescinded after videos were posted showing him breaking social distancing protocols in Alabama.
The artist perhaps most emblematic of this new ecosystem is Barrett, a 2018 American Idol alumna who moved to Nashville unsigned and only received attention from its establishment after “I Hope” started racking up streams organically. At the end of August, pop star Charlie Puth jumped on a remix, pushing it to the Top 10 on the Hot 100. Together with “7 Summers,” it marked the first time in two decades that two songs by two different artists hit the top 10 of Hot Country Songs and the Hot 100 simultaneously (since Faith Hill’s “Breathe” and Lonestar’s “Amazed”).
“I Hope”—which has spent 14 weeks and counting at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart—represents a rising class of country songs with both internal and crossover appeal. Country stars of past eras, from Dolly Parton to Garth Brooks to Shania Twain, have seamlessly blended pop and other genres to court new audiences, but now such forays seem to be not the exception but the rule. “Be Like That,” Kane Brown’s collaboration with rapper Swae Lee and the R&B singer Khalid, has accrued 97 million streams, while Keith Urban is charting for his duet with Pink, “One Too Many.” Maren Morris, one of country’s biggest stars, moves seamlessly between worlds. Blanco Brown, RMR, Lil Nas X, Nelly and even Diplo have melded country and hip-hop influences to continue to spur forward the Yeehaw Agenda, a celebration of Black cowboy culture. “Even 20 years ago, it was really looked down upon when a country artist tried to go pop or was having pop success,” Newman says. “We’re seeing that border coming down, and a lot of that has to do with streaming. People who stream don’t look at genre.”
Barrett is embracing this opportunity to reach a much larger and more diverse fanbase. “I think everything is kind of bleeding into one another. You don’t see genres being so straight anymore,” she says. “I’m a country girl at heart—but if a song of mine ever wanted to spill into something else, I think it would be really cool.”
With the strength of Warner Music behind her, perhaps it’s not all too surprising that Barrett has jumped to another level of stardom. But other artists outside the Nashville machine have also been unexpectedly buoyed during the pandemic. Earlier this year, the singer-songwriter Lauren Jenkins’ career seemed to be in freefall: her East Nashville community had been torn apart by a devastating tornado; she was dropped from her label, Big Machine; and she watched as every concert she had booked this year—including a tour of the U.K. and Europe—evaporated.
To keep afloat, Jenkins also turned to livestream concerts with virtual tip jars. On platforms like Instagram and Facebook, she found that a small but devoted audience would gather to watch her several times a week and send her money. “A lot of my fans in Europe and the UK are the way I’m paying my bills right now,” she says. “From what I’ve seen, I could do it every single day of the week and the same people would tune in—and I’m seeing new people I’ve never met tune in and come back every time.”
Since March, Jenkins has performed over 100 concerts from her living room. Because she doesn’t have to pay for travel or other overhead expenses, she’s been able to pay her rent and invest in studio time for her next album. She’s not surprised that country music would thrive in these informal video contexts, even in an increasingly crowded digital marketplace. “It’s the types of songs you can play socially distanced around a campfire: you don’t need anything except for a guitar and a voice and a story,” she says. “That translates very easily across a computer screen.”
Resonating across six time zones
While country fans adapt to digital modes to follow their favorite musicians, they’ve also hungered to return to live shows. That desire was abundantly evident in June, when country singers Chase Rice and Chris Janson performed packed concerts in Tennessee and Idaho that clearly flouted social distancing guidelines.
While normal, in-person shows are starting to trickle back—the esteemed Grand Ole Opry in Nashville brought back audiences to celebrate its 95th anniversary in October—most venues are still shuttered and will be for some time. But an unusual phenomenon has filled in some of the gaps: drive-in concerts. And country acts have led the way in this endeavor, too: Brooks, Blake Shelton, Paisley, Kane Brown, Jon Pardi and Darius Rucker have all played shows that have been streamed live on movie screens for thousands of parked cars in open-air theaters all over the country.
Walter Kinzie is the CEO of Encore Live, a company that staged the Brooks, Shelton and Brown concerts. When he started the series, he knew he was attempting an untested and risky model in a frail economy, and he needed to find artists who would thrive in all of the different markets across the country, especially the rural areas that drive-ins tend to inhabit. “There’s a lot of famous musicians in the world—but as you study analytics, that list gets pretty small if you want to have an artist that resonates in every single region of the country across six time zones,” he said.
After studying the data, he found that country music was the obvious answer. “For us, the safest path to learn, grow and find success out of the gate was with a country act,” he says. In June, 350,000 people came out for Garth Brooks, and hundreds of thousands of more returned for Shelton and Brown. The events giant Live Nation quickly followed suit, with Rucker, Pardi and more; they just wrapped a series of shows in Georgia that included Jason Isbell and Old Crow Medicine Show.
As COVID-19 retains and even strengthens its grip on America, Kinzie expects to be in the drive-in country music concert business for a while. “When you look at the various types of genres out there, there is one genre that is just known for throwing up a stage and getting people together and having a really good time—and that’s country music,” he says. “We don’t have a shortage of artists, managers and agents that are chomping at the bit to be part of this concept.”
The industry divide
But some fear that many lower-profile members of the country industry are being left behind. Because country music relies so heavily on touring and live sessions, there are thousands of workers that are out of jobs with bleak prospects to return in the coming months. Layoffs or furloughs have been reported across the Nashville industry, including at the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Creative Artists Agency. “The only people making a ton of money right now are the labels, because of the streaming, and the songwriters, who own the rights of the songs,” Chiang says. “But the studio musicians, the touring musicians, the crew, even the managers—they’re in trouble.”
“I feel like artists are in the best position to keep supporting themselves,” Jenkins says. “But the lighting guys, photographers, the assistants, the agents…a lot of people who have invested decades into this industry that are great at their job, I don’t know if they’ll return.”
While Nashville’s infrastructure is under siege, its topline continues to thrive—and many are hopeful that this moment signals a growing centrality of country music within mainstream culture after the streaming revolution pushed it to the sidelines. “It’s absolutely not a blip: this is the trajectory that country music is going to continue on,” Newman says. “You’re not gonna put the genie back in the bottle.”