The Resurgence of Country Music

Written by Alejandro Neufeld

Zach Bryan, Luke Combs, Sturgill Simpson, Morgan Wallen, Colter Wall. These names are becoming synonymous with country music in 2023 and have been gaining popularity steadily throughout the 2020s. The aforementioned artists are just a few of the names taking country music by storm. Throughout this year, many of the biggest hits in terms of streaming numbers and sales have been country songs. Songs like “I Remember Everything” by Zach Bryan and Kacey Musgraves and “Rich Men From Richmond” by the upstart Oliver Anthony have been and are still are dominating the charts. This comes after many thought that the genre was dead throughout the 2010s. But country music is back with a vengeance and shows no signs of slowing down its momentum. What are the reasons for this, though? Does it have to do with shifting cultural attitudes or a new generation graduating into adulthood and influencing trends? This seems to be the case, but in simpler terms, the world is just changing. I remember reading a proverb once that said that change is the only thing you can be certain of in life. Change is what drives people and nature, so why should it not drive music as well?

The return of country music was solidified this year on two separate occasions, according to Billboard’s Kyle Denis. Denis declares that this year’s first sign came in March when Morgan Wallen’s “Last Night” became the first solo male country song to top Billboard’s Hot 100 charts since 1981. The second sign was in July when Luke Combs’s cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” peaked at number 2 on the Hot 100, just behind Wallen’s “Last Night”. This was another milestone. It was the first time in 42 years that the two most popular songs in the United States were performed by country artists. It is hard to believe because, in Southern Alberta, it seems like every other radio station is a country station. But more and more, people are warming up to country music all across North America. Denis elaborates on this by mentioning how country’s new generation of superstars like Combs and Wallen have mastered blending the traditional country sound with modern thematic and marketing strategies to create music that sounds twangy but has a modern message. If country music was relatable and catchy to people in the 1980s, it has kept that same core relatability into the 2020s, and coming out of a pandemic, all of us just want to find some simple and relatable form of entertainment. In terms of music, the most relatable genre in 2023 is country. I know that for myself, there is nothing like hearing a guitar with raw vocals painting a picture of a broken world and trying to rationalize it the best way the artist can. The strange calmness and clarity that wash over me when I hear a good country song is something that will keep me interested in the genre my whole life.

Major corporations like Amazon, Apple, Disney, Spotify, and all the studios in Hollywood are trying desperately to appeal to Gen Z because we are now graduating from high school and university with enough money (even though it seems we are always broke) in our pockets to warrant attention from these corporations. As many of us in Gen Z are entering adulthood, we should be more aware of the power to influence trends that we possess. This becomes evident when one examines the rise of streaming music instead of buying physical albums and CDs. Variety Magazine’s Thania Garcia explores this more in her article “Country Music’s Historic Streaming Spike is Being Fueled by Gen Z”. In it, she cites Morgan Wallen’s meteoric success with his album “One Thing at a Time”. According to Garcia, Wallen had the 5th biggest streaming week of all time when he released this album. It also sold 501,000 physical copies in its first week, the biggest album drop of the year so far. All of this could be chalked up to marketing and business savvy by Wallen’s team, and while that is important, Wallen’s audience is, by and large, the biggest reason for his success. If you have gone to any of the nightclubs in Lethbridge (granted there are only around two), it is not a stretch to assume that you have heard some Morgan Wallen at one point or another. It is also not a stretch to assume that you enjoyed the music, and those around you probably enjoyed it as well. But streaming is king, and Gen Z is dictating what and who is popular on streaming sites right now. We should take advantage of this and make sure to endorse artists that we enjoy and marvel at the power of our opinions.

While country music’s streaming numbers are a feel-good story, the dominance of the genre over this year became solidified in stone with Zach Bryan. His self-titled album took the charts by storm when it was released on August 25th. Rolling Stone’s Ethan Millman breaks down Bryan’s success by the numbers, and the figures are quite astonishing. Millman states that in its first week, Bryan’s album was streamed 141 million times, catapulting Bryan to the top of the charts. This cemented 2023 as the year of country music, and the genre is still trending upward, so country fans should look forward to the future. Bryan’s popularity among Gen Z individuals can be attributed to his authenticity and devotion to his fans. The star previously boycotted the site Ticketmaster due to their astronomically high ticket prices, and he felt alienated from his fanbase. This move endeared him to fans and showed corporate bigwigs what Gen Z values. Above all, our generation treasures authenticity as the digital age of social media makes it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. Artists like Bryan, Wallen, and Combs are endearing to us because they are real and relatable, and their music seems to come from the heart. Heartfelt storytelling has always been a staple of country music. The story can be happy or sad; regardless, Gen Z has dictated that music with meaning is what we want to listen to, hence the resurgence of country music.

I grew up in a farming community in southwest Kansas, so country music was always playing in the background of my childhood. It led to me picking up a guitar and developing a passion for music that still burns bright today. When my parents moved our family to Alberta, I was able to make friends based on a shared appreciation for country music, and I was fascinated by how music crosses borders and reflects the attitudes of generations. It gives you a sense of power knowing how your opinions can influence culture, and we should be wary of what we choose to promote. Country music’s resurgence is proof positive that Gen Z is loudly and proudly going into the world armed with insight and growing experience to shape culture to our liking. Let us hope that we use this power responsibly. Also, if you have not listened to Zach Bryan’s latest album, stop reading right now and give it a listen! 

References

Denis, Kyle. “Country’s Hot 100 Comeback: 5 Reasons Why It’s Happening Now.” Billboard, 29 June 2023, www.billboard.com/lists/country-hot-100-chart-success-morgan-wallen-luke-combs/theres-a-new-class-of-country-superstars/. Accessed 24 Oct. 2023.

Garcia, Thania. “Country Music’s Historic Streaming Spike Is Being Fueled by Gen Z and Millennials.” Variety, 4 Apr. 2023, variety.com/2023/music/news/cmts-morgan-wallen-country-streaming-march-1235573629/.

Millman, Ethan. “Zach Bryan Tops Album Chart for Second Consecutive Week.” Rolling Stone, 11 Sept. 2023, www.rollingstone.com/music/music-country/zach-bryan-repeats-number-one-album-billboard-1234822319/. Accessed 24 Oct. 2023.

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