LOS ANGELES, Feb 13 ― Far from being an aging genre, country music has the wind in its sails. It's back with a vengeance, driven by artists from diverse musical horizons, such as Lana Del Rey, Post Malone and Beyoncé. As a result, country music is gaining in popularity in the United States, and is exporting beyond its borders.
“Queen Bey” arguably overshadowed Usher's February 11 half-time performance at the Super Bowl ― the annual league championship game of the National Football League of the United States ― by announcing the imminent release of her eighth studio album. Titled Renaissance: Act II, the record is due to drop on March 29.
In the meantime, Beyoncé has treated fans to two new songs, TEXAS HOLD'EM and 16 CARRIAGES. These songs pay homage to her Southern roots... and to country music. The singer's most observant fans may have anticipated this musical turn of events, since their idol was seen wearing a white, wide-brimmed cowboy hat at the recent Grammy Awards.
If Beyoncé's choice to give her next album a country flavour makes sense, given her Texan roots, Lana Del Rey's choice to embrace this Southern US genre is more surprising. The singer recently revealed that the 10th installment in her discography, Lasso, will explore the sounds of the Deep South. To prepare her fans for this new musical era, Lana Del Rey shared a cover of John Denver's legendary Take Me Home, Country Roads at the end of 2023.
Meanwhile, rapper Post Malone didn't wait until 2024 to explore the country register. He featured in Billboard's country chart last November with his version of Joe Diffie's classic, Pickup Man. This banjo-and-string-filled cover, which the artist performs with Morgan Wallen and HARDY, also received airplay on many country radio stations, contributing to its success.
A genre that speaks to universal concerns
So what's behind the music industry's sudden infatuation with this uniquely American genre? Because, beyond Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, few country artists have managed to make a name for themselves outside the United States. Taylor Swift may come to mind, but the American superstar quickly abandoned country in favour of pop to reach a wider audience.
But that's without counting on music streaming platforms. They have helped to export country music internationally, something that the major radio stations dedicated to the genre have always struggled to do. Thanks to Spotify, Apple Music and others, music lovers the world over can now listen to this kind of music. And there's every reason to believe that they're doing so: Lil Nas X's Old Town Road, a mix of country and rap, has racked up billions of listens worldwide. It helped launch the career of its singer and got a broader audience interested in this shape-shifting musical genre.
Contrary to popular belief, country music is a genre that has evolved considerably over time. It has blended with rock'n'roll, R'n'B, rap and even electro, without losing its raw, authentic character. For this music appeals above all for its universal quality. Its performers like to talk about their heartbreaks and various disappointments, even if some of them venture into more political, and therefore controversial, territory.
Oliver Anthony emerged from anonymity in August 2023 with Rich Men North of Richmond, a song in which he denounced the harsh living conditions of the working class, in contrast to those of the “rich men who live north of Richmond.” While his song about class struggle topped the charts in the US, it earned a certain amount of criticism for its populism that “unmistakably leans rightward,” as the New York Times said at the time, although the artist has said he sits “pretty dead center down the aisle on politics.”
Although country music is increasingly getting caught up in politics, it remains relatively consensual. Some 45 per cent of Americans listen to country music at least once a month, making it the country's most popular musical genre, according to The Economist. In this context, it's hardly surprising that some of the biggest names in music are taking an interest in the field, announcing albums with a country and western flavour. So will 2024 be a year of country music, as Lana Del Rey predicted at a Billboard event in Los Angeles on January 31? Time will tell. ― ETX Studio