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Country Music in 2023: The Personal Overtook the Political

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For a spell this summer, it appeared as if Nashville was headed toward another season of polarization.

In May, the superstar Jason Aldean released “Try That in a Small Town,” a middling single from his 11th studio album that likely would have fizzled were it not for an incendiary music video, which arrived two months later, filled with scenes of urban unrest and culture-war dog whistles. It became a talking-head flashpoint, a symbol of what’s widely presumed to be a not-so-latent conservatism in country music.

Then, into that white-hot climate landed “Rich Men North of Richmond,” a bracing, out-of-nowhere statement of anti-government, anti-elites skepticism by a previously unknown musician who performs as Oliver Anthony Music. Starting as a frills-free YouTube clip filmed by a local public-radio station, it became perhaps the year’s biggest viral sensation, going straight to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Through the lens of “Try That in a Small Town,” “Rich Men North of Richmond” seemed to many to be conservative manna, with its allusions to Jeffrey Epstein conspiracies and commentary on the welfare state.

But things were not quite as they seemed — it was a conflagration, but one quickly extinguished. Recently, the men of country music — and as per usual, they are mostly men — have been singing songs about sin and redemption, personal struggle, the fragility of emotional bonds. The music is inward-looking in sentiment, and only sometimes nods to broader political and social concerns. It suggests a genre that, fitfully at least, may be inching away from the sectarian and toward the ecumenical.

With “Rich Men,” it was striking just how quickly the tide turned. When the song was played at the first Republican presidential primary debate in August, Anthony posted a deeply bemused video response: “I wrote that song about those people,” he chuckled. It turned out he didn’t wish to be neatly politically slotted, ducking the confirmation biases of both the right and the left.

And even the Aldean eruption had something of a rejoinder: A couple of weeks after its release came Tyler Childers’s video for “In Your Love,” which featured a pair of male miners anchoring its central romantic story, a choice that triggered almost as many think pieces as Aldean’s. The timing was almost certainly coincidental, but the dueling high-volume messages suggested a bigger tent than the genre ordinarily erects.

These tugs of war pointed to a far more complicated and maybe radical story unfolding in country music, which has been moving away from the pointed jingoism of the early- to mid-2000s while still reckoning with narrow progress on gender and racial diversity.

The two tracks that have topped the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart for the past four months nod in this direction. Luke Combs’s cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” was one of the year’s unexpected breakouts; it made Chapman the first Black woman to have written a No. 1 country hit, a fact that only underscored the preexisting paucity. It’s something of a limp read: Combs has none of Chapman’s shivering uncertainty, and he largely leaves his power and pomp by the wayside, but still maintains some of the song’s fundamentally hopeful core about the individual’s capacity to overcome even the most overwhelming systemic struggle.

More intriguing is “I Remember Everything,” a duet between Zach Bryan and Kacey Musgraves from his self-titled fourth album, released in August. It’s a reluctant, scraped back-and-forth about a relationship too shattered to hold on to. For a country music success, it’s particularly parched, melancholy, a little rambling. (Bryan, for what it’s worth, has resisted the country moniker in his young career, but those who taxonomize for a living continue to include him in the caucus.)

But Bryan’s choice to duet with Musgraves was pointed — she had been doing a version of refusenik country progressivism for a decade, and country music couldn’t decide whether to reify her or sideline her. That her first time atop the country chart (not counting the 2016 Frankensung posse-cut single “Forever Country”) came by teaming up with someone equally reluctant suggests that the genre may well be broadening. (That said, Maren Morris announced this year that she no longer would be servicing her music through country music avenues, frustrated with the implicit creative limitations those pipelines create.)

Thus far, Bryan’s presence has been felt more in the streaming ecosystem than on country radio, which remains more conservative and sluggish. But there has even been progress there, outside of the long shadow of Morgan Wallen, who is so popular and ubiquitous as to be almost invisible. Several Wallen songs dominated radio this year, including “Last Night,” “Thinkin’ Bout Me” and “Thought You Should Know.” According to HitsDailyDouble, 18 of the 50 most streamed country songs of the year were solo Wallen songs or collaborations.

The Wallen acolyte Bailey Zimmerman had a huge hit with the anthemic “Religiously,” the title track from an album of broad emotional yelps. And radio took to a pair of emotional broadsides from Jelly Roll, a 39-year-old former rapper with face tattoos who’s found a second life as a sentimentalist pop-rock belter: “Need a Favor” and the updated version of his viral breakout “Save Me” with Lainey Wilson. Jelly Roll even won the CMA award for new artist of the year, beating out Bryan and others.

Looking forward, country music appears to be priming itself for a post-Bryan resizing, with a slew of younger artists who tend away from the polish of the country music of the 2000s and 2010s. The shifts are small, and not always crisply perceptible, but it’s evident in the grain of singers’ voices and the unfetteredness of their vocal production.

It might also be in the outfits — the lightly distressed baseball cap, sometimes with a rope across the brim, is the de rigueur sartorial statement for this generation of singers. They’re largely modern versions of the ’80s caps you might find at a rural thrift shop, advertising a tavern or a construction firm. It’s a symbolic shift toward a rural signifier, but not an overtly country one like a cowboy hat — a sign of partial belonging.

It’s there on the head of Dylan Gossett, in the YouTube recordings of his performances of his powerful song “Coal,” one of the year’s best country songs. Gossett has a ruggedly plaintive voice, and his writing is curious and emotionally detailed. Sam Barber, perhaps the most Bryan-like of the upcoming crop of singers, has a cool howl and a cool cap in the breakout YouTube performance of his hit “Straight and Narrow,” released at the end of 2022.

These performances are filmed out in nature, just a singer, a microphone and lush green surroundings. (This was true of “Rich Men North of Richmond,” too.) It is a sort of rural theater, and also a statement of a new kind of piety. It prizes looking inward, and being alone with your thoughts. Making country music, these clips suggest, might mean retreating from the city — even Music City — and being country IRL.

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