(June 19, 2023). It’s that time again…for country music to infiltrate the top of the pop charts as it has at the beginnings of every other decade—or vicennially—for the past 60-plus years.  

Inspired by the current Hot 100 successes or superstar acts Morgan Wallen and Luke Combs, a good friend recently posited a theory about the popularity of country music, particularly as it relates to the genre’s presence at the top of the pop charts.

In a recent discussion, he theorized that with Wallen’s current dominance of the main singles chart withhis hit song “Last Night,” and with Luke Combs pulling up fast behind him with his remake of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” that this high level of country music saturation, especially at the top of the Hot 100, is cyclical in nature—a repeat of something that has occurred at the beginnings of the past three even-numbered decades: the 1960s, ‘80s and 2000s.

Not only that, but that this burst in country music’s crossover popularity usually signals the end of one era of music and the beginning of some future period, whose style and genre makeup is yet unknown but is usually manifested around the third or fourth year of the new decade.

In other words, while popular music is transitioning between major periods of domination by various other genres, country music tends to fill the vacuum while this changing of the guard occurs, and that this cycle has repeated itself every two decades—particularly at the beginning of those decades—for the past 60-plus years.

Furthermore, country music tends to go into a period of dormancy at the top of the pop charts, with some exceptions, during the intervening years, much like a cicada goes into hibernation before re-emerging every 13 or 17 years for the world to enjoy its, umm, beauty.

Believing this friend might be onto something, the folks at djrobblog—more accurately the one folk, yours truly—did some research and noticed some interesting trends that seemed to corroborate the theory.

The early 1960s…

Beginning with the dawn of the 1960s, which came roughly five years into the rock and roll era, country music’s presence on the pop chart was felt, if mostly indirectly.

To start, the first No. 1 song of the 1960s on the Hot 100 was Marty Robbins’ “El Paso,” a classic that also topped the country and western chart for seven weeks around that time.

“El Paso” by Marty Robbins

While no other country songs topped both the Hot 100 and the country chart that year or during the ensuing few years, there were several big pop hits with country influences.

For instance, Elvis Presley, who during the 1950s and early ‘60s famously blurred the lines between rock and roll, R&B and country (with songs that topped all three charts), had several No. 1 Hot 100 hits between 1960-62, including “Stuck On You,” “It’s Now Or Never,” “Are You Lonesome To-Night,” “Surrender,” and “Good Luck Charm.”

Other acts with country music origins or influences who topped the pop charts between 1960-62 included the Everly Brothers (“Cathy’s Clown”), Brenda Lee (“I’m Sorry,” “I Want To Be Wanted”), and Roy Orbison (“Running Scared”).

Even legendary R&B singer Ray Charles topped the Hot 100 in 1962 with a country-soul tune, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” from his classic LP, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.

And if there was any doubt about their standing in country music, Presley, Lee, Charles and the Everlys are all inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

With all of that country influence at the top of the pop charts at the turn of the ‘60s, you’d think that truer country stars who were popular at the time, like Patsy Cline, Buck Owens, Johnny Cash and George Jones, would have had a bigger presence on the Hot 100.

While they had an occasional hit or two, most notably Cline’s “Crazy” and Cash’s “Ring Of Fire,” much of country’s early-60s influence at the top of the charts was by way of the aforementioned hits by pop stars with prior country leanings.

Still, a case could be made that country’s presence was heavily felt as music was transitioning from the Elvis Presley era of early rock-and-roll to the Beatles-led British Invasion that began in 1964, along with the Motown brand of pop/soul that took off that same year and remained dominant for the remainder of the ‘60s.

Meanwhile, after 1962, country artists struggled to maintain a real presence at the top of the pop charts during the decade, with a spattering of No. 1 hits by Bobbie Gentry and Jeannie C. Riley, and top-10 showings by Johnny Cash and Tammy Wynette, among others.

Of course, as with any rule there are exceptions.  In the 1970s, several country songs topped the Hot 100, including five that topped both that list and the Hot Country Songs chart in 1975 alone: two by John Denver, and one each by Freddie Fender, Glen Campbell, and BJ Thomas.

Still, even with that success, country music’s crossover status was seen as sporadic, something that was more a small piece of the fabric of popular music than it was a dominant fixture.  

The early ‘80s…

At the beginning of the 1980s, country music made another strong showing at the top of the Hot 100, with hits by Dolly Parton (“9 to 5”), Eddie Rabbitt (“I Love A Rainy Night”), Kenny Rogers (“Lady”) and the duet of Parton & Rogers (“Islands In The Stream”) all topping both the pop and country charts between 1980-83.

“I Love A Rainy Night” by Eddie Rabbitt
“9 to 5” by Dolly Parton

This followed the significant boost country music received in the summer and fall of 1980 from the soundtrack to the film Urban Cowboy (starring John Travolta), which sent six singles into the pop top 40–the most ever from one album at the time—and sparked a country music crossover bonanza that saw stars like the aforementioned Rogers, Parton and Rabbitt, plus Ronnie Milsap, Alabama, Juice Newton, Anne Murray, Willie Nelson, and Oak Ridge Boys all scoring multiple pop top-40 hits. 

Indeed, Urban Cowboy had been to country music in the early ‘80s what another Travolta vehicle—Saturday Night Fever—had been to disco in the late ‘70s.  And, ironically, it was the demise of disco—beginning in late 1979–that gave rise to the popularity of yacht rock (as soft-rock is now called), adult contemporary and the kind of soft-core country music that blew up from 1980-83.

And then in 1984, just as quickly as you could snap on your boot spurs, country music’s pop chart share had retreated to pre-1980 levels or even worse. 

This happened as a new crop of country artists, like Reba McEntire, George Strait, Alan Jackson, Travis Twitt, The Judds, Clint Black and others, began to reject the more polished, pop-country sound that Urban Cowboy had popularized, in favor of more traditional styles—think honky-tonk and western swing—which made it less attractive to pop radio.

But its demise also coincided with the emergence of the synth-pop and dance music that grew with the popularity of MTV and in the post-Michael Jackson Thriller era.  Combined with the second British Music Invasion led by acts like Duran, Duran, Culture Club, ABC, and Howard Jones, plus the rise of big arena-rock bands like Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Poison and Guns ‘n’ Roses during the late ‘80s, these trends effectively eliminated country music from the pop top 40 altogether from 1984-90.

The early ‘00s…

This part of the 20-year theory becomes a little trickier.  That’s because, while country music couldn’t buy a No. 1 position on the Hot 100 singles chart between 1984 and 2000, the genre enjoyed its most commercially successful period ever with the emergence of highly successful album acts like Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, The Chicks, Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney.

Brooks practically dominated album sales for all genres during the 1990s with albums that topped the Billboard 200 and combined to make him the highest RIAA-certified artist of the decade with more than 100 million in sales during the ‘90s alone.

Twain’s two biggest albums—1995’s The Woman In Me and ‘97’s Come On Over combined for over 60 million in worldwide sales, with the latter becoming the best-selling country album of all time.

So to say that country music went dormant during the ‘90s would be a gross mischaracterization.  In fact, the infusion of rock elements into country music and the emergence of popular trends such as line dancing made country arguably more mainstream in the ‘90s decade than it had ever been before.

Still, while artists like Brooks and Twain dominated pop albums charts, and Twain extended her success to the singles lists with top-10 tracks like “You’re Still The One” and “Man, I Feel Like A Woman,” it wasn’t until 2000 that country music would return to No. 1 on the Hot 100 in two big ways!

First, the group Lonestar achieved country’s first No. 1 single in 16 years on the weekly chart with the ballad “Amazed,” which broke through pop radio’s barrier and shared upper echelon chart space with acts like Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera and Destiny’s Child.

“Amazed” by Lonestar

Secondly, Faith Hill’s “Breathe,” a country-pop single released in late 1999, wound up as the biggest Hot 100 chart hit of 2000 after spending more than a year on the list with five weeks at the No. 2 position.

“Breathe” by Faith Hill

The year 2000 stands out for country music on the Hot 100 largely because of those two successes, and because the years leading up to it were hampered by commercial singles release strategies and Billboard chart rules in effect at the time that prevented acts like Garth Brooks from being eligible to chart on the Hot 100 with their biggest hits.

Still, it’s a statistical anomaly that (dubiously) allows 2000 to fit neatly in the 20-year-theory my friend posited.  

The question then becomes, what eras of music did country music bridge with that 2000 No. 1 blip?

Again, the answer for this part of the theory gets murky as several music styles bridged both the pre-2000 and post-millennium eras.  For instance R&B and hip-hop remained popular during the 1990s and into the 2000s, with unprecedented dominance of the Hot 100.

Of the 129 songs that topped the list from January 2000-December 2009, at least 90 of them were also hits on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs List, a percentage growth trend that had begun in the early 1990s.

The reemergence of post-grunge, metal rock and pop-punk bands also characterized the 2000s with groups like Foo Fighters, Linkin Park, Green Day, Korn, Fall Out Boy, The Killers, Blink-182 and others carrying the torch for rock in an otherwise R&B/Hip-Hop dominated pop music scene. 

Also, the American Idol phenomenon brought in a new crop of superstars with names like Kelly Clarkson, Reuben Studdard, Clay Aiken, Fantasia and Jennifer Hudson all becoming household names during the new millennium’s first decade.

The biggest country superstar to emerge from the 2000’s—besides Taylor Swift who later went pop—was Carrie Underwood, who happened to be another American Idol alum (and winner of the show’s 2005 season).  Her crowning song, “Inside Your Heaven,” was the only country song besides “Amazed” to top the Hot 100 during the 2000s.

And then there’s Taylor Swift, who would re-elevate country with her early albums topping both the country and the pop charts during the late 2000s and 2010s, before she made the transition to pop music.  Her early singles also bridged the pop and country genres with several of them topping the country list and receiving high placement on the Hot 100.

Taylor’s unprecedented success on the charts perhaps obscures one of the few casualties from the 1990s that didn’t carry into the 2000s: that of the Lilith Fair movement spurred by singer/songwriters like Sarah McLaughlin, Jewel, Paula Cole, Sheryl Crow, Shawn Colvin, and Joan Osborne, all of whom had big hits during the ‘90s but failed to duplicate that success in the ensuing decades.  

And today…

While Taylor Swift—the pop version—is still among the world’s most popular artists and is showing no signs of slowing down, she is being joined at the top these days by country’s Morgan Wallen, who has spent 23 weeks (and counting) at the top of the Billboard 200 with his last two albums since January 2021, and eleven weeks (and counting) at No. 1 on the Hot 100 with his huge hit single “Last Night”—the most of any song that’s also topped the Hot Country Songs chart since 1960.

“Fast Car” by Luke Combs

And right behind Wallen on the Hot 100 is Luke Combs, whose version of “Fast Car” recently surpassed the peak of Tracy Chapman’s original and is the song best positioned to finally dethrone Wallen’s “Last Night.”

If that happens, it would become the first time that one country song replaced another one at the top of the Hot 100 since Dolly Parton and Eddie Rabbitt turned the trick in 1981 with “9 to 5” and “I Love A Rainy Night,” respectively.

It would also solidify the presence of country at the top of the Hot 100 during the early 2020s as being something more than just a Morgan Wallen phenomenon, and places the early 2020s firmly within this theory of country music ebbing and flowing with every other decade’s beginning.

Of course, this article didn’t cover all of the various genres and sub-genres that have come and gone in the intervening years, like psychedelic rock, Memphis and Philly soul, funk, punk, new wave, reggae, freestyle, teen-pop, grunge, crunk, Latin-pop, EDM, trap, and all the others.  That would take weeks to write.

But it does beg the question: with this new pivotal time in popular music being ushered in by country’s return to the top, which music style is coming?  And which ones are going?

This article is dedicated to K. Martin, who inspired it.

Still the best version: “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman (1988)


DJRob (he/him/his), who appreciates a good research challenge, is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop, rock and (sometimes) country genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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By DJ Rob

2 thoughts on “Country music: the cicada of the pop charts?”
  1. Actually, Shania’s first major label album is 1993’s self-titled album which although there were a few minor charting singles that had videos heavily played on CMT, it wasn’t that big a hit and is a much more traditional country album than those that followed.

Your thoughts?