(August 5, 2023).  For the first time in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, which dates back to August 4, 1958, the top three slots are occupied by country songs.

Those tunes are “Try That In A Small Town,” by Jason Aldean, at No. 1, followed by Morgan Wallen’s “Last Night” at No. 2, and Luke Comb’s remake of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” at No. 3.

Before Aldean’s controversial single entered the list last week in the runner-up slot (behind BTS member Jung Kook and rapper Latto’s “Seven,” which fell from No. 1 to No. 9 this week), the other two songs had already been making country music history.  

Earlier in July, “Last Night” and “Fast Car” became the genre’s first one-two punch on the Hot 100 in over 42 years (since Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” and Eddie Rabbitt’s “I Love A Rainy Night” did it in March 1981). 

And before Combs’ “Fast Car” became the biggest remake of an ‘80s tune in decades, Wallen’s “Last Night” was making its own history as the longest-reigning No. 1 song by a country artist (and one of the longest, regardless of genre) in Hot 100 history, at 14 weeks and counting.

But this trio of hit singles represents something far more significant than a triumph for the genre of country music on the traditionally pop, rock, R&B and hip-hop leaning Hot 100.

It also represents a bit of a paradox and a touchstone cultural moment for the three artists involved and the broader demographic they represent.

More pointedly, Aldean, Wallen, and Combs are all white males, an observation that won’t qualify you for a Jeopardy! tournament but will make sense when you consider the following amazing statistic.

Until this week, three different solo-credited white males—unaccompanied by other artists or group members—had not occupied the top three positions on the Billboard Hot 100 in an astonishing 37 years!

Exactly 37 years, to be accurate.

The last time it occurred was on the weekly chart dated August 2, 1986, when the top three songs were by Peter Cetera (“Glory of Love”), Peter Gabriel (“Sledgehammer”) and Kenny Loggins (“Danger Zone”).

There have been few other times since then (but not many) when white male groups, or solo artists in collaboration with other acts, have owned the top three slots.  But not since the two Peters and Kenny did it in ‘86 have there been three different solo males to take the chart’s weekly gold, silver and bronze medals simultaneously.  (This stat also excludes the period in 2015 when Justin Bieber had two of the top three, along with ex-One Direction member Zayn.)

But what makes this week’s occurrence so different from 1986—besides the rarity of it happening now versus the much higher frequency with which it occurred in the chart’s first three decades—is the social and cultural undercurrent that buoys the Aldean/Wallen/Combs victory lap.

By now, most people who follow pop culture, current events, and politics know the controversy surrounding Aldean and his “Try That In A Small Town,” a nearly three-month-old song that had not even dented the Hot 100 until its video was banned by CMT three days after the clip’s release in mid-July.

Jason Aldean’s No. 1 single “Try That In A Small Town”

The video (coupled with the song’s lyrics) has been viewed by critics as a race-baiting dog-whistle to bigots and gun-rights advocates—one that invited violence and seemed to target Black Lives Matter protests—while Aldean and his supporters have defended it as an ode to small town values where people have their neighbors’ backs…regardless of background.

That paradox and the controversy it’s created were just the spark “Try That” needed to ignite the once-dormant song’s chart life.

The CMT “cancellation” caused an uproar in the conservative community—a sort-of “backlash to the backlash”—which caused the explosion in streams and downloads that launched “Try That” onto and atop the Hot 100 the past two weeks.  (Its country radio airplay, while rising in the wake of the controversy, still had not moved it above No. 24 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart as of this writing).

The success of “Try That” on the Hot 100 is kind of a big deal because it’s no longer just a one-time blip on the easy-to-top iTunes chart, similar to what other “patriot” tunes by Aaron Lewis, Bryson Gray and ex-president Donald Trump, have experienced in the recent past.  

No, the Hot 100 is a much more comprehensive metric that combines iTunes download data with radio play, video and audio streaming, and sales information to get a better pulse of what Americans are truly consuming.  The sustained success of “Try That” on this chart has to be viewed as sweet vindication for those who believe that Aldean has been wrongly accused of provoking racial violence and baiting would-be protesters.  

But Aldean is not alone when it comes to gaining this kind of redemption on the Billboard charts.

His cohorts Wallen and Combs have also faced race-related criticisms in the past, which, when couched in the context of “cancel culture” or, as far-right conservatives define it, the left’s attempt to protect “political correctness” and stifle free speech, have only propelled these guys to even greater success than what they’d achieved previously.

Morgan Wallen’s One Thing At A Time and its hit single “Last Night” have each been in the top three for five months and counting.

Wallen has had the most enduring success of any artist so far this decade—regardless of genre, gender or race—as both his album One Thing At A Time and single “Last Night” are strong contenders to top Billboard’s year-end recap in December.  (Both have been in their respective chart’s top-3 since mid-March.)

In doing so, Wallen would match the year-end No. 1 status of his prior album in 2021. 

In fact that LP, Dangerous: The Double Album, has been in the top ten practically ever since its release in January 2021, just weeks before the rising star-turned-superstar was famously caught on camera dropping an N-bomb after a night out with friends.

The resultant backlash and controversy surrounding Wallen’s incident (for which he later apologized and donated $500k to a Black cause) not only kept Dangerous at No. 1 for weeks, but that album has since become one of the biggest in all of chart history.  

It is only months shy of becoming the longest-charting album in the top-10 of the Billboard 200—a mark it could achieve as early as June 2024–with it showing no signs of slowing down.

And then there’s Combs who, while less controversial than the other two, has still faced his own criticisms in the past, including for his high-visibility use of the confederate flag in his past performances and for insensitive tweets before his career took off.

Combs, however, is more on record these days for his personal growth and his expressed willingness to learn as a key member of the country music community, one who understands the risks country artists take when speaking on social and political issues but who has expressed his desire to use his position for good.

Luke Combs’ album Gettin’ Old contains his hit remake of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” which has so far peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100.

A major step in that direction was his decision to cover “Fast Car,” now his biggest hit on the Hot 100–and a song that is on pace to become his biggest country airplay chart hit as well as it has been No. 1 there for five weeks and counting.

“Fast Car” was written and originally recorded by Tracy Chapman, an out, queer Black woman.  Both Combs and Chapman have publicly expressed mutual admiration for one another in the wake of the song’s success, while other people have noted the irony that a woman like Chapman—who’s a little richer now thanks to Combs—would likely have never seen the same success herself in the country music industry even if she’d been directly marketed there.

But it is Combs who, along with fellow country singers Aldean and Wallen, made chart history this week.  And, culturally and politically speaking, the timing couldn’t have been more poetic for conservatives who’ve rallied behind these singers.

That their milestone occurs on the chart’s 65th anniversary and exactly 37 years since three solo white men last held down the top three slots is significant enough.

But these three singers, whether intentional or not, have either aligned themselves with conservative viewpoints or have been co-opted by conservatives in their crusade against wokism, cancel culture and perceived persecution.

That Aldean/Wallen/Combs accomplished their first-in-a-generation feat during the same week of the third criminal indictment of leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump—whose whole 2024 presidential campaign to date has sounded more like a stop-the-persecution tour than a referendum on policy issues—is not lost on yours truly and is an even more symbolic and redemptive statement given the timing.  

And while one circumstance—Trump’s—falls squarely within the political arena, the other situation—the top three of this week’s Hot 100–has become political by virtue of the conservative and liberal factions whose widely divergent reactions to Aldean’s song in particular helped to make this happen.  

It is indeed difficult to extricate the symbolism of these artists’ career arcs and the events that have fueled them, just as it is to ignore how Trump’s criminal charges have galvanized his staunchest supporters.  

With each indictment and arraignment of the former president, his lead over his rival Republican candidates increased in the polls (the jury was still out on the latest one as of this writing).

Similarly, with each of the backlashes that Aldean, Wallen, and Combs have received, their already strong fan bases only grew stronger.  Each man’s chart trajectory represents a rebuke of political correctness, cancel culture, and to some degree, wokeness, a term the political right has redefined to support their own worldview on race and culture and how it should be discussed and dealt with in society (it’s a key campaign platform of Trump’s nearest Republican rival Ron DeSantis).

As someone who hasn’t been shy about his own reaction to Aldean’s No. 1 song, I came to further realize just how much of a cultural moment this has become for many of his supporters during a cross-country trek that had me in—of all places—the small town of Cheyenne, Wyoming earlier this week. 

While there, I encountered a small thrift shop called the “Funky Monkey” with a large red banner prominently displaying the words “Try That In A Small Town” on its brick facade.

The Funky Monkey thrift store in Cheyenne, WY

Under a white tent next to the store was seated a group of three Black folks—a man and two women—who appeared to be working or doing business there.  

Intrigued, I approached them to introduce myself and, without hesitation, they welcomed me with open arms and the gentleman took me inside to meet the store’s owner—a white man named Lowell Harp who was around my age and who’d clearly bought into the song’s cultural moment and the small town values it purportedly represented.

In my conversation with the owner, he mentioned that he’d hung the sign in the wake of the controversy, along with several American flags that were also prominently displayed.  He added that he’d also purchased about ten to fifteen t-shirts bearing Aldean’s name and/or the song’s title to sell in his shop, though he acknowledged that sales of the garments were low given the related controversy, one he didn’t believe was justified as he felt it was unfair to label the song and artist racist based on its video having been partially filmed in front of a courthouse with a history of lynching (“many courthouses across the south had that history”).

He later volunteered that the song’s writers—none of whom were Aldean, which I knew—were from South Dakota (which I didn’t), a state that only days earlier I had also visited and checked off my bucket list of places to see for the first time during this cross-country trek (Wyoming was another one).  

After bonding briefly with both the owner and his associate (during which time I mentioned that the firestorm around “Try That” had made it the No. 1 song across these 50 states), we snapped selfies and I departed for Denver to continue my journey. 

A later fact check revealed that the writers of “Try That” were actually from Alabama, Iowa, New York and Tennessee.

But my encounter with that small town store owner brought home just how significant this moment is for a group of people for whom the song has clearly hit differently.

Pictured are (from left) DJRob and Funky Monkey proprietor Lowell Harp (joined by cat tree vendor and associate in lower right pic and the store’s facade, upper right)

It also reinforced the true impact of what can happen when the worlds of politics and pop music collide, as they have in Aldean’s case, and, to a lesser but still palpable degree, the cases of Wallen and Combs.

Those three men are likely aware of their shared moment in country music history. 

Whether they’re also aware of their first-to-do-it-in-eons status in a category that last included the names Cetera, Gabriel and Loggins, is less certain.

One thing, however, is clear: this week’s chart is a touchstone moment in America’s ongoing “culture war” and the whole debate around wokeness, cancel culture, persecution and, ultimately, race.

And the fact that Aldean, Wallen and Combs—three presumably heterosexual white men—now sit at the top of an all-genre chart that for the past 30-plus years has been topped by a hodgepodge of Black, White, Latino, Asian, women, men, non-binary, gay, straight, queer and other demographics, must feel like a bit of redemption, despite—or maybe because of—the cultural flashpoint that sparked it.

As a close friend pointed out this week, this occurrence is historic and certainly blog-worthy, whether or not the song and artist  that completed the puzzle align with my own social or political beliefs.

I agreed…and here we are.

Quick blogger’s note:

Although it doesn’t happen often, this week isn’t the first time pop music and politics have collided at the top of the Hot 100, whether intentionally or not.  Here are some notable other examples (all of which happened more than 40 years ago).  

In 1970, in the midst of the Vietnam War, one of the era’s biggest protest songs, “War” by Edwin Starr, topped the Hot 100 for three weeks (in August).  

At the height of the women’s liberation movement, or “women’s lib” as it was called, Helen Reddy’s feminist anthem “I Am Woman” reached No. 1 (in December 1972).

That song, along with Paul Anka’s “Having My Baby,” bookended the 1973 Roe v. Wade  decision, which for nearly half a century protected women’s rights to choose before it was overturned by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year. (Anka’s seemingly pro-life song topped the chart for three weeks in August 1974.)

Also in 1974, Stevie Wonder reached No. 1 with “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” a subtle rebuke of disgraced president Richard Nixon, who’d resigned the presidency just days after the song was released by Motown Records.

And here’s a stretch, but one I remember clearly.

In the weeks leading up to Ronald Reagan’s first presidential inauguration in January 1981, Kool & the Gang’s post-disco soul smash “Celebration” had been a moderate top-20 pop hit, taking more than three months to inch its way to No. 12 on the Hot 100 and appearing that it would fall short of the top ten. 

Then, in late January, Reagan’s swearing-in and the near concurrent release of 52 American hostages from Iran (where they’d been held politically captive for 444 days under Jimmy Carter’s presidency) spurred airplay and sales of “Celebration,” which shot from No. 12 to No. 3 and was No. 1 by February.

Can readers think of any others?


DJRob (he/him/his), an unofficial chart historian whose expressed views are his own and not necessarily those of the blog, is a freelance music blogger from 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 and on Meta’s Threads.

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