Charley Pride, step aside.
These are the new kids on the country music block.
And with these four emerging stars having a seat at country’s once exclusive table, the genre once best known for its hurtin’, boozin’, outlawin’ and storytellin’ may never be the same.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, either.
For the past several months, country music has seen a culture-blending unlike ever before with the rise of four history making African-American singers – or rappers – that have turned the genre on its boot-scootin’ heels.
Now, you’ll have to indulge me for a moment while I acknowledge that country music has always had a black presence and a black audience.
Artists like the aforementioned Charley Pride, the late Ray Charles, and more recently former Hootie & the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker have killed it on the country charts with multiple hits over the years. Even some pop and R&B artists have dabbled in country, like superstar Lionel Richie (his most recent album Tuskegee – which featured reinterpretations of the singer’s earlier pop hits by teaming him with the day’s biggest country stars – topped the country chart in 2012); and the Pointer Sisters (who hit country in the 1970s with “Fairytale” before fully committing to R&B and dance later in their career).
And the stories told in country songs often mirror the plight of poor, black Americans in small southern towns just as much as they do the largely white rural audiences to which the genre has historically been marketed.
But rarely if ever have so many black artists made strides in country music at the same time, and with accomplishments this huge, if not controversial in one case – but still huge nonetheless.
Beginning with singers Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen, both of whom had chart-topping country releases in 2018; and now with rap-singers Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown and their viral hits in 2019, the industry is not only embracing these new artists but also questioning and perhaps even redefining exactly what country music is these days, particularly as some of these guys blur the lines between country and traditionally black music forms like hip-hop and R&B.
And they’re generating history-making streaming numbers and Billboard chart runs in both country and other genres along the way.
Take Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen. They’ve won over country audiences with more traditional styles – songs that country radio station directors have had no problem adding to their playlists and placing in very high rotation.
Last Thanksgiving, for instance, Brown and Allen both made history when they topped Billboard’s country singles and albums charts with their respective releases – the first time ever that two black artists had done so simultaneously. Kane Brown’s Experiment was the No. 1 album while Jimmie Allen’s first single, the ballad “Best Shot,” topped the Hot Country Airplay list.
Coincidentally, Brown’s banjo-infused single “Lose It” knocked Allen’s tune from the No. 1 airplay spot for a week before Allen returned the favor and regained the top spot (becoming the first single to rebound to No. 1 on country airplay in more than ten years – since Jimmy Wayne’s “Do You Believe Me Now” did it in Sept. 2008).
Allen’s crowning made him the first black artist to reach number one with a career debut single. The three total weeks that his “Best Shot” spent at No. 1 were the most for a debut male solo artist of any ethnicity on Hot Country Airplay since Blake Shelton’s first single “Austin” spent five weeks at No. 1 there in 2001.
And both Allen and Brown have turned in great streaming numbers as they were rewarded with gold and platinum certifications, respectively, for their two big hits.
Incidentally, Kane Brown has the highest new entry on the Hot Country Songs chart this week with his new single “One Thing Right” with popular dance/pop DJ Marshmello.
But their numbers pale in comparison to these next two artists.
Lil Nas X and another Brown – Blanco (unrelated to Kane) – have unapologetically taken the less traditional route as both men fit more neatly into hip-hop than country, although they’ve each embraced both genres.
Just last week, Blanco’s “The Git Up” blasted to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs in only it’s 5th chart week on the strength of its viral line dance-oriented video in which the Atlanta artist teaches viewers his (very funny) two-step. Blanco is considered a country rapper but his song has enough trap music beats to easily fit on an album by fellow Atlanta hip-hop artists Future or Migos.
The main distinction between Blanco and more traditional hip-hop stars: the song’s heavy dose of steel guitar (whether it’s real or fake, who cares?) and the artist’s twangy delivery. In fact, Brown probably has more twang in his cadence than Dwight Yoakam and Reba McEntire combined.
With tongue firmly planted in cheek, and no doubt spurred on by his trap music roots and the trailer park that serves as the backdrop for his viral hit video, Blanco Brown has embraced the term “trailer-trap” to describe his music style.
His approach to things may land him in squarely in the novelty category, but it’s not like country hasn’t had novelty before (Ray Stevens anyone?).
Yet the artist who has made the most noise in country this year is one who Billboard determined “wasn’t country enough” to warrant placement on their country charts, despite the fact that his song was initially getting measurable airplay on some of the very country stations that Billboard uses to determine those charts: the artist Lil Nas X.
His “Old Town Road,” featuring country music savant Billy Ray Cyrus, has been the No. 1 song in America for 15 consecutive weeks and is in sole ownership of second place behind two iconic songs for most weeks at No. 1 with 16 weeks apiece (Mariah Carey’s “One Sweet Day” with Boys II Men in 1996, and “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi ft. Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber in 2017).
With one week to tie and two weeks to beat them, the country-rap tune that Billboard deemed not authentic enough for their country charts could wind up being the biggest chart hit ever on their marquee Hot 100 list, which tracks all genres.
And “Old Town Road” has topped the R&B /Hip-Hop songs chart and the Billboard Rap Songs chart for all 15 of the weeks it’s been at No. 1 on the Hot 100.
Some of that historic success can no doubt be attributed to the free publicity generated by Billboard’s controversial chart decision, which led to outcries from many industry observers who viewed the move as archaic and racist. The resultant curiosity factor sparked the initial interest in “Road,” but it was the song’s catchiness and proven resonance with large audiences that sustained it as it racked up historic streaming numbers (it owns nine of the eleven biggest weekly streaming totals in history – including the top three).
Some savvy marketing by LNX’s label didn’t hurt either.
Teaming with (and resurrecting) Billy Ray Cyrus proved to be a pop music coup – even if Cyrus’ presence didn’t force Billboard’s hand in reconsidering the song’s country chart eligibility. Cyrus’ has been the featured artist on all but one of the song’s No. 1 weeks on the Hot 100.
And there’ve been timely video releases and performances of the tune on major TV programs (Billy Ray Cyrus was the only white performer at this year’s BET Awards when he and LNX performed “Road,” no doubt exposing it to an even wider audience).
“Old Town Road” is the only song to sell a million downloads this year and will no doubt be the biggest song of 2019 when the Billboard year-end rankings are compiled this December.
While the left-field successes of “Road” and “Git Up” may seem sudden to many, the marriage of country and hip-hop – particularly southern hip-hop and trap – was a natural progression, as both genres were popularized in the south – trap music in Atlanta, and country music only a few hours away in Nashville. The two worlds aren’t that far apart musically either, particularly with country music taking on a more urban feel with artists like Sam Hunt, Thomas Rhett and Florida Georgia Line popularizing the so-called “bro-Country” in recent years.
With Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown, the latter of whose biggest audience is in Nashville (according to The Rolling Stone Top 100 chart) both winning at the crossover game, their combined success should certainly translate to good commercial tidings for the country genre in the months to come, as its appeal is expanded to an even larger audience.
And if the genre’s purists more fully embrace it, who knows what these artists’ and others’ success could mean for the future of country.
Only time will tell if the confluence of these four black men – Kane, Jimmie, Nas X and Blanco – is a sign of good things to come in the area of diversity for a genre that has traditionally been seen as white territory. In the meantime, we’ll keep enjoying the music, and wonder why in 2019 we’re still talking about firsts when it comes to race and country music in the first place.
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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