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Anthony, Combs, Bryan and Wilson: Country Was on a Roll in 2023 — Can It Stay Hot?

Country music was hotter in 2023 than it has been in decades, and that current popularity came alongside a revival of the genre’s past.

Nothing illustrated country’s heat more this last year than its unprecedented chart performance during the summer. Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town,” Morgan Wallen’s “Last Night” and Luke Combs’ “Fast Car” gave country the top three titles on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100 dated Aug. 5 for the first time in history. Oliver Anthony Music’s “Rich Men North of Richmond” joined Wallen and Combs to repeat the feat on the Aug. 26 chart.

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Two of those four recordings are deeply rooted in the past. Combs’ single is a cover of Tracy Chapman’s 35-year-old folk-pop hit, while Anthony’s bare-bones performance embraced a sound and a lyrical identity grounded in the rural simplicity and outlook of country’s birth years.

That churning of the past was a resolute part of country’s stance in 2023. Cole Swindell’s “She Had Me at Heads Carolina,” an interpolation of a 1996 Jo Dee Messina hit, won single and song of the year from the Academy of Country Music while knitting a piece of country history to the current age. That occurred in other realms, too. Post Malone’s interpretation of Joe Diffie’s “Pickup Man” was unveiled during the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards as a core track in a forthcoming Diffie tribute album. Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places” became the name of a bar that officially opened in November in Nashville’s Honky Tonk district, and Brooks even paired up on disc with fellow ’90s icon Ronnie Dunn for “Rodeo Man.” A Judds tribute album likewise saw Blake Shelton, Carly Pearce, Cody Johnson and K. Michelle bringing new interpretations to classic hits.

But the genre’s archaeology was not confined to its own history. Chris Young rekindled David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” through his own current interpolation, “Young Love  & Saturday Nights”; Kane Brown reimagined a 42-year-old Phil Collins song as “I Can Feel It”; and Dustin Lynch closed the year with a Jelly Roll collaboration, “Chevrolet,” built on the melody of Dobie Gray’ 50-year-old “Drift Away.”

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BBR/BMG assembled Stoned Cold Country: A 60th Anniversary Tribute to The Rolling Stones featuring familiar titles from rock’s past reinterpreted by modern country acts, including Ashley McBryde, Eric Church, Little Big Town and Zac Brown Band.

Country’s connection with rock history was further enhanced by newly minted Rock & Roll Hall of Fame members Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson. Parton, inducted a year ago, rolled out an ambitious Rockstar project that teamed her with Steven Tyler, Stevie Nicks, Peter Frampton and two living Beatles, among others. The album peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, marking her highest ascent on that list. Nelson rolled out several non-music products while celebrating his 90th birthday in a two-day, all-star concert event in Los Angeles. A two-CD package — Long Story Short: Willie Nelson 90 Live at the Hollywood Bowl, released Dec. 15 — incorporates Beck, Keith Richards, Jack Johnson and Booker T. Jones along with country guests Miranda Lambert, Chris Stapleton and George Strait. It also led to a Dec. 17 CBS special, Willie Nelson’s 90th Birthday Celebration.

To cinch the whole thing, Brenda Lee, a member of both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, finally saw her perennial blockbuster, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” top the Billboard Hot 100. 

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All of those developments occur as the country audience becomes more firmly grounded in modern technology. The genre’s customers, who skew a little older and more conservative on average than pop music fans, were slower to embrace digital developments since 2000, though they have played catch-up with a vengeance. Country was the fastest-growing U.S. format for on-demand audio streaming in 2023, according to Luminate, piling up 23.8% more streams than in 2022 during the first 49 weeks of this year.

The genre has a healthy cluster of new stars, too, tugging the sound in multiple directions. Lainey Wilson collected five trophies during the CMA Awards, including entertainer of the year, behind a sonic identity that borrows from rock and western music. Zach Bryan, Bailey Zimmerman and Warren Zeiders applied an extra dose of rasp and edginess to the format. HARDY cemented his place as a leading figure in the application of metal to the country brand. And Jelly Roll became a motivational force, with confessional songs and a transparent persona, addressing his weight issues, therapy and past criminal record with a frankness that provides encouragement for fans who are similarly trying to overcome their own imperfect histories.

Music Row likewise heightened its efforts to better connect with non-white ethnicities, as several organizations have created programs to fast-track artists and executives of color. The War and Treaty, BRELAND and Mickey Guyton amassed significant media attention, piled atop the radio embrace of Brown and Darius Rucker, while two hits — the HARDY/Wilson duet “wait in the truck” and the Jelly Roll/Wilson collab “Save Me” — used Black choirs to make their deeply emotional statements.

Country was exceedingly hot during 2023. Wallen, Combs, Strait and Kenny Chesney were all out filling stadiums, as was Time magazine’s person of the year, Taylor Swift, whose journey to cultural influence started in country music. If the genre could fully turn the corner in its outreach to listeners of ethnic backgrounds, on top of its existing base, there’s no telling how much further it could soar. But it’ll be tough to outdo its 2023 performance.

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