AF 2019 IN REVIEW: A Year in Country Music

With the end of the year comes a time of reflection. Looking back on this year in country music, the firestorm of conversation about the lack of women on country radio spilled into 2019, while new artists like Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown broke down barriers, and names including Billy Ray Cyrus and Tanya Tucker saw a resurgence in their careers.

Renaissance Moment

 In 2019, country fans saw two legends experience an unexpected, but celebrated resurgence in Billy Ray Cyrus and Tanya Tucker.

Though known as ’90s country star with the breakthrough hit “Achy Breaky Heart” and as the father of Miley Cyrus, his name is now synonymous with the global hit that is “Old Town Road.” While the Nine Inch Nails-sampling Lil Nas X penned rap gained traction as a viral favorite on Tik Tok, it was a remix version featuring Billy Ray Cyrus that came to define the newish genre of “country rap.” Kicked off the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart based on the claim that it “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version,” “Old Town Road” quickly grew into a smash hit that broke the record as the longest running No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 – and Cyrus was a significant part of this. Though the song was already a jam in its original state, the unlikely pairing of the millennial rapper and baby boomer country star made for an important moment in pop culture. The song feels complete with both on the track, and Cyrus’ affinity for the song and ability to see how it connects to the history of country music is part of what gave him a second life in the genre.

Billy Ray Cyrus and Lil Nas X. Photo by Derrek Kupish/ dkupish productions

Tucker enjoyed her own renaissance moment in 2019; the 61-year-old icon, who had her first hit single at age 13 with “Delta Dawn,” released her first album in 10 years, While I’m Livin,’ produced by Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings. Partnering with a new generation of talent gave Tucker an edge and refreshed identity while still delivering a strong body of work, and earned her four 2020 Grammy nominations. It was gratifying to see two iconic stars rise like phoenixes for a new phase in their lives.

Diversity

 It’s disappointing to think that even in 2019, you can count the number of mainstream African American country artists on one hand. Over the past few years, we’ve seen acts like Kane Brown become rising superstars, while Jimmie Allen reached No. 1 with his debut single “Best Shot” last year. But with Lil Nas X breaking down the walls for artists creating country trap, it feels like the beginning of a tidal wave of diverse artists who we’ll see breaking through in the next few years.

Yola is one of the many artists blazing this path. The elegant British country singer had a banner year with her debut record Walk Through Fire. Her spell-binding voice and awe-inspiring songwriting solidified her as a major breakthrough act this year, so much so that Kacey Musgraves invited her to be one of the opening acts at her first arena headlining show in Nashville and Elton John declared himself a fan after hearing her cover of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” She’ll embark on her own headlining Walk Through Fire Tour in 2020.

Blanco Brown also took country by storm with his original “Cotton Eyed Joe” style dance song, “The Git Up,” which was the longest running No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and spent 13 weeks as the top selling country single in the U.S. Meanwhile, former X Factor contestant Willie Jones spent the year building momentum with songs that range from the sweet (“Down For It”) to playfully observing the influx of bachelorette parties in downtown Nashville with “Bachelorettes on Broadway,” while up-and-coming singer-songwriter Tiera was named to CMT’s Next Women of Country class of 2020.

Jimmie Allen also joined forces with dynamic duo Louis York for a poetic number titled “Teach Me a Song” on the twosome’s American Griots album, and when they all performed on the Grand Ole Opry, it marked the first time three African American artists have appeared on the Opry stage at one time. With Louis York set to make their own Opry debut in February, it feels like we’re at the start of a revolution of multi-racial artists finally becoming a mainstay in a genre that has been sorely lacking in diversity.

Women in country

 The conversation surrounding the lack of women on country radio was a dominant theme in 2018, with the likes of Carrie Underwood, Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris, Miranda Lambert and countless others speaking out. At 2018’s end, there were no women in the top 20 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart for the first time in the chart’s near 30-year history, and they didn’t fare too much better in 2019, as there are no solo female artists on the year-end list of Billboard Country Airplay songs. With the conversation being so loud, it instilled a false sense of hope that radio would take action and begin to move toward more balanced playlist.

But where radio faltered, women united in the form of all-female tours in 2019. Underwood set this precedent by inviting duo Maddie & Tae and trio Runaway June as her opening acts on the Cry Pretty 360 Tour, proving that a troupe of half a dozen women can sell out arenas across the country. Lambert followed suit, as her Roadside Bars & Pink Guitars Tour featured a massive all-female bill with openers including Maren Morris and CMA New Artist of the Year Ashley McBryde, along with newcomers like Tenille Townes, Kassi Ashton and many more.

Morris also set a standard by joining forces with Carlile, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby to form The Highwomen, whose debut album serves as one of the year’s best (and their surprise performance with Dolly Parton at 2019 Newport Folk Festival is arguably one of the highlights of the year in music). Morris continued with her support for women by bringing a mix of five female friends and rising artists in country on her aptly titled Girl: The World Tour named after her CMA Album of the Year. Even legends like Trisha Yearwood stepped up, taking an all-female bill out on the road with her for the Every Girl on Tour.

In addition, several new female artists not only made an impact on fans and the industry alike, but brought a distinct element with them: empathy. It’s the foundation of Townes’ “Somebody’s Daughter,” a compelling narrative inspired by a woman she saw on the side of the road who was homeless that should have been a No. 1 hit, but just barely made the top 30 on the country charts. Meanwhile, Ingrid Andress broke hearts in the best way with her powerful debut single “More Hearts Than Mine” that made her the only female artist to have a debut single reach the top 20 in 2019.

Though the fact that Carrie Underwood lost Entertainer of the Year to seven-time winner Garth Brooks during a year where she put on an impeccable production that led to growth as an artist while supporting deserving young women felt like another major blow to the cause, it was inspiring to see so many women uniting in the face of adversity – there is something truly special about seeing a group of gifted women lifting one another up in a bold way.

But in order to see real change, there needs to be integration, and there seems to be signs of that going into the new year. Dan + Shay, the country duo behind the wildly successful, Grammy winning crossover hit “Tequila,” recently announced that Andress will be joining them as an opening act on their 2020 Arena Tour. Jordan Davis, who has two country hits to his name, is bringing a pair of compelling singer-songwriters, Ashton and Hailey Whitters, as his openers on the 2020 Trouble Town Tour. I hope this is a trend that turns into a movement in 2020.