The recent (and somewhat frightening) uprising of country music on Billboard’s Hot 100 - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Over the course of 2023, the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart has seen unmatched performances from numerous songs in the country music genre. Multiple chart records have been broken, and landmark peaks have been reached by country songs and artists, some being established names backed by Nashville’s Music Row, and some being complete Billboard rookies.

The Billboard tracking week of August 26th, 2023 was headlined by Oliver Anthony Music debuting his acoustic, folk-country protest song “Rich Men North of Richmond” at #1, backed by massive amounts of YouTube views and digital sales, with Billboard reporting 37% of all country track sales last week to the singer. While this event may be the most attention-grabbing and shocking to the public so far due to the sheer magnitude of its chart entrance, this trend has been slowly building over the past few years.

Country music has seen an undeniable upswing in overall popularity since the turn of the decade. New life was breathed into mainstream country by songs such as Chris Stapleton’s “You Should Probably Leave,” Bailey Zimmerman’s “Rock And A Hard Place,” Morgan Wallen’s “7 Summers,” and Luke Combs’ “Forever After All,” to name a few. Sadly, mainstream country is still fairly male-dominated, as popular women like Kacey Musgraves, Marren Morris, and Lainey Wilson tend not to crossover as consistently to the charts. Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” has continued to lay framework for hip-hop and country fusions, with a clear example being Wallen’s enormous single “Last Night,” which has seen a combined 16 weeks at #1 since its debut in February.

Before his historic chart run began, Wallen unfortunately put his bright future as a country hitmaker into question. TMZ broke footage of him using the N-word following an intoxicated fight with friends on Feb. 2nd, 2021. He apologized, telling TMZ “I’m embarrassed and sorry. I used an unacceptable and inappropriate racial slur that I wish I could take back. There are no excuses to use this type of language, ever. I want to sincerely apologize for using the word. I promise to do better.”

Not even a month prior, Wallen had released his sophomore effort Dangerous: The Double Album, which debuted atop the Billboard 200 albums chart, going on to spend 10 weeks at #1. As of the current chart week (9/2/23), the project is spending its 137th week on the chart perched at #10, with his 2023 follow-up One Thing At A Time lodged at #2 behind Travis Scott’s UTOPIA. Released on March 3rd, One Thing is a 36-track behemoth that has already spent 15 weeks at #1 this year.

While Wallen does not directly delve into conservative topics in his lyrics, it is the surge in popularity of Wallen’s work in the direct aftermath of his racist comments and short public fallout that ties him into a larger conversation regarding politics in recent country hits. His fanbase chose to ignore or forgive his use of a slur, and seems to be instead buying into his art at extreme levels to contend with the public degradation of his image, causing him to be easily re-accepted into the industry as a massively marketable star, actively growing despite his racist actions.

It must be restated that Wallen’s career path was bright before his controversy, as well as after. Wallen had 23 songs that debuted on the Hot 100 prior to Feb. 2021, five of which peaked within the top 20. This is very impressive for a rising country star, and it is clear that a very strong fan base and industry push had already formed. While Wallen was already poised for success, his audience forgave him for a choice that could have derailed his career.

Jason Aldean in the “Try That In A Small Town” music video

Wallen’s single “Last Night” has become only the fifth song ever to spend more than 15 weeks atop the Hot 100. After being kicked from #1 for one week in August by BTS member Jungkook’s collaboration with Latto, “Seven,” veteran artist Jason Aldean brought country back to the top spot with “Try That In A Small Town,” a single from May. The lyrics list violent crimes, flag-defacing, and gun control as actions to not try in a small town since, according to Aldean, it will end up worse for you than if you tried them in a city.

Along with the song’s pro-gun, anti-crime lyrical message, the viral music video posed Aldean in front of a courthouse in Columbia, TN where Henry Choate had been lynched in 1927. With these scenes and multiple news clips of destructive riots, the video was removed from Country Music Television, likely due to this racist imagery. Aside from the controversy of the song’s message, this tracking week of Aug. 5th saw three country songs occupying the top 3 spots on the Hot 100 for the first time ever, with “Last Night” at #2, and Luke Combs’ cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” holding the #3 spot.

Wallen’s “Last Night” has been dethroned seven different times now, only to continue bouncing back to the top. Last week, the challenger was Oliver Anthony Music, a complete Billboard newcomer, never having charted on a single list prior to the week of Aug. 26th. An acoustic performance of his original track “Rich Men North of Richmond” rocketed to #1 on the Hot 100. The original video on radiowv’s YouTube channel currently has 50 million views, and a Distrokid-uploaded single on streaming has amassed 37 million Spotify streams. It also sits atop the iTunes sales chart; this widely-forgotten platform is a common mechanism for viral songs to gain chart traction. Digital sales add up faster than streams do, if a fanbase is looking to boost a song’s chart performance.

The song narrates the life of a young, working class man who is upset that his hard work does not achieve him the value he believes he deserves. Anthony blames it on the “rich men north of Richmond,” a reference to the U.S. Government, who allow him to work for “bullshit pay” and let his taxes pay for “the obese milking welfare.” Coupled with an emotional, stripped back performance of Anthony belting the lyrics, the image of the young red-haired man has gone extremely viral, causing discourse around the relatability of his complaints and ethicality of his choice targets in the song.

Oliver Anthony Music in the “Rich Men North Of Richmond” video

With such a short time in the spotlight, it is difficult to tell if Anthony will continue to be a player in the industry or simply continue to live the life he passionately sings about. Either way, his song was able to create Billboard Hot 100 history as the first track to debut at #1 from an artist with no prior chart success. Last week also marked the second time in a month that three country songs hold the top 3 spots on the Hot 100, with “Fast Car” at #2 and “Last Night” at #3.

In the Aug. 23rd episode of his YouTube series Billboard Breakdown, critic Mark Grondin of Spectrum Pulse pointed out an unfortunate irony of “Rich Men North of Richmond” debuting #1. Combs’ cover of “Fast Car” originally peaked at #2 during the week of April 8th, hovering within the top 5 ever since. “It’s a much better song where the working class struggle feels more lived-in and real,” Grondin voiced. His statement was a personal opinion, but it is undeniable that the composition of “Fast Car” does what “Rich Men North of Richmond” aimed to do with more nuance, composition, dignity, and empathy. Not to mention, “Fast Car” also helps to carry on the legacy of Tracy Chapman, a celebrated Black singer-songwriter and activist who has led a very humble career following her initial mainstream success.

As of the current week, Anthony was actually able to secure the top spot for a second week, showing signs of stability that many #1 debuts lack. In the past two years, six out of the eleven songs to debut at #1 were unable to run it back for a second week. In 2020—a year with a record-breaking 12 songs debuting at #1—only two held strong.

With the exception of Wallen, both “Try This in a Small Town” and “Rich Men North of Richmond” have experienced very sharp inclines to reach #1. Aldean’s song fell to #21 the week following his #1, the fifth largest drop from the top in Hot 100 history. Anthony has yet to sign to a record label, and apparently does not plan on it according to an interview with CMT. With a second week at #1 secured, he will have to outscore Zach Bryan’s “I Remember Everything” to continue his reign. According to Billboard, the considerably-less controversial duet with Kasey Musgraves has “earned over 18 million on-demand streams in its first four days,” now with over 13 million on Spotify alone. It sits just below the dominant “Rich Men” on the iTunes chart, posing it for a strong debut next week.

While Bryan’s #1 debut next week seems likely, and Combs’ cover of “Fast Car” has a slight chance to win over the top spot in the future, a #1 week is not all that matters here. These songs and artists that are leaning into more dangerous, disrespectful, or ignorant themes have been able to gain strong enough responses from the U.S. to skyrocket them to #1 on the Hot 100. It seems easier for the public to pay attention to a more controversial figure online, at least for a short period of time.

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