From the pop-centric tracks of Dan + Shay to the spoken word of Sam Hunt and the down-home sensibilities of Kacey Musgraves, country’s class of 2015 integrated new sounds and reimagined old traditions in a genre long lambasted for its inability to change. The genre is better for it, and between the year’s staggering number of new country festivals and consistent album sales even within a slumping industry, it’s clearer than ever that the rock stars with the swiftest path to arena sellouts are the ones wearing cowboy boots and singing with a drawl. The year’s most surprising successes were often the thoughtful products of artists who took that route — with or without mainstream media recognition — and their domination this year stems straight from the fans, who spoke with their wallets.
In album sales, Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free was itself a promising sign that there’s room for more than one kind of country star. The independently released record beat out industry vet Alan Jackson for the No. 1 spot on Billboard‘s Country Albums Chart at the end of July, and his breakout success is the culmination of a decade’s worth of Southern storytelling (Isbell garnered attention first with the Drive-By Truckers and, since 2007, as a solo artist). Numbers aside, Isbell’s live shows have built a cult following for their authenticity, building intensity with deft lyricism rather than pageantry. A consistency in his craft that hasn’t budged from trends has won him an emphatic and loyal fan base, one that has only multiplied as his releases have begun to move the mainstream needle.
Isbell wasn’t even the first indie artist to hit the top spot this year: Blackberry Smoke debuted at No. 1 on Billboard‘s country chart with Holding All the Roses in February, and Texas picker Aaron Watson took the top spot with The Underdog shortly thereafter — significant progress indeed when you note how few independent releases topped this chart in 2013 or 2014. But big sales don’t necessarily translate into big airplay, and major labels are still king when it comes to getting a single on the air. Most of the songs topping the Country Airplay chart are affiliated with labels like Universal, Columbia, or Warner Bros. or come from heavy-hitting groups like Big Machine that boast an arsenal of proven top-sellers to use as leverage. Even so, the biggest wins of the year didn’t go to artists who followed the usual model, even if they did have a major label in their corners.
Traditionally, a new artist releases a carefully selected single — generally something uptempo and on-theme with what seems to be succeeding in the space — to radio. If the single takes off, then it’s time to move forward with more recordings, another single, and a full-length record to capitalize on the buzz. Look at Luke Bryan, who rode the popularity of “All My Friends Say” to a No. 2 debut for his first full-length, I’ll Stay Me, in 2006, or Dierks Bentley’s “What Was I Thinkin’,” from his eponymous debut in 2003. If that initial single languishes at the bottom of the charts, it could be several singles (or several years) before the artist reaches the momentum for a full-length release with the label — if ever. Ashley Monroe, whose Like a Rose topped many best-of lists this year, saw this with her 2006 Columbia release Satisfied: The title track didn’t crack the Top 40, the second single peaked at No. 37, and Monroe ultimately parted ways with the company while Satisfied saw an online-only release.
Chris Stapleton may be the most notable “new” artist to break out of that model, having done so with the May release of his debut full-length, Traveller. Stapleton had already enjoyed success as a lead singer for barn-burning bluegrass band the SteelDrivers. He penned hundreds of songs for other artists, including six tracks that reached the top of the country charts, but his debut solo single, 2013’s “What Are You Listening To,” received a mediocre reception on the air. Rather than dip his toe into radio again with another single, this time he went to work on a full-length with producer Dave Cobb, who had contributed to albums from Isbell and Sturgill Simpson that hit home with a contingent of traditional country and Americana fans whom major-label artists were not reaching through radio.
The release was greeted with critical acclaim and steady sales, but Stapleton’s sweep at the Country Music Association Awards and show-stopping duet with Justin Timberlake yielded a turning point in November: While any appearance with the visibility of the CMAs (this year more than 13 million viewers tuned in) is bound to affect sales, within an hour of the broadcast, Stapleton’s remaining 2015 shows were all sold out. In the week that followed alone, Traveller sold more copies than it had combined in the months since its release.
The accessibility of new music and the immediacy of digital downloads have rendered audiences more capable than ever of demonstrating what they want to hear. In the two months since this tangible tipping point, Stapleton’s single “Nobody to Blame” has received a steady increase in radio play — it will likely be one of the two songs he’ll perform on Saturday Night Live on January 16 — and his is just one of several examples of radio programmers and label execs being forced to acknowledge an artist or single following a windfall of sales.
If not for the unequivocal statement made by online demand, newcomer Cam’s Grammy-nominated “Burning House” may not have even made it to air. She was supporting struggling uptempo single “My Mistake” when syndicated radio host Bobby Bones asked her to play a second song during an in-studio performance for his audience of roughly 3 million listeners. Immediately after she finished “Burning House,” the track shot to the top of the iTunes charts, gaining traction despite a complete absence of previous marketing or media support. Sony turned on a dime. The single was swiftly released to radio despite market research and anecdotal evidence that cautions new artists — specifically new female artists — against releasing ballads, and by the end of the year the song was consistently in the Top 5 of country airplay.
Similarly, Bones’s listeners’ receptivity to would-be hits spoke volumes when Bones went rogue on Chris Janson’s get-rich-quick anthem “Buy Me a Boat” in March. At the time, Janson was an unsigned artist with a couple of hit co-writes under his belt and a stint with Sony in his rearview. But after just one spin, the song was a Top 30 download on iTunes — and after a few more it rose to No. 1. Since the single’s release in March, Janson has signed with Warner Bros. and released a proper full-length, but his willingness to release the track straight to iTunes initially — without any label backing — is something that’s becoming a more common power play for promising young artists in the country space, even if the ultimate goal remains success within the system.
As for how this shift might be implemented moving forward, look at Maren Morris, the singer-songwriter who is seeing a similar scenario play out with her earworm single “My Church.” Rather than shop her finished product around to labels, she released her self-titled debut EP exclusively to Spotify, where “My Church” snagged a spot on the popular Hot Country playlist and garnered millions of listens over the course of the following weeks. There was no PR campaign, no big budget, but the social endorsements of friends like Musgraves pointed audiences right to the source. Morris emerged from the experience with a distinct track record, lending the 25-year-old leverage in label negotiations (she signed with Sony shortly after “My Church” took off) and recognition from radio programmers that preceded her release of the single onto that platform.
Things haven’t changed overnight: Chances for success are still at their highest if you’re a white male who’s already famous, working a catchy, finely honed track with the backing of a multimillion-dollar marketing machine. We’re probably not going to stop hearing about diggin’ on hittin’ on folks or sending revenge selfies to an ex on the radio anytime soon, but this year’s sleeper hits in country certainly give cause for optimism. Instead of bemoaning the trucks ‘n’ bros tropes of the genre’s stadium shows, fans looking for country’s next savior would be better off championing what they want to see from Music Row. If this year’s unlikely winners are any indication of what’s to come, the mainstream machine is listening.
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