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The genre known for three chords and the truth reached new heights of authenticity and storytelling in 2021. After a year of doubt, confusion and isolation in 2020, many country artists got back on the road and their careers with a rejuvenated passion, unleashing some of their most ambitious projects to date.
Popular ways to find success have emerged, with several artists – both established and up-and-coming – unlocking whole new fanbases through social media. The result? Some unlikely hits have risen to the top of country radio charts, artists have been able to release more music than ever before, and unprecedented cross-genre collaborations have sprung from quarantine connections.
Read on to learn about some of the trends, both musical and cultural, that have dominated country music in 2021.
Double and triple albums
During their absence from the pandemic-induced road, many artists have found that the only thing they can still do is write songs. By 2021, the plethora of music created during these sessions was recorded and ready for release, resulting in longer track listings and beefier projects.
One of these pioneers was Eric Churchwho released a whopping 24 tracks heart soul album spread over three discs. Morgan Wallen has dropped its 30 tracks — or 33 tracks, if you count Target’s exclusive and bonus editions — Dangerous: the double album in January. The latter made history by becoming the first country album to spend their first 10 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 All Genres; it also spent 43 weeks in the chart’s top 10, more than any other album in 2021. (Amid the album’s success, Wallen caused a great controversy when a video surfaced of the singer using a racial slur. He apologized and claimed to donate to black-led groups, but was close quickly country radio and streaming services, as well as several events and awards shows.)
Thomas Rhet and Jason Aldean also premiered several music albums in 2021. Rhett released Country Again: Side A in April, announcement in November that B-side will arrive in fall 2022 after another album, titled where we started, which the star revealed will be released “in early 2022.” Aldean had a similar exit strategy, dropping Masonthe first half of his double album Macon, Georgiain November and within the framework Georgia for April 22, 2022.
Success Stories Years of Preparation
The longtime B-listers finally got their country radio rights in 2021, due to ever-increasing opportunities for artists to create popular hits on social media. Walker Hayes’ ubiquitous “Fancy Like” has gone viral on TikTok (notably thanks to a family dance craze) and became a No. 1 hit on Billboard’s Country Airplay and Hot Country Songs charts. The song gave the singer – who moved to Nashville in 2005 – his first crossover hit, airing on pop radio and climbing to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Parmalee also surprised country radio this year. The group hadn’t had a No. 1 since 2013, and their two most recent singles fizzled out without ever cracking the charts. But ‘Just the Way’, an unlikely tag team with ‘The Git Up’ star Blanco Brown, saw them return to the top spot.
Another success story came from Lainey Wilson, another Nashville veteran who got his big break with the insightful hit “Things a Man Oughta Know.” The song became his first No. 1 on country radio after nearly 10 years of releasing music. Her latest single, a collaboration with chart-topping resident Cole Swindell, titled “Never Say Never,” is currently climbing the charts.
Classic hits have found new life on TikTok
While TikTok has been instrumental in creating new hits such as “Fancy Like” in 2021, it has also been tasked with revitalizing a few old ones. Reba McEntireThe 2001 hit, “I’m a Survivor” went viral thanks to a TikTok parody trend, with users putting the song to video footage of themselves melodramatically doing everyday chores. McEntire herself had fun, post a clip of his attempt to feed a pair of ungrateful donkeys.
Shania Twain also reached new audiences with its presence on TikTok. She posts snippets of iconic selections from her discography, along with her hilarious French fries commentary, glimpses from her Las Vegas residency and the occasional trend compromise with Taylor Swift.
Career-defining divorce albums
Breakups aren’t exactly a new topic for country, but some country artists have been going through some very public heartbreak over the past couple of years. Carly Pearce split from fellow artist Michael Ray after just eight months of marriage, and Kacey Musgraves called he leaves with her husband of two years, singer / songwriter Ruston Kelly.
But rather than navigate these difficult times in private, Pearce and Musgraves turned their grief into gold, with each singer releasing her most revealing, personal and complex record to date. Pearce relied heavily on her country roots to make 29: Written in Stonewhile Musgraves deftly defied genre boundaries to emerge damna project so vulnerable that she performed one of her songs on Saturday Night Live carrying nothing but a strategically placed acoustic guitar.
Black country stars broke through
After the country world said goodbye to the legendary charley pride in December 2020, his pioneering legacy carried on into 2021. Black country stars made waves in many ways this year, from winning awards to launching business ventures to making statements on stage and in song.
Hitmakers Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen – the latter the only country artist to win Best New Artist at the 2022 GRAMMYS – made history with their ACM Awards wins (Brown was the first black artist to win the Video of the Year; Allen was the first black solo artist to win New Male Artist of the Year). Both also launched their own businesses in 2021: Brown launched his own label, 1021 Entertainment (in partnership with his house label, Sony Music Nashville), and Allen launched both a publishing company, Bettie James Music Publishing. , and a full-service management and production company, JAB Entertainment.
mickey guytonwho first gained attention outside of the genre for his GRAMMY-nominated single “Black Like Me” last year, continued to make an impact with his powerful album, remember his name. The album features several vignettes of her experience as a black woman, including a bouncy anthem “Different” and a poignant ballad “Love My Hair.” She delivered a moving performance of this latest track at the 2021 CMA Awards alongside rising stars Brittney Spencer and Madeline Edwards, two of many promising black voices in the genrewhich also includes Yola, Breland, Willie Jones, and Shy Carter, among others.
The artists lived their truth
Among the challenges country music has faced this year have also been moments of personal authenticity and joy. Osborne Brothersby TJ Osborne came out gay in a Weather feature film, and the sibling duo later released “Younger Me,” a compassionate and timely ode to the obstacles they overcame to become who they are today.
Osborne was one of two country bands signed to a major label to go gay: the other was Brooke Eden, who came out in January, and later that year became engaged to partner Hilary Hoover. She released the first new songs she had released in years, and in a Grand Ole Opry performance, she and Trisha Yearwood duet on Yearwood’s classic “She’s in Love With the Boy”, changing the lyrics to “She’s in love with the girl”.
Eden and Osborne are part of a very small – but growing – list of major players in publicly gay country music, which also includes the hit songwriter Shane McAnally and American star Brandi Carlile.
Dolly Parton retained her reign as country queen
Dolly Parton was a major bright spot in the dark year that was 2020. Not only did she lift her spirits by releasing her third Christmas album, A Christmas Holly Dollybut she also donated $1 million to fund the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.
It’s hard to top that, but this year Parton continued to trend for his uplifting acts of kindness and legendary musical exploits. She sent social media into a frenzy when she celebrated “hot girl summer” – and the birthday of her husband of 57 years, Carl Dean – by recreating the iconic outfit she wore for her Playboy cover in 1978. She also dueted with Reba McEntire for the first time, landed on Forbes’ list of the richest self-made women, and capped off 2021 by setting two new Guinness World Records (and breaking a third World Record). which she already held) for her long-standing chart achievements.
Complete collaboration albums
What’s better than a duo? An album full of them, apparently. Collaborations were hot in country music in 2021, but many artists took things a step further by doing full-length projects featuring a cast of duo partners.
The Hardy-preserved Hixtape Vol. 2 dug deep into country lifestyle and party songs, thanks to some of the biggest names from all corners of the genre. Brantley Gilbert, Osborne Brothers, Jon Pardi, Dierks Bentley and jake owen are just a few of the artists who have lent their voices to the tracklist, which features a total of 33 guest artists across 14 songs.
While the Hixtape went ultra-country, other duet albums spanned genres. Rapper nelly release sound heartland project, featuring Darius RuckerBreland and Florida Georgia line. Jimmie Allen went even further for his Bettie James Gold Editionwhich featured everyone from the rapper pit bull to the R&B/soul singer Monica and pop stars Noah Cyrus.
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