If you’ve paid any attention lately to mainstream radio, Billboard rankings, or viral internet hits, you may have noticed that country music has been getting all the attention. In particular, a string of country crossovers has been burning up the charts — each one building on the last in the same culture war controversy.
Perennial country favorite Morgan Wallen has been enjoying a marathon chart-topping streak for his latest album, One Thing at a Time — his first since a leaked 2021 video of the star casually dropping the n-word nearly cost him his career. One of four singles from the album to zoom up the charts, an ode to a messy breakup called “Last Night,” has enjoyed a whopping 28 weeks and counting on the Hot 100, 16 of them in the top spot.
Wallen’s Hot 100 streak was briefly interrupted by Jason Aldean’s viral success for “Try That in a Small Town,” a song replete with thinly veiled references to lynching outsiders. Released in May, the song didn’t make a huge splash until the controversial music video — shot at the site of a historical lynching — dropped in mid-July. The backlash over the video prompted a conservative counter-backlash, which propelled Aldean’s song up the charts — although no sooner had the song hit No. 1 than it tumbled a full 20 spots back down. It’s currently hovering just outside the top 20 on the Hot 100.
Hard on the heels of Aldean and Wallen, complete unknown Oliver Anthony went viral in August for his oppressed common-man anthem “Rich Men North of Richmond,” after a YouTube user released a video of Anthony performing the song live. Despite lyrics that reference QAnon themes and mock people on welfare with what many have read as racist stereotypes, the song is so popular that Anthony now has 18 songs currently ranking in the Apple Music Top 100. He also just became the first artist in Billboard history to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 without any prior chart history.
At a distance, Anthony is a truly mythical success story — until you consider the context of that success. Indeed, the throughline of these recent country hits is not their musical style. Wallen is arguably closer, aesthetically, to a twangy Post Malone than to Anthony, who performs traditional folk, with Aldean somewhere in the middle.
Rather, these artists all arguably charted at least in part because they — purposely or not — tapped the vein of conservative resentment that has fueled numerous other consumerist movements this year. From the backlash against Target and Budweiser over their queer and trans-friendly marketing, to the viral push to promote the anti-human trafficking film Sound of Freedom and its QAnon-adjacent rhetoric, each of these campaigns has arisen out of conservative disgruntlement with the mainstream, a feeling of being ostracized and marginalized. The motivation to “fight back” against the evils of liberal morality increasingly involves wielding individual purchasing power as a way to make a collective statement. Boycotting and promotion have worked in equal measure throughout 2023 for conservatives; both have yielded results.
Now, that consumerist mentality has found new subjects: Wallen, Aldean, and Anthony — with other, more unapologetically far-right artists, waiting in the wings.
Morgan Wallen isn’t quite like the others — but context matters
Without the larger context of the era we’re in, Morgan Wallen might not fit into this pattern. After all, one of the traits of his music, especially in the newest album, is a kind of strategic ambivalence about his own dirtbaggery. His songs are replete with the catchy themes country lyrics are well-known for: wordplay, whiskey, and pickup trucks, with wry flourishes of bitterness and self-defeat.
Through songs like “Last Night” and “Money On Me” — key lyric: “I wouldn’t put my money on me” — his lyrical stand-in comes across as a slightly guilt-ridden white guy, a man who vaguely understands that he’s gained an uncomfortable level of status and privilege but not someone who has the insight to do more than sardonically reference his past missteps. It’s the kind of post-ironic take on modern masculinity we’re more used to seeing in pop stars like Post Malone or even The Wknd. His music goes well with a diet of pop or country, and his reputation as a nice guy made it go down easy.
At least it did until Wallen’s reputation as a partier backfired on him. Wallen had weathered minor storms before, including getting caught going maskless during a party weekend in Alabama in 2021 — a stunt that resulted in Saturday Night Live canceling a scheduled appearance of Wallen as musical guest. (They rescheduled.) Then, in February 2021, TMZ published footage of what appears to be an intoxicated Wallen returning to his Nashville home late following a night on the town. After making a ruckus on the street with his party, he calls to a friend to “take care of this pussy-ass n*****.” As many people, including BuzzFeed News’ Elamin Abdelmahmoud, pointed out, Wallen dropped that racial slur with zero hesitation. He comes across in the video as someone who uses it all the time.
“I have no trouble imagining he said it like he’s familiar with it, like his mouth has been there before,” Abdelmahmoud wrote. “This is an artist who has traded on his authenticity since he first came on the scene … Wallen has positioned himself as a mullet-and-blue-jeans, what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy. And it’s impossible to watch the video without this in mind.”
That nod to authenticity is crucial because one of the hallmarks of country music marketability is that the star is who they say they are; artists who fail the authenticity test don’t often fare well. The 30-year-old Wallen, who grew up in a bona fide small town in East Tennessee before moving to the Knoxville suburbs as a teen, may have gotten his start through the most Hollywood of methods — a season-six stint on The Voice — but he’s a good ol’ country boy who subsequently worked his way up through the Nashville ranks. He’s got a famous mullet; he goes hunting; he even speculates he got booted off The Voice because he chose to sing country instead of pop. Hard to get more authentic than that. But did that also mean Wallen was authentically racist? When he subsequently apologized, was that an authentic apology?
The industry repercussions Wallen faced were immediate: Wallen’s record label, Big Loud Records, suspended his contract “indefinitely.” The Academy of Country Music also rescinded his eligibility for the upcoming Country Music Awards cycle. Radio and television networks from IHeart to CMT dropped his music from their playlists and censured the artist.
Yet Wallen’s efforts to apologize might not have ultimately mattered at all. His use of the racist slur had an immediate and profoundly positive impact on his sales. According to a Billboard report, in the days following the leaked TMZ video, Wallen’s sales increased by 339 percent in the US, jumping from 5,000 copies sold the day before the leak to 22,500 copies sold the day after. (Lest you think the bump in popularity might have been due to his gracious apology, note that the sales increase happened immediately; Wallen didn’t release his full apology video via Instagram until a week later.) By the end of the year, his most recent album, Dangerous, was the bestselling album of 2021, and it wasn’t close.
One could argue that Wallen, of all three singers, is the Chick-fil-A to a crop of Cracker Barrels: That is, he’s the offering that’s just mainstream and appealing enough to override any moral objections the average listener might have to his music. After all, he was drunk and he did apologize. There’s still room for growth and change. If Wallen can turn his mea culpas — sincere or not — into one of the most lucrative comebacks of the decade, perhaps that’s a sign of nothing deeper than slick songwriting and the public’s willingness to forgive and forget.
It’s also likely Wallen’s music resonates with the type of fan who, like Wallen himself, doesn’t want to introspect too deeply. And as with so many other aspects of the culture war, there are plenty of apologists around to do the work of redeeming Wallen — a guy who, after all, is just trying to have a good time. Ultimately, his ambivalence works in his favor.
Yet it’s much harder to make a similar argument about the other two country artists who each, in succession, interrupted “Last Night”’s Hot 100 streak. Their success, coming alongside Wallen’s, makes Wallen’s feel a little grimier; “Try That In a Small Town” and “Rich Men North of Richmond” are anything but ambivalent.
Jason Aldean makes the subtext text with a controversial music video
Jason Aldean’s music frequently gets classed within the nebulous subgenre sometimes known as “bro-country” — a group of unapologetically dude-ish male country artists, including artists like Wallen and the Florida Georgia Line. Exactly what’s wrapped up in the “bro” ethos varies from artist to artist, but a refusal to be cowed by woke politics certainly seems to lurk at the edges. In 2015, Aldean wore blackface at a party, an act his publicist confirmed but for which Aldean has never apologized. Instead, the country music veteran who won the CMA Album of the Year award in 2011, has doubled down on his controversial and, to many, blatantly racist provocations as an artist.
Aldean has lambasted the label of “bro country,” calling it condescending. “It’s meant to describe guys whose songs are all about pickup trucks, drinking beer, and girls. It’s meant to talk down to us,” he told Billboard in 2016. “They haven’t bothered to listen to the body of work I’ve recorded over the years.”
Many might argue, though, that the problem with Aldean’s body of work is not that no one is listening to it but that they are listening and they approve. For instance, the lyrics to Aldean’s “Small Town” heavily insinuate that Southern lynch mobs are alive and well and ready to come for anyone who transgresses on (white) small-town values. He also advocates stockpiling weapons in case the government tries to physically take them away from gun owners — popular rhetoric among gun rights extremists. When a song like that enjoys a viral popularity boost, it’s unsettling.
It’s also difficult to disentangle the fandom for the song from the backlash to the song and then the subsequent counter-backlash. “Small Town” became one of the few songs in history to simultaneously top both the Hot Country and Hot 100 Billboard charts — but only after all of the media attention given to its racist subtext. That implies that rather than media alarmism decreasing interest in the song, its target audience flocked to it because of its coded racism and references to violence.
In the end, Aldean’s song only lasted a moment atop the Hot 100. Still, it’s a significant achievement for a certain type of disgruntled conservative; after all, it’s likely many more people watched Aldean’s music video, with its codes and dog whistles, than would have paid attention to the song without the accompanying controversy. In addition to the video’s use of a location with a fraught racial history, Aldean uses stock footage taken from protests in Canada, filmed well before the Black Lives Matter movement. Apparently, this footage appeared alongside unlicensed footage of actual Black Lives Matter protests (which has since reportedly been removed) to create a conflation between violent protests and the primarily peaceful Black Lives Matter protests. This conflation implies that rioting, looting, and disorder is what “small towns” in the modern US are up against. The “authenticity” argument might normally work against Aldean here — he’s singing about a small town despite never having lived anywhere smaller than mid-sized Macon, Georgia — but the song’s popularity among its target audience seems to have forestalled criticism.
And while the song didn’t last at the top of the charts, it has yet to drop off of them. In fact, on the iTunes charts, where Anthony’s songs have flooded the rankings, “Small Town” has shot back up to No. 3 on the Top 100 list, right behind Anthony. That’s probably not a coincidence.
Oliver Anthony brings QAnon bugbears and overt welfare fat-shaming to bluegrass YouTube
As difficult as it is to claim that Aldean’s song is not racist, many have tried — including Aldean himself, who claimed that it was about “the feeling of community” and the desire for a return to “a sense of normalcy.” Even though in practice that logic falls apart, it clearly has its appeal to a particular audience. Across his burgeoning repertoire, Oliver Anthony’s lyrics voice a similar rhetoric — the idea that he is “an old soul” trapped in “a new world.” The new world, Anthony heavily implies, is indolent, hypocritical, and oppressive. Although Anthony has achieved massive popularity in a short time for the blunt, angry edge of these lyrics, they mask a much deeper, uglier type of ideology.
“Rich Men” has drawn over 30 million views in the week since YouTube user radiowv, Anthony’s co-manager, uploaded an acoustic performance of it. In it, Anthony strums a guitar and wails impassioned lyrics with familiar country themes about the plight of the working-class man who suffers at the expense of the “rich men north of Richmond.”
Anthony’s articulation of these themes — the working man is overworked, overtaxed, and exploited — has won him a huge outpouring of praise from the audiences that have flocked to stream the song since its release. In between these more universalized themes, however, is a jarring and discordant resentment directed at people on welfare, with all of the embedded racism that implies. “Lord, we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothin’ to eat / And the obese milkin’ welfare,” Anthony sings. “Well, God, if you’re 5-foot-3 and you’re 300 pounds / Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of Fudge Rounds.”
Conservatives have long rallied around demonizing the welfare state. One reason for that is that even though white people receive more public assistance than Black people, many conservatives view welfare as a system set up to help urban Black families. And although research has repeatedly shown that welfare recipients work no less and often work more while on welfare, conservatives often view those families as undeserving grifters living off federal funds instead of helping themselves. The term “welfare queen,” for example, frequently gets used as a racist dog whistle. In 1970, the one-hit country wonder “Welfare Cadilac” [sic] drew criticism as “disgustingly racist” when it hit the charts.
Anthony’s abrupt shift from rich men to fat-shaming welfare recipients makes it very difficult to read the song in its entirety as merely a populist working-class anthem. There’s also a muddy reference to Jeffrey Epstein’s island estate, a line that seems to position Anthony as QAnon-adjacent; he also appears to be a proponent of antisemitic conspiracies about 9/11.
As an unknown folk singer from West Virginia, Anthony — who’s purported to be a high-school drop-out living in a $750 camper, writing music while struggling with his mental health — had no real music industry experience. His manager runs the tiny West Virginia YouTube channel where his songs were first uploaded. In a YouTube video uploaded alongside the release of his songs, Anthony describes himself as a political centrist.
His songs, nonetheless, have been championed by many prominent conservatives, including several writers for Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire, and multiple established musical artists such as former Mumford and Sons member Winston Marshall. Despite myriad accusations that Anthony’s virality has been manufactured by music industry conservatives and right-wing extremists, it appears, per reporting by the New York Times, that Anthony’s song went viral organically — or at least, not because of paid industry manipulation. Instead, fans of the song utilized longstanding chart-gaming tactics codified by K-pop fans and other pop music stans, like buying the song and all of Anthony’s other offerings via iTunes in order to increase their Billboard ranks. The song was also streamed over 17 million times in its first week alone.
But the audiences for Anthony’s music and the average K-pop band share very little overlap. Instead, we seem to be witnessing a new arena for gamified conservative rancor.
Is this the future of country music? Not entirely.
It’s not that the country music industry itself is at fault for the virality of these three artists. While the industry continues to struggle with marginalizing and even erasing Black artists, it has diversified and made room for genre-stretching interpretations of what “country music” is, from Lil Nas X to Brandi Carlile and Sturgill Simpson — though not without controversy along the way. Even anodyne singers like Keith Urban have tentatively addressed issues like Me Too.
What’s more, it’s not as though the entire Hot 100 chart is just this now. There are still, thankfully, so-far-untainted country artists making the rounds. There’s Luke Combs’ popular cover of “Fast Car” alongside Chris Stapleton’s “White Horse” and several other artists whose music routinely enjoys crossover appeal.
But it’s also worth noting that further down the iTunes chart is an even more toxic musical group. Tom MacDonald and Adam Calhoun, who Rolling Stone previously called “troll rappers,” may not have the sound of country music, but they seem to have tapped the same well of reactionary extremist conservative ire; their songs, like “Your America” and “American Flag,” are rife with virulent racist, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, and particularly hateful anti-trans lyrics. Last week, while Anthony went viral, MacDonald and Calhoun floated higher and higher on the list before finally falling — but not completely off.
Their presence in the rankings is a pernicious indicator that more of this might be on the way. It’s also, perhaps, a clue that none of this is about country artists, authentic or not; that ultimately, none of it is about the music at all.