Photo: Spidey Smith
Meet Bailey Zimmerman, Country's Biggest New Star Who Still Can't Believe He's Famous
With his debut LP, 'Religiously. The Album,' Bailey Zimmerman aims to debunk the idea that he's just another overnight success: "I want to make people feel something."
On a sunny April afternoon, Bailey Zimmerman is eager to sit down and chat. The velvet couch and city view inside the office of Warner Music Nashville contrast his casual vibe — ripped skinny jeans, a backwards ballcap and a Justin Bieber tour shirt — but he doesn't seem fazed by the glitz. Instead, the 23-year-old singer kicks back and quips, "I don't even know what we're gonna talk about."
While his naivety was mostly charming, it was also pretty surprising. Not only was Zimmerman well aware that his debut album was coming out in a month, but he was also well aware that he had the No. 1 song on country radio — for three weeks running.
Zimmerman has become one of country's most successful new stars since he went viral on TikTok in 2021, scoring the biggest streaming country debut of all time and the most-streamed all-genre debut in 2022. And that three-week No. 1 — his gritty and gut-wrenching breakup tune "Rock and a Hard Place" — has since turned into six weeks, marking one of the biggest runs for a new act in Billboard's Country Airplay chart history.
Perhaps Zimmerman himself put it best in an Instagram post celebrating his first No. 1 hit: "The last two years of my life have been a movie." And he hasn't even released a full album yet.
With his debut LP, Religiously. The Album., Zimmerman hopes to prove that his remarkable No. 1 streak wasn't just a fluke. He co-wrote 11 of the 16 tracks, and even when he didn't write them, it's clear he has a vision for writing country music with meaning.
The first two singles from Religiously. The Album. ("Rock" and "Fall In Love") are prime examples of the raw emotion and arena-rock ambition Zimmerman has to offer. Sure, the LP features some typical country vignettes — taillights fading into the distance ("Fadeaway," "Other Side of Lettin' Go"), dead-end streets and dive bar drinks ("Found Your Love," "Get To Gettin' Gone") — but it's certainly not cliche.
Ultimately, Religiously. The Album. solidifies that Zimmerman's appeal doesn't come from infectious hooks and drinkin' songs — it's his relentless vulnerability and burning passion for love that's connecting. "I just want to make people feel something," he says.
Zimmerman never even expected to get out of his hometown of Louisville, Illinois — a blue-collar town of just over 1,000 people, nearly four hours south of Chicago — particularly after landing a coveted spot in the labor union working on a gas pipeline. "That was gonna be my whole life," he says.
He initially gained a loyal social following through his passion for lifting trucks — a hobby that inadvertently led him to singing. Listening to Black Stone Cherry's "Stay" while working on a truck, he decided to record himself singing.
"I listened back and I was like, 'That kind of sounds like the recording — I'm gonna put it on Snapchat and maybe see if some girls think I can sing,'" he recalls with a smile.
Though it didn't lead to any romantic connections, Zimmerman's video did spawn the most fateful relationship of them all: that with his go-to songwriting partner, Gavin Lucas. A budding songwriter at the time, Lucas showed Zimmerman the ropes before they wrote "Never Comin' Home," the song that changed everything.
The morning after posting the song to TikTok in January 2021, Zimmerman's following had doubled, and the video had already racked up nearly 2 million views. Within minutes of seeing the reaction, Zimmerman quit his union job.
Three years prior to "Never Comin' Home," Zimmerman had lost the girl of his dreams — yes, the one who inspired "Rock and a Hard Place," among many of the Religiously tracks — and until that point, "everything just felt like it was going downhill." Once he started writing music, Zimmerman started feeling like there was hope — and once he saw that it could resonate with others, he knew he'd found his path.
"I had been praying so much. Like, 'Give me something to work hard at, give me something to chase. Give me something to just grind my ass off every day for,'" he remembers. "When [that] happened, I was like, 'This is exactly what I've been praying for.'
"It's the craziest thing to be a part of something that just feels so natural," he continues. "I did not feel natural in my hometown. And now, I feel like I can just be me. And my music can also be that too."
"Crazy" is a word that comes up often in our conversation, as well as a short-and-sweet phrase that Zimmerman can't help saying almost daily: "Holy crap." His excitement and eagerness is tangible, accented by a genuine disbelief that this is all really happening. (Case in point: When he interviewed with Cody Alan for CMT's Hot 20 Countdown in December, his reaction mirrored what he said at the beginning of our chat: "This is gonna be on TV? Dude, what?")
When I ask about moments that have felt too surreal to be true, his name-drops are undeniably impressive: "The first time I met Morg," he says, referring to the current king of country, Morgan Wallen (his current tourmate, though, as of press time, the tour was postponed due to Wallen's vocal issues), and "I smoked a cigarette with Tommy Lee."
"You gotta be somebody doing somethin' pretty badass to talk like we did," Zimmerman says of Lee, whom he met when Motley Crüe played in Nashville last year. "That was a big 'keep working hard' moment."
Zimmerman recognizes that while the past two years have largely been "a lot of ups and ups and ups," there's also been lots of learning along the way. He knows that he's young and there's plenty of growth ahead, with or without a successful career. But for now, he's taking it all in.
"I try to take every moment of the day to appreciate what's around me — the team, the people, my fans," he says. "I try to make sure that's in the back of my head all the time: 'These people are the reason you're here. Be nice to everybody, and make sure you're a good person. And call your mom every day, dude.'"
Photo: (L-R) Mickey Bernal/Getty Images, Neil Lupin/Redferns, Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy, Scott Kowalchyk/CBS via Getty Images, Jason Kempin/Getty Images
2022 In Review: 6 Trends That Defined Country Music
From Dolly Parton to Zach Bryan, country music's veterans and new generation found room to grow within the genre in 2022.
Country music isn't always heralded as a haven for artists who fall outside the genre's accepted mainstream. But 2022 saw country music claim a bigger piece of the cultural pie than it has in recent years.
Artists are discovering new paths to success, driven by the meme-ification of culture and music and templated by stars like Walker Hayes, whose GRAMMY-nominated song "Fancy Like" broke through in mid-2021 thanks to TikTok and ended 2022 among the top five of Billboard's Hot Country Songs. Breakout stars Zach Bryan and Bailey Zimmerman also rode online acceptance to mainstream success — the former built a career on his YouTube buzz, while the latter turned his TikTok virality into Platinum sales.
The genre expanded in other non-traditional ways in 2022 as well. In particular, indie-rock and LGBTQIA+ artists are no longer hovering in the periphery, but making real impacts on country music listenership, thanks to worthy efforts by Waxahatchee and Adeem the Artist, among others.
As country music continues to expand its horizons into 2023, here are six trends that defined country music in 2022.
New Artists Dominated
If the emergence of new talent is a barometer of a genre's health, country music has nothing to worry about. Not since 2015 has a country artist landed on Billboard's top five Best New Artists, when Sam Hunt broke through big. But this year, country music landed two of the five spots on the year-end chart, thanks to newcomers Zach Bryan and Bailey Zimmerman.
Bryan emerged with an audacious statement, claiming country's biggest first-week sales with his major-label debut, the triple-album American Heartbreak. The album landed at No. 5 on the Billboard Top 200 and topped country streaming tallies on both Spotify and Apple Music.
Like Bryan, who first found success when his music went viral on social media, Bailey Zimmerman parlayed his online following into an impressive run with Platinum singles "Fall in Love" and "Rock and a Hard Place." Both are off of his first EP on Warner Music Nashville, Leave the Light On, which became the most-streamed all-genre debut of the year and the biggest streaming country debut of all time.
Lainey Wilson also had a banner year, proving that her No. 1 hit on country radio with "Things A Man Oughta Know" in 2021 was no fluke. In between winning new artist honors from both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association this year, she landed her second No. 1 on country radio with the Cole Swindell collab "Never Say Never" in April. Most recently, Wilson became the latest country star to appear on the hit Paramount TV drama "Yellowstone"; she debuted on season five as the character Abby, performing her original songs "Smell Like Smoke" and "Watermelon Moonshine," and has become a recurring character.
After Jelly Roll made waves with his 2021 single "Dead Man Walking" and the 2022 Brantley Gilbert collaboration "Son of the Dirty South," the Nashville country rapper solidified himself as a newcomer to watch with "Son of a Sinner." The slow-burning single scored Jelly Roll his first top 10 hit on Billboard's Hot Country Songs and Country Airplay charts, and it broke the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100. He also proved his hometown pride is strong: On. Dec 9, he headlined a sold-out show at Nashville's 20,000-cap Bridgestone Arena.
Bluegrass Saw A Resurgence
You'd be hard-pressed to find another artist who has broadened the bluegrass horizon in recent years more than Billy Strings; his progressive approach to the foundational country genre pulls in elements of rock and psychedelia. While he titled his 2019 Grammy-winning album Home, on his 2022 set Me/And/Dad, Strings came full-circle to play traditional bluegrass standards with his father, Terry, like they did when he was a kid. Strings (whose birth name is William Lee Apostol) even located the Martin acoustic guitar Terry played in those early days but pawned to support the family, fulfilling Billy's bucket-list bluegrass album in more ways than one.
Representing the more traditional approach to the genre, bluegrass icon Del McCoury issued his 17th album, Almost Proud, in February. A peer and collaborator of the genre's Mt. Rushmore (Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs), McCoury is keeping the flame lit in his ninth decade — and he hasn't lost a lick of his abilities. McCoury and his sons Ronnie and Robbie pick, roll and harmonize like it's a Saturday night at the Grand Ole Opry.
Up in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, the Po' Ramblin' Boys have tapped into a similar authenticity by playing bluegrass standards like their forebears. Although they formed around a regular gig at a moonshine distillery, their 2022 album God's Love Is So Divine walks the straight and narrow on 13 gospel bluegrass tunes.
Old Crow Medicine Show have come a long way since O.G. bluegrass musician Doc Watson discovered them busking on the streets of Boone, North Carolina in 2000. While that growth is evident throughout 2022's Paint This Town, they incorporate bluegrass on tracks like "Painkiller," "DeFord Rides Again" and "Hillbilly Boy." The group also invited Americana mainstay Jim Lauderdale to co-write a couple of tunes, and Mississippi fife master Sharde Thomas to guest on "New Mississippi Flag."
Punk Went Country (And Country Went Punk)
Genre-bending is nothing new in Nashville, and even punk rockers have been acknowledging the raw power of country music since the early '80s — when bands like X, Social Distortion and The Gun Club began incorporating elements into their music, and even covering classics like Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire." Fast forward to 2022, and the trend has kicked into high gear.
Woody Guthrie, the iconic folk hero of dust-bowl-era America, left behind a large body of unrecorded songs — evidenced by the three volumes of lyrics that have been set to music and recorded as Mermaid Avenue by Billy Bragg and Wilco. Boston pub punks Dropkick Murphys plucked 10 more uncut Guthrie gems for their 2022 set This Machine Still Kills Fascists, a play on the line Guthrie famously scrawled onto the body of his guitar. For their first country album, Dropkick Murphys recruited two of the genre's brightest lights: Nikki Lane, who guests on "Never Git Drunk No More," and Evan Felker of Turnpike Troubadours, who shares the mic on "The Last One."
Foo Fighter Chris Shiflett — who previously played with speedy punks No Use For A Name — got into the act, too. When he isn't cranking guitars alongside Dave Grohl and Pat Smear, he plays his own Bakersfield-inspired country rock, as heard on 2017's West Coast Town and 2019's Hard Lessons. This year, he issued the singles "Born & Raised" and "Long, Long Year," a pair of breezy, pedal steel-assisted cuts that find him leaning more than ever into his sunny SoCal disposition.
Shiflett previously shredded the guitar solo on "Goin' Nowhere," a collaboration with country hitmaker HARDY on his Hixtape Vol. 2, released in the last weeks of 2021. Now, HARDY's back and flipping the script with his own rock record, the mockingbird & THE CROW, set for release in January. Early singles "JACK," "TRUCK BED" and the title track, all released in 2022, show the influence of Nirvana and post-grunge songcraft alongside his distinctive, rhythmic lyrical delivery.
Legends Got Their Due
In 2022, country music proved that age is irrelevant when the music is this good. Newcomers Chapel Hart captured the national spotlight — and a rare Golden Buzzer — on "America's Got Talent" in July with a nod to icon Dolly Parton. The trio's electrifying performance of their original song "You Can Have Him Jolene," an answer to Parton's 1974 smash "Jolene," elevated them to star status, and they spent the latter half of 2022 playing to sold-out audiences across America. Darius Rucker even recruited them to back him on his song "Ol' Church Hymn."
Parton had her own high point this year, earning her first No. 1 on Billboard's Bluegrass Albums chart with her 48th studio album, Run, Rose, Run. She also released a new compilation album, Diamonds & Rhinestones: The Greatest Hits Collection, in November.
After Shania Twain spent the last couple of years featuring on other artist's songs, the best-selling female country artist of all time returned to her throne in 2022. She announced her sixth studio album, Queen of Me (due Feb. 3, 2023), helmed by the dance-floor bop "Waking Up Dreaming." The announcement followed the Netflix documentary Not Just A Girl (and the companion album that featured more than a dozen unreleased songs) and preceded another huge announcement: a 76-date U.S. tour for 2023.
Twain's fellow genre-bending '90s icon, Sheryl Crow, also issued a documentary in 2022. The Showtime special, "Sheryl," was accompanied by a double-album compilation of the same name, which featured two discs of hits plus collaborations with Chris Stapleton, Stevie Nicks, Jason Isbell and more. Crow also featured on 2022 releases from TobyMac and Lucius. The latter track also featured Brandi Carlile, who has played a big role in Tanya Tucker's recent comeback story — as shown in yet another 2022 doc, "The Return of Tanya Tucker," which featured their song "Ready As I'll Never Be."
The CMA Awards paid tribute to icons Jerry Lee Lewis, who passed away in October, and Alan Jackson, who is in the midst of a farewell tour dubbed Last Call: One More For the Road. Firebrand singer Elle King channeled The Killer's wild moves as she performed his signature hit, "Great Balls of Fire," backed by The Black Keys. Meanwhile, Carrie Underwood led a star-studded Jackson tribute featuring Dierks Bentley, Jon Pardi and Lainey Wilson, who performed a melody of his hits including "Chattahoochee" and "Don't Rock the Jukebox."
The legacies continued both on stage and in studio. Brooks & Dunn's Ronnie Dunn, Reba McEntire and Bonnie Raitt all returned with new albums in 2022; meanwhile, Shenandoah, Billy Dean and Wade Hayes appeared on the Country Comeback Tour, and Wynonna led The Judds: The Final Tour in tribute to her mother, Naomi Judd, who passed away in April.
Indie Rockers Infiltrated Country Music
As '90s-style indie rock has a moment thanks to artists like Big Thief, Momma and Alvvays, Katie Crutchfield is leaning deeper into laid-back country vibes. The leader of Waxahatchee, whose blissful 2020 set Saint Cloud landed her on scores of year-end lists, doubled down in 2022.
Waxahatchee collaborated with Wynonna on the single "Other Side," recorded on the Judds singer's farm in Tennessee — an experience both artists ranked among their favorite recording sessions. Crutchfield also collaborated with Jess Williamson on a new project dubbed Plains, releasing the album I Walked With You A Ways in 2022 to critical acclaim. The 10 songs on Plains' debut rival the artists' soothing solo work and combine their strengths with Fleetwood Mac harmonies.
Madison Cunningham, who is best known for weaving mind-bending melodies and harmonies between her voice and guitar, guested on the second edition of Watkins Family Hour — which pairs siblings Sara and Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek with a series of notable collaborators like Fiona Apple and Jackson Browne — contributing her signature spidery guitar playing to "Pitseleh."
Other notables on the indie side of country include Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit, who returned with Palomino, a strummy set of acoustic guitar-driven country pop and their first album in four years. Michaela Anne's gentle LP Oh To Be That Free chronicled a period of personal troubles with compassion, while Sierra Ferrell released the sparse, playful single "Hey Me, Hey Mama" and collaborated with Shakey Graves on "Ready Or Not."
LGBTQIA+ Country Artists Were Celebrated
Acceptance for LGBTQIA+ artists in country music has grown steadily in recent years, thanks to efforts by allies like Kacey Musgraves and Dolly Parton, as well as artists who have publicly discussed their sexuality, including T.J. Osborne, Lil Nas X, Chely Wright, Amythyst Kiah and Shane McAnally. With such star power in their corner, gay and non-binary country artists are now getting a fairer shake.
Non-binary singer-songwriter Adeem the Artist released the acclaimed album White Trash Revelry. Over 11 songs, Adeem chronicles their experiences growing up different in small towns surrounded by smaller minds — from the stomp-along "Going to Hell" to the Heartland rocker "Heritage of Arrogance" and fingerpicked album closer "My America."
Elsewhere, Orville Peck, the masked singer who performs a fever dream of '70s-inspired country music with a deep-throated croon, returned with his second album, Bronco. Peck traded the spare songscapes of his 2019 debut, Pony, for Bronco's more fully realized, cinematic arrangements, broadening his sound and the scope of his persona.
Brandi Carlile, whose pro-LGBTQIA+ activism is tied directly to her music — she founded the Looking Out Foundation early in her music career, and donates a portion of touring proceeds to groups like The Trevor Project — has seen her reputation grow steadily over nearly two decades of releasing music to ever-growing audiences. In 2022, she added to an already storied career by performing with her personal hero, Joni Mitchell, at Newport Folk Festival. Carlile also headlined Tennessee's Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival, marking the first time a woman has headlined the fest.
However country music continues to expand and impact culture as a result, 2022's trends certainly set up a promising future for the genre.
Photo: John Shearer/MTV VMAs 2021/Getty Images for MTV/ViacomCBS
2021 In Review: 8 Trends That Defined Country Music
Powerful narratives fueled country music in 2021, between vulnerable heartbreak-driven albums, Nashville veterans getting their spotlight, and Black voices finally being heard
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 returned to the road and their careers with rejuvenated passion, releasing some of their most ambitious projects to date.
Grassroots ways of finding success emerged, with several artists — both established and up-and-coming — unlocking whole new fan bases thanks to social media. The result? Some unlikely hits made it up to the very top of the country radio charts, artists were able to release more music than ever before, and unprecedented cross-genre collaborations came out of quarantine connections.
Read on to learn more about some of the trends, both musical and cultural, that dominated country music in 2021.
Double and Triple Albums
During their pandemic-induced time off the road, many artists found that the one thing they could still do was write songs. By 2021, the plethora of music created in those sessions was recorded and ready for release, resulting in longer track lists and beefier projects.
One such trendsetter was Eric Church, who released a massive, 24-track Heart & Soul album spread out over three discs. Morgan Wallen dropped his 30-track — or 33-track, if you're counting the Target-exclusive and bonus editions — Dangerous: The Double Album in January. The latter made history, becoming the first country album to spend its first 10 weeks at No. 1 on the all-genre Billboard 200; it also spent 43 weeks in the chart's top 10, more than any other album in 2021. (Amid the album’s success, Wallen sparked major controversy when a video surfaced of the singer using a racial slur. He issued an apology and claimed to make donations to Black-led groups, but was promptly shut out from country radio and streaming services, as well as several events and awards shows.)
Thomas Rhett and Jason Aldean also created multiple albums worth of music in 2021. Rhett released Country Again: Side A in April, announcing in November that Side B will arrive in fall 2022 following another album, titled Where We Started, which the star revealed will be out in "early 2022." Aldean had a similar release strategy, dropping Macon, the first half of his double album Macon, Georgia, in November and setting Georgia for April 22, 2022.
Success Stories Years in the Making
Longtime B-Listers finally got their country radio propers in 2021, due to ever-increasing opportunities for artists to create grassroots hits on social media. Walker Hayes' ubiquitous "Fancy Like" went viral on TikTok (particularly thanks to a family-friendly dance craze) and became a No. 1 hit on both Billboard's Country Airplay and Hot Country Songs charts. The song gave the singer — who moved to Nashville in 2005 — his first crossover hit, getting airplay on pop radio and climbing all the way to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Parmalee also took country radio by surprise this year. The band hadn't had a No. 1 since 2013, and their two most recent singles fizzled without ever cracking the charts. But "Just the Way," an unlikely team-up with "The Git Up" star Blanco Brown, saw them cruising back into the top spot.
One more success story came from Lainey Wilson, another Nashville veteran who got her big break with the insightful hit "Things a Man Oughta Know." The song became her first No. 1 on country radio after nearly 10 years of releasing music. Her latest single, a collaboration with resident chart-topper Cole Swindell titled "Never Say Never," is currently climbing the charts.
Classic Hits Found New Life on TikTok
While TikTok was instrumental in creating new hits such as "Fancy Like" in 2021, it was also responsible for revitalizing a few old ones. Reba McEntire's 2001 hit, "I'm a Survivor" went viral thanks to a TikTok spoof trend, with users setting the song to video footage of themselves melodramatically doing everyday chores. McEntire herself got in on the fun, posting a clip of her attempt to feed a pair of ungrateful donkeys.
Shania Twain also reached brand-new audiences with her TikTok presence. She posts snippets of iconic selections from her discography, as well as her hilarious commentary on French fries, sneak peeks at her Las Vegas residency, and the occasional trend trade-off with Taylor Swift.
Career-Defining Divorce Albums
Breakups aren't exactly a new topic for country, but some country artists have gone through very public heartbreaks over the past couple of years. Carly Pearce split from fellow artist Michael Ray after just eight months of marriage, and Kacey Musgraves called it quits with her husband of two years, singer/songwriter Ruston Kelly.
But rather than go through these difficult times privately, both Pearce and Musgraves spun their heartache into gold, with each singer putting out her most revealing, personal and intricately-crafted record to date. Pearce leaned heavily into her country roots to make 29: Written in Stone, while Musgraves expertly defied genre boundaries to release star-crossed, a project so vulnerable that she performed one of its songs on Saturday Night Live wearing 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 trailblazing legacy lived on in 2021. Black country stars made waves in several 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 of whom is the only country artist up for Best New Artist at the 2022 GRAMMYS — made history with their wins at the ACM Awards (Brown was the first Black artist to win Video of the Year; Allen was the first Black solo artist to win the New Male Artist of the Year). Both of them started their own businesses in 2021 as well: Brown started his own label, 1021 Entertainment (in partnership with his home 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 Guyton, who first caught attention outside of the genre for her GRAMMY-nominated single "Black Like Me" last year, continued making an impact with her powerful album, Remember Her 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 the latter track at the 2021 CMA Awards alongside rising stars Brittney Spencer and Madeline Edwards, two of the many promising Black voices in the genre, which also includes Yola, Breland, Willie Jones, and Shy Carter, among others.
Artists Lived Their Truth
Amid the challenges country music faced this year, there were also moments of personal authenticity and joy. Brothers Osborne's TJ Osborne came out as gay in a Time feature, and the sibling duo subsequently released "Younger Me," a compassionate, timely ode to the obstacles they overcame to become who they are today.
Osborne was one of two country acts signed to a major label to come out as gay: The other was Brooke Eden, who came out in January, and later in the year got engaged to her partner Hilary Hoover. She put out the first new songs she’d released in years, and in a Grand Ole Opry performance, she and Trisha Yearwood duetted on Yearwood's classic "She's in Love With the Boy," changing the lyrics to "She’s in love with the girl."
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 spirits by releasing her third Christmas album, A Holly Dolly Christmas, but she also made a $1 million donation to fund the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.
It’s hard to top that, but this year, Parton continued to trend for her uplifting acts of kindness and legendary musical feats. 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 shoot back in 1978. She also duetted with Reba McEntire for the first time, landed on the list of Forbes' richest self-made women, and capped off 2021 by setting two brand-new Guinness World Records (and breaking a third record that she already held) for her long-standing chart accomplishments.
Full-Length Collaborations Albums
What’s better than one duet? An album full of them, apparently. Collaborations were hot in country music in 2021, but lots of artists took that one step further, putting out full-length projects featuring a cast of duet partners.
The Hardy-curated Hixtape Vol. 2 dug deep into country lifestyle and party songs, courtesy of some of the biggest names from every corner of the genre. Brantley Gilbert, Brothers Osborne, Jon Pardi, Dierks Bentley and Jake Owen are just a few of the acts who lent their voices to the track list, which features a total of 33 guest artists across 14 songs.
While the Hixtape went ultra-country, other duets albums were genre-spanning. Rapper Nelly put out his Heartland project, featuring Darius Rucker, Breland and Florida Georgia Line. Jimmie Allen went even broader for his Bettie James Gold Edition, which featured everyone from rapper Pitbull to R&B/soul singer Monica and pop star Noah Cyrus.
Photo: John Shearer
Morgan Wallen On Crafting His Chart-Topping, 30-Song Project ‘Dangerous: The Double Album’
Fast-rising country star Morgan Wallen spoke with GRAMMY.com about his record-breaking 'Dangerous: The Double Album' and the challenges of a nearly gig-free year
A single party almost cost Morgan Wallen the gig of a lifetime. Last October, the fast-rising country star, known for his '90s-era mullet, sleeveless plaid shirts and down-home vernacular, was disinvited from his "Saturday Night Live" debut after he attended a maskless party during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Wallen released an apology video and made his "SNL" debut in December.)
Wallen has four consecutive No. 1 hits on country radio under his belt: “Up Down" feat. Florida Georgia Line, “Whiskey Glasses,” “Chasin’ You” and “More Than My Hometown.” With such a controversy in the rearview, some artists might play it safe with their second album, fearing the dreaded “sophomore slump.” However, on Jan. 8, Wallen released his newest project, the 30-song Dangerous: The Double Album, on which he proved he has no problem being a rebel—personally and professionally. And it’s paying off, big time.
Last week (Jan. 17), Dangerous debuted atop the Billboard 200 albums chart. The project earned the largest streaming week ever for a country album, according to Billboard, besting Luke Combs’ record set by the expanded version of What You See Is What You Get, in October 2020. Dangerous remains at No. 1 this week, the "first country album to spend two weeks in a row at No. 1 since Chris Stapleton’s Traveller in 2015," Billboard reports.
In November, Wallen capped off 2020 by accepting the Country Music Association’s New Artist Of The Year award, which followed last summer’s soft-rock-tinged hit, “7 Summers.” The track debuted atop Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart and shattered streaming records on Apple Music and Spotify.
Dangerous: The Double Album balances Wallen’s rowdy ways with more heartfelt, romantic material. Through countless odes to partying and endless rounds of liquid courage, he chronicles a journey of seeking love, losing love and growing up in the piercing heat of a global spotlight. Wallen steeped the album in an amalgam of country and swaggering arena rock, accented by banjos, mandolins, steel guitar and programmed beats.
The morning after debuting songs from Dangerous during his socially distanced debut headlining show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, Wallen spoke with GRAMMY.com about the challenges of a nearly gig-free year, the reason why he made a double album and the Jason Isbell song that most resonates with him.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Ryman Auditorium concert marked your debut headlining performance at country music’s Mother Church, but also your first full concert in about ten months.
I was honestly nervous because we hadn’t played in so long, and with all new songs and everything. But it felt even better than I expected. I had intentions to talk more during the show, but the first time I started talking, I almost started bawling my eyes out, so I decided not to talk much after that. I miss [playing shows] so bad, so it was emotional for me to be up there. Seeing those people and the energy they gave out is something I have missed tremendously.
When did you first visit the Ryman Auditorium?
My first time was playing a show with Craig Wiseman to support Second Harvest Food Bank. So the first time I ever went through the doors, I got to sing a song, which is pretty cool.
If I Know Me, your debut album, is certified platinum and reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart. Still, putting out a 30-song album for your second major label project is a bold move.
With the time we are in, I was given a lot more time to work on it because I wasn’t on the road. The idea of making a double album started as a joke between my manager [Big Loud CEO Seth England] and me. We already had about 20 songs done at the beginning of 2020, but then everything happened the way it did, and I had time to add more. Some of those turned out to be my favorites on the album. We thought, “Why not?”
People need entertainment to get their minds off of what is going on, and it’s a hard time for everyone. Music is one of the only ways to get my mind off of it, so I figured most people felt the same way. We pretty much emptied the tank on this one and decided to go all-out on it.
Morgan Wallen performs at the Ryman Auditorium | Photo: John Shearer/Getty Images for Ryman Auditorium
Why “Dangerous” as the title track?
Ernest [Keith Smith] and I wrote that after I got into a little trouble, but we put a love story in it to make it more relatable. Honestly, it’s more of a letter to myself than it is a love story. I felt like it was a lesson I learned, and the overall premise of the message resonated with me, so I felt we should go with it as a title.
How have you handled writing songs via Zoom during the pandemic?
I did a couple of Zoom writes, then we figured out we could get mobile testing done, so we all made sure we were good before we would write in the same room. I wrote with the same group of guys a lot, so we had a pretty good trust with each other. Zoom writing is not something I enjoy doing at all. It’s hard for me to feel the same energy or vibe. I think I wrote two songs on Zoom. One was a failure, and we didn’t finish it. The other song I wrote with Thomas Rhett and was not a failure [laughs]. There are certain things you can’t replace and for me, writing in person is one of them.
You have performed Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up” live, and you included a version of it for this project. What is it about that song that speaks to you?
That was the first Jason Isbell song I heard. I think that’s a pretty solid introduction to anyone, and then I discovered the rest of his catalog. The song’s arrangement is beautiful. It reminded me of my mom and dad. My dad used to be pretty wild and a little bit reckless, kind of not caring about anything. But he loved my mom, and he chose her over all that, so it reminded me of their story.
My guitar player and I would warm up by playing [“Cover Me Up”], and people would stop by and say, “Dang, what is that?” I was kind of disappointed that people in my lane, my part of life, didn’t know that song, and I thought they should. I figured the best way for me to spread that song was to do my own version.
Doing a cover like that is risky. You run the risk of the original artist not appreciating it. It took me a while to decide to do it, but my team and everyone made me feel comfortable. I appreciate Jason giving me the support he has on it.
You’ve had some ups and downs over the past year. Did your dad have any encouragement or advice for you during that time?
He felt for me because he had been in kind of a similar situation, without having to learn it in the spotlight. He just let me know he was there for me and that I would get through it. Just a lot of encouragement for me during that time, which meant more to me than anything he could have done.
Before the pandemic and this new album’s success, your star was already skyrocketing. You were set to open shows for Luke Bryan in 2020. But as you hopefully return to touring in 2021, how will that look for you?
I will still go out and open for my buddy Luke. We are honoring those dates, and we have plans to start doing our own arena shows as soon as we can get back to touring.
“Livin’ The Dream” starts with the gut-punch line, “Mama don't pray for my success anymore/But mama still prays for me.” The song addresses the stressors that often come with fame—the loneliness, the alcohol, the grueling schedules. Did you have any second thoughts about including it on the album?
I definitely had some second thoughts about it. I didn’t want people to worry about me. I didn’t want people to think it was a cry for help. We wrote that song a good while ago before I even knew the real meaning behind it. It was almost a prophetic song, in a way. You don’t always wake up pumped to be in the spotlight, but you always have to be “on.” That part can get a little tiring.
I don’t feel that way most of the time. Most of the time, I feel blessed to do something I love, but it’s not all fun and games. We wanted to write it from an honest perspective, and that’s one of the most real lyrics I’ve been part of creating.
There are several references to hometowns and small towns throughout Dangerous. You went to Gibbs High School, where Kenny Chesney attended. Did knowing that one of country music’s most significant artists came from your area give you confidence that you could try to pursue music, too?
I was so caught up in baseball in high school. I still sang and stuff, but I was supposed to play in college. Once baseball got taken away [due to an injury], I started writing my own songs. Between my family’s encouragement and knowing that someone from a little high school like I’m from could do it, that played a part in my lack of doubt.
I’ve never really let negative thoughts get in the way. I never let the idea of failure enter my mind, and I still don’t. I think that’s important for anything you want to achieve.
Photo by Stephen Lashbrook
Living Legends: Stephen Marley On 'Old Soul,' Being A Role Model & The Bob Marley Biopic
On his new album of covers and originals, Stephen Marley recruited Bob Weir, Jack Johnson, Eric Clapton, and his own siblings. Marley spoke with GRAMMY.com about his multifaceted career, including supervising music for 'Bob Marley: One Love.'
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music who are still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with eight-time GRAMMY winner Stephen Marley. The reggae multi-hyphenate is the youngest son of Bob and Rita Marley.
Stephen Marley is a reggae Renaissance man. An eight-time GRAMMY winning singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer, Stephen's nuanced releases retain an authentic Jamaican identity while organically incorporating a broad range of influences. His latest album, Old Soul, continues this boundary-blurring trajectory.
Primarily recorded during the pandemic inside a garage on a family farm in Florida, Old Soul brings renewed luster to reggae classics and standards by the Beatles, Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra alongside stunning originals, each delivered with Stephen's warm rasp. It's an endearing and eclectic acoustic set, awash in filigreed guitar strums, tinkling piano keys, swirling flutes, and mesmerizing percussion patterns.
Old Soul’s reflective title track honors Stephen's musical inspirations — especially his father: "Fast forward to 1981, my dad moved on and so did I, inside I kept his songs alive, so they say I’m an old soul, tribute to the ones who made it all possible/inside me your legacy lives on." "Cool As The Breeze" is a heartrending tribute to Stephen’s son, reggae artist Jo Mersa Marley, who died of acute asthma exacerbation in December 2022 at just 31 years old.
Stephen continues to build upon his own esteemed legacy. The youngest son of Bob and Rita Marley, the 51-year-old's musical journey commenced at age 6 when he formed the Melody Makers with his older siblings, sisters Cedella and Sharon and brother Ziggy, the group’s leader. Rita managed the Melody Makers and Bob wrote their first single, 1979's "Children Playing in the Streets." In 1981 the spotlight shone on Stephen's precocious talents when he took the lead on "Sugar Pie."
A guitarist, percussionist, vocalist and songwriter with the Melody Makers, Stephen also assisted in the production of each of their albums including the GRAMMY winning Conscious Party (1989), One Bright Day (1990) and Fallen Is Babylon (1997). He went on to helm the production on projects by several Marley family members including youngest brother Damian’s GRAMMY winning albums Halfway Tree and the influential blockbuster Welcome To Jamrock.
Stephen’s long-awaited, self-produced debut solo album, the multi-genre spanning Mind Control arrived in early 2007 followed in late 2008 by the stripped-down Mind Control Acoustic — both GRAMMY recipients. Stephen dropped another GRAMMY winner, Revelation Part I The Root of Life as a celebration of roots rock reggae, in 2011. Revelation Part II: The Fruit of Life, released five years later, incorporates various styles that have emanated from reggae's core.
Old Soul is Stephen’s first full-length project since 2016 and he’s recruited an outstanding cast of collaborators including Grateful Dead founding member Bob Weir, singer/songwriter Jack Johnson, rock-reggae outfit Slightly Stoopid, his brothers Ziggy and Damian and Eric Clapton, whose bold, bluesy guitar riffs color Bob’s "I Shot the Sheriff," became a No. 1 hit for Clapton in 1974.
GRAMMY.com recently spoke to Stephen Marley about his illustrious, multi-faceted career including his most recent role as music supervisor for the upcoming Marley biopic, Bob Marley: One Love, due in theaters on Feb. 14.
Please tell me about the process of recording the Old Soul album.
It was during the thick of COVID-19; the walls were closing in so to speak. My uncle said "we need a farm" because we didn’t know what the next day would bring in terms of the control the government had. So, we looked and found a little farm.
During that time, I was very much distracted [with regards to making music], but when we came down to the farm, it was nature, escape and I caught back a groove. Old Soul wasn’t what we set out to do, but because of the circumstances, we started jamming in the garage and, well, it felt good, so we said, let’s give the people something to soothe them.
The choices of cover versions on Old Soul are fascinating. How did you decide which songs you would cover?
"Don’t Let Me Down" was suggested by [producer] Salaam Remi, he thought that song would fit in the acoustic style. I know that song from sister Marcia [Griffiths], she did an old version of it; I didn’t really know it was a Beatles tune. [Laughs.]
Most of the others are songs that I play in solitude or just go to songs like "Georgia On My Mind" or "These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)." It was just part of getting back in the groove, with songs I would sing anyway. I love those songs; it doesn’t matter where they come from.
You also cover reggae classics. "Thanks We Get (Do Fi Dem)" featuring Buju Banton, is a Lee "Scratch" Perry composition initially recorded with his band the Upsetters in 1970. When was the first time you heard that song?
I first heard that song from Reggie [Upsetters’ guitarist Alva "Reggie" Lewis] singing it to me; I had never heard the record.
Reggie is one of the persons credited with teaching my father how to play guitar. This man lived among us, he was always at the [Bob Marley] museum, at [the Marley family-owned] Tuff Gong [studios] and at one point, he stayed at my house, too. He was always singing, "look what we do fi dem, this is the thanks we get, what an ungrateful set," that’s how I knew it; I never listened to the record until I was going to record it; that’s when I discovered that Scratch wrote it.
"There’s A Reward" is a poignant, motivational song, written by Wailers mentor Joe Higgs, who taught Bob, Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh how to harmonize. Can you share some of your memories of interacting with Joe Higgs over the years?
From child to young adult until him move on [Higgs passed away in 1999], he was always encouraging. I vividly remember those days when he would come and see my dad. He was like an uncle, he always showed love and encouragement.
Doing that song was definitely one of the highlights of the album for me and Ziggy as well but I really didn’t know the song before recording the album. It really moved me, and I heard the similarities between him and Bob, so I said, yeah, I have to record that one.
Old Soul’s title track was originally written by Jamaican singer/songwriter OMI. What changes did you make to the song’s lyrics?
The song, as he wrote it, was pretty similar to what’s on the album, but it never had my birth year in it, when I graduated, all of those facts. In that sense, I put my life into it, but it already had Bob and Peter in the lyrics ("I knew every Nesta Marley line/You knew that Peter Tosh was fly, in diamond socks and corduroy").
OMI is a great songwriter, and the song was about people who influenced him, "tribute to the ones who made it possible," so he was already paying homage.
Your song "Let The Children Play" on Old Soul references the Melody Makers’ first single "Children Playing In The Streets." What are some of your fondest memories of your years with the Melody Makers?
It is such a significant part of our lives, so any memory puts a smile on our faces. One of my fondest memories is, there’s a place in Half Way Tree in Kingston called Skateland and every Saturday we would perform there. One Saturday, our dad came and watched us, and we didn’t know he was there until after. He wrote our first song, he was pretty into us. He wasn’t a man that would tell you too much, but he would tell his friends, "Yeah, them youth go on good," he was very proud of us.
The integrity that goes into our music has never changed. From the time we were kids singing "Children Playing in the Streets," we were always singing social songs, meaningful music. I am 51 now, so do the math.
As the music supervisor of the upcoming Bob Marley: One Love biopic, do you choose which songs are used or how they are used in the film?
I don’t choose alone in that sense. The movie is set in a time period, it’s not Bob’s whole life. There are scenes where he is remembering, and you see him when he is young, but the movie focuses on the Smile Jamaica concert (Dec. 5, 1976), the One Love Peace Concert (April 22, 1978) and the songs he was working on in those times. Anything to do with the music in the film runs through me.
I just came back from California to finish up some of the music. We did the music before the actual filming. What you will be hearing has to coincide with what you are seeing; like the live concerts, if the drummer hits the drum, you have to hear the beat at the same time. Some of the music was re-recorded for the film. Like "Smile Jamaica" is a live recording so we had to do some live overdubbing for the quality and the experience in the theater. It has been a great learning experience for me as well.
You produced the Celebrating Nina: A Reggae Tribute To Nina Simone EP featuring exclusively female artists, released in 2022; Nina Simone is an artist that you enjoy listening to. Who are some of the other artists you listen to when you have time to relax?
I listen to Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown. When I was 17, 18, those were the songs that played in my car. As far as our music, people like Toots, Burning Spear, Culture, Steel Pulse — all of those elders were great, and are still great musicians.
Your 1999 production Chant Down Babylon paired rappers with your father’s vocals on hip-hop renditions of his classic songs, such as the Roots on "Burnin’ and Lootin,’" Chuck D on "Survival a.k.a. Black Survivors." Was the album successful in terms of better acquainting the hip-hop community with your dad’s music?
It very much accomplished what I set out to do, especially with the young artists at that time. Lauryn Hill was a staple. I have a lot of testimonies from people about that. People discovered Bob’s "Turn Your Lights Down Low" because Lauryn was on the track.
Have you considered doing an updated version of Chant Down Babylon?
It’s funny you bring this up because Cedella [Cedella Marley, CEO, Bob Marley Group of Companies] just asked me if I can bring it together for Bob’s 80th birthday. It’s too early for details but definitely Chant Down Babylon 2 is on the table.
Damian’s 2004 single "Welcome to Jamrock" won a GRAMMY for Best Alternative Hip-Hop Performance, to date, he’s the only Jamaican artist to be so honored. The single was praised for its gritty lyrics depicting the politically divisive violence in Kingston’s poorest communities, while your production merged hip-hop percussion with swaggering reggae and influenced Jamaican artists including Chronixx, Protoje, and Koffee. How does it feel to have had such a profound impact on a younger generation of artists?
It is a great feeling to have your music recognized. I had the privilege of being around great musicians and engineers, the best of the best, so it is really passing down those lessons, showing what I’ve learned. To influence the youths coming up is a really great feeling but at the same time, I take it as a "we" thing, more than "I" did this.
Did you delay the release of your debut album Mind Control until 2007 because of the success of Welcome to Jamrock?
Yes. At the time, I was kind of conflicted: Did I want to stick to producing or become a solo artist, so to speak? Being in the Melody Makers from age 7 to then having kids and still being in the Melody Makers, I had to get used to it being about Steve.
So, I decided to put time aside and focus on my record, but it was very important to me to first make sure Damian, my youngest brother, was good. We are very close and if him was alright, then I can focus on myself. Before Mind Control, I put out a teaser, Got Music? "Winding Roads" was on that, but it didn’t make the album.
"Winding Roads" fits in beautifully on Old Soul.
Yes, that’s why I always tell my children that music is a timeless thing so don’t give up on any inspiration or creation.
How did Jack Johnson and Bob Weir come to be featured on "Winding Roads"?
My manager always liked the song, and he has a relationship with them. Bob Weir and Jack heard the song and were willing to be a part of it. I went to Bob’s studio, he is a great man, and a true musician. We did a few jams, but "Winding Roads" was the one he gravitated towards.
You released Revelation Part I: The Root of Life in 2011 — which included the anthem "Jah Army" — as a showcase of the revolutionary sentiments and musical excellence intrinsic to reggae. At that time, those standards were overshadowed by the widespread criticism of X-rated lyrics in some dancehall hits. In the 12 years since, have you seen any significant progress in quality Jamaican reggae receiving the recognition it deserves?
I do see a difference. As you mentioned, the youths them that rise up — Chronixx, Protoje, etc. — The Root of Life was a calling for that generation. Over the past 12 years, technology has progressed, social media, how people put products out there now is really different….The quality music is there but you really have to search for it because there are so many distractions.
That was one of the reasons for making the Old Soul record; it wasn’t a reggae album so to speak, but our Jamaican spirit is in the music. When people hear it, it shifts their meditation, appealing to a part of them that is kind of suppressed because of all of the distractions that are going on.