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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.
Whitney Houston, 29th GRAMMY Awards
Apple Music Exclusive: Watch Classic GRAMMY Performances
The Recording Academy teams with Apple Music to offer historical GRAMMY performances by Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye, Whitney Houston, Shania Twain, Kendrick Lamar, and more
To celebrate the GRAMMY Awards' 60th anniversary and the show's return to New York for the first time in 15 years, the Recording Academy and Apple Music are bringing fans a special video collection of exclusive GRAMMY performances and playlists that represent the illustrious history of Music's Biggest Night.
Available exclusively via Apple Music in a dedicated GRAMMYs section, the celebratory collection features 60-plus memorable performances specifically curated across six genres: pop, rap, country, rock, R&B, and jazz.
The artist performances featured in the collection include Marvin Gaye, "Sexual Healing" (25th GRAMMY Awards, 1983); Whitney Houston, "Greatest Love Of All" (29th GRAMMY Awards, 1987); Run DMC, "Tougher Than Leather" (30th GRAMMY Awards, 1988); Miles Davis, "Hannibal" (32nd GRAMMY Awards, 1990); Shania Twain, "Man, I Feel Like A Woman" (41st GRAMMY Awards, 1999); Dixie Chicks, "Landslide" (45th GRAMMY Awards, 2003); Bruno Mars and Sting, "Locked Out Of Heaven" and "Walking On The Moon" (55th GRAMMY Awards, 2013); and Kendrick Lamar, "The Blacker The Berry" (58th GRAMMY Awards, 2016).
The 60th GRAMMY Awards will take place at New York City's Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018. The telecast will be broadcast live on CBS at 7:30–11 p.m. ET/4:30–8 p.m. PT.
Carrie Underwood, John Legend To Host "GRAMMYs Greatest Stories"
Photo: Rick Diamond for Getty Images
Kenny Chesney Reflects On His Favorite Tour Moments & Teases Why Upcoming Here And Now Tour Is "A New Way Of Being Ready To Rock"
On April 23, Kenny Chesney will launch his 19th tour — the Here And Now Tour — at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. The veteran country star looks back on the touring legacy he's built and details what makes his shows so special.
"I can't believe how long it's been since I felt the energy of @noshoesnation in my veins," Kenny Chesney captioned a social media post on April 19. Like many touring musicians, the country star has been off the road since the end of May 2019. But for someone like Chesney, that is a remarkably long time.
Since 1998, Chesney has toured 18 times, never having more than two years in between treks — and he's only done that twice. His extensive touring schedule has become the primary element of his career, making Chesney one of country music's leading road warriors.
Chesney kicks off his 19th tour in Tampa on April 23. Titled the Here and Now Tour — named after his (fittingly) 19th album — the trek has the singer hitting 21 stadiums and 20 amphitheaters across the United States. The roster is as stacked as the schedule: Fellow country hitmakers Dan + Shay, Old Dominion and Carly Pearce will support at the stadium shows (only Pearce will open at the amphitheaters).
Upon the tour's announcement in November, Pearce and Dan + Shay's reactions to being invited out with Chesney showed just how major his tours are. Pearce called it a "bucket list dream,"while Dan + Shay said they've been attending Chesney's tours as fans for more than a decade. "Look for us in the crowd every night singing every word to every song," they wrote.
With a record 31 No. 1s on Billboard's Country Airplay chart, it's no surprise Chesney's tours are so appealing to his fans (dubbed No Shoes Nation, as he referenced in his post) and his openers. And after nearly three years away from the stage, songs like "Beer In Mexico" and "Summertime" may be more impactful than they've ever been.
Ahead of the first Here and Now Tour date, Chesney took a break from rehearsals to chat with GRAMMY.com via email. He dropped some hints about this year's tour and shared some of his most cherished memories — but perhaps most notably, Chesney made it very clear that he's not letting another three years pass him by.
You've said "I was shocked to see how much more these songs could be" because of the power of this year's band. As you've been rehearsing, which songs feel the most elevated? And what's making them more impactful?
If you've been to one of my shows, you know what the power of the band has always been. People are swept up and "in" it. I've been really blessed with my players.
But when you change a few key people, everyone comes to the bandstand with a different charge, a different chemistry. We are all really listening to the songs, hearing them with fresh ears and understanding maybe things we've not heard before.
And after three years, the joy of being on that stage? Playing together? It's the best feeling in the world! We never take it for granted, that energy when we hit the stage. But when you step away for this long, you really feel what's missing.
2019's Songs for the Saints Tour was exclusively in arenas. What makes stadium shows particularly special?
All the shows are special. When we did the Songs for the Saints Tour, it was about recognizing those fans who don't live in stadium markets, who have to travel. I grew up outside Knoxville; I was one of those kids, and I don't forget that stuff. To me, any stage I get to walk out on? It's the best possible show I could do anywhere — and that's what we try to do.
Stadiums, though, have this massive energy. They're built for football games, fans who get loud! That's what they're for, and if you do your set list right, to have all those people together, well, we can lift each other up in ways you can't anywhere else. There's nothing like it: the sound, the staging, the momentum.
When you're really rocking, you can do three miles up there. People don't realize that [a stadium] stage is 220 feet wide, and then you have the strut off the front of it. We cover a lot of ground, see a lot of smiling faces. That's a big part of it: the faces, the voices singing. It's massive to experience.
A tour press release said "With some classics coming off the set list, Chesney's worked up several songs to possibly rotate in." What are some of the classics that will never leave your set list and why?
Never say never. I think that's a dangerous precedent. And the list can change from night to night, especially with the way the lighting's being done this year.
But what's amazing to me is, even taking some songs out of the basic set list, how many hits remain. I think Billboard has me at 30 or 31 No. 1s, the most on their current chart, and I've had almost as many songs land at No. 2. It's an absolute impossibility that they're all going to be in there. Some songs — and I can think of one [that] people will be surprised we're not doing — can be rested for a tour or two.
This year marks 20 years of No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems, which spawned the song of the same name that has now become one of your set staples. What does that song mean to you, in terms of both a career song and a live song?
Being free-spirited, carefree. Ocean life. Letting go of everything that stresses you. Sometimes you can't do anything about it, so let go.
As a career song, I think it's really the album. We'd been building towards or "collecting" the things that really mattered to me, that spoke to my way of living — and finally, there was an album that was absolutely me in that sense. We wanted hits — and "Young" really launched us hard, defined who I was making records for, "The Good Stuff" won the ACM Single of the Year — but it was also this larger picture.
What people didn't realize back then was how many young people were just like I was. I sang about our life, our escape, our dreams — and it deepened the connection. The fans knew I not only saw them; I was just like them. That authenticity, that bond matters.
When we sing it live, that's a moment where we all really see each other, let go. Every night, I tell No Shoes Nation, "Whatever problems you've got, tonight, just for this evening, leave them out there and come be with us." It's powerful.
Speaking of No Shoes Nation, "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem" inspired that name. You officially declared that name for your fans at Gillette Stadium 10 years ago this year. In the 10 years since, how have you seen No Shoes Nation come to life?
No Shoes Nation came to life long before it was named at Gillette Stadium, by my good friend and tour promoter Louis Messina. It came to life in the tailgates in the fields around Coral Sky Amphitheater in West Palm Beach; the Tiki Bars on flatbed trailers people would roll into the parking lots in Columbus, Ohio or around Soldier Field in Chicago or Texas Stadium in Dallas; the people driving tractors to the shows or making friends with the people hanging in the same places.
It was well-established before we ever thought to name it. But they are a country without borders that inspires me every day, especially during these years of so much uncertainty. Their passion for life and music is amazing. They are some of the best people in the world, they look after each other, and they really care. I can't wait to see all those faces this year.
What are some of your most memorable moments from touring — whether they were on or off stage?
That's like asking a parent "which child do you like best." I mean, how do you pick?
I remember a young woman getting on stage in a ball cap. I was going to give her the helmet I give someone every night, and she was shaking her head no, holding her hat on. Then I realized: she's got cancer; she's doing chemo. I got it, but I wanted to give her just as much heart back — and all I could think to do was pull off my hat, too.
So, there we were, with our hats off, no hair, smiling into each other's eyes. She was so beautiful, and so in the moment. I mean, you never forget that. I learned another lesson about the ways we support and live and inspire each other.
One year in Texas, we'd been watching the weather. Those fans are so alive, so at the moment, we didn't want to call the show. The weather report seemed okay. Then the biggest storm rolled in, just drenching us. It was terrible, and we made the decision to call it.
I walked out, wanting to keep people calm and even. I respect my audience, but it's a lot of people. Then I sang "Something Sexy About The Rain" from Be As You Are, my first island record. There's video of it. Talk about perfection in an absolute train wreck moment. But that's the thing about No Shoes Nation — they're so in the moment, too, they just sailed through it with us, went to their cars and got home safe.
Along with an amplified sound, what else is going to feel different about this year's stadium tour?
Just being out there again. We've been in rehearsals, and even more than how much I've missed the road and my road family, when we hear No Shoes Nation start to roar — the way our hearts pound is going to be a new way of being ready to rock.
Parmalee Feel At Home
Country/rock band detail their debut album, Feels Like Carolina
Country/rock collective Parmalee recently visited The Recording Academy's headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif., to participate in an exclusive GRAMMY.com interview. The band discussed their new album, Feels Like Carolina, and hearing their hit "Carolina" on the radio for the first time, among other topics.
"We wanted to keep this album fun. We want people to smile when they listen to it," said lead vocalist/guitarist Matt Thomas. "It's just a good smooth ride of fun songs and some pretty love songs, kind of like [North] Carolina."
Parmalee — comprising brothers Matt and Scott Thomas (drums), cousin Barry Knox (bass) and Josh McSwain (guitar) — cite artists such as the Allman Brothers, Travis Tritt and Bob Seger among their influences. The group's name is derived from Parmele, N.C., a small town where they began rehearsing. In 2012 Parmalee released their debut single, "Musta Had A Good Time," which cracked the Billboard 200.
Released on Dec. 10, Feels Like Carolina features 12 tracks, including "Musta Had A Good Time" and "Carolina," which peaked at No. 1 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart.
Parmalee are currently in the midst of a U.S. tour, with dates scheduled through July 2014.
Jay Z Tops 56th GRAMMY Nominations With Nine
Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Justin Timberlake, and Pharrell Williams earn seven nods each; other top nominees include Daft Punk, Drake, Lorde, Bruno Mars, and Taylor Swift
Nominations for the 56th GRAMMY Awards were announced tonight by The Recording Academy and reflected one of the most diverse years with the Album Of The Year category alone representing the rap, pop, country and dance/electronica genres, as determined by the voting members of The Academy. Once again, nominations in select categories for the annual GRAMMY Awards were announced on primetime television as part of "The GRAMMY Nominations Concert Live!! — Countdown To Music's Biggest Night," a one-hour CBS entertainment special broadcast live from Nokia Theatre L.A. Live.
Jay Z tops the nominations with nine; Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Justin Timberlake, and Pharrell Williams each garner seven nods; Drake and mastering engineer Bob Ludwig are up for five awards.
"This year's nominations reflect the talented community of music makers who represent some of the highest levels of excellence and artistry of the year in their respective fields," said Neil Portnow, President/CEO of The Recording Academy. "Once again, The Academy's awards process and its voting membership have produced an impressive list of nominations across various genres promising music fans a spectacular show filled with stellar performances and unique 'GRAMMY Moments.' We are off to a great start and look forward to GRAMMY Sunday as Music's Biggest Night takes the stage."
Following are the nominations in the General Field categories:
Album Of The Year:
The Blessed Unrest — Sara Bareilles
Random Access Memories — Daft Punk
Good Kid, M.A.A.D City — Kendrick Lamar
The Heist — Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Red — Taylor Swift
Record Of The Year:
"Get Lucky" — Daft Punk & Pharrell Williams
"Radioactive" — Imagine Dragons
"Royals" — Lorde
"Locked Out Of Heaven" — Bruno Mars
"Blurred Lines" — Robin Thicke Featuring T.I. & Pharrell Williams
Song Of The Year:
"Just Give Me A Reason" — Jeff Bhasker, Pink & Nate Ruess, songwriters (Pink Featuring Nate Ruess)
"Locked Out Of Heaven" — Philip Lawrence, Ari Levine & Bruno Mars, songwriters (Bruno Mars)
"Roar" — Lukasz Gottwald, Max Martin, Bonnie McKee, Katy Perry & Henry Walter, songwriters (Katy Perry)
"Royals" — Joel Little & Ella Yelich O'Connor, songwriters (Lorde)
"Same Love" — Ben Haggerty, Mary Lambert & Ryan Lewis, songwriters (Macklemore & Ryan Lewis Featuring Mary Lambert)
Best New Artist:
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Following is a sampling of nominations in the GRAMMY Awards' other 29 Fields:
For Best Pop Solo Performance, the nominees are "Brave" by Sara Bareilles; "Royals" by Lorde; "When I Was Your Man" by Bruno Mars; "Roar" by Katy Perry; and "Mirrors" by Justin Timberlake.
The nominees for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance are "Get Lucky" by Daft Punk & Pharrell Williams; "Just Give Me A Reason" by Pink Featuring Nate Ruess; "Stay" by Rihanna Featuring Mikky Ekko; "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke Featuring T.I. & Pharrell Williams; and "Suit & Tie" by Justin Timberlake & Jay Z.
For Best Dance/Electronica Album, the nominees are Random Access Memories by Daft Punk; Settle by Disclosure; 18 Months by Calvin Harris; Atmosphere by Kaskade; and A Color Map Of The Sun by Pretty Lights.
The Best Rock Performance nominees are "Always Alright" by Alabama Shakes; "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" by David Bowie; "Radioactive" by Imagine Dragons; "Kashmir (Live)" by Led Zeppelin; "My God Is The Sun" by Queens Of The Stone Age; and "I'm Shakin'" by Jack White.
For Best Alternative Music Album, the nominees are The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You by Neko Case; Trouble Will Find Me by The National; Hesitation Marks by Nine Inch Nails; Lonerism by Tame Impala; Modern Vampires Of The City by Vampire Weekend.
The nominees for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration are "Power Trip" by J.Cole Featuring Miguel; "Part II (On The Run)" by Jay Z Featuring Beyoncé; "Holy Grail" by Jay Z Featuring Justin Timberlake; "Now Or Never" by Kendrick Lamar Featuring Mary J. Blige; and "Remember You" by Wiz Khalifa Featuring The Weeknd.
For Best Rap Album, the nominees are Nothing Was The Same by Drake; Magna Carta…Holy Grail by Jay Z; Good Kid, M.A.A.D City by Kendrick Lamar; The Heist by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis; and Yeezus by Kanye West.
The Best Country Album nominees are Night Train by Jason Aldean; Two Lanes Of Freedom by Tim McGraw; Same Trailer Different Park by Kacey Musgraves; Based On A True Story by Blake Shelton; and Red by Taylor Swift.
The nominees for Best Americana Album are Old Yellow Moon by Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell; Love Has Come For You by Steve Martin & Edie Brickell; Buddy And Jim by Buddy Miller And Jim Lauderdale; One True Vine by Mavis Staples; and Songbook by Allen Toussaint.
This year's Producer Of The Year, Non-Classical nominations go to Rob Cavallo, Dr. Luke, Ariel Rechtshaid, Jeff Tweedy, and Pharrell Williams.
This year's GRAMMY Awards process registered more than 22,000 submissions over a 12-month eligibility period (Oct. 1, 2012 – Sept. 30, 2013). GRAMMY ballots for the final round of voting will be mailed on Dec. 11 to the voting members of The Recording Academy. They are due back to the accounting firm of Deloitte by Jan. 8, 2014, when they will be tabulated and the results kept secret until the 56th GRAMMY telecast.
The 56th Annual GRAMMY Awards will be held Jan. 26, 2014, at Staples Center in Los Angeles and once again will be broadcast live in high-definition TV and 5.1 surround sound on CBS from 8–11:30 p.m. (ET/PT). The 56th Annual GRAMMY Awards are produced by AEG Ehrlich Ventures for The Recording Academy. Ken Ehrlich is executive producer, and Louis J. Horvitz is director.
For updates and breaking news, visit The Recording Academy's social networks on Twitter and Facebook.