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(From left) Luke Combs, Morgan Wallen, Dolly Parton, Lainey Wilson, Oliver Anthony

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2023 In Review: 5 Trends That Defined Country Music

Between crossover smashes and promising new superstars, country music arguably had its biggest year in over a decade in 2023.

GRAMMYs/Dec 19, 2023 - 09:06 pm

If 2023 wasn't the biggest year ever for mainstream success in country music, it came mighty close.

Across the three major fronts in the music industry — live concerts, music streams and sales, and chart performance — country music reminded audiences why it's a vital American music form and a conversation starter in our culture.

According to Billboard, 48 years have passed since more country artists racked up more No. 1 hits on its all-genre Hot 100 chart. This year saw chart-toppers from record-breaker Morgan Wallen ("Last Night"), established hitmaker Jason Aldean ("Try That in a Small Town"), viral newcomer Oliver Anthony ("Rich Men North of Richmond"), and 2022's big success story, Zach Bryan ("I Remember Everything" featuring Kacey Musgraves). Back in 1975, four country artists and five songs reached the Hot 100's summit: Glen Campbell, B.J. Thomas, Freddy Fender, and two cuts by John Denver.

Meanwhile, more than a dozen country artists landed on the Billboard Year-End Top Artists chart, with Wallen and Luke Combs landing in the top five. In addition, Apple Music named Wallen its top global music artist of 2023.

But enough prelude — let's get down to why the genre has been booming, by tracking the five biggest trends in country music in 2023.

There Was Massive Crossover

Morgan Wallen pulled country music's biggest crossover on the charts, ending the year with five of the top 50 most streamed songs of 2023 on Spotify, as well as 11 of the top 100 songs on Apple Music (all U.S. charts). He landed eight songs on the year-end Billboard Hot 100, including "Last Night," a tale of whisky-fueled love and regret driven by acoustic guitar and  clap-along percussion, which held the top spot for 16 weeks, the most for a non-collaboration song in the chart's 65-year history. It was also the most streamed song on Apple Music globally, contributing to the streaming service naming Wallen its top global music artist of 2023. 

Zach Bryan became the second artist to place at least 18 songs on the Hot 100 chart in the same week when he dropped his self-titled sophomore album in August — second only to Wallen's record of 36 songs, coinciding with the March release of his double-album One Thing at a Time. Zach Bryan is nominated for Best Country Album at the 2024 GRAMMYs, alongside Kelsea Ballerini's Rolling Up The Welcome Mat, Brothers Osborne's Brothers Osborne, Tyler Childers' Rustin' In The Rain, and Lainey Wilson's Bell Bottom Country. (More on Bryan later.)

The Hot 100 further indicated the genre's crossover success in early August, when the top three positions were occupied by country songs:  Jason Aldean's "Try That in a Small Town," Morgan Wallen's "Last Night," and Luke Combs' cover of Tracy Chapman's 1988 classic. Not only was it the first time in history that country songs dominated the first three spots on the all-genre chart, but it also happened two more times on Aug. 26 and Sept. 2. "Last Night" and "Fast Car" also received nominations for the 2024 GRAMMYs; "Last Night" is nominated for Best Country Song at the 2024 GRAMMYs alongside with Brandy Clark's "Buried," Zach Bryan and Kacey Musgraves' "I Remember Everything," Tyler Childers' "In Your Love," and Chris Stapleton's "White Horse," while "Fast Car" is Best Country Solo Performance alongside "White Horse," "Buried," "In Your Love." and Dolly Parton's "The Last Thing on My Mind." 

What's more, two of the eight Best New Artist nominees at the 2024 GRAMMYs are country acts, "Son of a Sinner" star Jelly Roll and soulful husband-and-wife duo The War and Treaty. They're nominated alongside Gracie Abrams, Fred again.., Ice Spice, Coco Jones, Noah Kahan and Victoria Monét.

Lainey Wilson celebrated a banner crossover year both in music and television. Along with parlaying the hit Paramount series "Yellowstone" into more exposure for her music, she became the first female artist in history to have four No. 1 hits on country radio in a calendar year thanks to "Heart Like A Truck," "Wait in the Truck" with HARDY, "Watermelon Moonshine" and "Save Me" with Jelly Roll — all of which cracked the top 30 of the all-genre Hot 100.

Several Musicians Court Controversy

Historically, popular country music tends to revolve around themes often imbued with imagery and anecdotes from small-town American life, from love won and lost to simply having a good time. But in 2023, politics infiltrated country music in a more mainstream way than perhaps ever before — even prompting Maren Morris to declare she was leaving country music. "I thought I'd like to burn it to the ground and start over," Morris told the Los Angeles Times in September. "But it's burning itself down without my help."

Jason Aldean's single "Try That in a Small Town" didn't cause much of a ruckus when it dropped in May, but the promotional video for the song, released in July, certainly kicked a hornet's nest of dissatisfaction. The lyrics begin with a carjacking and a robbery, then confront advocates of gun control and flex how "good ol' boys, raised up right" will step up to defend their own. The song "refers to the feeling of a community that I had growing up," Aldean wrote on Twitter, "where we took care of our neighbors, regardless of differences of background or belief."

But if he was only looking to reboot the s—-kickin' country-boy theme of Hank Williams Jr's 1981 song "A Country Boy Can Survive," he lost the plot with the video. The clip intersperses shots of Aldean and his band performing with footage of riots and destruction reminiscent of the 2020 racial protests sparked by the deaths of Elijah McClain, Breona Taylor, George Floyd and others by police force. And the filming location, the Maury County Courthouse in Columbia, Tennessee — site of the 1927 lynching of an 18-year-old Black man by a white mob — only stoked tensions. The controversy eventually dimmed, but not before the song hit No. 1 on the Hot 100.

Just three days after Aldean's song reached the top, a folk song by an unknown artist with no previous history in the music business hit YouTube and spread like wildfire. "Rich Men North of Richmond," written and performed by Oliver Anthony, sparked a controversy of its own for a handful of lyrics shaming "obese welfare" recipients amid righteous blue-collar anger directed at politicians who are out of touch with the working class. 

Conservative audiences latched onto the song, and it even made an appearance at the Republican presidential debate on August 23, three days before it claimed the No. 1 spot on the Hot 100 that Aldean held just a few weeks earlier. In response, Anthony chastised the right-wingers who thought he was one of them, as well as critics on the left whom he felt mischaracterized his words. "That song is written about the people on that stage — and a lot more, too," he said in a 10-minute video posted to YouTube.

Country Icons Were Saluted

Country music has seen its share of memorable covers in more recent years, from Johnny Cash's iconic version of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" to Sturgill Simpson's take on the Nirvana classic "In Bloom." But the practice reached a new peak in 2023 thanks to performances and recordings from present-day and legacy stars alike.

Nashville hitmaker Luke Combs channeled his love for Tracy Chapman's 1988 hit "Fast Car" into a faithful cover on his 2023 album Gettin' Old. Combs's version reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 (Chapman's original peaked at No. 6) and has been certified double Platinum by the RIAA, in addition to winning both Single of the Year and Song of the Year at the Country Music Association awards—making Chapman the first Black woman to ever win a CMA trophy.

After Dolly Parton was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2022, she took her honor quite literally. Parton collaborated with artists ranging from Judas Priest shrieker Rob Halford to Pink and Elton John on 30 recordings, including massive hits like "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me." The album's first single, the original composition "World On Fire," reached No. 1 on Billboard's Rock Digital Song Sales chart.

Parton also turned up on A Tribute to The Judds, another star-studded covers album, performing "Mama He's Crazy" with Lainey Wilson. Spearheaded by Wynonna Judd in tribute to her mother Naomi, her partner in the duo from 1983 until her death in April 2022, the album brings together some of country music's biggest names on 14 classics from the legendary group. Evergreen it-couple Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton take on "Love Is Alive," while Jelly Roll, K. Michelle and the Fisk Jubilee Singers perform "Love Can Build a Bridge." The album also features Reba McEntire, Carly Pearce, Jennifer Nettles and Gabby Barrett on a rendition of "Girls Night Out."

Even the Rolling Stones dabbled in the country world this year — well, sort of. The 14-song tribute album Stoned Cold Country features Eric Church on a properly sixties-sounding "Gimme Shelter," Elle King on a faithful version of "Tumbling Dice" embellished with pedal steel guitar flourishes, and guitar hero Marcus King performing the Sticky Fingers deep cut "Can't You Hear Me Knocking." Elsewhere, Brothers Osborne join The War and Treaty on a particularly soulful recording of "It's Only Rock 'n Roll (But I Like It)," and artists like Ashley McBryde, Brooks & Dunn and Maren Morris put their spin on their favorite Stones tunes.

Alt-Country Blew Up

Call it Americana, alt-country, singer/songwriter country — but the subgenre rooted in artists like Gram Parsons, John Prine and Lucinda Williams has evolved from its days as an influential side attraction to a force impacting charts, sales and box office receipts. In 2023, artists from what was once the fringes of mainstream country music showed how much they're really part of the fabric of the genre.

No artist exemplifies this surge more than Zach Bryan, who parlayed his successes in 2022 into an even bigger 2023, topping the Hot 100 and Billboard 200 albums chart for the first time, and headlining a sold-out arena tour. Folk-pop singer/songwriter Noah Kahan, who joined Bryan for the song "Sarah's Place" on Bryan's Boys of Faith EP, also found major success with songs originally performed for his 2022 album Stick Season, including a duet with Kacey Musgraves on "She Calls Me Back," released in October. 

The War and Treaty fuse gospel and soul influences with alt-country on "Blank Page" from the 2023 album Lover's Game, which picked up a nomination for the Best American Roots Song GRAMMY (competing against "California Sober" by Billy Strings Featuring Willie Nelson, "Cast Iron Skillet" by Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit, "Dear Insecurity" by Brandy Clark Featuring Brandi Carlile, and "The Returner" by Allison Russell). The husband-and-wife duo Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Trotter scored soulful hits with "That's How Love Is Made," as well as their own team-up with Zach Bryan on "Hey Driver," which peaked at No. 14 on the Hot 100 and No. 5 on the Hot Country Songs chart.

The return of Oklahoma sextet Turnpike Troubadours generated excitement from Texas to Tennessee and beyond, as the band headlined arenas and amphitheaters like Red Rocks in Colorado and L.A.'s Greek Theatre, plus a three-night stand in Boston. Frontman Evan Felker split the fold in 2019 but returned two years later, culminating in the release of A Cat in the Rain, their sixth album for their independent imprint Bossier City Records, in August 2023.

Collaborations Were Abundant

Covers weren't the only way that collaborations flourished in country music this year. In fact, only one nominee in the Best Country Duo/Group Performance category at the 66th GRAMMY Awards is an actual full-time group — that's Brothers Osborne, who is nominated alongside pairings of Dierks Bentley and Billy Strings ("High Note"), Zach Bryan and Kacey Musgraves ("I Remember Everything"), Vince Gill and Paul Franklin ("Kissing Your Picture (Is So Cold)"), Jelly Roll and Lainey Wilson ("Save Me"), and Carly Pearce and Chris Stapleton ("We Don't Fight Anymore"). That's just how popular artist features have become in country music.

But those are far from the only artist collaborations that made an impression. Jelly Roll also joined Dustin Lynch on "Chevrolet," while Miranda Lambert and Leon Bridges sang "If You Were Mine," a slow-rolling soul-country single. "Thank God," a duet recorded by Kane Brown and his wife, Katelyn, reached No. 13 on the Hot 100 and No. 1 on Country Airplay, only the second time a duet by a married couple reached the top (after Tim McGraw and Faith Hill's "It's Your Love" in 1997). 

Super-producer Diplo leaned into his Mississippi and Florida roots on Diplo Presents Thomas Wesley, Chapter 2 — Swamp Savant, his second collaborations album with country and hip-hop artists; "Heartbroken," an acoustic guitar-driven country-pop song featuring Jessie Murph and Polo G, reached the top 20 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart. Murph's own duet with Jelly Roll, "Wild Ones," made its mark on the same chart while notching No. 1 on the iTunes Top 200 Songs chart." 

Country music awards shows celebrated the art of the collaboration with viral crossover moments this year as well. Buzzing female country stars Ingrid Andress, Morgan Wade, Lainey Wilson and Madeline Edwards joined Alanis Morissette to perform her '90s alt-rock hit "You Oughta Know" at the CMT Awards; Ed Sheeran and Luke Combs dueted on "Life Goes On" at the ACMs; and Morgan Wallen, HARDY and Post Malone paid tribute to Joe Diffie at the CMAs by taking on his 1993 hit "John Deere Green."

Will country music continue to surge in 2024? If the chart stats, stadium tours and star-studded collaborations are any indication, it's certainly not slowing down.

5 Female Artists Creating The Future Of Country Music: Jaime Wyatt, Miko Marks & More

Photo of country singer/artist Anne Wilson wearing a brown jacket with pink designs, a white shirt, and light blue jeans.
Anne Wilson

Photo: Robby Klein

feature

Anne Wilson Found Faith In Music After Her Brother’s Death. Now She’s One Of Country’s Young Stars: "His Tragedy Wasn’t Wasted"

The Kentucky-based musician first arrived on the scene as a Christian artist in 2022. On her new album 'Rebel,' the singer/songwriter star melds the sounds of her "true north" with a mainstream country sensibility.

GRAMMYs/Apr 18, 2024 - 02:40 pm

After breaking out in the world of contemporary Christian music, Anne Wilson wants to take the country world by storm. 

Out April 19, Wilson's sophomore album embraces the many aspects of her self. Rebel sees the Kentuckian lean into her country and horse farm roots just as she leans into her faith — a subject already deeply intertwined in country music — more than ever before. 

"I’ve never viewed it as switching over to country or leaving Christian music," Wilson tells GRAMMY.com. "With this new record I wanted to write something that was faith-based but also broad enough to positively impact people who don’t have a strong faith as well."

Rebel is just the latest chapter in a journey of triumph and glory first set into motion by tragedy. Wilson started playing piano when she was six but didn’t begin taking it more seriously until the sudden death of her older brother, Jacob Wilson, in 2017. Despite the weight of the moment, Wilson, then 15, returned to the piano to channel her grief — a move that culminated in her first live singing performance when she belted out Hillsong Worship’s "What A Beautiful Name" at his funeral.

"My life forever changed in that moment," admits Wilson. "I already knew that life was very short on this side and that we only have a small window of time here so I wanted to make mine count. It was a special, but really hard moment that has gone on to spawn my entire career. Hearing just how much my songs have impacted fans makes me feel like his tragedy wasn’t wasted and that it was used for good."

Soon after she posted a cover of "What A Beautiful Name" to YouTube that netted over 800,000 views and caught the attention of the brass at Capitol Christian Music Group, who promptly signed her to a deal. Her first release with them, My Jesus, earned a GRAMMY nomination in 2023 for Best Contemporary Christian Music Album in addition to its title track hitting the top spot on Billboard’s Christian Airplay chart. 

Similar to My Jesus, Rebel sees Wilson doubling down on her religious roots while continuing to preserve the memory of her beloved brother. Although she grew up in a devout Christian household in Lexington, Kentucky, Wilson says that she didn’t fully connect with her faith until Jacob’s passing. 

Nowadays she couldn’t see herself living without it.

"When it came to dealing with the loss and tragedy of my brother I knew I couldn’t have survived that without [faith]," she says. "As I started writing songs and moved to Nashville my faith quickly became everything to me."

The 16-song project hits the bullseye between contemporary Christian and country twang, with an assist from special guests including Chris Tomlin ("The Cross"), Jordan Davis ("Country Gold") and Lainey Wilson ("Praying Woman"). Of the Lainey feature, Wilson says the two wrote "Praying Woman" upon their first day of meeting, with the elder Wilson growing into big sister and mentor of sorts for Anne. The song was inspired by the power of prayer Wilson and Lainey each experienced from their mothers growing up.

"We’d been talking about memories from growing up and remembering our mother’s coming into our rooms, getting on their knees and praying for us," recalls Wilson. "There was a conviction in how they prayed and expected them to be answered that was so powerful and special that we wanted to capture the feeling of it in song."

Rebel's strong motherly influence continues on "Red Flag," a rockin' number that Anne Wilson wrote as guidance to her younger fan base about what to look for in lasting love. While she largely had to ad lib the concept, having no bad breakup or relationship experiences to pull from, many of the "green flags" she notes were the result of years of advice. Things like going to church, being down to Earth, hunting, fishing, and respecting the American flag were traits and hobbies Wilson's mother had been passing down to her for years.

"Growing up she was always teaching me about relationship red and green flags, what to expect and to never settle," explains Wilson. "I have a song on my last record called ‘Hey Girl’ that ['Red Flag' is] almost a continuation of. It started out as a fun joke and turned out to be an actual serious song about red flags that’s one of my favorites on the whole record."

Another tune that began lighthearted before adopting a more serious tone is "Songs About Whiskey." Playing into country music and her home state's obsession with songs about brown liquor, the upbeat banger is intended to instead illustrate how Wilson gets her high from G-O-D rather than A-B-V or C-B-D through lines like, "I guess I’m just kind of fixed on/ The only thing that’s ever fixed me/ That’s why I sing songs about Jesus/ Instead of singing songs about whiskey."

"It’s supposed to be fun, make you laugh and fill you with joy," describes Wilson. "But it’s also meant to show how my faith is my true north, not those other things that are going to try to fill you up, but never do."

Through all of Rebel Wilson not only proves how her faith is her true north, but also shows others yearning to get there a path toward. This feeling culminates on the record’s title track, which frames her open love of Jesus as an act of rebellion in today’s world. A lesson in "what it means to have faith, not backing down from it and clinging to what we know is true," Wilson says the song was also inspired by previously having a song turned away at Christian radio for sounding "too country."

"I’m not going to try to please Christian music and I’m not going to try to please country music, I’m just going to be who I’ve always been and let the songs fall where they want to," asserts Wilson. "That was fuel not just for the song, but going against the grain on this entire album to be my most authentic self yet."

At the end of the day, genre labels, accolades and being included in the Grand Ole Opry’s NextStage Class of 2024 are secondary to Wilson’s adoration for the man above and her brother who, albeit tragically, set her on the journey she’s on now.

"I want to make sure I’m honoring him in everything that I do," reflects Wilson, "because he’s the reason I started doing music in the first place." 

Inside Tyler Hubbard's New Album 'Strong': How He Perfectly Captured His "Really Sweet Season" Of Life

Beyoncé accepts the Innovator Award onstage during the 2024 iHeartRadio Music Awards at Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, California, on Monday, April 1.
Beyoncé accepts the Innovator Award onstage during the 2024 iHeartRadio Music Awards at Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, California, on Monday, April 1.

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for iHeartRadio

feature

Beyond Country: All The Genres Beyoncé Explores On 'Cowboy Carter'

On 'COWBOY CARTER,' Beyoncé is free. Her eighth studio album is an unbridled exploration of musical genres — from country to opera and R&B — that celebrates the fluidity of music and her Texas roots.

GRAMMYs/Apr 3, 2024 - 08:50 pm

"Genres are a funny little concept, aren't they? In theory, they have a simple definition that's easy to understand. But in practice, well, some may feel confined."

With those words, spoken on "SPAGHETTII" by Linda Martell — the first commercially successful Black female artist in country music and the first to play the Grand Ole Opry solo — Beyoncé provides a proxy response to her original call on Instagram 10 days before COWBOY CARTER was released: "This ain’t a Country album. This is a “Beyoncé” album." 

She delivered on that promise with intent. Through a mix of homage and innovation, Beyoncé's latest is a 27-track testament to her boundless musicality and draws  from a rich aural palette. In addition to its country leanings, COWBOY CARTER includes everything from the soulful depths of gospel to the intricate layers of opera. 

Beyoncé's stance is clear: she's not here to fit into a box. From the heartfelt tribute in "BLACKBIIRD" to the genre-blurring tracks like "YA YA," Beyoncé uses her platform to elevate the conversation around genre, culture, and history. She doesn't claim country music; she illuminates its roots and wings, celebrating the Black artists who've shaped its essence.

The collective album proves no genre was created or remains in isolation. It's a concept stoked in the words of the opening track, "AMERIICAN REQUIEM" when Beyonce reflects, "Nothing really ends / For things to stay the same they have to change again." For country, and all popular genres of music to exist they have to evolve. No sound ever stays the same.

COWBOY CARTER's narrative arc, from "AMERICAN REQUIEM" to "AMEN," is a journey through American music's heart and soul, paying tribute to its origins while charting a path forward. This album isn't just an exploration of musical heritage; it's an act of freedom and a declaration of the multifaceted influence of Black culture on American pop culture.

Here's a closer look at some of some of the musical genres touched on in act ii, the second release of an anticipated trilogy by Beyoncé, the most GRAMMY-winning artist of all-time: 

Country 

Before COWBOY CARTER was even released, Beyoncé sparked critical discussion over the role of herself and all Black artists in country music. Yet COWBOY CARTER doesn't stake a claim on country music. Rather, it spotlights the genre through collaborations with legends and modern icons, while championing the message that country music, like all popular American music and culture, has always been built on the labor and love of Black lives. 

It's a reckoning acknowledged not only by Beyoncé's personal connection to country music growing up in Texas, but the role Black artists have played in country music rooted in gospel, blues, and folk music. 

Enter The World Of Beyoncé

Country legends, Dolly Parton ("DOLLY P", "JOLENE," and "TYRANT"), Willie Nelson ("SMOKE HOUR" and "SMOKE HOUR II"), and Martell ("SPAGHETTII and "THE LINDA MARTELL SHOW") serve mainly as spoken-word collaborators, becoming MCs for Queen Bey. Some of the most prolific country music legends receiving her in a space where she has been made to feel unwelcome in music (most notably with the racism surrounding her 2016 CMA performance of "Daddy Lessons" with the Dixie Chicks) provides a prolific release of industry levies. Martell, a woman who trod the dark country road before Bey, finally getting her much-deserved dues appears as an almost pre-ordained and poetic act of justice. 

"BLACKBIIRD," a version of the Beatles' civil rights era song of encouragement and hope for the struggle of Black women is led softly by Beyoncé, backed by a quartet of Black female contemporary country songbirds: Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kennedy, and Reyna Roberts. 

Beyoncé holds space for others, using the power of her star to shine a light on those around her. These inclusions rebuke nay-sayers who quipped pre-release that she was stealing attention from other Black country artists. It also flies in the faces that shunned and discriminated against her, serving as an example of how to do better. The reality that Beyoncé wasn't stealing a spotlight, but building a stage for fellow artists, is a case study in how success for one begets success for others. 

Read more: 8 Country Crossover Artists You Should Know: Ray Charles, The Beastie Boys, Cyndi Lauper & More

Gospel, Blues, & Folk (American Roots)

As is Beyoncé's way, she mounts a case for country music with evidence to back up her testimony. She meanders a course through a sequence of styles that serve as the genre's foundation: gospel, blues, and folk music.

"AMERIICAN REQUIEM" and "AMEN" bookend the album with gospel-inspired lyrics and choir vocals. The opener sets up a reflective sermon buoyed by  the sounds of a reverberating church organ, while the closer, with its introspective lyrics, pleads for mercy and redemption. The main verse on "AMEN", "This house was built with blood and bone/ The statues they made were beautiful/ But they were lies of stone," is complemented by a blend of piano, and choral harmonies. 

Hymnal references are interlaced throughout the album, particularly in songs like "II HANDS II HEAVEN" and in the lyrical nuances on "JUST FOR FUN." In the later track, Beyoncé's voice soars with gratitude in a powerful delivery of the lines, "Time heals everything / I don't need anything / Hallelujah, I pray to her." 

The gospel-inspired, blues-based "16 CARRIAGES" reflects the rich history of country songs borrowing from the blues while simultaneously calling back to songs sung by field laborers in the colonial American South. "Sixteen dollars, workin' all day/ Ain't got time to waste, I got art to make" serves as the exhausted plea of an artist working tirelessly long hours in dedication to a better life. 

Rhiannon Giddens, a celebrated musician-scholar, two-time GRAMMY winner, and Pulitzer Prize recipient, infuses "TEXAS HOLD 'EM" with her profound understanding of American folk, country, and blues. She plays the viola and banjo, the latter tracing its origins to Sub-Saharan West Africa and the lutes of ancient Egypt. Through her skilled plucking and bending of the strings, Giddens bridges the rich musical heritage of Africa and the South with the soul of country, blues, and folk music.

Pop, Funk, Soul & Rock 'n' Roll 

All in, Beyoncé is a pop star who is wrestling with labels placed on her 27-year career in COWBOY CARTER. Fittingly, she brings in two other pop artists known for swimming in the brackish water between country and pop, Miley Cyrus and Post Malone. Her intentional inclusion of two artists who have blurred genres without much cross-examination begs the question, Why should Beyoncé's sound be segregated to a different realm? 

On "YA YA" Linda Martell returns as the listener's sonic sentinel, introducing the track like a lesson plan: "This particular tune stretches across a range of genres. And that’s what makes it a unique listening experience." The tune sinks into the strummed chords of Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" before leaping into a fiery dance track that features reimagined lyrics from the Beach Boys, with soulful vocal flourishes and breaks that show the throughline connection between '60s era rock, funk, and pop music.

Robert Randolph lends his hands on "16 CARRIAGES" with a funk-infused grapple on his pedal-steel guitar. It's a style he honed through his early years touring and recording with his family band and later in his career as an in-demand collaborator working with names including the Allman Brothers, and Norah Jones

The lesson is solidified as the album transitions into an interlude on "OH LOUISIANA," featuring a sped-up sample of a classic track by Chuck Berry. This moment emphasizes the pop superstar's nod to civil rights era music history, spotlighting a controversial artist celebrated for his pioneering contributions to rock 'n' roll. (It's a part of music history Beyoncé knows well, after starring as Etta James in the 2008 film Cadillac Records, a veiled biopic of the legendary Chicago label Chess Records.)

Classical & Opera

Opera was missing from many listeners' Beyoncé Bingo card, but didn't surprise those that know her background. Beyoncé was trained for over a decade starting at an early age by her voice teacher David Lee Brewer, a retired opera singer who once lived with the Knowles family. 

COWBOY CARTER gives sing-along fans a 101 opera class with "DAUGHTER." In Italian, Beyoncé sings passages from the 1783 Italian opera "Caro Mio Ben," composed by Giuseppe Tommaso Giovanni Giordani. The aria is a classic piece of vocal training that fittingly shows off her full range — taking us back to the earliest days of her vocal teachings.

Hip-Hop & R&B

Midway through the album on "SPAGHETTII" Beyoncé announces, "I ain't no regular singer, now come get everythin' you came for," landing right where expectations have confined her: in the throes of a romping beat, experimenting with sounds that blend hip-hop with R&B and soul. The track notably highlights the talent of Nigerian American singer/rapper Shaboozey, who also shows up to the rodeo on "SWEET HONEY BUCKIN'" brandishing his unique mix of hip-hop, folk-pop, and country music. 

Beyoncé worked with longtime collaborator Raphael Saadiq on this album, a career legend in the R&B industry, who lends his mark to several tracks on which he wrote, produced, and played multiple instruments. Beyoncé also utilizes the Louisiana songwriter Willie Jones on "JUST FOR FUN," an artist who draws on a contemporary blend of country, Southern rap, and R&B in the hymnal ballad. 

The violin-heavy "TYRANT" and "SPAGHETTII" both underscore hip-hop's long love affair with the classical string instrument (See: Common's "Be," and Wu Tang Clan's "Reunited" as the tip of that particular iceberg) with a blend of soulful R&B lyrics paired with beat-based instrumentalization. 

In a world quick to draw lines and label sounds, Beyoncé's COWBOY CARTER stands as a vibrant mosaic of musical influence and innovation. Ultimately, Beyoncé's COWBOY CARTER isn't seeking anyone's acceptance. As a Texan once told she didn't belong, her critical response claps back at this exclusion.  It's also a reminder that in the hands of a true artist, music is limitless.

Run The World: Why Beyoncé Is One Of The Most Influential Women In Music History

Charles Wesley Godwin press photo 2024
Charles Wesley Godwin

Photo: David McClister

interview

Meet Charles Wesley Godwin, The Rising Country Singer Who's Turning "A Very Human Story" Into Stardom

With his deep, piercing voice and intimate portraits of family life, Charles Wesley Godwin has become one of country music's most promising new stars. As he begins his 2024 tour, the singer/songwriter details his unexpected journey to the stage.

GRAMMYs/Apr 3, 2024 - 06:17 pm

Charles Wesley Godwin never intended to play for audiences when he picked up a guitar for the first time in college. Now, the 30-year-old Godwin is a full-blown country star, playing stadium shows and prestigious music festivals as one of the genre's fastest rising talents.

Godwin's musical power and allure lie in the ability to inhabit both a superstar persona and family-man image. He's equally comfortable belting his raucous, anthemic "Cue Country Roads," and serenading his baby daughter in "Dance in Rain," a touching song about his vision for her future. Tapping into his West Virginia roots and family history, Godwin's authentic, raw storytelling hasn't just widely resonated — it's helped the singer realize his calling.

Known for his deep, piercing voice and intimate portraits of human experiences, Godwin first endeared himself to audiences with songs like "Hardwood Floors," a sweet love song to his wife, and "Seneca Creek," a ballad from his first album, 2019's Seneca. Across three studio albums thus far, Godwin mixes powerful vocals and relatable, heartfelt lyrics, aligning him with the likes of Zach Bryan, Tyler Childers, and Sturgill Simpson.

The son of a coal miner and a teacher, Godwin dreamed of playing professional football and attended West Virginia University to study finance. After moving on from college football dreams, he taught himself guitar, learning country classics to fill the football void.

But while studying abroad in Estonia, one of Godwin's roommates took his guitar to a club show and coaxed Godwin up on stage after the set. His cover of John Denver's "Take Me Home Country Roads" — Godwin's college theme song and current show closer — earned him his second gig, performing at a fashion show. He was hooked.

After college, Godwin spent most of a decade touring relentlessly, crisscrossing the country to play bars and coffee houses. As he transitioned from covering favorite songs to writing his own, Godwin honed his writing chops and musical voice, intent on figuring out who he would be as a musician.

His latest studio album, 2023's aptly titled Family Ties, showcases the versatility and emotional depth that continues to make his songs resonate intensely. It includes upbeat country bangers like "Two Weeks Gone" and "Family Ties"; ruminations on deep generational connections to family, including his journey to understand his dad in "Miner Imperfections" and recounting his mother's heart-wrenching experience in "The Flood"; and raw, personal reflections on his love for his children, from "Gabriel" to "Tell the Babies I Love Them."

After signing his first major record label deal and opening for Zach Bryan in 2023, Godwin will spend 2024 headlining shows around the United States, also supporting Luke Combs on several dates and playing festivals like Stagecoach, Bonnaroo and Under the Big Sky.

Ahead of his tour launch on April 4, Godwin spoke with GRAMMY.com about his inspiration and writing, chasing his musical dreams, and his favorite career "pinch me" moments — so far.

How did you get started in music?

I watched the Avett Brothers in the 2011 GRAMMYs and was wowed by it, and thought maybe picking a guitar up would be a productive hobby to have. And then over time I began to realize I actually had the talent.

That hobby worked out okay.

I've always joked — even though people are like "Oh man, that's crazy, you didn't find it until you were in your 20s" — I'm like, "Well, at least I found my thing." I feel very fortunate. I feel like things could have easily gone a different way.

Was music of interest to you? What kind of music did your parents play when you were growing up?

My dad listened to oldies radio, a lot of pop music from the '60s and the '70s. I had a lot of the Beatles songs and CCR songs stuck in my head as a little kid.

I would casually consume whatever was put right in front of me, but I wasn't big into music. I was worried about sports. I wanted to be good at football.

What was it like for you picking up a guitar the first time?

It was frustrating. My fingers wouldn't go where I wanted them to. And it seemed very difficult. But I would just bite it off in 15-minute chunks each day. I wouldn't quit.

It wasn't until about a year into it that I could actually start stringing chords together. My dad had gotten a mining engineering degree, and to do some pretty high-level calculus, he always told me when I was growing up, "Math, it just clicks one day, as long as you don't give up on it."

Tell me more about your dad, for whom you wrote "Miner Imperfections." It sounds like you got your work ethic from him.

When he grew up, most of his friends were getting drafted to Vietnam. He had applied for the mines and he gave himself a timeline. He said, If the mines don't call within two weeks, I'm going to join the Air Force, because if I'm gonna get sent to Vietnam, I might as well join on my own terms. He ended up getting called by the mines and went underground in his early 20s. And worked his ass off.

He'd met my mom, and they created a better life for themselves. [They] were able to elevate themselves economically and give my brother and I a great life growing up, and the ability to chase our dreams.

He didn't love the mines, but he was good at it. And it was a way for him to make a good living. My dad had an amazing work ethic. He was very, very hard-nosed, independent, principled. And he taught me a lot of that.

As I've gotten older, I've grown to appreciate him more and more. And [my parents] gave me the mental tools I needed to be able to go through that whole crucible of going all across the country for a decade and sleeping in my car and playing in bars and restaurants and cafes, basically living well below the poverty line for many years, to make this dream of mine come true.

I think the very first song of yours I heard was "Seneca Creek." What's the story behind that song?

That's about my grandparents, on my mother's side. My mom's side of the family is from Seneca Rocks, West Virginia. They're part of the hillbilly highway, they moved up to Canton, Ohio. My granddad was working for Ford Motor Company. And he got drafted to go fight in Korea. So he went off and was a tank commander and fought in Korea for two years and went back to the Ford Motor Company when he got back.

They started a family and started building a life. They ended up moving back to West Virginia in the early '60s, and took over my great grandfather's General Store and farmed cattle. My grandmother was the postmaster.

They had a remarkable life, full of highs and lows and it was a very, very human story. And I thought it translated well into song.

What experiences in your life have colored the kinds of stories you want to tell in your music?

I draw on my family, my wife and my kids. That's really some of the most profound experiences I've had.

My dad, when he was my age, was crawling in less than three feet of coal. So I don't want to write too much about "playing on the road was hard."

One strong point of mine is I can observe somebody else and find the little nuggets of humanity to put into song that can still seem very personal and moving to people.

But you've also got these deeper generational connections and stories, too.

I have a lot of interesting family members in the family tree that I've been able to pull from. My mom's side came over in the potato famine in the mid-1800s. My dad's side, a lot of them were even here before the United States was the United States.

There's a lot of interesting and rich family history to draw from — moonshiners on my mother's side, there's been soldiers, drunkards, teachers and miners. My great grandfather on my dad's side, he used to eat a raw potato in the mines every day for lunch until Italians came over and showed the Irish guys how to eat better.

You've talked about your music sounding like it's from West Virginia. What does that mean? What is West Virginia music to you?

Before I put my first record out, I understood that I needed to find what my natural voice was. And make sure that I wasn't just trying to mimic somebody else.

I would not be able to pull off sounding like I'm trying to sing rodeo country. But I can sound like I'm from West Virginia, because that is the truth.

I think it has to have some bluegrass, if we're talking country music. Because you [also] got [late West Virginia native] Bill Withers, who is one of the best soul singers ever.

Stories about rural places and working class people often get tokenized and stereotyped. When you're writing songs, how do you honor the people you're writing about instead of making them stereotypes?

I just try my best. There's been a lot of lines that when I'm working on songs over the years, I've been like, "that's not it," and then put a line through it and try to come up with something better or more positive or more honest.

I'd rather shine a light on the more admirable character traits, either people in my family that I'm writing about or made up characters. I also try not to make it too unrealistic. I have a lot of songs about regret, which is something that [is] very human. But I definitely don't want to go around glorifying things that aren't really good for society or community.

You've talked about how you felt stuck when you wrote your latest album, Family Ties.  What was that feeling? And how did you get out of that rut?

I had a bunch of people on payroll for the first time in my life. Labels had come into the picture; my wife was just about to have our second child; we had a house we just bought the year prior. I had all these things around me that I'd never had around me before. I was putting pressure on myself, because I wasn't just this broke guy anymore that only needed enough to fill up his gas tank.

I let that affect my mind and my creativity, and my productivity with the notebook. The way I got out of it was just realizing — this sounds so cliche, but it's true, and it's true with music, and so many other things in life — that you can only control the things that you can control.

I felt like writing about my family is what I wanted to do. Just because there's so much love and guilt that I was feeling at that time. The birth my children — my daughter just being born, my son was still really young, with my wife and, being gone for hundreds of days [in] years prior, but then I was home that whole pandemic year, which was this super special time, but also just so weird after all those years of being gone all the time, and then going back to being gone all the time.

Now that all of that hard work has started paying off, what have been some of your biggest "pinch me, I can't believe this is happening" moments?

Recently, I opened for Jason Isbell and for Turnpike Troubadours. Those were folks that I was listening to a decade ago, in the middle of the night, trying to drive home from some gig far away.

And throughout our tour this year, we're doing these Luke Combs dates, and the Avett Brothers are on two of them. The whole reason I picked up a guitar, here we are over a decade later, and I'm going to be shaking their hands before we play a stadium. And this whole thing started with me just sitting on a couch in college watching them at the GRAMMYs. So that's gonna be a "pinch me" moment, for sure.

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Women's History Month 2024 Playlist Hero
(Clockwise, from top left): Jennie, Janelle Monáe, Anitta, Taylor Swift, Victoria Monét, Ariana Grande, Lainey Wilson

Photos (clockwise, from top left): Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Coachella, Paras Griffin/Getty Images, Lufre, MATT WINKELMEYER/GETTY IMAGES FOR THE RECORDING ACADEMY, Paras Griffin/Getty Images, JOHN SHEARER/GETTY IMAGES FOR THE RECORDING ACADEMY, Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

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Listen: GRAMMY.com's Women's History Month 2024 Playlist: Female Empowerment Anthems From Beyoncé, Ariana Grande, Jennie & More

This March, the Recording Academy celebrates Women's History Month with pride and joy. Press play on this official playlist that highlights uplifting songs from Taylor Swift, Victoria Monét, Anitta and more.

GRAMMYs/Mar 8, 2024 - 04:44 pm

From commanding stages to blasting through stereos, countless women have globally graced the music industry with their creativity. And though they've long been underrepresented, tides are changing: in just the last few years, female musicians have been smashing records left and right, conquering top song and album charts and selling sold-out massive tours.

This year, Women's History Month follows a particularly historic 66th GRAMMY Awards, which reflected the upward swing of female musicians dominating music across the board. Along with spearheading the majority of the ceremony's performances, women scored bigtime in the General Field awards — with wins including Best New Artist, Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year, and Album Of The Year.

Female empowerment anthems, in particular, took home major GRAMMY gold. Miley Cyrus' "Flowers" took home two awards, while Victoria Monét was crowned Best New Artist thanks to the success of her album Jaguar II and its hit single "On My Mama." As those two songs alone indicate, female empowerment takes many different shapes in music — whether it's moving on from a relationship by celebrating self-love or rediscovering identity through motherhood.

The recent successes of women in music is a testament to the trailblazing artists who have made space for themselves in a male-dominated industry — from the liberating female jazz revolution of the '20s to the riot grrl movement of the '90s. Across genres and decades, the classic female empowerment anthem has strikingly metamorphosed into diverse forms of defiance, confidence and resilience.

No matter how Women's History Month is celebrated, it's about women expressing themselves, wholeheartedly and artistically, and having the arena to do so. And in the month of March and beyond, women in the music industry deserve to be recognized not only for their talent, but ambition and perseverance — whether they're working behind the stage or front-and-center behind the mic.

From Aretha Franklin's "RESPECT" to Beyoncé's "Run the World (Girls)," there's no shortage of female empowerment anthems to celebrate women's accomplishments in the music industry. Listen to GRAMMY.com's 2024 Women's History Month playlist on streaming services below.