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.
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