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Unpacking the Recent Rise of Folk and Country Music

Country music hit massive streaming numbers in 2023, and with numerous major artists releasing Country albums in 2024, it’s clear that the genre is experiencing a revival with Gen-Z.

Kenny Chesney, Spotify/BNA Records

With the explosion of EDM tinged pop and ostentatious rap during the 2010s, Country and Folk seemed on the way out. But new trends in streaming and some promising new artists are fueling a revival.

At one point Taylor Swift represented the last bastion of even country adjacent popular music. The tropes of the genre, beer, trucks, patriotism, and nostalgia, seemed to have fallen out of favor with younger generations. These topics were passe for a generation accelerating past old boundaries of culture and digitality. What were they looking for instead?

A Down-and-Out Decade for Country

David Guetta, a chart topping EDM artist of the 2010s.
David Guetta, a chart topping EDM artist of the 2010s. Credit: Shutterstock

Catchy EDM melodies began to infiltrate the top 40, led by the popularity of DJ’s such as David Guetta, Avicci, Tiësto, and the production of Max Martin. The braggadocious, aggressive, hedonistic themes of drill rap, revitalized by Cheif Keef, King Von, and Lil durk, also made waves. Later on, a new generation of Musicians blew up entirely on the internet thanks to Youtube, Soundcloud, and Tiktok. These included the likes of Juice WRLD, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty, and Lil Peep.

Country maintained a niche with artists like Luke Combs and Florida Georgia Line, but lacked streaming numbers. Their music was regarded as “bro country”, and panned by many for its chauvinism. Kelly Clarkson and Darius Rucker did crack the pop charts, but only by catering the mainstream with particularly accessible vibes. Folk Music mostly remained the purview of indie hipsters, excepting releases by Phoebe Bridgers, Bon Iver, and Sujan Stevens who had some chart time.

Covid and Country

Music streaming apps on iphone
Country finally made the shift to streaming services during the pandemic. Credit: Shutterstock

The catalyst for change in the country music came with the pandemic. Country music streaming grew by 16% in 2020, compared to 3% for all genres. 2021 ended with Morgan Wallen’s “Dangerous: The Double Album” at the top of the Billboard 200 albums chart, becoming the first country album in the chart’s history to spend 10 consecutive weeks in that position.

Wallen would return in 2023 with “One Thing at a Time”, which rose to No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart and had the fifth-largest streaming week ever, proving the staying power of the trend.

Could it be that the isolation experienced by many during the pandemic had them searching for authentic, soulful music? Although the themes expressed in country music may not be relatable to everyone, there is a certain comfort to be found in these often emotional ballads of simpler living. Translating that vibe to more mass appealing music is what distinguishes the next generation of country stars.

Zach Bryan’s Rise to Fame

@zachlanebryan

felt like writing something sad

♬ dawns – Zach Bryan
One of Zach Bryan’s many viral tiktoks. Credit: Tiktok/@zachlanebryan

Besides Wallen, Zach Bryan has seen meteoric growth since 2022, with multiple viral TikTok Hits. His debut self titled also debuting at the top of the Billboard 200, and topping rock, rock & alternative, Americana/folk, and country charts, as well as Spotify, iTunes, and iTunes Country.

And Unlike Wallen, Bryan’s songs have an appeal across cultural and political divides unique in the country space. His songs eschew many familiar themes ingrained in the country canon, in favor of tender, emotional ballads:

“Someday, I will come to my senses, stop sitting on fences in fear. And I will realize, after all of this time that some day was always just right here”

Zach Bryan, “Someday”

Often times I pray for you and often times I don’t/ Is it the goodbyes that haunt you or the fear of new hellos?

Zach Bryan, “Oklahoma City”

Noah Kahan’s New Folk

Folk artist Noah Kahan performing in the Netherlands.
Folk artist Noah Kahan performing in the Netherlands. Credit: Shutterstock

Another artist who wears his emotions on his sleeve is Noah Kahan. This rising folk star’s career blossomed through viral success on TikTok and Spotify. Kahan’s music draws inspiration from personal experiences and his New England roots. Despite achieving success with his third album, “Stick Season,” and earning a Grammy nomination, Kahan has had his struggles.

He’s open about mental health issues, and even started his own his own mental health clinic. On the website, he says “I’ve been dealing with anxiety and depression and mental health my entire life”. He also states that one of his biggest goals is to help people in their battles with mental illness.

This trend towards emotional sensitivity exhibited by these artists could represent the sea change country needs to reclaim relevancy. So far, it seems to be working.

The Road Ahead

Country singer Kacey Musgraves performs in 2019.
Country singer Kacey Musgraves performs in 2019. Credit: Shutterstock

2024 promises to be a big year for Country and Folk. Both Zach Bryan and Noah Kahan have announced massive world tours. Bryan’s is 10 months in length, and Kahan’s spans 32 different dates.

Americana pop queen Lana Del Rey appears to be tapping into the trend as well, with her country album Lasso slated to release in 2024. Although she has explored the sound and themes in the past, this album represents her first explicitly “country” project.

Longtime country star Kacey Musgraves is also releasing an album in 2024. She recently announced a massive world tour to promote it via her Instagram.

All in all, it looks like the genre is in the midst of a triumphant revival. It appears as if country is shifting towards a slightly more cosmopolitan identity, while maintaining its defining aesthetics. Most importantly, the artists are leaning into the raw sentimentality that has always underscored the genre to bring listeners a kind of authenticity they’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else.

Written By

My name is William Bell and I'm a Junior at Colorado College studying mathematical economics. My interests include investing, banking, philosophy, and geopolitics.

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