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Ronky Tonk, Morgan Wallen & Race Issues – Billboard

From its very infancy, one of the attractions of country music has been its respect for the past.

Many of the genre’s early pioneers, including Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family, made their mark by leaning on so-called “old-fashioned songs,” nostalgic material drawn from a simpler time, before the mass migration to the city, before the Model T destroyed the horse and buggy, and before racy, decadent jazz had reached its peak.

Of course, music is an art, and artists tend to experiment, so the ongoing major battle in country music is the push and pull between expanding boundaries and hanging on to tradition.

Appropriately in 2022 — which happened to mark the 100th anniversary of the first country recording session — that tug of war between progress and tradition was very much evident.

Musically, the sounds of the past were trendy as the current generation of hit-makers celebrates ’90s country. The genre was full of examples, including three of the top 10 songs on the year-end Country Airplay chart: the Garth Brooks-like drama of Cody Johnson’s “ ’Til You Can’t,” the heartbreak storyline filtered through a Texas troubadour in Scotty McCreery’s “Damn Strait” and the Cole Swindell megahit “She Had Me at Heads Carolina,” which returned the melody of Jo Dee Messina’s debut to regular rotation over two decades after its original chart run.

The rise of ronky tonk — a raw, stripped-down form of country (maybe it should be spelled “rawnky tonk”?) — pushed back against the genre’s 10-year party mode while sounding a little more like country has historically presented itself. It brought a new round of young artists to the forefront, including Bailey Zimmerman, Zach Bryan, Jackson Dean and Nate Smith. And it took place as the Paramount+ series Yellowstone soared, resurrecting the once popular western format and adding to the luster of Lainey Wilson, a new artist whose country authenticity fits with her role in the show.

Yet even as country recycled its past, the format is clearly moving forward at the same time. The ubiquitous presence of Jimmie Allen, the multiple collaborations of BRELAND, Kane Brown’sexperiment with stadium headlining and the introduction of new talents — including Madeline Edwards, Tiera Kennedy, Brittany Spencer, The War and Treaty and Chapel Hart — underscores a very real interest in expanding the genre’s diversity, with Black and biracial women making greater inroads alongside the recent uptick in the format’s Black males.

Not that the progressive edge of country rosters and playlists is a one-issue concern. Frank Ray and Kat + Alex are bringing a long-absent Latino influence to the genre’s mainstream, while other acts continue widening the sound of country, including Americana-leaning Boy Named Banjo, hip-hop-tinged Kidd G, adventurous Sam Williams and piano-based Ingrid Andress.

It’s not just the artistic part of country that moved forward in 2022. Podcasts and streaming continued growing, opening more avenues for songs and artists to emerge. BBR Music Group even assigned dedicated employees to focus on single, sprawling media companies: YouTube manager Aaron Wilder and vp of promotion and marketing/SiriusXM Radio Scotty O’Brien.

Country radio, historically the dominant platform for exposing new music, recognized its diminished role more openly. Several panels at February’s Country Radio Seminar addressed broadcasters’ sluggish approach to music rotations, and Country’s Radio Coach owner John Shomby spearheaded a committee that united multiple industry factions in an attempt to reverse the trend.

CRS was held in person after the pandemic forced a remote version of the seminar in 2021. It wasn’t the only annual event that returned to a physical location: CMA Fest took over Nashville’s downtown again after a two-year absence, though a number of industry members caught COVID-19 during the celebration. 

Nearly every artist was back on the road, too, creating its own set of issues. With some longtime support crew retiring or changing career paths during the pandemic, artists — particularly at the club and theater level — were challenged when trying to book full road teams and transportation. 

The Academy of Country Music became the first major organization to shift its awards show from network TV to a streaming platform, and Viacom shifted the CMT Music Awards for the first time from cable to the CBS broadcast network, revising the schedule in the process as the CMTs moved from the week of CMA Fest to the spring. 

By summer, the new routine left much of the industry’s personnel worn out as they returned to a hyper-active calendar after two years of mostly working at home.

Reigning over it all was Morgan Wallen, whose Dangerous: The Double Album dynamited the previous chart record by extending his No. 1 status on Country Albums to 86 weeks. Despite not fully cleaning up his public image after uttering a racial slur in February 2020, he topped nine different country lists among Billboard’s year-end charts, snared a CMA nomination for entertainer of the year, had the RIAA certify 43 different titles during the calendar year and set a 2023 concert schedule that includes 17 stadiums.

The subject of race is part of the push and pull that the industry will continue to address in the future. Back when those old-fashioned songs first took hold in the 1920s, record executives specifically marketed hillbilly records and race music — as the categories were called at the time — to separate audiences. In short order, the artists were segregated as well. The industry is taking steps to better reach Black audiences and expand the ranks of African American executives. Progress is essential to keep every valuable enterprise alive. 

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