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2019: NASHVILLE’S UNLIKELY YEAR

Imagine: A young black gay man buys a loop off the Internet and creates what becomes country’s biggest song. Country’s three biggest women stars all mount all-girl tours as a way to expose the female artists who can’t seem to get on the radio. The supernova breakout of 2019 is an affable North Carolina songwriter who looks like his audience. And a pair of 20th century icons reappear, one scoring a massive hit, the other dominating the Grammys with four nominations.

It happened. Lil Nas X, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert and Maren Morris, Luke Combs, Billy Ray Cyrus and Tanya Tucker rewrote the playbook on how country music found momentum in 2019. Beyond the controversy surrounding the launch of “Old Town Road,” the radio blockade inspiring those tours, the Bro Country backlash and the passing of Outlaws, the mostly undiscussed reality is that creativity is driving the genre. Whether outliers or alternative routes, this year has been about things that were unthinkable just five years ago.

Combs ushered in an age of ’80s/’90s-flavored-country that draws on Brooks & Dunn, Joe Diffie and Alan Jackson. Following suit, Jon Pardi and Midland added serious Dwight Yoakam juice to their retrofits, with Pardi leaning more Bakersfield Buck Owens and Midland embracing early/midcareer Eagles.

Warner Nashville’s John Esposito and squad worked the hard-country return of Blake Shelton (CMA Single of the Year for “God’s Country”) and the straight-up AC luxury of Dan + Shay (CMA Duo of the Year, ACM Single and Song for “Tequila”). With tattooed blue-collar woman Ashley McBryde (CMA Best New Artist) shattering stereotypes and Kenny Chesney releasing “Tip of My Tongue,” a single for the sake of the moment, the Bunny broke the molds.

Randy Goodman bought into outliers early—and team Sony harvested. Beyond the arena-sized and award-winning success of Combs (CMA Song “Beautiful Crazy,” Male Vocalist) and Morris (CMA Album for GIRL), they’ve championed Kane Brown, Lambert and her Grammy-nominated Pistol Annies, as well as from-the-ground-up bands Old Dominion (2x ACM and CMA Vocal Group) and LANCO.

For Mike Dungan and Cindy Mabe, the focus on artist individuality led to four of five CMA Entertainer of the Year nominees: Underwood, outlaw rising Eric Church, songwriting soulgrass force Chris Stapleton and rock-leaning adventurer Keith Urban. Whether it’s the jam-banding of Brothers Osborne, the bluegrass-tilt of Dierks Bentley or Pardi’s hard country, it’s all good.

Case in point: CMA Female Vocalist Kacey Musgraves moves from opening arena tours for Harry Styles and Katy Perry to taking Yola and Maggie Rogers out on her own arena run. Add in an Amazon Christmas special and her Country Music Hall of Fame exhibition, and WOW!

Jason Aldean, ironically, stands strong as Jason Aldean. Like Hank Jr. and Toby Keith, the Georgia-born powerhouse recognized his strengths and returned with another Michael Knox-produced collection that says, “I am.” That’s all he needs: bulked-up production, songs that gut the reality of physical labor and letting go.

Self-knowledge also created one of the year’s most compelling moments: Little Big Town performing “The Daughters” on the ACM Awards. With a whisper, Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook sang of gender bias and a culture that unthinkingly dismisses women and cut through the bombast.

The other massive moment story runs $300 million. Scott Borchetta merged/sold his Big Machine Label Group with/to Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings. A business deal, yes, but it unleashed a torrent of back-and-forth that dominated business discussion for the past five months. Meanwhile, the Machine scored a Grammy Country Album of the Year nom for Thomas Rhett.

Several label heads also groused about streaming services dogmatic in their programming, making it just as hard for women to get played/heard/discovered. One exec also raised the issue of the incoming pop programmers taking power to 100 spins a week, making it harder for midlevel acts to matter.

What comes next? Hopefully, more of the same creativity. New artists who aren’t following a template. Social media and streaming services offering intriguing ways to establish these newcomers, as well as allowing established artists to take some chances beyond the standard radio game.

After all, if three all girl tours, a husky guy with a strong hook and a gay African-America kid can dominate Nashville in 2019, what else can happen? Not sure, but not since Mary Chapin Carpenter, Wynonna, Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill, Patty Loveless, Martina McBride, Shania Twain, Reba and Tucker were all rocking Country radio have things felt this wide open.

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