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THE RISE OF
RED DIRT COUNTRY

By Holly Gleason

When Whiskey Myers played “Stone” as the bar band in the fourth episode of Yellowstone’s first season, no one expected it to be the catalyst that would catapult Red Dirt country into the stratosphere. But for the hard-working, guitar-heavy band from Palestine, Tex., which had been building a base since 2008’s Road of Life, it was a lightning strike.

“We sold out Red Rocks in 30 minutes,” says Bruce Kalmick of WHY&HOW Management. We would have gotten there, but we got there two, three years quicker because of Yellowstone. And it was so wonderful to have [music supervisor] Andrea [von Foerster] with us at the show. She truly is a part of the Whiskey Myers story.”

Not since Waylon and Willie told Music Row “Peace, out” has a movement from the fringes had this kind of hoist. Named Red Dirt country for the soil in Texas and Oklahoma, as well as parts of New Mexico and Louisiana, the songwriting-focused, live-performance-driven, fiercely independent oeuvre flickered beyond its borders a handful of times in this century before igniting more recently.

On the heels of trailblazing Texans Billy Joe Shaver, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Butch Hancock and Joe Ely, the next generation of Red Dirt cowboys made some inroads nationwide. Pat Green’s “Wave on Wave” was nominated for a Grammy, Jack Ingram notched a #1 country song with “Lips of an Angel” and The Eli Young Band had multiple chart-toppers, including ACM Song of the Year “Crazy Girl” and the Grammy-nominated “Even If It Breaks Your Heart.”

Triple 8 Management founder George Couri, who’s seen the Red Dirt scene develop from the ground up, views this moment as a culmination of two—or five if you count Nelson’s Dripping Springs Reunion, the first of his storied Fourth of July Picnics, back in 1972—decades of steady building.

“The music isn’t trying to emulate mainstream Nashville country,” Couri points out. “The Texas music scene is very tightknit; the people who follow it follow it closely and communicate to each other. But understand, you could pick any six or seven acts and they’re all very different. You have to play a lot of shows. You have to be good—and get better. You have to have people tell each other about you. All of these acts are from the area. They consistently play shows and put out music. It builds from there.”

Couri knows from firsthand experience. Management client Corey Kent is on the verge of announcing a major-label deal, following a heated bidding war. Playing 140 dates without a booking agent, sharing bills with Parker McCollum, Cody Johnson, Eli Young, The Randy Rogers Band, Wade Bowen and Turnpike Troubadours, he released music every six to eight weeks for a year leading up to the release of his album ’21. The accrued momentum and word of mouth led to opening slots with Jordan Davis and Ryan Hurd, while “Wild as Her” splashed hard and kept building.

“When we dropped ‘Wild as Her’ in March, Apple Music was there for us, the editorially curated playlists at Amazon and Spotify added it and some TikTok people picked it up,” Couri reports. “On Spotify alone, Corey went from 200,000 monthly listeners to 2 million in three months. There wasn’t a placement or one thing to point to for him to be doing 4 million [streams] a week—except everything building up. It was in the same window as Parker and Cody having their #1s, which says something.”

McCollum, a musical maverick who topped the charts with “Your Pretty Heart” and won the ACM New Male Artist award this spring, has been a cheerleader for up-and-coming acts, including Zach Bryan. Headlining RodeoHouston in March, the hometown hero told the 73,000 in attendance that it was Pat Green who’d inspired him to chase the dream.

UMG Nashville VP A&R Brian Wright, no stranger to Texas/Oklahoma country, recalls, “In 2009 at Texas in the Rockies with Lee Ann Womack, I saw all these kids walking around with ‘Fuck Nashville’ T-shirts. There were 60, 70 artists playing all over; Kevin Fowler, Stoney LaRue… Ingram was there. It was potent.”

At Randy Rogers’ urging, Wright stopped in Houston en route to the Grammys to check out McCollum. There, in a rodeo arena, “freezing cold, pouring rain, there were 3,300 kids just losing their minds. Parker writes real shit, and people respond. I’ve worked with George Strait all these years, and it’s the same kind of thing. That first time I met Parker, he had the gold chains and flatback hat. I thought, He’s gonna be an asshole. But he takes his hat off, shakes my hand and tells me, ‘I wanna be a worldwide superstar. I wanna be everywhere.’”

For Wright, maintaining McCollum’s sound while creating something that could work on Country radio was a balancing act. “[Producer/songwriter] Jon Randall [Emmylou Harris, Miranda Lambert] is a big piece. His sound was as different as anything out there. But with Parker’s lyrics and how he sings them, you knew immediately. It’s raw, real. Sometimes fiddle and steel, some imperfections to it. In this town, we want everything clean and nice; Parker is something else.”

Something else is what Warner Nashville Co-President Cris Lacy heard when she started courting hard cowboy Cody Johnson, who scored a #1 with the how-to-live treatise “’Til You Can’t.” It was 2011, and she remembers, “Trent Willmon, who’s a for-real cowboy and writes and produces so many people, played Cody for me at his kitchen table. That voice! You could picture the ranch and the bulls and the dirt. You could see it all; the texture of where he came from was in the music.

“Onstage, the energy he was giving, he was a bull! The aggression it takes to ride a bull was all over his performance. But he wanted to see how far he could go, to put out a couple records. He sold out the Houston Rodeo, had some Texas chart #1s and really built his world.”

Lacy recognizes the commonality of Johnson’s fierce individuality. “All these artists have strong convictions,” she asserts. “When you’re with one of these artists, you know where you stand. For Cody, the principles are everything: Protect your family, follow God, be a servant, be grateful for the military and armed forces, stand for freedom. Money and fame don’t interest him.”

Couri sees those differences as what keeps fans of Red Dirt interested with or without mainstream play. “Parker and Cody are nothing alike, but it’s the same scene, the same 15 cities. Cody’s the belt-buckle, starched-shirt cowboy; Parker’s the gold chain, trucker hat. Cody’s music is very values-driven; Parker is more the songwriter side of it.

“Corey’s next,” Couri continues. “With no label, no radio, he exploded everywhere with ‘Wild as Her’ because his groundwork was laid very carefully. Fifty million streams the first three months? Imagine when you add a major label making it a big priority? All that marketing money and terrestrial radio? And there will be a steady flow of music throughout, because we’re not going to wait on a nine-month radio reality.”

Red Dirt is not for those who wait. Make Wake’s Chris Kappy—the man responsible for Luke Combs and Niko Moon—laughs about the rift between Nashville and Texas. “Sam Houston and Davy Crockett went to the Alamo, but when you’re a Texas act, you’re not gonna forget your roots. I look at it like, ‘Your music’s fucking awesome. It can work in so many other places too.”

To that end, when Morgan Wallen had to cancel on Combs’ San Antonio date, Kappy and his client wanted to put some eyeballs on a deserving act. They chose Flatland Cavalry, and a dialogue between the band, their tour manager and the make-it-happen Kappy began. He wasn’t looking to sign the band, but “When I saw them, the harmonies, the fiddle, the smiling, the reaction from the fans, it was refreshing. It was like being on the front end of Luke Combs.

“With Country radio widening with so many different things—the rhythmic country, the pop country—why not Red Dirt? The format is widening more and more, and I think there’s going to be a lot more bands and artists from Texas. When you’ve got a live show that’s as good as the recorded music and just as much fun, why not?”

Kalmick (pictured at right) recognizes the power of being able to do it live, to create that experience with music built from an outlier place. With Whiskey Myers, who are as much Black Crowes as swaggering ’80s Hank Jr., he anticipates a much broader reality for these artists.

“The indication that Middle America and Americana are the lifeblood of live music is more evident than it’s been in decades,” he notes. “I’ve been a believer in the return of Southern rock and Americana in the mainstream. Yellowstone propelled generations of musical fans into this space.”

Even Warner Records Co-Chair/CEO Aaron Bay-Schuck, who signed Zach Bryan, sees the Yellowstone factor and the hunger for music that’s a little more authentic and real. “That sync [‘Something in the Orange’] was a brilliant, brilliant artist-discovery tool. I’m not a Red Dirt person by definition; neither myself nor my team thought in those terms when we signed Zach. But for listeners and viewers, it was beautiful and poignant and representative of the show—and it gave people [who were unaware of Red Dirt country] a chance to hear him.”

More than a moment, it’s a collection of fierce individualists, like Waylon, Willie, Jessi Colter and Tompall & the Glaser Brothers, working on their terms and selling out 4,000- to 6,000-seat venues without the trappings of Nashville’s star-making machinery. Part of it is how these artists embody an independence of spirit and approach—along with their willingness to get in a van and work a circuit that includes Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Lubbock, College Station, Amarillo, Nacogdoches, Stephenville, Corpus Christie, Waco, Tulsa, Fayetteville and Ft. Smith, Ark.; Wichita and Manhattan, Kan.

Couri offers, “Parker, Cody, Cory, even Eli Young, they played 100 to 140 shows a year until they were able to break out. When you have enough word of mouth in this scene, anything’s possible. Koe Wetzel is a little bit of the Outlaw thing, with very aggressive fans who chant his name during the opening act. He can do 5,000, 6,000 in Texas and Oklahoma; in the Carolinas, with no radio at all, 2,000 to 3,000 people a night.

“Artists in this scene talk about and support artists from this scene,” he continues. “It’s all about doing the work, getting better live and with the music. Now, with some mainstream success, it may be the scene’s hitting a new peak. I know one thing, though: Corey’s not going to tour less now that he’s on a major.

“There are all kinds of people with huge numbers on their socials who’ve never played a headlining show. The question is: Can they? These acts live to play. So here we go.”

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