This should not be a fruitful time for the music of God, guns and family. On the heels of a presidential election that ended with conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly declaring “the white establishment is now the minority … It’s not a traditional America any more”, one might expect country music to be an embattled genre retreating to its Nashville redoubt, beaten back by Obama-name-dropping rappers and liberal rockers.
But here’s the curious thing – the precise opposite is happening. Country music is booming. Last year it was one of only two genres to post a sales increase in the US. The other was rock, which grew more slowly. Country is the third-favourite genre among the busiest consumers of music, those aged 18-25. For this generation of American youth, the hoedown rules over the rave: they’re twice as likely to be country fans as listen to electronic dance music. And the final nail in the coffin for the Stetson-and-rhinestones stereotype: the largest market for country music is New York City.
This weekend a crop of country stars are taking the genre’s expansion overseas. Over the next two nights the C2C: Country to Country festival will find some of Nashville’s biggest names playing the 20,000-capacity O2 Arena in London. I caught up with three of them – LeAnn Rimes, Darius Rucker and Kimberly Schlapman of the group Little Big Town – to find out why country music is thriving in O’Reilly’s “untraditional” America.
First up was Rucker, speaking from Tennessee during a video shoot for his new single “Wagon Wheel”. The singer is an outsider to country: from Charleston, South Carolina, where he still lives, he grew up immersed in the music, but his background lies in rock. Rucker was frontman with Hootie and the Blowfish, a multi-platinum band in the 1990s. He switched to country with his solo album Learn to Live, which sold more than 1.2m copies. With a third country album forthcoming, True Believers, his career path is unusual.
“Name one pop or rock ’n’ roll guy who actually made a living in country music – and I think it might just be me,” Rucker agrees. With its own stable of stars and an infrastructure of record labels and radio stations, country is a world unto itself. “It’s self-sustaining,” he says. “It’s the only type of music that has a capital. Rock ’n’ roll, R&B, hip-hop – it’s all over the world. Country music has a base: Nashville, Tennessee.”
But Nashville is becoming more porous. In October, Rucker became only the third African-American performer to be inducted as a member of the Grand Ole Opry, the mecca of country music and home to Nashville’s iconic radio programme. (His predecessors were “old-timey” harmonica ace DeFord Bailey and the 1970s/80s singer Charley Pride.)
“Nobody talks about it any more,” he says of his colour. “But when I got my first top 20 [in the country charts], everybody made a big stink about that – I was the first African-American in like 25 years to have a top 20 hit. That shocked me. That really shocked me. But it is what it is. I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing and hopefully continue opening a few doors up for people.”
Nashville’s doors tend to open outwards. A large number of its stars have gone on to mainstream success, from Kenny Rogers to Garth Brooks, the US’s top-selling solo artist of the past 20 years. Contrary to its conservative reputation, country has proved adept at tailoring itself for non-country palates. In the 1960s roots purists were horrified by the lush romantic sounds of “countrypolitan” performers such as Tammy Wynette and George Jones.
Certain performers have been pivotal. Emmylou Harris’s duets with Gram Parsons opened up links with louche LA country-rock in the 1970s; she also became a lodestar for the “alt-country” acts emerging in opposition to Nashville’s glitz in the 1990s.
A sales slump hit country charts in the mid-1990s. But in the 2000s they have roared back to life. An increasing number of Nashville acts are topping country and pop charts simultaneously. Last year’s second-most successful album worldwide was by Taylor Swift, who comes from a country background. A host of other singers and bands – from Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban to Lady Antebellum and Rascal Flatts – are also regular fixtures in the mainstream US pop charts.
LeAnn Rimes inhabits this crossover category of country-pop. At only 30, she has more than 37m record sales to her name. “Top 40 radio is now really urban,” she says, speaking from Los Angeles, where she lives. “Pop music and rock music have all kind of vanished in a way, there’s a very small place for it on top 40 radio. So I think country music has become a lot more mainstream and taken over that section of the industry.”
Brought up in Texas, Rimes has been on the stage since she was a child, releasing her first album at 11. “Oh gosh, I started almost 20 years ago,” she says. She grew up listening to country (as well as other genres) on the radio and the family stereo. After discovering the songs of Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, she longed to sing on Broadway. “Maybe if you sing country music, it’ll take you there one day,” her mother told her. Rimes’ torchy voice has been compared to Patsy Cline, whose late 1950s “Nashville sound” was a forerunner to country-pop. Like Cline, Rimes has had her share of personal turmoil, suing her ex-manager-father, keeping tabloids enthralled with her turbulent love life and checking herself into rehab in 2012 for “anxiety and stress”.
She promises that her next album Spitfire will be “incredibly honest”. “Nothing will be off-limits,” she says. And why not? Few genres are better at recounting tales of woe and heartbreak than country music. “We tell real stories,” says Rimes. “When you can put all your emotion in the songs it’s different than if you’re an actress performing someone else’s music.”
This “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” tendency fits well with today’s confessional culture, the tearful interview on the chat-show sofa. (Rimes has done a few of those.) Meanwhile the moral wholesomeness underpinning the displays of emotion is hardly out of step with public opinion. Rimes is right when she says that “we’re telling a lot of what Middle America believes”. After all, no mainstream US politician dares to campaign for votes without declaring fidelity to God and family.
Purists complain that much contemporary country music isn’t “proper” country. That’s a theme raised by ABC TV series Nashville, about the catty rivalry between a fading “queen of country” in her 40s and the young “bubblegum country” singer who has displaced her. But modern Nashville acts aren’t so much betraying country’s values as modernising them.
Kimberly Schlapman, from a hill town in Georgia, grew up singing. Her band Little Big Town, a two-woman, two-man vocal harmony group, draw on old traditions (“A lot of us grew up singing in church and we all grew up singing harmonies with our families”), but have also won comparisons to Fleetwood Mac and the Mamas & Papas. “When we’re put in those categories, it is quite an honour!” she says.
Of country music’s appeal, Schlapman says: “It’s just cosy and it feels good and it feels like home. The mixing of the men’s and women’s voices just make it appeal to a greater realm of people. We can cover the highs, we can cover the lows.”
Yet country’s reputation for southern chauvinism isn’t exactly unwarranted. There are still hits such as Craig Morgan’s “More Trucks than Cars”, in which the ex-army Tennessee singer holds his hand over his heart when “Old Glory flies” and eats “biscuits, grits and gravy” with a waitress who calls him “baby”. But wider trends have taken the music out of its comfort zone. If America is changing, then country is changing with it.
Little Big Town play Saturday night at the C2C: Country to Country festival at the O2, London. LeAnn Rimes and Darius Rucker play Sunday night. www.theo2.co.uk