Country Music's Changing of the Guard: Why Young Guns Like Frankie Ballard, Dustin Lynch & Sam Hunt Are Rising Faster These Days

Frankie Ballad
 Courtesy of Warner Music Nashville 

When Frankie Ballard sings "Young & Crazy," the song is meant as a celebration of youthful romantic exuberance. But the title, which is No. 3 on Country Airplay, could serve as an anthem for the country format in general.

Led by Michael Ray, Ballard, Dustin Lynch and Thomas Rhett, 13 slots in the chart's top 20 belong to artists who are working music from their first or second albums. In a genre noted for the longevity of its successful acts and the loyalty of the fan base, it's a remarkable scenario that might represent an artistic changing of the guard.

"I think it's already happened," says WYCD Detroit operations manager/PD Tim Roberts. "Maybe the cycle is speeded up now."

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The dominance of new acts appears to come from a convergence of events that includes a loosening of the stylistic boundaries for the format, youthful mastery of new technologies, the evolving makeup of the audience and changing attitudes at radio, which remains the biggest medium of exposure for country.

In another era, country programmers spent decades in the genre, and they were often protective of the music's stylistic identity. In addition, they tended to form allegiances with artists who might remain staples of the format for as long as 10-12 years. But in the era of consolidation, country's programming reins have often been handed to PDs with histories in other genres. As a result, they have been more likely to favor the best single over the best-recognized artist.

"The pressure is on established artists more than ever to make great music," says Warner Music Nashville senior vp promotion Kevin Herring. "I think in the past, you used to get a pass if you were a superstar and you put out a record that wasn't up to snuff. I think there is less of that now. The competition is stiffer, the stakes are higher, and you can't afford to go out there with something you're not 100 percent confident you can deliver."

Some of the success being experienced by newer acts is a result of cultural evolution. The rate of change in the digital era is much faster than that of previous generations, and as country's audience has tilted younger, that means the expected rate of change in the format's sound has grown faster, too.

"Things that we use every day essentially didn't exist [15-20 years ago]," says Rhett's manager, G-Major Management founder Virginia Davis. "The Internet didn't really exist, Facebook didn't exist, online dating didn't exist. In the span of my generation, even the way that we communicate with humans is different. So how can music not be affected by that?"

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Country's current popularity has contributed to the turnover as well. In the last year, concert professionals identified 18 country shows that were touring arenas and/or stadiums. As a result, such established headliners as Kenny Chesney, Jason Aldean and Brad Paisley have created opportunities for greater numbers of new acts. Those 18 packages provided slots for roughly 30-35 new or developing artists to perform for audiences of 10,000 or more people. Herring suggests that as recently as a decade ago, the number of country shows playing arenas and stadiums might have been less than half that number, providing comparable touring slots to maybe 12-15 developing acts.

Many of the new acts currently in the top 20 -- such as Sam Hunt, Maddie & Tae and Brett Eldredge -- have likely vaulted higher in their careers faster than they might have in a previous decade because of the volume of exposure coupled with the growth of social media.

"They can share it, they can talk about it, make a reaction video of a single like two seconds after it's released and go on Twitter," notes Davis. "It's a totally different world than it was even five years ago when it comes to the way people listen and react and share music."

The increased reliance on technology is also favoring the younger segment of Nashville's creative class. Younger people tend to adapt new software more quickly than their elders, and with the sound of country expanding, that provides an advantage to songwriters and producers who are able to wrangle innovative sounds and rhythms out of laptops or electronic equipment.

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"Some of these kids writing these songs and demo-ing them, it really forces you to up your game and put your pride in the backseat," says veteran producer Dann Huff (Keith Urban, Brantley Gilbert).

Even the current crop of acts still working their first or second albums -- such as Chris Janson, Chase Rice or even Florida Georgia Line -- will face that changing cultural landscape as they move forward. Embracing the evolution will be key for them as they develop.

"If you sing about the same thing in the same tempos all the time, you aren't gonna grow as an artist," observes Herring, "and I think you will fall off the relevancy list."

Indeed, even as this generation of artists establishes itself, it's already inspiring a round of kids and teenagers who will be inspired to move to Nashville, get record deals and maybe open up for them in the future. And if they've got the right song, they might well beat out one of their heroes -- today's newbies -- for a valuable spot on the playlist.

"If you're an established artist and you put out an OK record and somebody new puts out a great record," says Roberts, "that's how new artists get established."

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.