Country

The Bones Are Good: Inside Country's Recent Resurgence on the Hot 100

Mare Morris
Harper Smith

Maren Morris

As country music fans continue to embrace streaming, their listening habits are propelling country artists up the Billboard Hot 100. 

Led by Maren Morris’ crossover juggernaut “The Bones” at No. 13, seven country titles are in the top 40 of the all-genre Hot 100 chart for the week ending April 25. On the same chart a year ago, only one country song was in the top 40. The Hot 100 ranks songs of all genres through a formula that combines U.S. streaming, radio airplay and sales data.

“The streaming high tide has lifted all boats,” says Ben Kline, Warner Music Nashville’s exec vp/general manager. WMG has four of the seven songs: Gabby Barrett’s “I Hope” at No. 17 (and No. 1 this week on Billboard's Country Airplay listing), “Nobody But You” by Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani at No. 18, “More Hearts than Mine” by Ingrid Andress at No. 28 and “10,000 Hours” from Dan + Shay and Justin Bieber at No. 34.

As evidenced by some of those names just mentioned, this also comes at a time when women artists are having their best showing on Country Airplay in years. Earlier this year, for five consecutive weeks, there were five female-inclusive acts (solo female, duets or co-ed acts including women) in the top 20 of the Country Airplay chart -- in sharp contrast to the chart dated Dec. 8, 2018, when, for the first time in the then-29-year history of the chart, there were no female acts within the top 20. Female country artists, such as Shania Twain and Faith Hill (and obviously Taylor Swift), have a strong history of crossing over to pop. 

While country music streaming still lags substantially behind hip-hop and pop, the numbers are rising. Two weeks ago, country music streaming hit a new high in the U.S., with a record 1.244 billion on-demand audio streams of songs in the genre in the week ending  April 9, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data. Overall country song streams (combining  on demand audio and video streams) leapt to 1.389 billion for that week, the biggest week overall for the genre in eight months.

Through April 9, on-demand audio streams of country songs represented 7.19% of all on-demand audio streams, up from 6.92 a year ago. Though the rise seems modest, it represents an increase of more than 2.7 billion streams. 

“As a format, our consumers were slow adopters,” says Steve Hodges, Sony Music Nashville executive vp, promotion and artist development. “We’ll never be as big as hip hop and pop, but we’ve had a proportionate amount of ground to gain. The audience is leaning in to streaming.” 

Further driving some of these songs up the chart is crossover terrestrial airplay. Morris’s “The Bones” started at adult pop before Sony Music Nashville began working it to country stations. The song, which topped the Country Airplay chart for two weeks in February, led the Adult Pop Songs chart on the survey dated April 11. It has also logged time on Billboard’s Adult Alternative Songs, Adult Contemporary and Pop Songs charts and amassed an all-format airplay audience of 66 million this week. Though “The Bones” is a relatively straightforward country song, Morris’ acceptance at pop radio started with Zedd’s 2018 monster dance and pop hit, “The Middle,” featuring Morris and Grey, which reached No. 5 on the Hot 100. 

“10,000 Hours,” which peaked at No. 4 on the Hot 100 and is currently No. 7 on Billboard's Adult Contemporary chart, is also still receiving recurrent play at a number of pop formats, which contributes to its Hot 100 rank. 

Further driving country acts’ presence on the Hot 100 is the continuing cross pollination between country and pop acts. Barrett put out an alternative version of “I Hope” with Charlie Puth on April 17. (While released too late to affect its streaming and sales chart numbers this week, it may help in future weeks). Morris and Hozier performed “The Bones” on the Global Citizen’s One World: Together at Home concert special on April 18.

While neither Morgan Wallen, whose “Chasin’ You” is No. 25 on the Hot 100 or Brett Young, whose “Catch” is No. 37, have pop partners on those songs, they have increased their fan base with recent EDM collaborations: Wallen with Diplo on “Heartless,” which has already been certified gold by the RIAA, and Young with “I Do” with European pop singer Astrid S. 

“Heartless” “opened up a wider audience 100 percent,” says Seth England, partner in Big Loud Records, home to Wallen. “Diplo’s name was the Trojan horse that got the song on, but it was Morgan’s voice that people heard. We’ve seen consumption of his core catalog go up following that.” Adds Kline, “If you’re reaching millions of followers of another artist who aren’t familiar with your artist, there’s incremental growth there.”  

Songs like “Heartless” expose artists like Wallen to a whole new audience on playlists, but executives say the digital service providers are also increasingly adding country songs to all-genre playlists -- even ones without pop affiliations. 
Further, country artists are included in promotions once reserved for pop acts, which boosts exposure. Amazon is still the leader for country music streaming among the DSPs, but Spotify and Apple are embracing country music more and more.

“Now there are three really big powerful partners and that’s healthy for the genre,” Kline says. “We’ve had Ingrid Andress in Apple’s Up Next program. That was our first country artist in there. The partners are really putting their money where their mouths are when they say they’re committed to country music and exposing country artists across the platform, not just to the country listeners.”

“If Apple or Spotify put a country song on a big playlist, that’s a big indicator,” Hodges says. “The DSPs are able to to hit the beaches before mainstream airplay does.” 

Anecdotally, England believes the chart surge is also because country is cool now even among pop listeners who used to dismiss it. “I used to hear a lot of folks say, ‘I don’t really care for country except for…’ and they’d name one artist. Now they still say that, but name three or four artists.” It may not sound like much, he says, but it’s progress for sure.

For Kline, country’s strong presence on an all-genre chart sends a message. “It’s a picture of the entire country and what they’re listening to. Next year, hopefully it will be nine or 10 songs in the top 40.” 

Assistance on this story provided by Keith Caulfield and Tom Roland.