It’s an odd twist of fate that when consumers consider the geographical roots of country music, they tend to focus on the South — Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma or Tennessee — as if one area owns it.
And yet many of the genre’s steadfast themes — family, community, farming and Jesus — are at least as strong in the Midwest as in the South. Some 52.5% of consumers listen to country music at least on a monthly basis in the 12 states that make up the Midwest, according to a 2018 Country Music Association study, a figure that’s not far from the 54% of adults in 16 Southern states that do the same.
Even the Southern country artists see a lot of familiarity when they tour America’s heartland.
“Iowa’s one of the countriest states ever,” Georgian Rhett Akins noted in 2011.
Three women birthing new music are a stark reminder of the Midwest’s relevance in country: Hailey Whitters’ Raised album, released March 18 by Songs & Daughters, is an album Natalie Maines might make if she hailed from Eastern Iowa, the black dirt and wide open spaces all referenced amid tales of small-town innocence and feistiness. Minnesotan Caitlyn Smith name-checks Duluth native Bob Dylan and Iowa-born John Wayne in the opening strains of her ebullient single “Downtown Baby,” released by Monument to country radio on March 4. And Missourian Kassi Ashton‘s sultry “Dates in Pickup Trucks,” which Interscope/MCA Nashville released Feb. 4, celebrates back roads romance without a tailgate party and a keg.
“It’s a little more cornfields and ball caps than red dirt and cowboy hats,” Whitters says of the Midwest, “but we’re still very country up there.”
If people need to be reminded of the region, well, that goes with the turf, rich and black as it is. Farmers in Kansas and Illinois felt overlooked by the establishment even before Jason Aldean recorded a song titled “Fly Over States.” And folks from Missouri and Indiana are intrinsically unlikely to call attention to themselves.
“People just forget this big chunk in the middle, and it’s kind of what their personality is,” suggests Ashton. “My grandma’s family is huge: nine brothers and sisters. They’re shy and to themselves, so the reputation kind of makes sense to me. They’re not going out and showing anybody, ‘Well, this is my way of doing [things].’ They’re just like, ‘Yeah, we can our own vegetables and we hunt our own deer and we process our own meat. We go to work.’”
The Midwestern work ethic has influenced country music, even if the region hasn’t been as prolific as the South. Among the artists and songwriters who were born in the 12-state region, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, are:
- North Dakota: Lynn Anderson
- Nebraska: Tompall & the Glaser Brothers
- Kansas: Martina McBride, songwriter Nicolle Galyon
- Minnesota: Smith, Michael Johnson
- Iowa: Whitters, C.W. McCall, Southern Pacific’s Keith Knudsen
- Missouri: Ashton, Sara Evans, Porter Wagoner, Chely Wright, David Nail
- Wisconsin: Dave Dudley, Josh Thompson
- Illinois: Brett Eldredge, Alison Krauss, David Lee Murphy, John Prine, Gretchen Wilson
- Indiana: Janie Fricke, Connie Smith, Steve Wariner
- Michigan: Nate Barnes, Frankie Ballard, Harlan Howard and Jesse Frasure
- Ohio: David Allan Coe, Diamond Rio’s Marty Roe and Dana Williams, Johnny Paycheck, Rascal Flatts’ Jay DeMarcus and Gary LeVox
The volume isn’t quite what one might find in the South, but it’s still a quality list.
“You want three chords and the truth?” Smith asks rhetorically. “Talk to Bob Dylan or John Prine or Porter Wagoner. They didn’t need to be from Texas to write some of the best country songs this genre has ever seen.”
The reality is that most country artists need to go to Nashville to find their way, and the city generally feels comfortable to Midwestern transplants. It provides a music community that’s unlike anything they would have experienced at home, the winters are much easier, and Nashville’s values are mostly familiar. There are differences, of course, beginning with some of the food choices.
“I know we got fried pork tenderloins in Iowa,” says Whitters, “but fried okra was kind of strange to me.”
The level of friendliness comes as a surprise, too. Not that Midwesterners are rude, but they tend to respect personal space more than their new friends in the physical South.
“When I moved down here, the first session I had was all hugs,” recalls Chicago-bred songwriter-producer Josh Ronen (Erin Kinsey). “They weren’t handshakes — they were hugs. Like people are so excited all the time down here.”
The hug is often accompanied by a drawling “hi” and a frequent “y’all,” which represents one of the advantages Southern country artists hold over their Northern competitors. Without a twang, there’s one less aspect to brand a Midwesterner as “country,” and that actually gives them less leeway to push stylistic boundaries.
“No matter what Morgan Wallen sings, he’s going to be country because of the way he sounds, like his pronunciation of things,” Ashton says. “Because I went to school for singing and [because of] my vowel shapes and stuff, I have to watch it because it doesn’t sound as twangy. And then I can’t get away with as much as he maybe can.”
The thing is, the Midwest remains, as Akins said, among the “countriest” places. The artists may not grow up with peanut dust like Luke Bryan or in a mountain home like Dolly Parton. But their own working-class experiences show up in writing rooms once they arrive in Nashville.
“My upbringing in Minnesota finds its way into my music constantly,” says Smith. “Those themes are core to country music, too: love and loss, emptiness and joy — they are what we all experience at some level. It’s really universal.”