A conversation between six-time Grammy winner Kacey Musgraves and Academy Award-winning actress/entrepreneur Reese Witherspoon led to the globally focused country music competition series My Kind of Country, which premieres Friday (March 24) via Apple TV+, in partnership with the Witherspoon-founded media company Hello Sunshine.
“We were talking about, ‘Why is country music so closed off? Why are there not more global influences and people who have a different perspective?’” Nashville native Witherspoon told Billboard via phone. “Kacey really illuminated it for me — it’s been a closed-door business for a long time. So this idea [is] to start a country music competition series and make it very international, because the reach of Apple is global. An important piece of this is highlighting voices that have not been heard. At Hello Sunshine, we have a spotlight that we would like to shine on people who have not had the opportunity to have their work highlighted.”
Witherspoon and Musgraves serve as executive producers on the eight-part series, which will air new episodes across a span of three weeks. Also serving as executive producers are Hello Sunshine’s Sara Rea and Lauren Neustadter, and Sandbox Entertainment’s Jason Owen (Musgraves is a Sandbox client), Izzie Pick Ibarra and Done+Dusted’s Katy Mullan.
The series’ dozen contestants hail from across the globe, including five artists from South Africa, two from India, one from Mexico and four from the United States.
“It’s been really cool for me to be part of this because since day one it’s been really important for me to keep reaching out globally, to try to find the people that connect with my music across the world,” said Musgraves, who is one of the few country artists to have toured Japan. “The easier thing to do would be to stay in America and play shows, but I want to build audiences around the world. I have been so moved and floored by being able to tour in places so far away from my home and see that my stories have connected with people there. Being part of this show is another angle of that for me. It just shows that no matter where you come from, when it’s brought back to the heart of the matter in the songs, we have the same emotions and the same human connection.”
Indeed, the show is intent on highlighting diversity and inclusion — not just with the contestants, but through the three artists who serve as scouts, mentors and judges: Jimmie Allen is a Grammy nominee and a 2021 CMA new artist of the year winner with three No. 1 Billboard Country Airplay chart hits; Mickey Guyton, who broke through with songs “Black Like Me” and “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” and was the first Black female solo artist to earn a Grammy nomination in a country category; and Orville Peck is a gay country artist who has collaborated with Shania Twain and is known for his fringed masks and retro-tinged brand of country music. Each handpicked four contestants to become part of their teams.
“It was cool to hear country music during different parts of the world, sometimes in different languages,” Allen told Billboard via Zoom, “and being part of choosing artists. I remember being on Zoom with show producers and going through and listening to so many artists that were really good.”
The dozen selected contestants traveled to Nashville, and throughout the eight episodes, viewers watch as they hone their skills and confidence, as the scouts narrow down the competition via eliminations, culminating in a finale performance in front of Musgraves, Witherspoon and the mentors/scouts, with one ultimate winner.
Allen’s artists are Ale Aguirre, who hails from Chihuahua, Mexico, and blends bilingual lyrics with elements of Norteño and banda. Dhruv Visvanath, from New Delhi, wrote the score to two independent films. North Carolina’s Camille Parker launched her career in R&B and pop music before pursuing a career in country music. Johannesburg’s Justin Serrao blends elements of alternative rock and country.
Guyton’s artists are two singer/songwriters from Nashville: Ashlie Amber and Chuck Adams, as well as South African sibling duo The Betsies (Zel and Landi Degenaar) and South African singer/songwriter Wandile.
Peck’s artists are Cape Town’s The Congo Cowboys (Julio Sigauque, Simon Attwell and Chris Bakalanga), who perform in both English and Lingala, the official language of the Democratic Republic of Congo; nonbinary bluegrass-influenced singer/songwriter Ismay of Petaluma, Calif.; Alisha Pais of Goa, India, and former South Africa Idols contestant Micaela Kleinsmith of Cape Town.
For all three scouts, their contestants have already moved them musically and emotionally.
“I feel like we’re all very nurturing people and to be around these amazing, incredible artists, it’s such a fulfilling thing to get to do,” Guyton told Billboard via Zoom. “The coolest part is you’re seeing how many people love country music globally.”
“Camille’s first performance, she sang ‘Space Cowboy’ by Kacey Musgraves, but the way she performed it, her vocal tone and delivery, it just hit me and she made the song her own,” Allen said.
Peck, who also hails from South Africa, noted watching fellow South Africa artist Kleinsmith progress in confidence was heartening.
“Coming into the competition, she was insecure about many things and had imposter syndrome,” Peck told Billboard via Zoom. “She is so incredibly talented and just getting to watch someone find themselves and their confidence in such a short amount of time that we did this show was really special for me to watch.”
Guyton recalled witnessing Adams’ vulnerability on the show.
“You never get to hear artists go through mental health struggles, but Chuck was very vocal about those things and it was beautifully honest,” she said. “Then he performed and you hear the pain and angst and this beautiful person. You just don’t often get to see that vulnerable side of people, especially on a show like this.”
“We cried a lot,” Allen added, sharing how he related to Adams’s story. “With Chuck, you know, I got diagnosed with bipolar [disorder] when I was 13, and I’ve had my moments where for two or three months I wanted to die, but I fought and stayed alive. So when you have those moments of him being open and then hearing his song, I knew if it was hitting me and inspiring me, all the people that see it are going to be inspired.”
Musgraves sees My Kind of Country as another essential step in the evolving progress of opening country music’s doors to a more diverse range of life stories and perspectives.
“Progress is progress, but there’s a long way to go,” Musgraves says. “Country music is woven with so many different stories and styles. And it’s not just about inclusivity in terms of color or gender. I want to see inclusivity when it comes to song matter and production style—that the songs that are able to be popular on country radio aren’t sung by the same kind of person about the same kind of thing. There are a lot of factors that could still be improved on.”
Witherspoon anticipates additional seasons of My Kind of Country, saying, “I sure hope so, because I do think country music is due for a disruption. We need to talk about why it’s been a closed-door business for so long. I think it’s the voice of the working people, whether that means you live in India, Africa, China, Japan…I think storytelling is storytelling, and we are here to promote great storytellers.”