With country music at a peak in popularity, the comings and goings in the format seemed more crucial than ever. And there were plenty — Garth Brooks came back, George Strait decided it was time to go, two guys from a different era came out, and a few stars chose to go out. On the road. In stadiums.
Brooks’ comeback was hardly a surprise. Ever since he announced his retirement from the road, it was clear he couldn’t stay away. There were occasional albums, charity concerts and of course, that two-year residency in Las Vegas. The audience was still there for him in arenas in 2014 — he sold a reported 1 million tickets in little more than four months — but the return was not a slam dunk. His first single, “People Loving People,” stalled at No. 19 on Country Airplay, plans to play five concerts at Dublin’s Croke Park were scrubbed over a local scheduling ordinance, and his GhostTunes digital retail store is still labelled “beta” more than a month after he released his Man Against Machine album.
Strait’s departure was not a surprise, either. He announced in 2012 that he would string out his Cowboy Rides Away Tour over the next two years, and he went out with a bang — a stadium show that featured such guest acts as Jason Aldean, Eric Church, Faith Hill and Kenny Chesney.
TAYLOR GOES POP
Taylor Swift‘s departure from country provided a mild shock, since she helped cultivate country’s youth movement and a pop transition has always been risky for the genre’s acts. But Swift made it look easy. Her album 1989 became her third album to sell 1 million copies its first week out. And her move generated not even a slight backlash in country, which represents a different storyline than one might have expected. But she made her move differently, too. For starters, she was honest from the first notes of “Shake It Off” about her direction. Plus, where other crossover acts blended in to pop, she stood out as a format giant. Should she return to her country roots at a later time, it’s likely that she’d be welcomed back.
Billboard’s Business Year-End
Her timing was ironic. As Swift went pop, there were scant females succeeding in country. Many weeks, the top 20 on the Country Airplay chart had maybe one or two solo women — Miranda Lambert and/or Carrie Underwood — with another couple females in groups or duos.
One of those duos, Maddie & Tae, slapped at country’s male domination with “Girl In A Country Song,” taking that debut to No. 1 late in the year. So-called bro country was still in full force during 2014, and they managed to wrap up the cliches in one humorously crafted effort that good-naturedly called out the worst offenders.
BROS HAVE A HANGOVER
All the partying that bro country represented was forefront during the summer of 2014. Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, Strait and Zac Brown Band were among the acts that packed one or more stadiums, though a spate of arrests and a couple of deaths put a damper on the high-fiving over ticket sales. Detractors found a connection between the bad behavior and country’s lyrical bent — at one point, eight of the top 10 songs held references to alcohol — and by the end of the year, drinking had subsided. In the songs anyway.
In the middle of that bro-country boom, though, Ty Herndon and Billy Gilman came out publicly as gay. Neither had had a hit in at least a dozen years, so their impact to mainstream country was minimal. But it did raise the specter that at some point, the genre will fall in line with every other music form and have a hit from an openly gay man or woman.
All of those developments — the career moves by Brooks, Strait and Swift; hard times for women; the growth of bro-country; the surge in stadium dates; and gay revelations — are representative of a genre coming through a significant transition. Where it’s going? It may be years before that’s evident.