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Ronky Tonk: Country’s New Musical Explosion Is ‘Not the Typical Dirt Roads and Tailgate’

A flurry of new genre-blending male acts, including Jackson Dean, Zach Bryan and Bailey Zimmerman, are taking country radio by storm.

In 1989, country radio — and the genre in general — experienced a seismic shift when Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt and Clint Black all released their debut albums in the same year.

Referred to collectively and reverentially as “The Class of ’89,” the movement brought a sea change to country music, ushering in an era of unprecedented growth and popularity.

Now a new crop of male artists is taking the charts by storm, leading industry executives to believe another watershed moment could be happening at country.

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In a rare move, six artists all have their first singles sent to country radio in the top 35 of Billboard’s Country Airplay chart dated Dec. 3: Jackson Dean, “Don’t Come Lookin’” (No. 3), Bailey Zimmerman, “Fall in Love” (5), Jelly Roll, “Son of a Sinner” (8), Nate Smith, “Whiskey on You” (12), Corey Kent, “Wild as Her” (26) and Zach Bryan, “Something in the Orange” (33).

“It’s a paradigm shift we see in the format every now and then when there’s a crop of new artists that come in, push their way onto the chart and you can’t ignore it anymore,” says Tim Roberts, country format vp/brand manager for the Audacy radio chain.

“It feels unprecedented,” says Sony Music Nashville chairman/CEO Randy Goodman, whose roster includes Smith and Kent.

Preceded by acts like HARDY, who straddles country and rock, these artists are not only storming the airwaves, they’re setting records. Two years ago Zimmerman was building gas pipelines and posting original songs to social media. Shortly thereafter, Elektra’s senior vp of A&R/head of research and analytics Jacob Fain noticed “a quick moment” was happening on TikTok and helped sign him. In September, the 22-year old made history on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart when he became the first act to place three career-opening entries in the tally’s top 10 simultaneously since October 1958, when it became an all-encompassing genre ranking. (The chart now measures streaming, airplay and sales.)

A decade after bro-country hit radio airwaves, the new era of ronky tonk feels more like woe-country — that feel-good sound’s antithesis. Instead of uptempo beats and lyrics about a care-free lifestyle filled with girls, trucks and beer, these songs often display a rawer rock production with a brooding vocal delivery. Alcohol is used to drown one’s sorrows rather than for celebration. Troubles, they’ve got them — often with a side of heartache and a past they can’t escape.

“Nate’s very open with his lyrics about heartbreak and Bailey’s just 22, but he’s got his heart broken many times and both guys and girls are really connecting to the lyrics and music,” says Simon Tikhman, CEO and co-founder at Core Entertainment, who co-manages Smith with Kevin “Chief” Zaruk. The pair also co-manage Zimmerman with 10th Street Entertainment’s Chris Nilsson and Scott Frazier.

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Warner Music Nashville co-president Cris Lacy, who works with Zimmerman (in partnership with Elektra) and Bryan (who’s signed to Warner Records with assistance from WMN) credits the acts’ authenticity for their success. “A lot of artists that come to town work into a system full of brilliant songwriters, musicians and artists, and it’s intimidating. Sometimes you shrink before you expand,” she says. “They came to town with the stories that built them – Zach with his military career and Bailey working on pipelines – and put the music out. It really wasn’t subject to any scrutiny or any rewriting or any trying to make it fit in a box.”

They also bring with them an edge that provides a counterpoint to the pop-leaning sound that has filled country radio recently. “It’s not that people don’t like pop country,” Roberts says, “but the format always needs balance. I think it’s a correction that we’re seeing and the audience is eating it up.”

“Country had started to feel very safe, not dangerous,” says Zaruk. “Now you’re seeing [rock] influences come in that you normally wouldn’t see. It’s not the typical dirt roads and tailgates.”

Some of the acts are experiencing crossover success on the rock charts as well. Jelly Roll’s “Son of a Sinner” peaked at No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot Rock Songs chart, while his “Dead Man Walking” reached No. 1 on Mainstream Rock Airplay. Bryan’s “Something in the Orange” climbed to No. 2 on Hot Rock & Alternative Songs. (HARDY’s “Sold Out” topped Billboard’s Hot Hard Rock Songs chart in March, the same week “Beers On Me, his team-up with Dierks Bentley and Breland, was No. 4 on Country Airplay before ascending to the top spot).

Industry executives cite other reasons for the flurry of activity, including audiences opening their ears to new sounds following the pandemic. “Every research piece I saw during the pandemic said people don’t want to hear new music right now. They had other crap to worry about, like getting groceries and finding toilet paper,” Roberts says. “We’re in an era that’s post-pandemic, and people are feeling better from an emotional and mental standpoint and now do have an appetite for new music. And I think radio is smart enough to see it.”

Country radio, which tends to move conservatively, is also smart enough to see that some of these acts are earning massive streaming numbers and stations risk hesitating at their own peril. The country genre has been slower than pop and hip hop to adapt to streaming, but the numbers are steadily increasing. In his short career, Bryan has already earned 2.45 billion on-demand U.S. streams, according to Luminate, compared to 13.4 billion career streams for Luke Combs.

“Where I was really seeing it was on the country on-demand streaming chart,” Goodman says. “Just looking at the number of new entries there has been quite astonishing.”

RADIO PICKING UP THE PACE

Terrestrial radio, once the entry point for listeners to hear new music, now often follows streaming when it comes to musical discovery — building off momentum established first on Spotify, Apple Music, TikTok and other platforms. But Big Machine Label Group bucked current practice and went straight to radio with Dean’s “Don’t Come Lookin’” instead of waiting for other indicators to show the song was growing.

“When I hear that radio is a great finisher, there is a small part of me that gets offended, because it historically has been such a massive medium of exposure,” says Kris Lamb, Big Machine’s senior vp of promotion and digital. “Jackson crushes it live with acoustic shows. We could very economically take him to every tastemaker that would open their doors, so we thought, ‘Let’s let radio lead on this,’ and we started our radio tour at the beginning of the year.”

The results are a hit at radio concurrent with building streaming success. “Ever since the record has been inside the top 10 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart, it’s taken on a new life of its own when it comes to on-demand streams, sales and consumption. I really do think it’s an incredible case study of how radio can lead the charge and break an artist,” Lamb says.

“Country radio is stepping out [and] taking risks on these artists,” Lacy says. “It used to be radio would ask us when we wanted to release [a song]. Now, they’re picking up the song and playing it, whether we are planning on releasing it or not. In Zach’s case we weren’t working [“Something in the Orange”] at all.” 

Similarly, Zimmerman went to country radio very early after being signed. “It was a risk, but we felt that this record was strong enough and the story was building so quickly, that we wanted to get the shot,” Fain says. “Bailey and some of the country records are moving so quickly almost like what you would expect out of a coastal signing. The genre is changing and evolving.”

Country radio is the last format where labels build new artists by sending them on expensive radio tours around the country to introduce them in person at various stations. (This step is considered so crucial that during the pandemic, BMG funded a high-tech studio that enabled new artist Elvie Shane to perform virtually for more than 120 individual stations in order to facilitate the one-on-one interaction with studio personnel). 

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Not everyone’s taking the radio tour route though, and some of these acts — including Zimmerman and Smith — are letting metrics trump tradition because fans are reacting so strongly. “For the longest time, it was like, ‘You’ve got to go do the 20-week country radio tour [and] play for the programmers to build relationships,'” says Zaruk. “With analytics, it’s no longer, ‘Can you give us two spins at midnight?’ That’s old school. Now you go, ‘Hey, this song is streaming 5 million streams a week. Here’s 14 markets on DSPs where there’s 15,000 people a day listening to the song.’ You fire that info to radio and they’re like, ‘We have to play this song.'”

With Smith, Sony Nashville built a story by sending two other tracks to digital service providers (DSPs) before taking “Whiskey on You” to radio. “We said, ‘Look, this thing is exploding,’” Goodman says. “‘Put it in day parts and give it a shot and if it doesn’t work, we’ll move on because we’re seeing the consumption blow up and we’re making money.’”

Similarly with Sony’s Kent, radio stations moved quickly after they saw action on DSPs and SiriusXM’s The Highway with terrestrial stations in major markets like Los Angeles, Denver and Dallas leading the way. “Those are three of the five biggest stations. [They] typically aren’t going to jump on anything, until there’s a fully-orchestrated radio promotion campaign from a major label,” says Kent’s manager, Triple 8 Management founder George Couri. But bolstered by the fan response, the stations didn’t wait.

“When the music is this good and your audience wants it, you have to react to it,” Roberts says.

 It is early days and way too soon to tell which, if any, of today’s breakthrough artists become tomorrow’s superstars. “Staying power is always the test of time,” Roberts says, “but these people all seem very talented and capable of producing a lot more music.”

In the meantime, Cumulus Media vp of country Charlie Cook says this bumper crop of newcomers are taking advantage of the opportunities and resources that the class of 1989 lacked.

“They have an additional avenue that the class of ’89 didn’t have, and that’s going directly to the consumer. The people in ’89 had to go through radio,” he says. “We get accused of being gatekeepers sometimes. I think in this case, the gatekeepers have said, ‘Come on in, let me open this gate wider for you, and make sure that we give you space to grow the brand that you’ve already developed.’”