Polish your boots, get out your plaid flannel shirt from the back of your closet, and dust off your Stetson — we’re off to a country music festival. But this isn’t Texas or Tennessee, but rather the faded UK seaside resort of Blackpool, which is hosting the 2021 British Country Music Festival from September 3-5, and visitors from all around the country and way beyond are expected to attend.
The typically American music genre is celebrating a global revival, with events all around Europe — even in Germany — giving it a new lease on life. This is, of course, pre-COVID; but with the gradual easing of restrictions, country fans around the globe are excited to get back on the horse.
“The thing about country music that speaks to people is the songwriting,” Milly Olykan, VP of International Relations & Development at the Country Music Association (CMA) in Nashville, Tennessee, told DW.
“People have realized that country music isn’t about geography,” says Baylen Leonard, a country music broadcaster based in London. “It’s about storytelling and emotion.”
Nashville remains the capital of country music worldwide — but the sound is being exported abroad more than ever before
‘The perfect storm’
Olykan says the focus of her work is “to shift perceptions about country music. For example, it’s not only older people who listen to country. It’s young people. And the audiences have got younger over the years.”
Milly Olykan has been helping country music gain global recognition for over a decade
But what has led to the explosive revival of country well beyond the US?
“It was almost like a perfect storm. It started back in the day when we had Taylor Swift, who never presented herself — especially in Europe — as a country artist, but she clearly was a country artist. So she started to crossover. And Kacey Musgraves also attracted people to country soon thereafter,” Olykan explains.
“Then the TV show ‘Nashville’ came out with all its stories and drama and intrigue, and that actually really opened people’s minds to young people making country music — as opposed to it being only older artists like Kenny Rogers. That kind of opened the door.”
The rise of streaming services in the early 2010s also made the genre more accessible, according to Baylen Leonard: “You don’t have to go to the country section of a record store anymore. You’ll be listening to something on a streaming platform and then an algorithm will suggest something else you might like.”
Taylor Swift’s crossover music is one of the factors that has resulted in country music’s growing success
The country music industry then cashed in on this development in Europe: “In 2012, the Country to Country music festival was launched at The O2 arena in London. By the second year, it went so well they added Glasgow and Dublin. By now, it’s also gained a foothold in Berlin and Amsterdam,” Olykan further highlights.
According to Olykan, outside the US, the UK has now become the biggest target market of the genre — with the rest of Europe, especially Germany and Scandinavia, also registering major growth. And in the US, country now is even the second fastest growing genre of music, according to TIME magazine.
No pandemic blues
The numbers behind the stellar rise of country in the UK and then in the rest of Europe are impressive: according to the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), which is the official charts company in the UK, the genre witnessed a growth factor of 19% in the second quarter of 2021 compared to the same time in 2020. And the year before, country even grew by 47%.
Broadcaster Baylen Leonard is excited about all the growth of country music on new platforms like TikTok
“TikTok has also been a great tool for discovery of new country artists, especially during the pandemic, like Priscilla Block and Callista Clark,” says Milly Olykan. “Some artists got major record deals because of TikTok,” adds Baylen Leonard.
With all these modern developments, the country genre clearly is no longer all about your “achy breaky heart” — to quote a trope from the 1990s — but rather tackles relatable issues, not just in terms of lyrics but also in terms of sound: Milly Olykan welcomes the fact that there are more and more country performers who “enter the pop space and more pop artists (who) enter the country space. And I think that will be mutually beneficial. I would love to see more of such cross-genre work. Especially internationally.”
Baylen Leonard, who also runs the Long Road Festival of country music, adds that those kind of collaborations are becoming increasingly interesting for the genre, highlighting that “artists are now also bringing in HipHop and RnB into country. And that, too, is country.”
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But even older country legends are celebrating a revival in their own right. While back in the day, country music was treated much like Thanksgiving dinner — i.e. you don’t speak about religion or politics — the new country age appears to have embraced diversity as a key message at its heart.
“One of the most common misconceptions about country music is that it is all about a truck and a dog, and holding on to your gun. Another one is that country music is white, and that it is conservative and close-minded,” says Baylen Leonard.
“Look, I’m not saying that country music doesn’t have a diversity issue,” Leonard adds, “but there are more and more Black artists, there are more and more artists with all kinds of sexualities. So there are movements within country music that are challenging all those conceptions. Plus, the roots of country music are Black anyway. The banjo is an African instrument.”
T.J. Osborne of the successful country duo Brothers Osborne recently came out as gay
There’s perhaps none other than Dolly Parton to prove that country is moving with the times. Half a century ago already, she boldly sang about the fate of jilted women and teenage pregnancy, trying to inject a stuffy musical genre with some of the subversive energy of the Women’s Lib movement. Today, the mother of country music no longer needs to hide her messages under her impressive wigs (although she still continues to don them with great style).
“Dolly Parton is not only a global icon. She’s also a local hero in Tennessee. She is absolutely authentic to who she is. She is exactly who you think she’s going to be. She’s not an act. She loves all God’s children,” Baylen Leonard told DW shortly after interviewing Parton on air.
Indeed, from homosexuality to interracial marriage, Parton has taken some of her old songs to address some of the hot topics in society, while giving these tunes a 21st century facelift: The eight-part Netflix series Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings pushes major buttons with a great amount of sensitivity and respect, inviting its viewers to walk a mile in someone else’s boots to Dolly’s tune.
The fictional storylines reflect much about the foundations of country music being rooted in community, friendship and a shared understanding of the human experience.
“We are just so, so lucky to have her,” says Milly Olykan about Dolly Parton.
Meanwhile the podcast on the singer, Dolly Parton’s America, does the same as the TV series while eschewing fiction for fact. One of the most successful podcasts of all time, the show follows her career, with each chapter reflecting the social change that Parton has witnessed throughout her life.
In the series, Parton never shies away from speaking her truth — even when it comes to uncomfortable topics, such as contemplating suicide early in her career. It almost feels like one woman’s life-long journey of liberation from the shackles of patriarchy.
The ride continues
With all these trends and rise in popularity, the country market is expanding and has its eyes set on a future beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, with big names planning to tour across Europe and beyond, and festivals like the British Country Music Festival and many others like it outside the US looking forward to a return to live performance. And one of the biggest market with growth potential identified by the CMA is Germany.
“Germany is such a big global music market. We have to improve our foothold with country music there because there are definitely fans of the genre but there’s still a lot of potential there,” says Milly Olykan, who herself hails from New Zealand.
And Tennessee-native Baylen Leonard appears confident that in any market, country music is fully able to fill whatever big boots it is given: “Like any quality art form, country is not a museum piece. It’s a living, breathing, evolving art form. And that’s as true today as it was with Johnny Cash and Hank Williams and Patsy Kline back in the day,” he explained.
“This moment in country music is actually not a reemergence. It’s just a continuation.”