How Country Beat Back Rap in Mainstream Country

Ernest / Jelly Roll

For the last dozen years or so, one of the most contentious battles within the realm of commercial country music has centered around the incursion of hip-hop influences into the genre, and specifically the use of verses that are rapped as opposed to sung, and electronic beats replacing organic, human-played drums that are at the heart of what most consider “country music.”

When Jason Aldean released the country rap song “Dirt Road Anthem” in 2011 and it became the most commercially successful song that year, it set the table for the onslaught for what came to be known as Bro-Country, which was an amalgam of country and non-country influences, including hip-hop. Soon, cutting country rap songs or including elements of hip-hop became almost like a requirement for popular country artists, with established performers like Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton releasing country rap songs of their own, and artists that wouldn’t go along quickly being put out to pasture on popular country radio. This was also the period when the gulf between the amount of women and men on country radio became its most pronounced.

Though country rap and Bro-Country were most certainly popular among a specific subset of music listeners, some, if not many of them resided outside of the country genre. Bro-Country appealed more to trendy pop fans that were interlopers to the country genre as opposed to indigenous listeners. Country rap and Bro-Country were extremely polarizing to many actual country fans, which bled over into culture at large. This is when New York-based journalist Jody Rosen coined the term “Bro-Country” to delineate the unique culture that was building around the music that wasn’t exactly country, and not exactly hip-hop.

Even sports commentators and comedians like Bo Burnham lambasted country music’s direction, and lamented what had become of the country genre in general. People who didn’t have a rooting interest in country music, but still appreciated it from afar for its cultural aesthetic and historical context grew to find Bro-Country as awful and offensive to what they knew country music to be.

It was within the rift that country rap created in country music that artists like Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, and eventually, Chris Stapleton started finding traction as listeners searched for alternatives. When Stapleton virtually swept the 2015 CMA Awards and performed a landmark rendition of the old country standard “Tennessee Whiskey” with Justin Timberlake, the fever broke with Bro-Country. It would take another six or seven years for Bro-Country’s reign to come almost completely to a close, and most certainly the last dying gasps of the subgenre can still be heard on country radio today. But it’s a new era in popular country now where the most popular influence is actually country.

“This is my 5th or 6th year being at this awards show, and country sounded more country than it has in a long time, and I think we all wanted that,” Luke Combs said to cap off the 2022 CMA Awards in November as he held the trophy for Entertainer of the Year. It really hit the nail on the head of what’s been happening in country, and where the trends seem to be headed. It not just that an artist like Luke Combs seems like a healthier alternative to the Bro-Country acts that came before him. It’s that the movement seems broad based.

Women like Lainey Wilson, Carly Pearce, and Ashley McBryde are helping to returning female representation to country. Cody Johnson, who came up on the rodeo circuit in Texas, won two CMA Awards in 2022, and later a Grammy Award for his song “‘Til You Can’t.” Jon Pardi and other traditionalists have become a positive force in country that’s hard to deny, while independent songwriters such as Zach Bryan and Tyler Childers continue to show surprising traction on the Country Albums chart, beating out their mainstream counterparts, and acts like the Turnpike Troubadours and Billy Strings are selling out arenas. The resurgence in country isn’t just about more country-sounding songs either. It’s also about songs that say something, and dig deeper than the average country radio single.

But perhaps the most astounding development in country music’s dramatic turnaround has been how country rap artists themselves are in many respects driving this trend towards country, and toward songs of greater substance. Instead of being part of the problem, they’re becoming part of the solution. There aren’t two better examples than two of the fastest-rising names in country music right now, Jelly Roll and Ernest. Both come from country rap backgrounds, and both are not just reversing their country rap ways, they are actively leading the charge toward real country music.

Ernest came up collaborating with Bro-Country stalwarts Florida Georgia Line and cutting country rap songs. But when his song “Flower Shops” hit country radio, it was arguably the most traditional-sounding country radio single released in the last 20+ years. Unfortunately, his label pulled the single after it reached #18 on the airplay charts (#13 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs), even though it appeared to be heading to the Top 10.

When Ernest released his Flower Shops album, the title track was mostly an outlier on a more mainstream-sounding project, though there were a couple other exceptions. However, with the recent deluxe edition of the album Flower Shops (The Album): Two Dozen Roses, it shows what kind of vision Ernest had for the album from the beginning, which was a greater mix of traditional-sounding tracks like “Flower Shops.” Perhaps the label initially saw this direction by Ernest as risky. But with the success that so much of traditional-sounding country music is enjoying at the moment, now they’re ready to double down.

Around the release of the deluxe edition of Flower Shops, Ernest tweeted out, “I feel like I’ve found my calling and it’s NOT to ‘save country music’ … but by god, it’s to make it.”

Perhaps even more astounding is the complete 180 country rapper Jelly Roll is making. “Son of a Sinner” was basically the only song anyone would every construe as “country” from his last album Ballads of the Broken. But after it went #1 on country radio (#8 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs), Jelly Roll has decided he’s basically getting out of the rap game, and diving head first into country.

Though this pronouncement (and his face tattoos) may have some wincing at this prospect, what Jelly Roll is saying about the role hip-hop played in his music, in his life, and where he is now is nothing short of bombshell in regards to the battle between rap and country in the mainstream country genre.

Speaking on Apple Radio recently, Jelly Roll said about his transition to country,

The evolution that’s happened with my music was only a reflection of the evolution that happened as a man. Right? The music just evolved because the man evolved. This was just the music just followed my heart. It followed my spirit. I’m not that kid anymore. I was tearing my community apart and making CDs bragging about it. Ignorantly. In my defense, I didn’t have knowledge that I have now, you know. But there was no glory in that. I started singing more and getting more soulful and more in touch with the kind of music that I knew was important, which was the music that helped people. Like music had helped me whenever I was young. It just kind of followed that way.

Now, I still got hip hop elements in everything I do. I have a hip-hop element on my debut country album that’s coming out this summer and I have a hip-hop feature on it, but it’s still super country record. But my heart is different, man. My heart is to help. It’s not even about rap itself, it’s about the culture that I came from in the streets and just how misguided they are. Just how obstructive of a view we have when we were in that situation. It’s sad. I only see it now, because I’m out of it. You never see it when you’re in it. I only got above, got the 30,000 foot view and seen it. It’s like, “Man, I just want to make music that helps, the music that heals. I just want to try to do things to help the community that I’m from.”

Of course, we can’t expect a former country rapper like Jelly Roll to rise up an “save country music” any more than we can expect Ernest to. As Jelly Roll says himself, hip-hop elements will still creep into his songs, as will rock elements. He also has a rock album on the way, and a collaboration with Brantley Gilbert. But talking about how misguided his early career was, and how he sees himself maturing with country music means he’s going from an artists that was working to push country more into the hip-hop direction to one that is helping to make it more country. This is a radical shift.

What Jelly Roll is saying parallels what many punk rockers were saying in the late ’90s into the early 2000s as they transitioned into country and roots artists as well. As they got into their late 20’s and early 30’s, they started searching for more meaning, and came back to the country music they grew up with, which wasn’t the current pop country of the time, but Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Hank Williams. Not only has it made a positive difference in country music, it’s made a positive difference in these performers’ lives. Artists like Jesse Daniel who was once a punk musician from Santa Cruz who got clean through country music have attested to this.

All of this is also a symptom of the freedom artists are finally being afforded due to technology opening up the music, and allowing consumers to make their own choices irrespective of major labels and country radio. Jelly Roll also spoke about this to Apple Music.

You know what’s happening now? Artists are allowed to be themselves, and the fans can connect with that. Some guy sitting in an ivory tower on 17th Avenue isn’t making that decision anymore. Right? He doesn’t get to pick. It was almost wrestling for a while. It was almost WWE. Every building had a Vince McMahon that was creating storylines for artists and dressing them different ways. It goes back to my Build-A-Bear theory and now we’re finally in a place where it’s like people are connecting. We have a direct to consumer now. That’s how you can be an independent artist who has a show on Apple Music. This is insanity. But that also shows how far that everything’s came. 

Jelly Roll is right. It’s consumers who are choosing now. And what they’re choosing more and more is country over hip-hop in the country genre, and songs that say something as opposed to radio singles. That’s how we saw the meteoric rise of Zach Bryan. That’s how artists like Jelly Roll and Ernest are finding the greatest success of their careers through moving away from hip-hop as opposed to towards it.

In previous years, journalists and critics from outside of the country genre were proclaiming that country music needed to evolve and incorporate hip-hop influences or risk being left behind in the popular music diet. They began pushing artists heavily influenced by hip-hop like Breland and Kidd G as the future of the genre—both of which haven’t developed nearly as successfully as Zach Bryan, Tyler Childers, Bailey Zimmerman who also came up outside of the Music Row system, and Jelly Roll as well. Now, it’s the fans who are beginning to choose who makes it in country music, not labels. And the fans are choosing artists who put the song first and their country roots forward.

This is not to discount the importance of hip-hop in popular music culture, or to say it’s an illegitimate art form. Unquestionably, hip-hop is overwhelmingly the most dominant influence in American music at the moment. But this is all the more reason to keep country music an alternative to hip-hop, with organic instrumentation and that human element that electronic-based music often leaves behind. Incorporating hip-hop into country is not the inclusion of diversity in music, it is the death of diversity in music.

The reason many journalists and critics outside of country music kept lobbying for hip-hop to become a bigger influence in country is because that’s what appealed to them, and because they believed it would be an avenue to make country music more ethnically diverse as well. But with artists like Charley Crockett, Chapel Hart, The War & Treaty who just signed a major label deal with a country label, and other more organic artists rising as well, country music can find the racial diversity it deserves without pretending hip-hop is the only way to make that happen.

Unquestionably, hip-hop beats and cadences continue to find their way into popular country songs, and they probably won’t go away in their entirety anytime soon. But for country music to survive into the future, it can’t follow trends. Country music must make its own trends, delineate itself from the rest of popular music and offer something different, and do it in a way that is true to itself. That is what country is doing right now with the current crop of new artists, even including post hip-hop performers like Ernest and Jelly Roll.

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