Not Just Country, INDEPENDENT Country Tops The Charts

Zach Bryan / Oliver Anthony / Evan Felker of the Turnpike Troubadours

It has been the talk of music all throughout the summer. Country music, which has always been considered on the second or third tier of the popular music diet compared to pop, rock, and hip-hop, has been dominating the Billboard Hot 100 that tracks the most popular songs in the United States, and often, in the world.

Throughout the summer, Morgan Wallen’s “Last Night” and the Luke Combs cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” have been jostling for #1 and #2 on the charts, putting country artists at the very top of people’s playlists throughout America—something we haven’t seen for many years, and have never seen for this extended of a period. This achievement in itself has been unprecedented for the country genre.

But over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen something even more unprecedented and inexplicable transpire. Not only is country music codifying its monopoly at the top of the charts, it’s strengthening and expanding it. And no, it’s not being done by Music Row or mainstream country artists supported by radio and major awards. It’s being done by independent and outright unsigned artists that came up solely from the strength of grassroots support.

The gravity and importance of what is happening right now cannot be overstated. Not only is popular country music overtaking pop and hip-hop in the American music diet, independent country is taking over popular country. Everything that grassroots fans have been working towards for the past 15-20 years is finally starting to be realized. The playing field is being equalized and the ceiling has been raised for these independent performers.

This week at the very top of the Billboard Hot 100 Is Zach Bryan’s song “I Remember Everything” featuring Kacey Musgraves. Though Zach Bryan’s music is distributed by Warner, he owns his own record label called Belting Bronco, and Zach achieved this feat virtually all by himself off the strength of his massive fan base. Did Kacey Musgraves make a difference? Sure. But previously, the best Musgraves had done on the Hot 100 herself was #60 for her song “Follow Your Arrow.” Musgraves is a massive beneficiary here too.

What does Zach Bryan’s “I Remember Everything” replace? It replaces Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond,” which was the #1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 the previous two weeks, and still remains near the top of the charts. Forget owning his own record label, Oliver Anthony is completely unsigned.

And before you go labeling Oliver Anthony a one-hit wonder, his song “Ain’t Gotta Dollar” has been appearing on the Hot 100 over this same time period, and both songs achieved this after supporters downloaded the tracks initially. Anthony’s 2nd week at #1 was built off the strength of consumer streams.

Meanwhile, other new Zach Bryan songs like “Hey Driver” with The War & Treaty (#14), “Spotless” with The Lumineers (#17), and “Holy Roller” with Sierra Ferrell (#37) also debuted on the Hot 100, bestowing career achievements to these important artists as well, and helping to spread the word about their music. Other Zach Bryan songs like “East Side of Sorrow,” “Tourniquet,” and “Overtime” also charted high, with every one of the new Zach Bryan tracks appearing on the Billboard Hot 100 chart index, along with two previous tracks.

Furthermore, when you consider that Jason Aldean’s “Try That In A Small Town” achieved a #1 after it’s controversy, this marks four country songs from the country genre that have topped the Billboard Hot 100 consecutively for the first time in history according to Billboard. To put it plainly, country music is the most popular genre in music right now, and independent country is a very strong part of that mix.

This also translates to the all-genre Billboard Albums charts. Zach Bryan’s self-titled album is #1 this week, beating out Travis Scott’s Utopia, and Morgan Wallen’s gargantuan 36-song On Thing At A Time. Zach Bryan sold nearly 200,000 albums in sales, downloads, and equivalents (199,559), and this was without significant physical sales (16,802) since his physical pre-orders were so late in coming.

Some were wondering where the new Turnpike Troubadours album A Cat In The Rain would end up after releasing their first album in six years, and if Zach Bryan would steal their thunder. Turnpike sold 19,012 albums in sales, downloads, and streaming equivalents, with 12,834 in physical sales, making for the 5th best physical sales of the week.

With stiff competition, this puts the Turnpike Troubadours at #9 on the Billboard Country Albums chart, and #34 on the Billboard 200, which is off their career highs, but better than their 2017 album A Long Way From Your Heart, which sold 18,000 albums. Their 2015 self-titled album debut with 19,400 albums. Nonetheless, it once again helps represent the independent side of country at the top of these charts. Turnpike owns their own label, Bossier City Records, distributed by Thirty Tigers.

It really is hard to quantify just how far independent artists in country music have come. And though some are sure to complain that Zach Bryan “really isn’t that country,” or that Oliver Anthony is unpolished, in some respects it is beside the point. If Zach Bryan and Oliver Anthony can achieve these heights, then so can other independent country artists that don’t have the backing of Music Row in Nashville.

A rising tide raises all boats, and we’ve seen this in the swell of interest in independent country music festivals, in mainstream country music festivals booking independent artists as headliners, and we’re seeing this directly with Kacey Musgraves, Sierra Ferrell, and The War & Treaty receiving boosts through Zach Bryan songs, and even Tracy Chapman setting records as a songwriter she didn’t even achieve herself.

Good songs are winning over bad ones. Country music is what people are talking about. And as the public wakes up to the possibilities in independent country, we’re seeing the entire independent country category swell. This will also create secondary problems as outsiders and interlopers dilute the energy and camaraderie of the “scene,” and fans will continue to struggle to secure tickets to sold out shows, or be able to see their favorite artists in more intimate venues.

But all of this is also putting meaningful support behind independent artists that can go from amateur to a sustainable career, or from a sustainable career to major success as the public finally starts to realize they have better alternatives than what country radio is playing them, and that country music isn’t just Jason Aldean and Morgan Wallen.

This story has been updated.

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