When Morgan Wallen’s “Last Night” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in March, it wasn’t exactly a surprise. After all, his 2020 sophomore full-length, Dangerous: The Double Album, had already moved four million units and is now six times platinum. But before 2023, country songs just didn’t top the pop charts anymore, and hadn’t with any regularity in about 40 years.
In the ‘90s, Garth Brooks and Shania Twain proved that country singers could sell tens of millions of albums without conquering the Hot 100 – in fact, no country artist had a No. 1 in the entire decade. From the new millennium onward, country didn’t fare much better on the pop charts, and when it did, it barely sounded like country. Lonestar’s 2000 hit “Amazed” and Carrie Underwood’s 2005 American Idol coronation song “Inside Your Heaven” hit No. 1, but both were essentially adult contemporary power ballads. Taylor Swift didn’t start topping the Hot 100 until 2012’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” her first collaboration with Swedish pop hitmaker Max Martin, and the beginning of her permanent turn away from being classified as a country artist. Billy Ray Cyrus famously appeared on the remix of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” which spent a record-breaking 19 weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100 in 2019. However, the country-influenced hip-hop hit was boosted in large part by the debate about what genre it should be classified.
For the last three years, Wallen and Luke Combs have charted in the top 10 more often than country singers had in decades, so it felt like just a matter of time before one of them went all the way (Combs got to No. 2 this year with his cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”). “Last Night” not only spent 16 weeks at No. 1 to become the biggest Billboard hit of 2023, but it also seemed to open the floodgates. In August and September, Jason Aldean, Bryan and young viral star Oliver Anthony all got a turn in the chart’s penthouse. Indeed, the No. 1 song in America was a country song for nearly half of 2023, far outstripping hip-hop in a commercially weak year for rappers (only Doja Cat, Jack Harlow, Latto and two songs by Drake topped the chart this year).
Aldean is a firmly established A-list singer with 27 No. 1s on the country chart, but 2011’s “Dirt Road Anthem” was for many years his only top 10 hit on the Hot 100. His single “Try That in a Small Town” was released in May 2023 and languished for a couple months, missing the Hot 100 completely until the July release of its music video. Aldean’s conservative views had been common knowledge in Nashville for a long time, but “Try That” was the first time in his career that he took something resembling a political position in his music. The song’s lyrics, about “good ol’ boys” ready to take up arms if you “cuss out a cop” or “stomp on the flag and light it up,” felt like a vague but pointed warning against left-wing protests of the police or the government. The video, filmed partly in front of a Tennessee courthouse where a black teenager was lynched in 1927, was quickly pulled from the air on CMT. However, the old adage that controversy sells proved true, as the single rocketed to No. 1 on the Hot 100, powered largely by iTunes purchases. In an odd twist, Aldean only lasted one week at the top of the Hot 100 before Morgan Wallen returned.
The chatter around “Try That in a Small Town” completely dissipated by the time Aldean released his album Highway Desperado in November, and it became his lowest charting album on the Billboard 200 in more than a decade. Aldean co-wrote three songs on it, marking the first time he’d penned anything since 2009, but the rest of Highway Desperado featured no other reactionary message songs, as if he was already eager to go back to a simpler life of singing apolitical love ballads and tough guy anthems. Anthony, a heretofore unknown red-bearded Virginia singer/songwriter, followed Aldean to No. 1 in August with the viral hit “Rich Men North of Richmond,” an acoustic rant about taxes and welfare queens which made an even more ideal tinderbox for fiery political debate.
The fourth and final country song to top the Hot 100 this year was, at last, a feel-good story. Bryan and Kacey Musgraves, two critically acclaimed artists who’d yet to enjoy a Hot 100 No. 1 hit as solo artists, pooled the enthusiasm of their respective fanbases to go all the way with “I Remember Everything,” a duet from Bryan’s eponymous album. Bryan is a little harder to nail down politically – he’s pushed back on transphobia in country music, but he also proudly served in the U.S. Navy, identifies as a libertarian and recently appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast. Compared to an industry role player like Aldean, though, Bryan is a grassroots hero who writes and produces his own songs, and seems determined to bring a more homespun and individual sound to the mainstream. “I Remember Everything” might also be the first song partially in the 7/8 time signature to top the Hot 100 since the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.”
The depressing thing about country’s big chart triumphs in 2023 is how much they reaffirmed old, outdated narratives about the genre. It was reminiscent of when Merle Haggard sneered at “the hippies out in San Francisco” in 1969 and Toby Keith cheered on the war in Afghanistan in 2002, and how both became richer and more famous by happily pissing off liberal, mainstream America. Not only are Aldean and Anthony’s songs musically uninspired, but they also felt more like lines from an old script wherein country music plays a familiar heel role in the culture wars.
Wallen’s music was already selling and streaming in enormous, unprecedented numbers before he was caught on camera casually using a racial slur in February 2021. Although he was pulled from radio playlists and award shows for a few months, his music continued to grow in popularity so wildly that it felt like country fans were deliberately pushing back on any attempts by the “woke” media to hold Wallen accountable. The bigger he gets, the harder it is to figure out exactly what it is about Wallen that’s turned him into such a chart titan. He feels like a semi-anonymous holdover from the “Bro Country” era of the early 2010s, when groups like Florida Georgia Line fused anthemic country with hip-hop swagger. In fact, Wallen’s first country radio hit, 2018’s “Up Down,” featured Florida Georgia Line.
Another Florida Georgia Line sidekick made one of the most surprising great albums of 2023. Chase Rice co-wrote the group’s biggest hit, the 2012 blockbuster “Cruise,” and has enjoyed a few solo hits over the past decade. Rice recorded his sixth album at home during the COVID-19 lockdowns, writing a bracing and introspective set of songs after the death of his father. I Hate Cowboys & All Dogs Go to Hell is a smart, funny and heartbreaking masterpiece with stylistic left turns such as the rambling seven-minute epic “Oklahoma.” Unfortunately, both of the album’s singles received a cool reception at country radio.
At the height of Bro Country, the gender balance in country radio got extremely lopsided, as playlists became overwhelmingly male. Radio consultant Keith Hill awkwardly attempted to articulate the shift in a 2015 interview, likening male artists to lettuce: “The tomatoes in our salad are the females.” The resulting controversy, dubbed “Tomato-gate,” led to an industry-wide reckoning, including research studies, think-pieces and the formation of the female writer’s group Song Suffragettes. Almost a decade later, women are still struggling for representation on radio airwaves. One encouraging exception was Lainey Wilson, a 31-year-old singer/songwriter from Louisiana with a voice like a young Dolly Parton. In February, Wilson had two songs in the top 10 of Billboard’s Country Airplay chart: the gorgeous ballad “Heart Like a Truck” and the HARDY collaboration “Wait in the Truck.” In November, she was once again in the top 10 twice, with the chart-topper “Watermelon Moonshine” and the Jelly Roll duet “Save Me.” If she can keep up this pace, Wilson may be the biggest reigning diva of country radio since Underwood and Miranda Lambert broke through in the mid-2000s.
In fact, there was a lot of great mainstream country music this year, and most of it existed outside headline-making chart triumphs. Ashley McBryde continued her run as the genre’s smartest lyricist on The Devil I Know. The Maryland duo Brothers Osborne released a bold and big-hearted self-titled album, their first since frontman TJ Osborne came out in 2021 and became the first openly gay artist on a major country label. Chris Stapleton, Lori McKenna and Caitlyn Smith have written hits for other artists, but the solo albums they released this year felt like cohesive, uncompromising collections of songs they just needed to sing themselves. It remains to be seen whether 2023 was a fluke or the beginning of a new era of country dominance on the pop charts. Whether or not any Nashville acts cross over in 2024, you’re probably going to have to dig a little deeper to find the best songs.