'There's no more exciting time to be covering country music': How the genre became cool among young listeners

Country music has attained greater popularity among younger fans in recent years largely because those listeners are more genre indiscriminate and the fresh crop of country stars are also well-versed in pop and hip-hop.

Younger, urban fans fill country festivals as country songs climb to the top of the charts

Young country music fans embrace at Boots and Hearts, Canada's biggest country festival, held each year in early August in Oro-Medonte, Ont. (CBC News)

When country singer Russell Dickerson croons "you, me, twenty-something," on the stage of Canada's biggest country music festival, Boots and Hearts, he knows his crowd. The anthem of youthful energy encapsulates country music's current position in pop culture.

Casting off its uncool reputation, country has now entrenched itself in the music habits of teens and millennials, with sold-out outdoor music festivals, and a bevy of fresh-faced stars that fill their young fans' streaming playlists..

Some of these stars, like Alberta-born brothers Rempel of High Valley, and singer-songwriters Lindsay Ell of Calgary and Madeline Merlo, of Maple Ridge, B.C., will be performing Sunday night in Hamilton, Ont., at the Canadian Country Music Awards. Not only will the ceremony have all the trappings of a high-stakes award show — fan zones, an arena full of raucous fans and armfuls of awards — it will also bust through genre barriers as presenters such as pop superstar Alessia Cara join industry stalwarts such as Brett Kissel and Shania Twain.

A study from the Nashville-based Country Music Association, an industry group promoting the genre, said the number of country music listeners in the U.S. ages 18 to 24 grew by 54 per cent between 2007 and 2015.

There are other signs country is entering new level of pop culture omnipresence that even exceeds the heydays of Shania Twain's or Dixie Chicks' careers. Those artists managed to attract a lot of people who wouldn't normally listen to country, but they were singular examples, anomalies of their time. Whereas now dozens of country performers, established and up-and-comers, manage to pull in a weekend's worth (40 000 people, in the case of Boots and Hearts) of young festival-goers

In late August, Canadian country star Brett Kissell performed at the iHeartRadio Much Music Video Awards, becoming the first country artist to headline the youth-oriented awards show.

Meant To Be, a collaboration between Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line, was one of this summer's popular country tunes: 

Young artists for young fans

Country's image is changing because the profile of its fan is changing, says Nashville-based journalist Joseph Hudak, senior editor of country for Rolling Stone magazine.

"I think there's no more exciting time to be covering country music than right now," said Hudak. "Country music is definitely reaching a younger audience."

But that's not the only way country fan demographics are changing, according to Hudak.

"Right now  you see it in the big cities, New York to L.A., Chicago has a huge market, Boston, Mass., has a huge market."

Hudak says the fresh crop of country stars, many of them quite young themselves, know how to incorporate influences into their music that appeal to a younger, urban fan.

"It's drum machines, it's loops, and of course we have the hip-hop influence, which has really catapulted the genre into some younger listeners' ears," said Hudak.

Streaming success

Young music fans' openness to different genres has also helped some country artists become popular on streaming platforms — once an unthinkable feat for country, whose older fans still buy more CDs than fans of any other type of music.

Canadian music manager Ron Kitchener, who helped launch the international career of then-unknown Taylor Swift, views streaming as an increasingly important avenue to "break" young musicians. One of his latest artists, Madeline Merlo, saw her single Neon Love get 100,000 streams on Spotify in its first week of release.

Madeline Merlo gave one of a dozen performances at the Budweiser Gardens in London. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)

Merlo's song was streamed by so many people, because she landed on playlists "that are not necessarily country," notes Kitchener.

"That's the growing opportunity in streaming … it's not just about one genre of music. It's about ideas, emotions, moments, things you're doing in your life that you want to find a soundtrack for."

Young, but not rebellious

There are still growing pains for a genre that's traditionally averse to change. For starters, it remains one of the least diverse genres of popular music, with stars like Darius Rucker and up-and-comers like Jimmy Allen fighting to break stereotypes that country is music by white people for white people.

Singer-songwriter Jimmie Allen on why a growing diversity in country music today harkens back to the genre's origins: 

'Country music's just getting back to where it first came from... a genre for everybody'

5 years ago
Duration 1:22
Singer-songwriter Jimmie Allen on why a growing diversity in country music today harkens back to the genre's origins.

And while it might be getting more popular with youth, country these days is hardly transgressive or politically rebellious.

Perhaps fearing backlash from their more conservative fans, many young country artists choose to stay mum on controversial issues, such as gun control in the United States — even after last year's shooting at a country concert in Las Vegas that left 58 people dead.

"That criticism of country being too apolitical is justified," said Rolling Stone's Hudak, adding he feels that country stars have an obligation to speak up, especially on matters of social or political injustice, as the "music of the people."

After all, he says, country's most enduring icons were never afraid to speak up.

"Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash, along with Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, none of those names were ever afraid of being political or stirring up the mud, so to speak."

But if you ask the fans at Boots and Hearts, one after another cited country's happy-go-lucky vibe as the reason they're drawn to it.

"Right now, there's a lot of negative things in the world," said 21-year-old Caitlin Bevan of Whitby, Ont., who was flanked by a close friend as well as two new pals from Ottawa she met at the festival. 

"It's nice to have something positive to bond around."


Deana Sumanac-Johnson

Senior Education Reporter

Deana Sumanac-Johnson is a senior education reporter for CBC News. Appearing on The National and CBC Radio, she has previously reported on arts and entertainment, and worked as a current affairs producer.