“Hey, Good Lookin’” . . . be sure to enjoy a classic tune this Memorial Day weekend. “I got a hot rod Ford and a two dollar bill,” Hank Williams sings in the 1951 hit, offering a breezy feel-good country song on the radio. You can feel the wind in your hair — windows down, beats a-blasting. While it might seem like a quintessentially American experience, it’s one increasingly being enjoyed around the world — from quiet morning kitchens in India to bustling evening saloons in Japan. This OZY Sunday Magazine gives you a soundtrack to wrap up the weekend right while adding some artists and international spice to your playlist. So climb into your pickup and join us for a global country music tour.
Isabelle Lee and Pallabi Munsi, Reporters
one-hand feel on the steering wheel
trends sending country music on a trip that’s impossible to forget
1. The Thriving Genre
During the pandemic, concerts were canceled, and music listening dropped by about 550 million streams per week from April to June of 2020, according to Billboard/MRC Data. But while dance, Latin and hip-hop/R&B suffered most, one genre remained strong: country. From mid-March to mid-June, Americans listened to about 11 percent more country music than they did pre-pandemic. Why? Explanations range from the music serving as a type of comfort food to the rise in country fans learning to stream. Whatever the reason, the internet definitely did not kill the country star.
2. Changing Sound
Country music is a-changin’ . . . even if the purists don’t approve. And while genre-flirting singers like Kacey Musgraves, Sam Hunt and Maren Morris have been met with some criticism, there’s no denying the music known for its rural roots is gaining a foothold in cities worldwide. One of the biggest shifts has been coming from hip-hop, as trap beats, 808 kick drums, beatboxing and even Auto-Tune are joining the show. Don’t blame it on obvious culprits like Lil Nas X, who has brought hip-hop, race and sexuality to the country music conversation. Instead look for the common threads: “One thing that country and hip-hop certainly share is telling the stories of poor and working-class people,” Kevin Holt, an ethnomusicology professor at Columbia University, told Insider.
3. Kentucky on Our Minds
The Bluegrass State has churned out folksy tunes for some time, creating great country crossovers. Kentucky is leading an upsurge of talent with the help of famous acts like Chris Stapleton (“Tennessee Whiskey,” “Starting Over”) and Sturgill Simpson (“I Don’t Mind”), as well as less obvious coal-town crooners such as Tyler Childers and Angaleena Presley. It’s a crossroads state — part Southern, part Midwestern — with one county describing itself as “where the Bluegrass kisses the mountains.”
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As a child growing up in Uttarakhand, Bal Kishore Das Loiwal was immersed in music, and his love of country music was established early thanks to a relative in Nashville who sent the family daily doses of American country tunes. That led to him taking his nicknames, Babu and Kish, and combining them into the stage name “Bobby Cash” before performing his first gig at Rodeo, a Tex-Mex eatery and hub for expats in Delhi, in the ’90s. The managers were so impressed they offered him a regular spot. A member of the audience, an Aussie film producer, reckoned Cash was “fair dinkum” — the real deal — and invited “the Indian Cowboy” to play at the Southern Hemisphere’s hippest country festival in Tamworth, New South Wales. More than two decades later, the unlikely country star, now 60, was included in 2018’s Rockumentary: Evolution of Indian Rock and continues to perform live shows (online these days).
2. Seaforth, Australia
This duo is named after the Sydney suburb they once called home; in 2017, Tom Jordan and Mitch Thompson put down stakes in the United States. Their 2019 debut single, “Love That,” put them on the map, and Nashville has since embraced them. Their lightbulb moment? Hearing Australian country star Keith Urban for the first time. “We had to work to find it,” says Thompson. But once they did, that led them down “the rabbit hole” to other artists, from Hunter Hayes to Rascal Flatts. Their award-winning collaboration with Mitchell Tenpenny, “Anything She Says,” has surpassed 79 million on-demand streams. And this year, Seaforth added “Breakups” to their repertoire. The pair call it their “most personal song to date,” noting that it was “written from a very real place and was almost like therapy for us both in different ways.”
3. Kendall Elise, New Zealand
Born and raised in the Auckland suburb of Papakura, this quirky young New Zealander jumped into the country scene in 2016. Her music is a little bit country, a little bit folk and a little bit blues — you get the idea. In 2016, she made the world sway with “Heart Full of Dirt” — a honky-tonk rock ’n’ roll tune with a killer chorus: “I’d love you so much more if you were dead.”
4. Sir Elvis, Kenya
Imagine a club as honky-tonk as any you’d find in Tennessee, only you’re in Nairobi. The man onstage? Africa’s biggest country musician, Elvis Otieno, also known as Sir Elvis. Born in 1977 to parents who were big fans of The King — notably, Elvis Presley died the same year — Sir Elvis told Public Radio International that every time he hits the stage, “it’s always like a shock.” That’s because Kenyans love country music despite the lack of homegrown stars. Nairobi’s Elvis is on a mission to ensure Kenya remains all shook up.
this is country music
how country culture, even outside of music, is spreading
If you thought Jamaica was only about reggae music, you’ve probably forgotten that Bob Marley’s second single was a cover version of Claude Gray’s 1961 country hit, “I’ll Just Have Another Cup of Coffee.” Jamaica’s love for country music began in 1950 with the debut of the first commercial radio station, which repeatedly played songs by artists such as Skeeter Davis and Patsy Cline. And that fascination with country music extends to other Caribbean islands such as St. Lucia, where the genre is a national obsession: Buses are named after Jim Reeves songs, radios play 20 George Jones tracks in a row and there are endless competitions to find new rising stars with a Southern twang.
2. Southern Barbecue, Parisian Style
When in Paris, eat barbecue? Good ol’ Southern comfort food has found a home on the chic streets of the City of Light. The craze began in 2011, with barbecue joints sweeping the French capital, aiming to prove there is more to American cuisine than Le Big Mac . . . and the French are enjoying every finger-lickin’ bite! One restaurant even makes rabbit and waffles, a French take on the Southern classic.
Maybe the last place on earth you would expect to find a bar with “Kansas” in its name is Argentina. Yet that’s exactly where Buenos Aires-based Kansas Grill & Bar calls home. The restaurant serves comfort classics like slow-roasted pork ribs and baked potatoes and draws on other U.S. state names for dishes like Arizona Pasta. Next time you’re in Argentina and hankering for some good country fare, you might not have to travel far.
4. Something ’Bout a Honky-Tonk
Country music is the best genre for karaoke, especially if it’s sung with a red Solo cup in your hand or a George Strait impersonator leading the way. Doubt it? Ask the land of karaoke. Japan has a surprising number of saloons with bullhorns, live music, line dancing and everything else a country fan could want. A strong underground scene has been present here for decades. Some point to the presence of U.S. soldiers who exposed Japan to vignettes of American culture; others say they like country music because “it makes me feel.”
whose bed have your boots been under?
country music isn’t immune to a little controversy
1. Women on the Radio
Country music’s deep-seated sexism is no secret: The genre has earned that dubious reputation through exposés about the practices of country radio stations. But why? In 2015, a radio host declared that songs by women were the “tomatoes” in the salad of a good radio show. He exposed a long-held belief that while women are the dominant target demographic of radio listeners, they don’t like listening to female voices. A new generation of female country stars isn’t ready to accept that narrative. When a radio host tweeted, applauding the “courage” of another station for playing two ladies back-to-back, female stars like Kelsea Ballerini and Kacey Musgraves spoke up, pointing out that without radio play, female singers will never get a chance at equal footing.
2. Racist Rhetoric
What does accountability look like in the country music industry? It’s a question many are asking after Morgan Wallen, who cultivated a bad-boy image while reaching more than 3 billion on-demand streams for his music, was filmed using the N-word on a drunken night in Nashville. Wallen has since apologized in an Instagram video, and has avoided the limelight while promising to do better. “I appreciate those who still see something in me and have defended me. But for today, please don’t,” Wallen said. Many stations took his songs off the radio for weeks, but that didn’t stop his second album, Dangerous, from dominating the charts. Black country singer Mickey Guyton slammed Wallen, noting how she’s endured racism in the industry for a decade. “You guys should just read some of the vile comments hurled at me on a daily basis,” Guyton tweeted. She also pushed back against those who claimed that Wallen’s comments didn’t represent “country music.” “It’s a cold hard truth to face but it is the truth,” she noted.
3. The Irony of Ignorance
The “twang” that country music is famous for actually comes from blues music steeped in West African musical traditions. Enslaved Africans in the Americas developed the banjo, the backbone for that infamous twang. Country music has long been pioneered and shaped by Black artists, even if they don’t always get the attention and recognition they deserve. Black musician Lesley Riddle was one such innovator. He went on song-finding missions across Appalachia in the late 1920s and ’30s, learning tunes that forever shaped the canon of country music.
4. Their Claim to Name?
Country group Lady Antebellum was one of the first acts to respond to George Floyd’s death, vowing to drop the latter part of their band’s name and instead go by “Lady A.” However, Seattle-based blues singer Anita White has been performing under that name for almost 30 years. Now, the two Lady A’s are suing each other for the right to perform under the name. The band members refused to change their name or pay White, who asked for $10 million in exchange for the name. When the 62-year-old Black artist wouldn’t cave, they sued her. Like Wallen, the controversy hasn’t much affected the group’s popularity.
The 22-year-old Black star shot to fame with “Old Town Road.” The song immediately hit the Billboard country music chart, but it was removed after Billboard informed Nas that his inclusion had been a mistake. Nas got the last laugh, performing a remixed version with Billy Ray Cyrus at the 2019 Country Music Awards — and winning Musical Event of the Year to boot. Whatever genre he’s in, Nas has remained outspoken, with his March music video for “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” drawing fire from religious folks who found his dance with the devil deeply offensive and sacrilegious.
2. Mickey Guyton
If you watched the recent Academy of Country Music Awards (ACMs), you might have caught 37-year-old Guyton performing her song “Hold On.” For The Late Show WithStephen Colbert, she sang “Black Like Me,” a song released in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s murder. The song helped her become the first Black solo artist to earn a Grammy nomination in the country category, and her extended play record, Bridges, is blowing up.
3. Jimmie Allen
The first Black man to be named New Artist of the Year at the 2021 ACMs, Allen understands the historical importance of his achievement all too well. As a young man, he struggled to see how he could succeed as a country music singer — until, that is, his dad shared with him the music of Charley Pride, a trailblazing Black country artist. The 34-year-old Allen grew up in Delaware with dreams of winning an ACM award, and he’s now gotten to perform with his personal hero, Pride.
4. Kat & Alex
You might recognize their names from Season 18 of American Idol. The newlyweds are looking to join other country alumni like Kelly Clarkson as star graduates of the hit TV competition. Both grew up in Miami — Alex is of Puerto Rican descent and Kat is Cuban American. The duo signed to Sony Music Nashville in February and, nine months later, did a rare thing in country music by releasing their debut track, “How Many Times,” in both English and Spanish.
5. Travis Yee
San Francisco native Travis Yee is part of a generation of singers hoping to break big by starting out on TikTok and YouTube. He goes by the username @asiancountrysinger and went viral for his cover of Cardi B's “WAP” in the style of Garth Brooks. The artist with Chinese, Japanese and Korean ancestry gets millions of views on TikTok, and his covers even drew the attention of Brooks himself. Yee is currently working on releasing original music. He tells OZY that his secret to viral success is letting people see the “rawness and realness” of his dream to be a bona fide country singer.