photo: Andrew Wendowski
By Jeff Uveino
The beginning of the 2020s found country music in a place that is as familiar to the genre’s history as is a guitar and fiddle.
While some artists work to pull country music forward and evolve its sound, others try to preserve its traditional sounds, as has always been the genre’s case.
The previous decade saw the rise, dominance, and (near) fall of “bro country,” before a new class of Nashville sooners made sappy love songs the featured song type on the radio once again.
Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean and more dominated the 2010s by tapping into these sounds. Now, however, country music seems to be experiencing a “changing of the guard,” as it has before and will do again in the future.
Of the young artists vying to become the next Aldean, Blake Shelton or Thomas Rhett, four have emerged that represent the current state of the genre holistically.
Each artist’s sound is similar enough to fit the mainstream, yet distinct enough to allow them to stand out. And, while tapping into slightly different circles of an ever-vast world of country music, these four have primed themselves to be the genre’s biggest stars of the 2020s.
Luke Combs is already a superstar.
The Charlotte, North Carolina native’s popularity skyrocketed in 2017 off of the success of his debut album, “This One’s For You,” and since then, it really hasn’t stopped.
Comb’s sophomore album, “What You See Is What You Get,” not only dominated country charts in late 2019 and into 2020, but also peaked at No. 1 on Billboard’s genre-binding Top 200 chart. The album has produced four singles that have reached No. 1 on the US country airplay chart, and is certified platinum by the RIAA.
If that’s not impressive enough, “This One’s For You” spent an unprecedented 50 weeks at No. 1 on country charts.
So, what makes Combs so popular? He has a little bit of everything, which suits everyone. He seamlessly transitions from relentlessly authentic love songs to tales of buck-wild Friday nights, all while maintaining his trademark, acoustic-based sound that features just the right amount of electric guitar.
Combs once again proved his popularity with the release of five new songs last Friday, including “Forever After All,” which soared to the top of genre-wide streaming charts, a feat that is rarely achieved by a country artist.
It’s hard to argue against Combs being the face of country music right now. He dominates the radio. He dominates streaming services. And, if his music catalog stays true to its roots, he will dominate the decade.
Jon Pardi’s debut album put his name in the Nashville conversation six years ago, but it was his 2016 album “California Sunrise” that launched his career to the level that it is currently at.
Pardi is this list’s representative for traditional country music. All three of his studio albums are loaded with fiddle, and the Dixon, California native has had a lot of radio success despite keeping his sound and lyrics traditional instead of leaning toward pop.
“California Sunrise” produced four top-10 singles, and is certified platinum by the RIAA.
In 2019, “Heartache Medication” became Pardi’s third No. 1 single on US country radio airplay, and was the lead single for his September album that bears the same name. The album made it to No. 2 on US country charts, largely held back by the dominance of Combs, and continued Pardi’s momentum as the modern-day defender of the “Bakersfield Sound.”
Pardi is 34, which is prime age for a country artist to have the biggest years of their career. Expect to hear him throughout the 20s and beyond.
The bad boy. The wildcard. The mullet.
Despite being the most pop-centric artist on this list, Morgan Wallen has adopted the role of Nashville’s “bad boy” after his rise to fame on the success of his 2018 debut album, “If I Know Me.”
Wallen’s signature mullet, cutoff flannel and skinny jeans look was everywhere in 2019, and, in case you haven’t noticed, an absurd amount of American teenagers are cutting their hair into mullets.
Wallen may be to blame.
He’s gotten into some trouble this year, infamously getting arrested at Kid Rock’s bar in Nashville in May, and getting removed from hosting NBC’s Saturday Night Live in October after videos surfaced of him partying the week before.
However, country music has always made space for outlaws. And while Wallen’s music doesn’t fit the outlaw bill, his freewheeling lifestyle does.
At just 27 years old, Wallen’s potential is endless. George Strait, whom many consider the king of modern day country music, didn’t have his first No. 1 hit until he was 30. Wallen has had three such hits on country radio so far, and his new single “7 Summers” not only debuted at No. 1 on country charts in September, but at No. 6 on pop charts.
Wallen’s upcoming album, for which “7 Summers” was the third released single, will be a good litmus test for his popularity. Don’t be surprised to see Combs-like numbers produced by that record, and the rest of his work this decade.
Representing the state of Alabama, Riley Green is perhaps the least popular of the aforementioned artists. At least for now.
The Jacksonville, Alabama native embodies the rural south through and through, and his lyrics reflect it. He played quarterback at Jacksonville State before pursuing a music career, and released his debut album, “Different ‘Round Here,” in September 2019.
Green’s sound is more traditional than Combs but less than Pardi, and his unapologetic songwriting has contributed to his popularity, despite some negative publicity.
Green is the underdog in the race for country music stardom, and although he may never achieve the walloping chart numbers of Combs and Wallen, he’s here to stay throughout the 20s.