As the year draws to a close and the country music business looks toward 2024, it’s time to contemplate the headline-making moments of the genre over the past year. 2023 saw monumental crests for country music on the Billboard Hot 100, with songs and albums that cemented superstar status for some artists, such as Morgan Wallen, and brought unprecedented breakthroughs for others.
The continuing sea change of the way listeners consume music bolstered many indie artists to finding streaming success — with one in particular, Oliver Anthony Music’s “Rich Men North of Richmond,” becoming a two-week No. 1 all-genre Hot 100 hit.
Some songs’ successes — notably, “Rich Men” and Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town” — were in part spurred by controversy. Meanwhile, other artists, including Dolly Parton, saw genre-traversing success with songs and/or albums that not only impacted the country charts, but the rock charts as well.
In November, this year’s CMA Awards also brought monumental triumphs for Tracy Chapman and Lainey Wilson. Additionally, country music continued its history of big media moments at the Super Bowl, with Chris Stapleton performing the national anthem just before the kickoff of this year’s game.
Meanwhile, this year also saw the ascension of Cindy Mabe to the top role at Universal Music Group Nashville. And, all of these milestones have come as country music has seen a surge not only domestically, but globally.
Here, we look back at 10 of the top stories in the country music business over the past year.
Dolly Parton, Brenda Lee Reach Chart Heights
Dolly Parton and Brenda Lee both earned lofty Billboard chart heights in 2023.
Parton, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, released the 30-song set Rockstar on Nov. 17. The album topped Billboard’s Top Country Albums and Top Rock & Alternative Albums charts (dated Dec. 2). The legend added her ninth No. 1 on the former and her first on the latter. The album opened at No. 3 on the all-genre Billboard 200, marking Parton’s third top 10 and highest career rank.
Parton’s Rockstar album was one of several songs or projects from country artists that saw success in both the rock and country genres, including HARDY, Jelly Roll, and the genre-fluid singer-songwriter Zach Bryan.
Meanwhile, in December, Lee earned a new Billboard Hot 100 chart milestone, when her classic “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” topped the chart for the first time and spent two weeks at the chart’s pinnacle.
Maren Morris’ Career Shift Makes Headlines
Maren Morris made the news this year, thanks to an interview in the Los Angeles Times, headlined “Maren Morris Is Getting the Hell Out of Country Music.” The piece, which coincided with the release of new Morris music, “The Tree” and “Get The Hell Out of Here,” noted that Morris had left her deal with Sony Music Nashville and was working with the New York-based Columbia Records.
Morris later clarified her stance during an interview on “Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen,” saying that she’s only “leaving behind the sort of toxic parts of it. I want to take the good parts with me.”
Lainey Wilson Named CMA Entertainer of the Year
Louisiana native Lainey Wilson took home five trophies at November’s CMA Awards, including the night’s biggest honor, entertainer of the year. Just one year after winning new artist of the year, Wilson won the CMA’s most coveted awards trophy, and in the process, tied Garth Brooks’ quick sprint from the horizon award (as new artist of the year was then called) in 1990 to his first entertainer of the year award in 1991.
Wilson, who earned a three-week Country Airplay No. 1 this year with “Watermelon Moonshine,” and a two-week No. 1 Country Airplay hit with the Jelly Roll collaboration “Save Me,” was also named the CMA’s female vocalist of the year, and her Bell Bottom Country project was named album of the year. “Wait in the Truck,” her collaboration with HARDY, picked up musical event and video of the year.
Wilson’s entertainer of the year win was one of triumph for female country artists fighting for success in a male-dominated industry. Wilson is the first artist to win the entertainer of the year CMA trophy since Taylor Swift in 2011.
Oliver Anthony Music Makes History With ‘Rich Men North of Richmond’
In late August, independent artist Anthony broke through with one of the year’s most unexpected hits, the polarizing “Rich Men North of Richmond.” The song — with lyrics centering on greedy politicians, inflation, rising taxes and welfare abuse — was uploaded to YouTube out of the blue. And a little more than 10 days later, it debuted atop the Hot 100, making him the first artist to enter at No. 1 without any prior Billboard chart history. The video has been viewed over 98 million times on YouTube.
“Rich Men North of Richmond” stayed atop the Hot 100 for two weeks, during which time it became a lightning rod of controversy for political pundits on both the right and left. “The most special thing about it being on the chart at all is that it made it [there] without some big, corporate schmucky schmuck somewhere pumping a bunch of money into making it get there,” Anthony recently told Billboard. “It actually got to the top of the [Hot 100] because people genuinely wanted to listen to it and support it.”
Four Country Songs Top Billboard Hot 100
With the Sept. 9 Billboard Hot 100 chart, four country songs (defined as those that have also appeared on the Hot Country Songs chart) had hit the pinnacle position on the Hot 100 this year: Morgan Wallen’s “Last Night” (which spent 16 non-consecutive weeks atop the Hot 100), Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town,” Oliver Anthony Music’s two-week Hot 100 No. 1 “Rich Men North of Richmond,” and Zach Bryan’s “I Remember Everything,” featuring Kacey Musgraves. Dating to the Hot 100’s launch in 1958, only one other calendar year has brought four-or-more country No. 1s: 1975, when five reached the summit (listed below in chronological order of when they topped the Hot 100): “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” by B.J. Thomas, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” by Freddy Fender, “Thank God I’m a Country Boy, by John Denver, “Rhinestone Cowboy” by Glen Campbell and “I’m Sorry” by John Denver.
Tracy Chapman Earns CMA Song of the Year Win with ‘Fast Car’
Tracy Chapman, known for hits including her 1988 pop hit “Fast Car,” earned the 2023 Country Music Association Award for song of the year, as the sole songwriter on “Fast Car,” thanks to Luke Combs’ hit cover version. His rendition of “Fast Car” reached No. 2 on the Hot 100 and topped the Hot Country Songs chart for four weeks.
During this year’s CMA Awards ceremony, shortly after Combs won single of the year at the 2023 CMAs for “Fast Car,” Chapman — the sole writer of the song – won the song of the year CMA, which goes to a song’s writer(s). The win makes Chapman the first Black songwriter to win the accolade.
Cindy Mabe Rises at UMG Nashville
In April, Cindy Mabe officially ascended to Universal Music Group Nashville’s Chairman/CEO. In the process, Mabe became the first woman to serve as chairman/CEO of a Nashville-based major label group. This year, Mabe led the charge in launching the Capitol Comedy Nashville label, with the first release coming from Nashville-based comedian Nate Bargatze. UMG Nashville is also working with Cirque du Soleil for an acrobatics spectacular featuring country music that will launch in Nashville in 2024 at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.
Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town” Tops Hot 100, Garners Controversy
Jason Aldean released his single “Try That in a Small Town” to country radio in May, but it wasn’t until the music video for the song released in July that the song began to garner controversy, with the music video drawing sharp criticism for imagery included in the clip. The video was quickly pulled from rotation on CMT, which also drew backlash from some country music listeners. Aldean defended the song and video, while the controversy–and subsequent consumption of the song and video by not only Aldean supporters but also many simply curious to know what the controversy was about–ultimately played a role in propelling “Try That in a Small Town” to become Aldean’s first scored his first Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper this year.
Morgan Wallen’s “Last Night” Makes Billboard Hot 100 Chart History
Morgan Wallen led the Billboard Hot 100 for 16 nonconsecutive weeks with “Last Night,” setting a record for most weeks at No. 1 on the chart for a solo artist and marking the first time a country solo male led the all-genre chart in over four decades, since Eddie Rabbitt with “I Love A Rainy Night” in 1981.
This was just one of several chart feats from Wallen over the past year. In March, Wallen charted all 36 songs from his LP One Thing at a Time on the March 18-dated chart, when the album launched atop the Billboard 200, setting a new record – among all acts and genres – for the most simultaneous entries on the Hot 100 in a single week. The following week, he charted 28 songs, the second-most ever in a single frame. Before Wallen, Drake held the record, with 27 spots occupied on the July 14, 2018, when his LP Scorpion opened at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
Also on the March 18 chart, exactly half of the songs in the top 50 of the Hot 100 on March 18 were classified as country (21 by Wallen). It was the first time that 25 country songs landed in the top 50 simultaneously (the feat happened again on Sept. 9, with 16 by Zach Bryan).
Country Music’s Banner Year
Bolstered by artists like Morgan Wallen, Zach Bryan, Luke Combs and Lainey Wilson, country music had a banner year in 2023. On-demand audio and video streams are up 24% in the U.S. through the third quarter of 2023 over the same time frame last year, according to data provided to the Country Music Association by Luminate.
In July, Billboard reported that Wallen led the charge in country music’s rise in consumption in the U.S., with the consumption up 20.3% year-over-year in the first 26 weeks of 2023, according to Luminate–that marked a significant improvement from the 2.5% growth the genre saw over the same time period in 2022.