For decades, Grand Ole Opry icon Roy Acuff wore the crown as country’s leading male, a title that was reinforced by the 1982 NBC special Roy Acuff -— 50 Years the King of Country Music.
But that status was never 100% exclusive or guaranteed in perpetuity. In 1978, Newsweek proclaimed Willie Nelson the king of country music in a cover story, and TV Guide bestowed the same honor on Garth Brooks in 1994. In more recent years, that recognition has gone most often to George Strait.
Still, with some fluidity surrounding that nickname, singer-songwriter Ryan Larkins (“The Painter”) was stumped in September 2018 when his kids pressed him on the subject. He had been listening to a bundle of classic country songs — Strait, Nelson, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Randy Travis — and when his oldest son asked who the king was, Larkins didn’t have an immediate answer. But one would emerge.
“I was sitting at a red light on Charlotte Avenue,” he recalls, “and it just kind of hit me out of nowhere, like ‘I know exactly who the king of country music is.’ ”
The answer was so good that Larkins decided the idea needed to be written: “The king of country music is the song.” He introduced the hook to a couple of co-writers, J.R. McCoy and Will Duvall, during an appointment at Curb Music Publishing that month. They needed no convincing to chase it down.
“Cool thing with this song,” says McCoy, “the song truly is the king of country music — because the song can’t die. That king is never going to be slayed. It will always live on forever.”
They started work by addressing the question — who is the king of country music? -— with an obvious exercise, considering what artists deserved those credentials. After batting around names, they threw George Jones and Merle Haggard into a shortlist that formed the first three lines of the chorus: “Some say Jones, some say Travis/ Some say Strait, some say Haggard/ Are sittin’ on the throne.”
“Will came up with the Travis line,” McCoy recalls. “Even though it’s not a perfect rhyme with Haggard, it goes together so well.”
One more was too obvious to skip. “Strait had to be in there somewhere,” says Duvall. “That’s his thing. He is the king of country music.”
The Acuff part of the debate did not go ignored, though he’s such a historical figure at this point in time that they felt it might confuse younger country fans. “I love classic country,” Larkins notes. “But we talked about it, and we thought, ‘OK, there are quite a few people who are not even going to know those names,’ which is a shame. But to drive that point home, I thought we needed to stick with recognizable names.”
The chorus ended, of course, by identifying “the song” as king. Then they dug into the first verse, focusing specifically on the places where that king might be heard, including the church, the radio and in cities “from Saginaw to Houston.” The first town was a nod to an artist they couldn’t fit in, the late Lefty Frizzell, whose last No. 1 single was the 1964 chart-topper “Saginaw, Michigan.” Houston likewise acknowledged Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers Band’s final No. 1, “Houston (Means I’m One Day Closer to You).”
Verse two showed itself fairly easily. It centered on the connection between the song and the audience, recognizing how “the 9-to-5’ers in the trenches” appreciated the sound of the steel guitar and fiddle, but truly responded to the “three simple chords and the truth” in a great country song.
“It wasn’t really pounding our heads against the wall,” says McCoy. “That second verse, I think that went quicker than the first verse and the chorus.”
The chord changes from the classic era they were celebrating typically would occur on the first and third beats of a measure. But they kept “King” current by making those changes on the after beat through most of the song. They didn’t discuss it. It just happened naturally, with Duvall leading on guitar.
“We are writers in this time, and I think there was just something that felt natural about that,” he says. “The way that Ryan writes, those pushes didn’t feel off. Those actually felt right and fresh.”
Soon after they wrote it, Larkins played songs for THiS Music president Rusty Gaston (now Sony Music Publishing Nashville CEO), who was so moved by “King of Country Music” that he had Larkins stop and start over. When he finished, Gaston told him it needed a bridge. Larkins wasted no time; that night, he called Duvall, and it took them a mere 10 minutes to create the extra stanza. Since “King of Country Music” was about the song, they decided to list a few: “I Saw the Light,” “I Walk the Line,” “Amazing Grace,” “Always on My Mind” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
“King of Country Music” got Larkins a publishing deal, and it secured his first label contract when he met with Jay DeMarcus’ Red Street in 2022. It was the first song in his audition, and DeMarcus — impressed by Larkins’ songwriting prowess and by his rich vocal tone — was tempted to sign him during that meeting, though he restrained himself for a day. DeMarcus and guitarist Ilya Toshinskiy co-produced “King,” with Toshinskiy inventing a melodic signature riff for the intro. The two also added a rising three-chord progression that led to the hook.
While “King” was a celebration of the song, DeMarcus and Toshinskiy were particularly sensitive about framing Larkins himself.
“The one thing that was paramount to everything else in cutting music on Ryan was making sure that the voice was the centerpiece,” explains DeMarcus. “When you have a voice like that, that’s so effortless and so easy to listen to and easy to digest, the track has to complement the lyric and the delivery. It can’t get in the way.”
DeMarcus played bass, plugged into the console so he could sit next to the engineer, while Toshinskiy was stationed on the Starstruck studio floor with drummer Jerry Roe, keyboardist Michael Rojas, steel guitarist Paul Franklin and guitarists Rob McNelley and Guthrie Trapp. The guitars and keyboards, in particular, utilized an ever-changing range of tones, reflecting a variety of styles that have supported country’s greatest songs through the years. DeMarcus later overdubbed some new acoustic piano licks, particularly a fill near the end of verse two that borrowed from the style of classic A-team musicians Floyd Cramer and Hargus “Pig” Robbins.
“The guitar parts, in particular, were something that we really, really concentrated on having the right mixture of traditional, really great country licks with laying down some great rhythm parts as well,” DeMarcus says. “The tune is so exposed, you need to make sure that the parts work together.”
Larkins cut his final vocals at DeMarcus’ home studio, overseen by a cardboard cutout of Cousin Eddie, Randy Quaid’s offbeat character from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. DeMarcus “pushed me,” says Larkins, “but it wasn’t an uncomfortable thing. I felt right at home.” “Anything I sang to him, he went right out and executed it,” DeMarcus adds. “It’s like taking a Ferrari out for a spin, you know. It’s really fun to have a voice like that to play with and just see what works.”
“King of Country Music” definitely worked. Red Street released it to country radio via PlayMPE on Oct. 12 with a Nov. 27 add date. With the trend toward ’90s country, Larkins’ debut single arrives at an opportune moment.
“I love where country music’s going right now — it feels like everybody’s welcome,” says Larkins. “But I feel this shift like, ‘Hey, we’re going to get a little more country here.’ And I love that.”