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How "Country" are Country Artists?
A guest post on whether country singers are as "country" as their music.
Introducing Can’t Get Much Higher: A Data-Driven Newsletter for Music Lovers
There aren’t many writers exploring pop culture through the lens of data. A few weeks ago, a friend recommended Chris Dalla Riva’s data-centric music newsletter, Can’t Get Much Higher, and I was immediately impressed. He’s written some awesome data essays about the music industry, including:
For my post this week, I am featuring one of Chris’ pieces on whether country singers are as "country" as their music. I really enjoyed this essay, and I hope you do, too. If you like what you read, check out his newsletter.
How "Country" are Country Artists?
In late May 2023, Jason Aldean released his newest single, “Try That in a Small Town”. It hit number 35 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart during the first week of June but fell off the chart within one week. Though Aldean is quite popular, it was looking to be a forgotten song from an aging star.
That changed dramatically when the song’s video was released in July. It showed Aldean performing in front of the Columbia, Tennessee courthouse interspersed with clips of violence, rioting, and assorted small town imagery. Suddenly, the song became a political flashpoint.
Aldean supporters argued that the song espoused the ethics of God-fearing, small-town living. Critics said the video and lyrics were a tacit endorsement of racial violence because the Columbia, Tennessee courthouse - again, where the video was filmed - was the site of the 1927 lynching of Henry Choate, an 18-year-old African-American man.
This controversy made the song wildly popular. To quote one YouTube commenter, “I would have never even heard of this song if people hadn't been upset about it”. By the end of July, it had topped the Billboard Hot 100.
As this happened, I heard a few people mention something that caught my eye. Jason Aldean isn’t from a small town. Aldean is from Macon, Georgia. When he was born in 1977, Macon had a population of over 100,000. By no means is that a small town. Country artists often sing about small towns—albeit usually in a less politically charged manner - but how often are those artists actually from small towns? I decided to find out.
Was I Born in a Small Town?
Here’s what I can unequivocally say without a shadow of a doubt. If you sing about hunting and fishing and drinking and trucks and shit, and I get you on my farm, in one minute I can tell if you’re a poser or if you’re not legit.
Authenticity is an important concept in many genres. Getting called a poser in the hip-hop or punk community, for example, can be a serious insult. Country is the same way. Despite what you think of Luke Bryan’s music, he is indeed a small-town boy. Leesburg, Georgia had a population of about 1,000 people when he was born in 1976.
To understand if country music was filled with more Jason Aldeans or Luke Bryans, I needed to get a list of country artists, find out when they were born, find out where they were born, and then find the population at that time and in that place.
I decided to start with Wikipedia’s “List of country music performers” page. Of course, this doesn’t list every person to ever sing a country song, but it has almost 2,100 notable artists born between 1868 and 2008. I thought that was pretty good.
I then wrote a script to look up each artist’s hometown and birth date on their Wikipedia page. After removing all bands, along with artists born outside the United States, I was left with 1,209 acts, still a sizable sample. As I grabbed the populations of the place each artist was born, one question loomed: What is a small town?
The answer to this short question has a long, complex history. I’ll spare you the details, but for a long time the Census defined small towns, or rural places, as those with fewer than 2,500 people. During the 2020 Census, they shifted the threshold up to 5,000 people. So, I figured we could run with those two figures.
Across our entire sample, 24% of country artists were born in towns with fewer than 2,500 residents and 32% were born in towns with fewer than 5,000 residents. Now, let’s see how that has trended over time.
In the 1920s and 1930s, we see 40% to 60% of country artists being born in small towns. In the 1940s, that number dips between 15% and 30% and stays there until the end of the century. It’s important to note two things about this trend. First, the decades listed are when the artists were born. In other words, the artists born in, say, the 1940s were likely not popular until at least the 1960s.
Secondly, this graph might make you think that there are more country posers over time (i.e., more country artists not born in small towns). While that’s possible, we also have to note that there are fewer people living in rural areas these days. We need to compare the percentage of country artists born in small towns to the overall percentage of Americans living in small towns. For this exercise, we will use the 2,500-person threshold for small towns because that’s what was used throughout the 20th century.
What this graph shows is that in the 1920s about 50% of the U.S. population lived in small towns. Additionally, about 50% of country artists born in that decade were born in small towns. In short, the two metrics match. Then in the 1940s there were more people living in small towns than country artists born in small towns. That remained the case for the rest of the 1900s, though the gap began to close in the 1990s. Note that in no decade were there notably more country artists being born in small towns on a relative basis than there were American living in small towns.
Does that matter that? In a certain sense, no. I have a strong belief that music does not need to be autobiographical. You can sing about a small town and not be from a small town in the same way that an actor can portray someone from a small town without having lived in one. Furthermore, the size of an artist’s hometown is not the only thing that defines a country artist. Most people associate country music with the southern United States. 70% of the artists across our sample were born in the south. Between 1910 and 2020, the southern population ranged between 30% and 38% of the entire country. Thus, country artists over-index from the south even if they don’t over-index from small towns.
Regardless, part of the reason I wanted to conduct this analysis was to show that appearances are not everything. Just because someone is donning a cowboy hat and singing with a drawl doesn’t mean that you should assume they are indeed a small-town, country bumpkin. They might just be playing a character. Sometimes for no reason at all. Sometimes for entertainment. And sometimes to deceive you.
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