The genre expanded musically and geographically this year and a regime change happened at a major label
The country music community lost two titans in 2022, leaving broken hearts in an otherwise upbeat year that saw a major regime change, venture capitalist-backed funds spending big bucks on country catalogs and the expansion of the genre to brings in millions of new listeners. Here are 10 big stories and trends that helped define the year in country music.
In June, Ben Kline and Cris Lacy ascended to co-presidents of Warner Music Nashville, marking the first regime change at the top of a major country label since 2015. John “Espo” Esposito, who helmed WMN for 13 years, transitions to chairman emeritus in January. Among their first signings: Giovannie & The Hired Hands, Madeline Edwards and Chase Matthew.
Pioneering country artist Loretta Lynn died Oct. 4 at the age of 90. Renowned for tackling real life, often taboo, topics in her tunes such as “The Pill” and “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man),” as well as her signature song, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” streams of Lynn’s catalog surged 615% immediately following her death, according to Luminate.
Nashville labels and their coastal counterparts increasingly linked together to co-sign artists and give the acts cross-genre exposure and the power of combined resources. Warner Music Nashville and Elektra paired for Bailey Zimmerman and Sony Music Nashville and Columbia for Megan Moroney. Additionally, Warner Music Nashville promoted Warner Records signee Zach Bryan to country radio as the streaming sensation began to take off.
In September, Morgan Wallen’s Dangerous: The Double Album broke the record for the most weeks in the top 10 on the Billboard 200 chart by a singular artist. Its 86 non-consecutive weeks surpassed Peter, Paul & Mary’s self-titled debut album that notched 85 non-consecutive weeks between 1962 and 1964. The record holder remains the original cast album of My Fair Lady at 173 weeks. Wallen, Billboard’s top country artist of 2022, ended the year setting another record: He became the first artist to rank at Nos. 1, 2 and 3 simultaneously on Billboard‘s streaming-, airplay- and sales-based Hot Country Songs chart (dated Dec. 17), since the survey began as an all-encompassing genre ranking in 1958.
Naomi Judd died by suicide on April 30 at age 76, just weeks after she and her daughter Wynonna appeared on the CMT Music Awards for the The Judds’ first awards show performance in two decades and the day before they were to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Interest in the act’s music soared — The Judds’ All-Time Greatest Hits, issued in 2017, returned to Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart at No. 11, a 30-year high for The Judds. Wynonna proceeded with a planned sold-out tour under The Judds banner that will continue into 2023.
The biggest successful infusion of new talent since 1989, six rock-based country artists invaded the top 35 of Billboard’s Country Airplay chart with their first singles to country radio. “Country had started to feel very safe, not dangerous,” Core Entertainment co-founder Kevin “Chief” Zaruk told Billboard. “Now you’re seeing [rock] influences come in that you normally wouldn’t see. It’s not the typical dirt roads and tailgates.” It’s too soon to know who — if any — among Bailey Zimmerman, Jelly Roll, Jackson Dean, Nate Smith, Corey Kent and Zach Bryan will become the superstars that Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Clint Black and Travis Tritt became 33 years ago, but Audacy’s country format vp/brand manager Tim Roberts called it “a paradigm shift.” Along with airplay came streaming wins, with Bryan already earning more than 2.45 billion on-demand U.S. streams, according to Luminate.
Kenny Chesney’s Here and Now tour was the top outing among country artists in 2022. He led all country artists with a Billboard Boxscore gross of $135, 046,047 from 41 shows. The tally was high enough to land him at No. 9 on the all-genre Billboard Boxscore year-end tally and topped his last major tour, 2018’s Trip Around the Sun outing, by more than $20 million. “We found ourselves adding seats in so many markets,” his manager Clint Higham said.
Three of country music’s biggest superstars, Kenny Chesney, Blake Shelton and Keith Urban, sold their master recorded music royalties in 2022 for undisclosed sums: In January, Hipgnosis Song Management acquired 80% of Chesney’s recorded music catalog spanning from 1994-2017. In October, Shelton sold ownership of his master recordings released from 2001-2019 to Influence Media Partners, though the deal includes a joint venture whereby the singer will earn a share of the profit generated by his catalog going forward. Finally, on Dec. 13 it was announced that Urban sold his master recordings — including 10 studio albums — to Litmus Music in that company’s first deal since forming earlier in the year.
In March, the 57th Academy of Country Music Awards became the first major awards show to move from broadcast to live streaming when it aired via Amazon’s Prime Video from Las Vegas. Prime Video did not release viewership numbers but upped the deal for the 2023 ACM Awards.
Country artists staked their claim in Las Vegas with Carrie Underwood, Luke Bryan and Miranda Lambert all kicking off residencies in Sin City in 2022 (to be precise, Underwood’s run began in December 2021). Keith Urban, who started a residency in 2019 at Caesars, moves to Planet Hollywood for a new stint in 2023, while Garth Brooks will return to Las Vegas next year for his first residency since 2014.