Country artists are looking beyond Nashville for their latest string of hits.
Nearly five years after they rode to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 with Nelly-assisted summer anthem Cruise, Florida Georgia Line is back on the airwaves with two dance floor-ready tunes: the gospel-infused Meant to Be with Bebe Rexha, which cracked the top 15 of both the country and pop charts; and tropical house-flavored Let Me Go, which has amassed 300 million streams on Spotify, and pairs them with Hailee Steinfeld, Watt and Swedish DJ Alesso.
The duo of Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley is part of a growing swarm of country stars who are cross-pollinating between genres. My Church breakout Maren Morris teamed up with electronic producers Zedd and Grey for The Middle, which has topped three of Billboard's dance/electronic charts since its January release. Chris Stapleton is the undeniable highlight of Justin Timberlake's misguided country experiment Man of the Woods, for which they collaborated on three songs including duet Say Something, a top-10 single.
Even Carrie Underwood had fans wondering if she was pulling a 1989-era Taylor Swift when she dropped upbeat pop anthem The Champion featuring Ludacris, which gained some traction on country radio following its mid-January release.
"I don't know if it's a cyclical thing, but this is certainly a movement that's becoming a lot more noticeable," says Tom Poleman, iHeartMedia's chief programming officer. While country vets such as Billy Ray Cyrus, Shania Twain and Garth Brooks have scored mainstream hits in the past, "it's crossing further than it ever has, when you consider that Zedd and Maren Morris are on the dance charts. That's probably breaking new ground — I can't think of other artists who have crossed over into dance from country."
The surge in cross-genre collaborations may be due in part to Luis Fonsi's behemoth Despacito featuring Justin Bieber and Daddy Yankee, which spent 16 weeks at No. 1 last summer and racked up 4.9 billion views on YouTube. The track helped boost other Spanish-language hits including J. Balvin and Willy William's Mi Gente remix with Beyoncé and "woke up a lot of people in the Latin world to the opportunity to cross to pop," which is happening in country now, Poleman says.
It could also mark a shift away from "bro country," an early 2010s sub-genre led by Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, whose signature songs were characterized by partying, pickup trucks and scantily clad women. Florida Georgia Line was once at the forefront of the craze but has since evolved: singing about faith and family on 2016 album Dig Your Roots, and the prospects of a relationship on Meant to Be.
"Women rule country — the kind of stuff that connects with them is what makes country tick," says Minneapolis Star Tribune music critic Jon Bream. "After going pseudo-macho with bro country, we've seen the pendulum swing back the other way into a song like Meant to Be, which fits into the romantic kind of thing."
But are country artists at risk of alienating longtime fans averse to dance music? Not really, suggests The (Nashville) Tennessean music editor Benjamin Goad, who notes that several of the genre's biggest stars including Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett have already "moved further toward pop and even R&B. To be sure, there is still a lane for traditional country artists, but there’s more blending than ever before."
On tour, Chris Young's opener Kane Brown covers artists as varied as Outkast, Justin Bieber and Khalid in his sets. Pink similarly received a standing ovation performing her ballad Barbies at last November's Country Music Association Awards, and Florida Georgia Line won raves for their joint stadium shows with Backstreet Boys last summer.
"On paper, (the latter) made no sense whatsoever, but in reality, it was awesome fun," Bream says. "What you find with country audiences is, despite the stigma that they're conservative in their politics and lifestyle, they’re more open to genre-hopping than other music fans."