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Swapping Brogues for Cowboy Boots: The Rising Popularity of Country Music in the UK

By Alisa Butterwick

Despite being (mostly) political allies throughout history, the US and UK have always acted out a reciprocal relationship of harmless ridicule. Common targets for Americans include our dire need to apologise, our ritually excessive consumption of tea, and our tendency to freeze up at the mention of anything racy. In return, Brits are incredulous at the American political system, mimicking their plethora of accents with an exaggerated drawl, and snorting at their inability to carry out mundane tasks without first thanking God. So why is it that a genre such as country music, one that epitomises archetypal ‘Americanness’, has encountered such an unexpected surge in the UK, similar to that of the Jazz resurgence we explore here.

Shania Twain

Shania Twain

Photo: New York Post

It is unsurprising that the internet has taken centre stage in this escalation. In 2022, the Country Music Association recorded a fifty percent increase in digital streams in the UK over the previous two years, ensuring it to be our fastest growing music genre. The contagious effect of TikTok is a significant catalyst for the growth of country in the UK. Many users’ ‘For You Page’ is laced with montages of jolly-ups in Nashville and ‘Corn-certs’ in the middle of cornfields. The work of US pop-country artists – notably Luke Combs’ “One Number Away’ and Zach Bryan’s’ ‘Something In the Orange’ – has become subject to the ‘TikTok effect’: turning short snippets of songs into viral sounds used as video accompaniments.

“Perhaps country music is not confined to the sun and soil of the Deep South after all”

The app has undoubtedly encouraged mainstream US country music to embark on a voyage overseas, and has even parted that sea to reveal a niche for UK country music on its ebb; The Shires and Ward Thomas are among the leading artists. On a much smaller scale is Jake O’Neill, an emerging Lancashire country singer with a small TikTok following of just over 600. In 2023, his song ‘What Do You Say’ reached the third spot on the iTunes Country Chart. O’Neill’s style is the paradigm of a successful transatlantic marriage: the track ‘Lovin’ On Me’ from his 2023 debut EP, combines a Morgan Wallen-esque tone with O’Neill’s authentic British experience. Perhaps country music is not confined to the sun and soil of the Deep South after all.

This rise in popularity of country music, particularly amongst the younger UK generation, is not a simple divergence of lovers and haters. Country music isn’t as Marmite as people think: there are those that love it, those that hate it, but there are also those who hate to love it. These are the people that regard country music as a ‘guilty pleasure’, the ones that are ashamed to admit that their soapy shower heads have so often been used to project the unequivocal fact that, man, they really do feel like a woman. The ones who float their arms out of car windows, storming past the idyllic hamlet of Slough, down the rain-streaked M4, assured by Rascal Flatts that, ‘Life is a Highway’.

Zac Brown Band

Zac Brown Band

Photo: Entertainment Weekly

These ‘guilty pleasure’ listeners tend to follow the philosophy that country music is confined to beer-drinking hillbillies. Although these listeners may enjoy it and contribute to growing streaming numbers, the UK’s long standing mockery of America ensures an inability within them to take it seriously. There are two particular characteristics that are ‘easy targets’. The first is the Southern American twang. Sonically cordant with the pluck of a guitar string, the twang is often easy to exaggerate. The second is the subject of country songs. Many of the enjoyments of rural Southern American communities are reflected in the lyrics of the bro-country genre, artists of whom include Trey Lewis and Florida Georgia Line. Lyrics mostly concern vehicles, alcohol, women, and cowboy clothing. Subsequently, country music becomes subject to ridicule, stereotyped as being solely defined by these primal and overtly masculine values.

“Country music isn’t as Marmite as people think: there are those that love it, those that hate it, but there are also those who hate to love it”

For a lot of ‘guilty pleasure’ listeners, it is the opportunity to perform, revelling in a sarcastic musical act. They love it, but are embarrassed to admit it. There is a tendency to overlook talent within an unconventional practice. What committed country music fans appreciate is that it is a genre rooted in the amalgamation of dierent cultural sounds: a mix of English traditional folk music and ballads from British Isles explorers who settled in the Appalachian mountain range, the fiddle tunes of Scotland and Ireland, and African American blues, hymns, and bluegrass. It is a cultural orchestra, a celebration of immigrants and diversity. Country is personal narratives melodically told with the instruments that have shaped American history.

It is not all about beer and putting one’s hands in the pockets of their Levis. Country embodies the American landscape and upholds tradition, but also dismantles contemporary barriers. Kacey Musgraves’ 2013 song ‘Follow Your Arrow’ makes a social statement about the necessity for freedom of expression and sexuality, the promotion of forming and pursuing their own happiness. The recent re-release of Taylor Swift’s early country albums ‘Fearless’ and ‘Speak Now’ has caused millions of people, not just in the UK but globally, to deeply relate to and appreciate her lyrics concerning the female position in romantic relationships.

Kacey Musgraves

Kacey Musgraves

Photo: Refinery29

Storytelling within country music seals the gap between audience and artist. Zac Brown Band’s song ‘Highway 20 Ride’ is a personal tale of a divorced father making the journey to visit his child; a poignant and widespread vulnerability that many parents share. There is a prevalent motif of authentic passion within country songwriting: of truly conveying words and messages, not just performing them. As Clay Walker said in a Matthew Kelly interview: “I’m not writing from an ivory tower, I’m writing with my boots down on the ground”. It is not just about riding down a Tennessee dirt-road in a pickup truck, but who the memory is made with and the feelings it evokes.

“There is a tendency to overlook talent within an unconventional practice”

The UK has a systemic culture of self deprecation that clashes with the heartfelt intent inherent in US country music, which is why some understand it and some do not. What both ‘guilty pleasure’ and true country fans do share, however, is the desire for blissful escapism. There is a reason for this newfound demand for country music in the UK, and that is because there is something very attractive about transcending to a magical land of rhinestone cowboy boots, denim and line dancing, but also to a land that positions love, family, patriotism and human emotion above everything. There is a reason for the canonic presence of country artists such as Shania Twain, Sheryl Crow, and of course the matriarch, Dolly Parton. It is because country music is good; it has do-si-doed its way over to Blighty and is here to stay.


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