- Jerod Harris/FilmMagic
- Country music is a constantly evolving genre. It started out as “hillbilly music,” and morphed from bluegrass to the country/pop/hip-hop blend that it is today.
- These 10 country artists are some of the faces of the genre today, and are all worth a listen.
- While you might know the name Maren Morris from the smash single “The Middle,” her solo stuff as a country artist is even better.
- Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.
The face of country music is changing as the genre accepts more diversity and a wider sense of what “country” music really is. We’ve picked 10 artists that we believe best represent the evolving industry, from chart-topping Lil Nas X to Grammy Award-winning Kacey Musgraves.
Keep scrolling to learn more about these musicians, and to get some recommendations to freshen up your summer playlists.
If you’re not on the Kacey Musgraves train after she won Album of the Year at the 2019 Grammys — it’s time.
Musgraves’ first two albums, “Same Trailer Different Park” and “Pageant Material,” were both solidly good, classic country albums filled with twang, banjos, and all. With songs like “Follow Your Arrow” and “High Time,” however, and references to weed, same-sex relationships, and other non-country-radio-approved topics, she was never the most traditional of country stars.
Her third album, “Golden Hour,” earned her Album of the Year at the Grammys, and was a breath of fresh air to the genre.
Even if you don’t like country music, “Golden Hour” will have you converted to the yeehaw lifestyle with songs like “Velvet Elvis,” “Slow Burn,” and “High Horse.”
Songs to listen to: “Follow Your Arrow,” “Space Cowboy,” “Dime Store Cowgirl,” “Wonder Woman,” and “High Horse.”
Kane Brown is bringing some much-needed diversity to the genre.
- Getty/Jason Kempin
Brown has released two albums in two years, and is showing no signs of slowing down. His most recent album, “Experiment,” was released in November 2018 and spawned hits like “Good as You,” “Lose It,” and “Homesick.” His deep baritone voice is reminscent of country legends of the past.
One of Brown’s key reasons for success is his willingness to collaborate with artists outside of Nashville. His collaboration with DJ Khalid, “Saturday Nights REMIX,” has almost 300 million streams on Spotify, while his song with electronic music producer Marshmello, “One Thing Right,” has 42 million streams.
If you need more convincing of his superstardom, Brown became the first artist to simultaneously top all five Country Billboard charts in October 2017.
Songs to listen to: “Heaven,” “What Ifs,” “Good As You,” and “Found You.”
Maren Morris had a huge crossover pop hit with “The Middle,” and her second album, “GIRL,” showed that she was willing to blend country and pop in her own music as well.
- John Shearer/Getty Images
Zedd searched far and wide for the perfect voice to sing on “The Middle” before he happened upon Morris, who was unmistakably a country artist. But her raspy voice proved perfect, and “The Middle” was one of the biggest songs of 2017. It introduced her to an entirely new audience.
On “GIRL,” the follow-up to her Grammy-nominated album “Hero,” Morris blended country and pop even more on songs like “RSVP” and “Make Out With Me,” and also threw in classic country bangers like “The Bones,” “The Feels,” and “All My Favorite People.”
Songs to listen to: “The Bones,” “My Church,” “GIRL,” “Once,” “The Feels,” and “80s Mercedes.”
Thomas Rhett is one of the biggest names in country music right now, and his most recent album does not disappoint.
- Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images
Rhett released his fourth album, “Center Point Road,” in May 2019, and it immediately shot to the top of the charts, both country and pop. The album dabbles in gospel, funk, and soul, but keeps its country feel. Rhett’s specialty are love songs, many of which are clearly about his wife, Lauren. The two regularly share photos of their two adorable daughters on Instagram, only adding to Rhett’s swoon-worthy status.
Rhett also regularly writes for other artists like Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, and Lee Brice, so even if you haven’t heard his solo music, you’ve most likely heard his words.
Songs to listen to: “Look What God Gave Her,” “Blessed,” “VHS,” “Life Changes,” “Marry Me,” and “Die A Happy Man.”
Jillian Jacqueline released her first single in 2017 and has slowly been rising in popularity.
- Rick Diamond / Getty Images
Jacqueline barely had any music out before she landed a collaboration with modern country royalty Keith Urban. Their song, “If I Were You,” is a perfect country-pop song.
We’re still waiting for Jacqueline to totally breakthrough in the country music scene, but it’s worth hitching your hopes on her. Her last release, “Side B,” from 2018, shows promise that her first full-length album will be worth the wait.
Songs to listen to: “Somebody,” “If I Were You,” “Reasons,” “God Bless This Mess,” and “Sad Girls.”
Ryan Hurd has released four singles, all of which are bops.
Hurd, whose wife is none other than country star Maren Morris, solidified his songwriting prowess by writing No. 1 songs for Luke Bryan (“Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset”) and Blake Shelton (“Lonely Tonight”). Hurd was also named one of CMT’s “16 for 2016,” which spotlights artists that are on the up and up.
Hurd’s music is perfectly pleasant country pop, and is made all-the-sweeter when you picture Hurd writing it about Morris.
Songs to listen to: “To a T,” “Her Name Was Summer,” “Love in a Bar,” and “Diamonds or Twine.”
Kelsea Ballerini is country music’s latest star to dabble in EDM and pop music, but country is where she shines.
- Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images
Ballerini was nominated for Best Country Album at the Grammys last year for her album “Unapologetically,” and rightfully so. Listening to her music is genuinely delightful. Try listening to “Miss Me More” without feeling tempted to drive off on a motorcycle into the sunset. It’s impossible.
Ballerini recently collaborated with the Chainsmokers for “This Feeling,” which has amassed over 260 million streams on Spotify, proving that she’s versatile.
Songs to listen to: “Miss Me More,” “Unapologetically,” “Peter Pan,” “Yeah Boy,” and “Fun and Games.”
Blanco Brown is the latest country singer to leverage TikTok into real chart success with his song “The Git Up.”
The lines between genres are blurring more and more, as hip hop and rap become pop music. Nashville and country have proven to be a little more stubborn, as seen by Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” controversy. Brown’s success at blending country and hip hop music have helped bring the traditionally white genre into the 21st century.
“The Git Up” has peaked at No. 16 on the Hot 100 and topped the Hot Country Songs chart.
Songs to listen to: “The Git Up,” “CountryTime,” and “Ghett Ol Memories.”
Brandi Carlile is an openly gay country singer, something that is still relatively taboo in the genre.
- John Shearer/Getty Images
While Carlile might not technically be a completely country artist, her musical output throughout the years has spanned folk, country, and Americana, so we think she counts.
Look no further than Carlile’s 2019 Grammys performance of “The Joke” to become a fan of the singer. Country music isn’t generally the most progressive genre in terms of sexuality, so to have an openly gay, successful musician win Best Americana Album at the Grammys was a big deal.
Songs to listen to: “The Joke,” “Everytime I Hear That Song,” “The Story,” “Heart’s Content,” and “Fulton County Jane Doe.”
Lil Nas X isn’t exactly a country singer, but his song with Billy Ray Cyrus has been atop the Hot 100 for months.
- Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Boston Calling
So what did Lil Nas X do? Recruited country music legend Billy Ray Cyrus to sing the chorus and re-recorded a chart-topping, record-breaking smash single. And Lil Nas X’s not done yet. He just released another remix to the song featuring Young Thug and none other than Walmart-yodeling sensation Mason Ramsey.
Songs to listen to: All three versions of “Old Town Road” and “Rodeo.”