While the rest of the music business continues to crumble, one genre seems immune: country music. Four of the Top 10 albums in mid-October — Zac Brown Band, Darius Rucker, Kenny Chesney and Toby Keith — are by Nashville acts, and Taylor Swift's Speak Now is poised to be the year's biggest record.
"Country" now encompasses a broader range of styles than ever: pop-crossover acts like Lady Antebellum and Sugarland, modern honky-tonkers like Brad Paisley, stubborn traditionalists like Jamey Johnson and country-rock favorites like Zac Brown Band. The second-biggest-selling album of the year, after Eminem's Recovery, is Lady Antebellum's Need You Now, which has sold nearly 3 million copies. "Country went through a period when everybody had a cowboy hat and even people in Nashville couldn't tell one from another," says Ken Levitan, who manages Johnson and Kings of Leon. "Now there's more individuality. Everybody doesn't sound the same."
In the weeks leading up to its release, Swift's album was Number One on Amazon on presales alone, four of its songs were on iTunes' list of best-sellers, and three singles, "Speak Now," "Mine" and "Back to December," were in Billboard's Top 20. Industry sources estimate the album will move at least 750,000 copies its first week — more than Eminem's Recovery, which holds the first-week-sales record so far in 2010. "The demand is absolutely there," says Scott Borchetta, president of Swift's label, Big Machine. "It'll be hard to miss us."
Country is also making headway with rock fans. Kid Rock's upcoming Born Free includes appearances by Brown and Martina McBride; this summer, Brown opened seven Dave Matthews Band shows. "We're definitely Southern compared to Dave," says Brown, "but we play to his fans to try to gain the people that love music. We want to gather music lovers, not just country-music lovers." Next summer, Brown will make the move to stadiums for select dates.
According to Edison Research, twice as many fans in their 20s and 30s now listen to country as they did a decade ago (compared to hip-hop and alt-rock, which have declined in those age groups). "There are a lot of Eighties elements in country now, but without the synthesizers," says Capitol Nashville president Mike Dungan. "From a pragmatic standpoint, country is whatever country radio will play. The newer acts have younger fans than average, and it's by design. Our business is never better, in terms of dollars and cents, than when we're diverse."
Case in point: Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish. After he overcame skeptics at country radio, Rucker saw his first country album, Learn to Live, sell 1.5 million copies; his second, Charleston, SC 1966, debuted on the pop chart at Number Two. "A lot of people who listened to Hootie records in 1995 listen to country radio today," says Rucker. "That's where you get to hear guitar solos and that kind of song writing."
In many ways, Nashville is the last bastion of the old-school music business. Fans overwhelmingly get their music on CD: Eighty percent of them still buy that format (and only 26 percent download). Radio remains the principal outlet for breaking new acts, thanks to 3,000 country stations nation-wide, compared to 802 Top 40 and 350 "active rock" stations. "Some pundits might say we're living in the dark ages, and in some sense we might be," says Luke Lewis, CEO of Universal Nashville. "Our artists are out touring their asses off, and they're having hits on the radio. We're Southern and slow to change, but maybe it's paying off for our business."
Country benefits from exceptionally loyal fans — and a concert biz that knows how to cultivate that bond. On his 2009 tour, which grossed $71 million, Chesney charged as little as $30 per ticket. Other major tours rarely charge more than $70 to $100 a seat. "Take a $250 ticket to Lady Gaga," says Clint Higham, Chesney's manager. "No one in country is going to charge that much."
This is all a dramatic change from just a few years ago, when Zac Brown Band first went looking for a major-label deal. "They said, 'He's got a beanie and a beard, and his record was made in Georgia,'" recalls Brown's co-manager Bernie Cahill. "The whole package scared them off. Nashville is more open to different sounds now."
"We want to gather music lovers," says Zac Brown, "not just country lovers."
This is a story from the November 11, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.