In February of 2015, the corporately-controlled world of commercial country music suffered quite the shock when Aaron Watson’s The Underdog debuted in the Number One spot on Billboard’s Top Country Album chart. That announcement came only a few days after Gary Overton, then the CEO of Sony Music Nashville, ignorantly proclaimed, “If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist.” Rightfully, Overton was swiftly serenaded with a solid round of boos, as he couldn’t have been more tone deaf in his oblivion.
Though no truly independent male artist, from Texas or elsewhere, had topped the Top Country Albums chart in the 25-year history of the Nielsen Soundscan era, it certainly wasn’t the first time the Top 10 had been home to some enterprising Texans. Wade Bowen ‘s self-titled 2014 release debuted at No. 9, and Josh Abbott Band’s 2012 Small Town Family Dream hit the five spot upon its release well before Watson overcame his Underdog status, not to mention notable debuts from plenty of other Texans. But make no mistake, Watson’s accomplishment was, and still is, a seriously big deal — it even led to a recent Underdog-centric display at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.
For many reading this, the strength of Texas music as a scene or commercial industry isn’t new information. A long-running, ever-growing collection of festivals, thriving clubs and numerous devoted radio stations have helped propel many of our favorite sons and daughters into prominence well beyond the Red River. But sometimes, it’s nice to take a step back and examine things from a distance in order to be more fully appreciative.
Let’s take a look at some cold hard sales facts, specifically from the Billboard Top Country Albums realm. For the most part this summer, each week’s Top 10 spots are dominated by the usual glossy-name major-label suspects: Shelton, Bryan, Stapleton, Bentley and Urban are names who seemingly never vacate the highest slots on the chart. But in the past few weeks, there have been some intriguing outliers for those paying attention. Cody Johnson (the chart week of August 27), Cody Jinks (the chart week of September 3) and the Casey Donahew Band (the chart week of September 10) are each independent country artists from Texas, and each has seen his latest record debut in the Top 5 of Billboard's Top Country Album sales. This type of streak isn’t something that normally happens, and no other state can boast such a favorable track record.
If nothing else, this trend over the past month has provided the country-music world with possibly the strongest case ever that there’s something special going on down here, if anyone needed the extra evidence of course. In each of the weeks where one of the aforementioned Texas acts were hanging in the Top 5, only one other indie artist was in the Top 10, North Carolina-native Chris Lane with his Big Loud Records album Girl Problems. But go back even farther, much farther actually, and it’s both nauseating and enlightening to see that indie artists from other states just aren’t reaching the commercial heights many Texans have now been doing more and more.
Over the past year and change, notable releases from the likes of Randy Rogers Band, The Departed, and the Hold My Beer, Vol. 1 from Bowen and Rogers have found the Top 10, as has Front Row Seat, the most recent Josh Abbott Band offering. It's certainly worth adding Green River Ordinance to this list, as the former alt-rock outfit would've easily landed in the Top 10 back in February, had Billboard not made the puzzling, non-sensical decision to exclude the group from the Country category completely.
Though it’s not uncommon for one indie release to show up in the Top 10, it’s not a guarantee by any stretch. And with increasing regularity, if there is an indie record near the top, it’s got a Lone Star flavor to it. With apologies to any independently thriving country scene in Delaware, North Dakota, Wyoming or Indiana, it’s not been a secret that Texas, along with Oklahoma and a few of our neighboring states, actively supports a flourishing music economy. But historically speaking, packed local venues, regular regional radio airplay and even plentiful press mentions have failed to equal massive mainstream success for the majority of popular Texas country artists outside of the major-label system.
When looking at the rousing success of Texans such as Miranda Lambert or Eli Young Band, it’s easy to forget that those artists' global audience and platinum-selling hit singles only arrived after leaving the indie world. That’s not a knock on them in any way, and seeing fine Texans succeed will never get old. Some may say that Granger Smith, the most recent Texan to land a No. 1 single with “Backroad Song,” is still more or less in the indie world, though his label, Wheelhouse Records, is a part of the established Broken Bow Records family. Now, Broken Bow isn’t a major label, and to be fair, Smith found an impressive amount of notoriety before signing his deal thanks to his viral Earl Dibble Jr. alter-ego and his accessible brand of modern country.
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And it’s not just this summer where Texans have predominantly been the independent artists taking up space high on the album-sales chart. Since Watson hit it big early in 2015, only a smattering of independent artists from outside of Texas have cracked the Top 10. On-the-rise names such as (pre-Atlantic) Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Margo Price and Wheeler Walker Jr. have had new albums surprise many onlookers with impressive sales. Hard-charging types who fit the pop-country mold all too nicely, such as Kelsea Ballerini, Chase Rice and Kane Brown, have more than made their share of non-major label waves in recent months; respected vets Dwight Yoakam and Roseanne Cash have also represented themselves well with their latest releases in their own post-major label eras. To have Johnson, Jinks, Donahew, and even Smith placed into a category with such acts is a positive testament to what they’re doing and have been doing long before now. Both Johnson and Donahew have had previous Top 10 successes, after all.
But again, this is where it gets good for us; unlike the Texans, these other indie artists from the past couple of years aren’t vital contributing parts of an individual group or identifiable regional scene. It’s a sort of non-confrontational “us against the world” mentality that allows even a Non-Donahew Fan to swell with pride over his band’s hard-won success and recognition for his new release, All Night Party.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Cody Johnson can have a strong first week in sales, even on a national stage. And why should it be, as he packed a reported 7,000 people into a sold-out Wolf Pen Creek Amphitheater last weekend in College Station. Donahew, Jinks, Abbott, Bowen, and other prominent acts such as the Departed, Randy Rogers Band and William Clark Green see sizable crowds in all corners of the country. But that lack of surprise is a sign of how (innocently and understandably) spoiled we can be here in Texas sometimes. There’s just a lot of commercial power here, and combined with a zealous fan base, things tend to go really well for the biggest names we have.
With highly-anticipated new albums from Jack Ingram, Whiskey Myers, and Reckless Kelly coming up, it'll be fun to see if the Top 10 Billboard streak continues, but if not, that'll be fine too, because we know what's up. Large sales totals are great, and the occasional nod from the mainstream and audiences from across America is pretty cool, too. But having plenty of independent Texas artists bust up the major-label party with more regularity than any other area shows there’s nothing minor-league about country music in Texas.