Country music tops the Billboard Hot 100, but it's complicated NPR's Scott Detrow talks to NPR's Ann Powers and Marcus Dowling of The Tennessean about how two country songs sit atop the Billboard Hot 100, and the context for this moment.

Country music tops the Billboard Hot 100, but it's complicated

Country music tops the Billboard Hot 100, but it's complicated

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NPR's Scott Detrow talks to NPR's Ann Powers and Marcus Dowling of The Tennessean about how two country songs sit atop the Billboard Hot 100, and the context for this moment.

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Two country songs are sitting atop the Billboard Hot 100. At the No. 2 spot is a cover of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car," performed by Luke Combs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAST CAR")

LUKE COMBS: (Singing) You got a fast car, and I want a ticket to anywhere.

DETROW: And at No. 1, for the 13th week in a row, Morgan Wallen's "Last Night."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST NIGHT")

MORGAN WALLEN: (Singing) I know that last night we let the liquor talk. I can't remember everything...

DETROW: Very different songs, but both of them and their huge success have started big conversations about the sound of country music right now and who gets to profit off of that sound. And for a peek into that conversation, we are opening up the group chat with NPR music critic Ann Powers and Marcus Dowling, country music reporter for The Tennessean. Hey there.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hey, great to be here.

MARCUS DOWLING: Hello.

DETROW: Let's zoom in on "Fast Car" for a minute. I mean, I personally always love listening to a good cover, and this jumped out to me in such a particular way because I listened to the original so much when I was much, much younger in my life. I now have 25 years or so more of life experience, and I think that made the overall story of the song and the character - particularly the second half - really hit in a much different way when I heard this Luke Combs version.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAST CAR")

COMBS: (Singing) You got a fast car. I got a job that pays all our bills. You stay out drinking late at the bar, see more of your friends than you do of your kids. I'd always hoped...

POWERS: It's a good take. You know, he really lets the song take the lead.

DETROW: Yeah.

POWERS: And Tracy Chapman is an artist who deserves all the things, including the sole writing credit on a No. 1 country song. But I wasn't surprised because, you know, Luke Combs has been performing this song for at least six years. It wasn't, like, a shock when he released it.

DOWLING: For me, it's a fascinating thing in the sense that, if you are a fan of the bar culture of mainstream popular country music, "Fast Car" is a part of the vernacular. You know, if you found a cover artist that's not able to play "Fast Car," then you don't have a job.

DETROW: (Laughter) You know, somebody standing there with a guitar, singing about wanting to escape their life in a fast car and having dreams and aspirations and seeing them crushed - like, that is such a classic country theme in so many different ways. And yet we're at this moment where a lot of country music - and I think this shifts into Morgan Wallen - feels like this formulaic, maybe overproduced way of singing. And I think "Last Night" kind of, like, fits into this perfect genre right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST NIGHT")

WALLEN: (Singing) We break up. I see your taillights in the dust. You call your momma. I call your bluff.

DETROW: But, I mean, it's really resonating. He is monstrously popular.

DOWLING: I'll say that the key to Morgan Wallen's success - it goes all the way back to T.I. and Atlanta's trap movement in the early 2000s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRING EM OUT")

T I: (Rapping) Still push a button to let the roof on the 'Lac (ph) down. I'm on the road doing shows putting my mack down - Mississippi to Philly, Albuquerque to Chatt Town. I got the crowd yelling, bring 'em out, bring 'em out.

DOWLING: That music was so demonstrative in the marketplace, and it helped Southern hip-hop and Southern culture redefine popular and hip-hop culture to a degree that it trickled down and through and into country - into artists who are maybe 35 and under, who are all Morgan Wallen's age. As much as they make country music that sounds like Keith Whitley or that sounds like George Strait, there's also this snap trap background that is part and parcel to everything that they're thinking about insofar as how culture just encapsulated so much of what that Southern rap movement was.

POWERS: I used to live in Tuscaloosa, Ala., which, of course - Roll Tide - is a home of a huge young college population. And when Sam Hunt put out this song called "House Party" in 2014...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOUSE PARTY")

SAM HUNT: (Singing) If you're going to be a homebody, we're going to have a house party. If you want to be a homebody, we're going to have a house party.

POWERS: I heard exactly what I was hearing pouring out of the yards of these kids - you know, these frat houses - every weekend. That was the sound - hip-hop next to country - hip-hop inseparable from country. Now, the question remains, where are the Black artists in country if we are, you know, living in country's hip-hop age?

DOWLING: Yeah, I want to dive in on that. So it's a fascinating thing. I had a conversation once with Luke Bryan about this. Luke Bryan came up like a lot of artists did, playing in Georgia college towns throughout the early 2000s. It's a fascinating thing when you talk about where are the Black country artists - the fascinating thing is that they were after white country bands, and it directly influenced the sound. So Luke Combs gets up, and he plays "Fishing In The Dark" with his, you know, cover band, and then the DJ comes on afterwards and plays Three 6 Mafia in the same college bar.

POWERS: Totally - like, you know, Nelly was playing frat parties one week and then, you know, Luke Bryan or whoever was playing the next weekend.

DETROW: I feel like we can't talk about Morgan Wallen, particularly in this context, without getting into his backstory and the videos that surfaced a couple of years ago.

POWERS: So just for those who don't know, what happened was Morgan Wallen was messing around with some of his friends after a weekend of heavy drinking and was captured on a recording of a bystander's iPhone using the N-word in casual conversation.

DOWLING: There's one rule that you cannot break in country music and at large popular culture, and Morgan Wallen learned what that rule was. You are not allowed to say the N-word. You could literally do anything else in popular music. But the second you say the N-word, you trouble the entire water of appropriation, of culture. And once you say that one word, the entire straw man that this is all built upon - flimsily, mind you - falls apart. And we're stuck in a place where Luke Combs can't just like Tracy Chapman's song and cover it because we are after a moment that fundamentally changed the conversation in relation to how pop music is made, consumed and understood.

DETROW: And this was early 2021, and it's worth saying there were immediate repercussions. But he - it did not seem to affect his meteoric rise at all, and, in fact, his downloads seemed to shoot up in the wake of this.

POWERS: I think there's a pattern in Southern culture where, especially - where white people and especially young white men are quickly forgiven for transgressions that perhaps they need to be called out for. And of course, the music industry doesn't want to abandon its most commercially successful stars, so Morgan Wallen was welcomed back into the fold, even as many people still questioned his motives - questioned his real sense that what he'd said was wrong.

DOWLING: I'll say that there is something about the Judeo-Christian tie that country music has to religion that makes the notion of forgiveness as polarizing and provocative as the concept of racism. And that's the one thing that kind of insulates country music historically from extraordinarily problematic issues becoming much larger than things that are swept under the rug.

DETROW: That's music critic Ann Powers of NPR and reporter Marcus Dowling of The Tennessean. Thanks to you both.

POWERS: Thank you so much.

DOWLING: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAST CAR")

TRACY CHAPMAN: (Singing) You've got to make a decision - leave tonight or live and die this way.

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