An Analysis of Country Music Lyrics, Part 2: Neotraditional Country Artists and Lyric Diversity

In Part 2 of our Country music lyrics analysis, Danny Katz scans 20K Country tracks to examine how Neotraditional Country artists are setting themselves apart.

An Analysis of Country Music Lyrics, Part 2: Neotraditional Country Artists and Lyric Diversity
Danny Katz
Danny Katz
March 14, 20239 min read
Permalink Copied

This three-part study of Country music lyrics analyzes the lyrics of ~20K Country music songs to highlight lyric, artist, and songwriter trends over time. Part 1, What More Country Songwriters Means for Country Music Lyrics, features an overview of the dataset, definitions, and trends. Of the relationships identified, the most notable is the increase in average repetitiveness of a song (the inverse ratio of unique words to total words). Alongside repetitiveness, the average number of writers and total words per song has also increased in a statistically significant manner.

Part 2 compares artists within the dataset to determine whether similar trends exist at the artist level. You can find the full list of artists and their associated metrics in the following table.

Initially sorted by number of songs in the dataset, you will see legends Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton at the top with hundreds of songs. To sort by a different metric, select the column header and the order of artists will change to reflect those with the highest average repetitiveness, unique words, lyric diversity score, etc. Select the header again to sort the artists by the metric ascending (lowest to highest).

As you will notice, there is a fair amount of variation within these metrics even among artists of the same era, caliber, and catalog size. To illustrate these differences, it is helpful to visualize multiple data points. The first of such visuals examines the number of songs an artist has in the dataset versus the number of unique writers who wrote those songs.

The above chart represents each artist as a plot based on these two metrics, each of which is colored based on a clustering into four groups to show similar data points (artists). The linear trend line indicates a statistically significant and very strong correlation between number of songs and number of unique songwriters—i.e., the more projects an artist releases, the more chances they have for collaboration with different songwriters.

You can also hover your mouse over any artist to view their exact figures as well as a list of their Top 10 songwriters based on number of cuts (songs recorded). You can see this below for Merle Haggard, who, like many artists, is the top songwriter for his own music by a longshot.

This list, coupled with the trend line that serves as a proxy for average unique songwriters per song released, shows which artists recorded tracks from a wide variety of writers versus those that stuck with a smaller group of songwriters.

For example, Reba McEntire and Dolly Parton are on the opposite ends of this spectrum. Reba has 499 unique songwriters for 340 songs (ratio of 1.47), while Dolly has 328 writers on 678 songs (ratio of 0.48). While Dolly is credited on 408 of her 678 songs (60 percent), Reba was only credited on 24 of her 340 songs (7 percent). These two oft-associated industry behemoths went about their craft in very different ways.

As Part 1 elucidates, there is a correlation between number of songwriters and repetitiveness at the track level. Recreating this relationship at the artist level reveals an even stronger correlation.

Here, each point represents an artist and similar artists are grouped in colored clusters based on average number of writers per song and average song repetitiveness.

This view, along with the rest of the visuals at the artist level, are filtered to only show artists with at least 25 tracks (in order to provide a large enough subset to accurately represent averages). Each data point varies in size to contextualize the number of songs each artist has in the database, with larger circles indicating more tracks.

You can also hover over any artist to see their exact metrics and a list of their 10 most popular songs according to Spotify Popularity Index as of February 2023. See Jake Owen's data below as an example.

With a wide range of 1-5 average songwriters, there is a clear trend of increasing repetitiveness. The R-squared value of 0.47 indicates that the number of songwriters accounts for almost half of the variation in repetitiveness within the data.

The chart and clustering of artists also serves as an accurate representation of the wide variety of music being released within Country music. On one end, you have singer-songwriters like Zach Bryan and Tyler Childers writing their own Neotraditional Country music; on the opposite end, you have acts like Thomas Rhett, Florida Georgia Line, Dan + Shay, and Old Dominion with huge writing teams making Pop Country. In the aggregate, these styles have different levels of repetitiveness.

Clustering these artists also happens to group many artists of similar eras together. For example, the older generation of Country legends like Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Jr., and George Strait share low repetitiveness and fewer songwriters. Contemporary stars like Thomas Rhett, Florida Georgia Line, Morgan Wallen, and Luke Combs all have higher average repetitiveness and work with more songwriters. There is even a middle ground of artists like Blake Shelton, Tim McGraw, and Dierks Bentley who fit right between the two outer clusters in terms of era and age.

This natural progression and artist grouping is not surprising given the trend identified in Part 1 of increasing songwriters and repetitiveness over time. However, it is interesting to note there are several artists who are out of place based on their age and era.

One such artist is the aforementioned Zach Bryan. Bryan has yet to release a single song on which he wasn't the sole writer, placing him very close on the graph to older generations of artists like Dwight Yoakam, Merle Haggard, and Dolly Parton—artists from a completely different era. Others younger artists near Bryan include Charley Crockett, averaging 1.3 writers per song, and Orville Peck at 1.8, who has an even lower average repetitiveness.

Younger artists going against the contemporary grain aren't just releasing less repetitive music, they are also finding success doing so. Recreating the same chart but subbing in average Spotify Popularity (per track, not for the artist overall) presents another interesting view.

The chart above associates a higher number of writers per song with more popularity, indicated by a statistically significant relationship. However, there is a lower R-squared value, in part because of the outliers previously mentioned finding success writing their own music.

Zach Bryan is leading this Neotraditional charge and is arguably the third biggest act in all of Country music right now. His average Spotify Popularity of 61 (out of 100) is only slightly lower than Taylor Swift and Morgan Wallen, and ahead of Luke Combs. This is despite being the only writer on his entire discography, while Combs and Wallen both work with songwriting teams of 3+ members on average. This is wildly impressive and partially what has garnered Bryan so much respect from critics and rabid intensity from fans.

Other younger outliers include Tyler Childers at a Spotify Popularity of 54 and Turnpike Troubadours at a Spotify Popularity of 42, with 1.1 and 1.5 average writers per song, respectively. These two acts have been staples of the independent Country music scene, laying the foundation for the likes of Zach Bryan to explode into the mainstream.

There are also a handful of Texan artists now finding mainstream notoriety after signing major label deals in Nashville—despite maintaining their traditional sound. These include Cody Johnson, Parker McCollum, Whiskey Myers, and Shane Smith & The Saints. All of these Neotraditional Country artists hover between 1.5 and 1.7 writers per song and average popularities of 40+, placing them in the upper third of the genre.

Diversity of style, from Neotraditional Country to Pop Country, is apparent in the number of songwriters, structure of a track’s lyrics, and lyric choices themselves. Calculating the lyric diversity score for each song represents how unique the word choices of a particular song are, calculated according to how often each word was used throughout the ~20K-song dataset. The higher the lyric diversity score, the rarer those words are within Country music. The average of each artist’s lyric diversity score is mapped below against their average number of writers.

Once again there is a statistically significant relationship between the two variables, suggesting that a higher number of songwriters likely leads to a lower lyric diversity score. This observation is consistent with previous findings that a larger songwriting team will, on average, produce a more repetitive song, and with more repetition there is less opportunity for varied lyric selection.

Above, you can hover over any artist to see their metric details and Top 10 songs ranked by lyric diversity score. You can see Miranda Lambert’s details below.

Not surprisingly, Neotraditional Country artists like Tyler Childers, Jason Isbell, and Zach Bryan have very high lyric diversity scores and a lower average number of writers. Yet, other more mainstream artists with larger writing rooms also have high lyric diversity.

Eric Church and Miranda Lambert have always been known for successfully toeing the line between mainstream appeal and Traditional Country, and that's arguably reflected in their high lyric diversity scores of 1,212 and 1,286 respectively—on par with Jason Isbell and Zach Bryan.

Others in the mid-range of songwriter count including Brad Paisley and Walker Hayes. While these two have very different production styles and dissimilar career arcs, they also have discographies filled with songs on relatively rare subjects.

Well-known examples include Paisley’s “Online,” which discusses the differences in people’s virtual and real personas and inherently includes rare word choices. Hayes saw his career reach new levels when his song “Fancy Like” became one of the most viral songs of 2022, famously describing a date night at Applebee’s.

Finally, there are a few artists who have a high number of average songwriters and a high lyric diversity score. Most notable are Sam Hunt and HARDY, who are squarely in the mainstream with high Spotify Popularity. As artists, they have chosen to record music with much less common word choices than their peers despite their common, but incorrect, association with the homogeneous Bro Country sound. With average scores of 1,158 and 1,193, respectively, they are far above the likes of Dan + Shay (775) and Jason Aldean (712), who generally record far more generic lyrics.

Though there are plenty of Country artists with high lyric diversity scores, the most popular Country songs are going to continue to be relatively repetitive, generic songs made for radio by large teams of songwriters. This is a natural reaction to market forces putting more time, energy, and money into tracks with the potential to make the most money (viral sounds and radio singles).

However, in recent years, an increasing number of artists are breaking through with solo writes, interesting lyrics, and nods to Country music tradition. Regardless what style you prefer, a genre with a broader range of styles is significantly healthier and conducive to long-term growth.

Part 3 of this series will examine Country music songwriters and the difference between musicians as artists and musicians as songwriters.