Taking its cues from honky-tonk and Western swing music — which themselves were heavily influenced by Mexican ranchera music — country music has always incorporated musical elements from folk traditions across the Americas. Songs featuring stylized six-string guitars and story-driven lyrics (known as "ballads" in English, or "corridos" in Spanish) propelled the careers of famous American singer-songwriters like Johnny Cash, and the pairing of traditional fiddle riffs with full electric bands later defined the sounds of mainstream American pop country stars like Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood, and Kenny Chesney.
Today, country music is at a crossroads. As editor Ludwig Hurtado noted in 2019 (a time of heightened anti-immigration sentiment in the U.S.), mainstream country music is the result of artificial whitewashing, with its multicultural and folkloric identity often replaced with white cowboys and Ford pickup trucks. “The perceived whiteness of American country music was a deliberate construction by the recording industry,” wrote Hurtado. But, from 2006 to 2016, Hispanic listenership grew considerably more than white listenership (a 25% increase compared to 7% increase) for country music. Today’s newest generation of emerging country music stars reflects that change.
Evolving tastes and controversy amid shifting tides
Looking at the charts, the most-played country track today is actually a cover of the 1988 classic “Fast Car,” originally written and performed by Grammy-winning artist Tracy Chapman and reimagined by North Carolina-born singer Luke Combs. The song’s appearance in the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s 2023 Country Airplay chart made Chapman the first Black woman as a song’s sole writer to ever top the chart. Combs’ success also reinvigorated consumption of Chapman’s original version by as much as 44%, demonstrating that country fans are open to exploring related genres — including classics they may have not yet had the chance to enjoy.
But, while signs of cross-pollination suggest country music’s collaborative, genre-blending spirit could return, singles like Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town” have led to massive controversy and heightened racial tensions among the demographic of country music listeners redefining itself in a new era.
The popularity of country music in Central and South American countries
Beyond the cultural powder keg of the United States, the country music genre is greatly popular in both Mexico and Brazil.
In fact, holding Chartmetric’s No. 2 spot for most popular country music artists — right below the ever-viral popstar Taylor Swift — is Mexican singer-songwriter Carin León. In November 2023, León signed an exclusive global publishing agreement with Universal Music Group. With nearly 9.2 million followers and 29.9 million monthly listeners on Spotify, León is also on Chartmetric’s list of the top 125 most popular artists across all genres.
Below León on the country artist list are Brazilian superstar Ana Castela (No. 7) and duo Jorge & Mateus (No. 8). In Brazil, the popular sertanejo style of country music originated in rural towns around the early 1900s and, like American country music, evolved to now feature electric instrumentation paired with denim and rhinestone cowboy hats.
Jorge & Mateus have had deals with both Universal and the 54-year-old Brazilian label, Som Livre. Founded in 1969 by music producer Joao Araujo, Som Livre has been a significant force in the Brazilian music industry. It is considered responsible for launching artists such as Brazil’s “Queen of Rock” Rita Lee and the Queen-inspired rock group Barão Vermelho (“The Red Baron”) who got their start rehearsing in a garage and soon became an iconic fixture in Brazil’s music scene. The label was once known for producing soap opera tracks and has since diversified into newer music genres like the Brazilian house/dance music subgenre of “slap,” gospel, and electronic.
The duo clocks in a sizable TikTok following of 1.6 million followers and an astounding 19.2 million on Instagram. Meanwhile, Castela is signed by the perhaps more obscure label AgroPlay, but has a massive social media audience of 12 million Instagram fans and 9.8 million followers on TikTok.
A wave of emerging US-based Country Latino artists
While artists like León and Castela are breaking into regional acclaim thanks to record deals in their respective countries, a growing wave of independent and emerging artists from the U.S. are performing country music in both Spanish and English. Many are even adding Latin-inspired qualities to their tracks, such as reggaeton rhythms and ornamental accordion flourishes.
Generally, the musicians who identify with the Country Latino sub-genre report feeling inspired and supported by their collaborations with peers on social media and in real-life industry events.
"Within the Latin Country community, I feel like we're all pretty supportive of one another," Nashville-based artist Andrea Vasquez recently told Chartmetric.
A majority (71%) of the artists featured in Spotify’s Country Latino playlist, created in August 2020, are independent. Of the artists on the playlist, just 14% are with Sony Music Entertainment, 13% are with Universal Music Group and 2% are with Warner Music Group.
With just 18.5k followers followers, the Spotify Country Latino playlist still represents a small sub-niche within the genre. However, the artists who have taken the time to cultivate a community on social media generally share an optimistic perspective on the growing diversity of the industry.
Born in Miami with a Cuban heritage, Sammy Arriaga is an independent artist whose music seamlessly blends country and Latin-inspired influences. His frequent collaborations and Spanish-language song rewrites on platforms like Instagram and TikTok have propelled his career, and he's been instrumental in expanding the genre. Almost all of his top 10 songs on Spotify exceed 1 million streams, and his top two tracks — one released independently and one with Latium Records — have amassed over 15 million collective streams on the platform.
With a strong presence on social media and a growing fan base, Sammy's career is set for further growth. He boasts over 473.3k TikTok followers, 88.3k on Instagram, 46.9k on Spotify, and 22.3k YouTube subscribers. Moreover, Sammy is making significant strides in the web3 space by selling over 6k music NFTs, demonstrating his adaptability to the ever-evolving digital artist landscape.
Angie K is a Nashville-based artist whose distinctive style earned her a spot on Blake Shelton’s team on NBC’s The Voice in 2016. The Salvadoran-American describes her musical blend as "hard-hitting country with a nod to her Latin roots." Her debut bilingual single "Real Talk" propelled her to recognition as a "Highway Find" on Sirius XM, and made history as the sole independent artist to perform on the Nissan Stadium stage at the 2022 CMA Fest.
Angie's success continues to grow, as she was recently selected for CMT's "Next Women of Country" 2023 class, thanks to her three consecutive No. 1 music videos on the channel's 12 Pack Countdown. According to Chartmetric data, Angie K has over 125k monthly listeners and 16.1k followers on Spotify.
Alex Georgia, a country musician formerly known as one-half of the American Idol duo Kat & Alex, is embarking on a new solo journey exploring sensitive and powerful topics with his music. In a recent interview with Chartmetric, Georgia hinted at the heavy-hitting themes of his upcoming solo debut album, which will feature story-driven songs about human trafficking, veterans' issues ,and more.
"People want to hear real things," said Georgia, pointing to the success of Oklahoma-born veteran and musician Zach Bryan, who began his songwriting career in 2017 on YouTube. "They want to hear about Zach losing his mother and going through that struggle, and dealing with depression and substance abuse to try to alleviate those things, and then overcoming that."
While the industry may be catching up to this shift in country music, Georgia, who was recently signed by Warner Chapel Nashville, is optimistic that both artists and listeners are ready for a new wave of authenticity and meaningful storytelling in the genre.
As for more inclusivity within the country genre, Georgia is optimistic and says he sees Spanish-speaking country artists getting more representation.
"I see an acceptance of not just the Hispanic community, but also country music embracing the fact that you can't just do country music in one way," said Alex Georgia.
Growing up in a small rural town in Wisconsin, rising country artist Alyssia Dominguez was exposed to traditional country music on the radio. She fell in love with the genre, inspired by artists like Taylor Swift. Yet her proud Mexican-American background was always a significant influence on her life and, eventually, her music.
“Music taught me to be strong and stand up for myself when I need to,” Dominguez told Chartmetric.
Dominguez discovered the connection between American country music and Mexican music through her grandmother. As she describes it, the emotional storytelling and similar guitar styles in both genres became the common thread that inspired her to merge the two worlds in her music. It's through this fusion that she created a medley that seamlessly transitions from Johnny Cash to Spanish-language Tejano songs, delighting her audiences and breaking down language barriers.
Dominguez is currently an independent artist. This independence allows her creative freedom and control over her music, which aligns with her vision and authenticity. However, the possibility of signing with a label remains open. She emphasizes the importance of finding a label that shares her vision and underscores the desire for authenticity and artistic integrity.:
"I think the right deal would just be finding the team that allows you to be yourself,” Dominguez said. "If I can represent that for people, then I've done my job. That's what matters, inspiring other people to feel seen.”
Based in Nashville, Andrea Vasquez originally hails from Los Angeles and brings a fresh perspective to the country music scene. She emphasizes the need for diversity in an industry that has traditionally been underrepresented in terms of both women and people of color.
"It's exciting that the country scene is starting to embrace Latinos,” Vasquez told Chartmetric. “I definitely want younger females who are also different to be able to be like, 'I could do that too because she did it.' So I hope that I can be inspirational to people."
The Latin Country genre is gaining traction in Nashville, and Andrea has played an integral role in fostering this growth. She recently organized a successful Hispanic American Heritage Month showcase, which attracted strong attendance. Through such collaborations, she is growing a supportive community of listeners.
Vasquez attributes her love for country music to childhood time spent in Northern Virginia, where she fell in love with the storytelling aspects, strong female vocals, and the instrumentation that defines the genre.
As an independent artist, Andrea emphasizes the importance of finding her own sound and identity. While she recognizes the financial challenges of being an independent artist, she values the creative freedom and control she has over her music. Her distinct brand, self-described as "country with a little tajin," embraces her Mexican-American heritage while delivering a strong country sound.
She believes that more artists from the Latin Country niche will be signed by labels in the future, as the music industry acknowledges the demand for diversity and unique sounds. She also believes the growing popularity of Spanish-language and Latin-inspired music, as seen with artists like Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny, hints at a broader shift in the music landscape. Interestingly, Bad Bunny’s latest album artwork features cowboy imagery, proving the universal recognizability of the iconic country western imagery.
Yet, Vasquez believes in inclusivity above all else, telling Chartmetric:
"I just want people to say, 'She's a great country artist, and she happens to be Latina.' I want my music to be respected amongst diehard country fans or just country fans in general — and, of course, Latinos. We’re all different, but we all make the same type of music."
What’s next: predictions from artists
The future of the music industry seems promising for Latin-infused country artists. While there may be some risk involved in deviating from the traditional country music template, audiences are hungry for change. This sub-genre is gaining traction, particularly on social media, where the audience is growing steadily.