Opening Up Opportunities: Warm-Up Slots Can Even The Playing Field

Opening slots in country music are coveted. 

The long-standing path to success in the genre has been to drop a single, slide into a support position for a major act, maybe make an appearance or two on the Opry and, by the time the album is available, be in a position to slide up a line on another tour before taking your act out into amphitheaters yourself.

The formula remains in place because it works — Music Row, if nothing else, knows how to churn out money-making artists — and at this point, country audiences are trained to pay attention to the support acts, even to the earliest opener who may have one song a fan has heard a snippet of only a few times.

LeAnn Rimes and Mickey Guyton perform onstage for CMT Crossroads: LeAnn Rimes & Friends at Sycamore Farms on February 16, 2022 in Arrington, Tennessee. (Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images for CMT)

Because country acts are consistent tourers, getting the imprimatur of a major act — headliners frequently introduce their support — is a path to success for up-and-comers whose agents can reliably say that an audience in a city is already familiar with an artist when it’s time to route the next tour.

BRELAND tells Pollstar the key change in the industry that must happen to truly reckon with a persistent race problem is for big acts to include artists of color on their tours. Country fans won’t buy music or tickets for artists they aren’t exposed to, and exposure in country still means the stage.

In the last five years, ten country artists have been ranked in Pollstar’s quarterly top earners lists (for the purpose of this exercise, we are considering Taylor Swift a pop act). They are all white men: Eric Church, Blake Shelton, Kenny Chesney, Garth Brooks, Cody Johnson, Luke Bryan, Chris Stapleton, Jamey Johnson, Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen.

Three of those ten in that time period have put a Black artist in a support spot on tour. Stapleton has been the most consistent, having given opener slots to Yola and Madeline Edwards, along with the Marcus King Band, which has a Black member. Jamey Johnson toured with Reyna Roberts. Shelton did a loop with Nelly — better known as a hip-hop artist, but one who certainly embraces country stylings. 

Shelton, it should be noted, co-headlined with Kane Brown and has shared a bill with Mickey Guyton (she opened for Brad Paisley on his 2015 tour). 

There are some technicalities to consider. Darius Rucker “opened” for Bryan on a Facebook Live streaming event during the pandemic. Combs tapped Rucker’s former band Hootie & The Blowfish for a one-shot opening spot. Brooks almost never uses support and when he does, it’s his wife Trisha Yearwood.

The fact is mid-tier and more indie-spirited country acts are far more likely to give an opening opportunity to Black artists than their arena- and stadium-selling comrades. Jason Isbell had seven Black women — Guyton, Brittney Spencer, Amythyst Kiah, Shemekiah Copeland, Allison Russell, Joy Oladukun and Adia Victoria — open his Ryman Auditorium residency in 2021. 

Russell is far more likely to open for indie rock darlings like Iron & Wine than she is for, say, Chesney. Breland himself did a summer loop with Fitz & The Tantrums.

There may be a shift coming: Jimmie Allen is set to open for Carrie Underwood on her next tour, for example. Reba McEntire, Maren Morris and Brandi Carlile tapped Brittney Spencer for support this year. Kane Brown is in a position to headline his own tours.

“Country music is built on being on the road,” BRELAND told Pollstar. Live is the genre’s foundation.

If the industry is truly committed to giving opportunities to artists of color — there’s certainly been a lot of lip service about it —there’s still a long way to go to build that foundation.