It was the best of times and, sadly, the worst of times in Music City.
To the good, touring came back full on and record-breaking; Messina Touring Group opened a Nashville office; Bonnaroo happened in real time, CMA Music Fest rocked harder than ever, and Mike Grimes’ beloved Basement East reopened all-in after being destroyed by a tornado that leveled that block.
Kenny Chesney returned to the road after pulling his stadium run three times. Doing unprecedented business, his “Here and Now Tour” – which featured an additional 20 amphitheater shows on top of his 21-date stadium trek – landed at No. 5 on Pollstar’s Top 200 North American Tours chart with a gross of $135.3 million. Looking at ticket sales in North America, he ranked third with an impressive 1,296,079, behind Bad Bunny and Def Leppard / Mötley Crüe.
Testing the stadium waters are newcomers Morgan Wallen (No. 7 on Pollstar’s Top 200 North American Tours chart with a $121.5 million gross and 935,845 ticket sold) and CMA Entertainer of the Year Luke Combs (No. 49 on the chart with a gross of $32.3 million). They’ve each had enough success to line up 17 and 16 stadium shows, respectively, in 2023.
Garth Brooks lands at No. 8 on the North American chart with an estimated gross of $112.8 million. Rounding out the Top 20 for country is Chris Stapleton at No. 16 with a gross of $79.6 million (and eighth as far as ticket sales in North America with 900,952 tickets sold) and Eric Church at No. 17 with a gross of $74.4 million. And George Strait remains a behemoth: with just 10 shows he ranks No. 29 on the Top 200 North American Tours chart, with $50 million grossed and 263,285 tickets sold.
With country music delivering three of the year’s Top 10 tours, country fans were hungry to see and hear the music. But it wasn’t just massive mainstream artists with radio support, either. For the first time, as one storied touring insider noted, “We’re seeing acts coming from the way outside not only cutting into the slots on country festivals, but cutting into the big dollars slots.”
Suddenly hard-touring Red Dirt outliers like Whiskey Myers and Cody Johnson were pulling down serious six-figure offers, while streaming/social media sensation Zach Bryan was getting million dollar offers from multiple festivals.
If the Sturgill Simpsons, Tyler Childers, Margot Prices and Billy Strings raised the profile among non-country fans for roots music, these artists prove that music fans seek music in the “country” space beyond terrestrial radio. Aided by SiriusXM’s rootsier Outlaw Country, Dwight Yoakam & the Bakersfield Beat and Red White and Booze, acts don’t have to compete in the 40-to 52-week cycle to be heard.
And after Shania Twain, Brooks & Dunn and Reba reopened Vegas for country showroom headliners year round, followed by Brooks at the Wynn, Keith Urban, Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, and Luke Bryan have all embarked on residencies, alongside Adele, Aerosmith, Sting, Usher, Wayne Newton and Katy Perry.
To the bad, gentrification continues to cannibalize sacred live spaces. The legendary Exit/In, established in 1971 as a place for rock, roots, blues and the right kind of country, shuttered its doors after being a host to every icon and buzz band for more than half a decade with its final shows being Carlene Carter back to the beginning, Emmylou Harris and two nights of Diarrhea Planet, while the Mercy Lounge/Cannery Ballroom/High Watt complex closed in May, with the promise of a bigger, better entertainment complex coming.
Shiny and new is the new mantra. It’s turned Lower Broadway, once a strip of decrepit and authentic honky tonks, into destination No. 1 for bridesmaids looking to act the fool and vomit in the streets. Big money’s being made; but down on the Rock Block, where the developers have now closed the Exit/In, a club that’s changed hands multiple times, struggled, but always survived, the new ethos may win out.
In the world of shiny and new, two club veterans, Jamie Rubin (The Family Wash) and Chark Kinsolving (Mercury Lounge/Cannery Ballroom) are helming the Eastside Bowl inside an abandoned, 10,000-square-foot Kmart on Gallatin Pike. With old guard hole-in-the-walls, including Santa’s Pub, Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge and American Legion Post 82, holding down music for locals alongside the original Basement and bluegrass’ high temple the Station Inn serving as venues for local and national acts, the Eastside Bowl could be that large enough “local” venue Nashville music lovers truly deserve.