When the COVID-19 pandemic effectively shut down the music business in March 2020, country artists accustomed to connecting with their audience through stage banter, meet and greets and other extensions of life on the road needed a new means to safely and responsibly maintain country music's fans-first image.
TikTok, a social media app that dates back to 2016, existed in country fans' vocabulary already, if only because of its role in the rise of Lil Nas X and "Old Town Road." Since the pandemic began, TikTok's value to country acts, from living legends to relative unknowns, became amplified by a wide range of talents with unexpected free time and an audience primed to sing and dance along to the next viral craze.
"COVID springboarded it so it was a way to stay in touch, and everybody was real," Mary Travis, the wife of unlikely TikTok star Randy Travis, told Wide Open Country. "They didn't care if they were in the bathroom. They didn't care if they were dancing in a hotel room or singing. It just didn't matter, and that's what's so organic."
"Old Town Road" is no longer the only obvious example of a TikTok trend impacting country music. Walker Hayes' "Fancy Like" became a feel-good story in 2021 when its viral fame netted a 41-year-old father of six his first No. 1 after over 15 years of chasing hits in Nashville.
"Fancy Like" teaches us two important things about TikTok: its influencers aren't just Gen Zers and younger Millennials, and its audience cares more about memorable songs than genre gatekeeping.
The app allows Randy Travis, a veteran known for surprising younger artists with his presence at live shows, to interact with videos by Alexandra Kay and other emerging talents.
"TikTok was of course foreign to us," Mary Travis said of her husband's embrace of the platform. "We're 62 years old. They call him Grandpa TikTok now. He's grandfather clock TikTok. It was not on our radar. Our kids were looking at TikTok, but we didn't know how to operate it or turn it on or look at one."
By following his publicist's advice and creating a TikTok account, a household name expanded his global platform with an app that benefits more than fresh faces and country music choreographers.
"We were overseas recently, and someone came up to [Randy Travis] and said, 'I saw you on TikTok'," Mary Travis added. "It's kind of cool to think that millions and millions of people worldwide have tapped into this source that's cool because it's individualized, it's creative, it's fun. For the most part, it's good. We need more of that."
Tim McGraw also interacts with TikTok upstarts, Kay included, while broadening his still-growing reach into pop culture.
"[McGraw's] doing a great job on the app where he's posting and getting involved and getting younger kids to check out songs," country TikTok star Spencer Crandall said. "You can see on his Spotify that the songs that he posts about, they pop back up in his top songs."
Much more serious songs than "Fancy Like," namely Lily Rose's "Villain" and Priscilla Block's "Just About Over You," reflect how TikTok connects a new wave of country stars with a widespread audience that's accepting of both genre-blending and roots-bound approaches.
"I feel like in the last 10 years, country has kind of been the outcast genre in the sense that it kind of keeps to itself and people outside of country don't care about country," said rising Nashville artist Lou Ridley. "I love that we're going into a phase where it's going viral and it's mixing genres because it's necessary."
Crandall, whose "My Person" soundtracks special moments in his fans' romantic journeys, joins Rose, Block and other peers in taking advantage of how TikTok levels the country music playing field.
"I get to do live market research. I can play a song and just feel peoples' reaction in the comments or the DMs," Crandall said. "That is so special. Obviously, playing live is the pinnacle of what we all still want to do, but TikTok is a special way to connect with fans that I've never experienced in my life. It's life changing."
The viral reach of 2019's "My Person" and the fan-made videos it inspires grows on a daily basis.
"I have hundreds of people every day who are like, 'I know this sounds crazy, but I had no idea who you are. Then I got TikTok and somebody posted a slideshow of their wedding photos to this song, and so I looked up the song'," Crandall explained. "That is the ecosystem that is TikTok. It's ever-growing and snowballing in this really cool kind of chain reaction where I post a video, so somebody makes a video for that video. Then somebody duets that video, and all of a sudden, you're talking to someone in New Hampshire who saw their cousin's orthodontists' 'My Person' challenge video, and now they're using it at their wedding."
Up-and-coming trio Restless Road uses TikTok to share its members' individual personalities and senses of humor. In the process, they charm new fans made while touring with longtime friend and supporter Kane Brown.
"We've had a lot of fun on TikTok in the last year," Restless Road member Zach Beeken told Wide Open Country in July. "We've been posting things that we think are either funny or interesting or creative, and it's really worked out for us.... It's been a great way to meet more and more people and for more and more people to see what we're about."
Others find success on the app beyond sharing original material. CMT Next Women of Country selection Reyna Roberts gained traction by singing along on camera to a couple of her favorite songs. A clip of Roberts singing Luke Combs' "Beer Never Broke My Heart" caught Bud Light's attention, and before that, her TikTok rendition of Reba McEntire-via-Bobbie Gentry's "Fancy" became an intoxicating experience in a different sense when a giddy McEntire shared a watch-along video.
"I didn't use TikTok up until Reba," Roberts said. "I posted a TikTok of me singing 'Fancy,' and then Reba posted it. I was like, 'Oh my goodness. This is insane!' It opened so many more doors for me. It's the queen of country. It's one of country's legendary artists. So for me, TikTok is a tool I should have been using, but now my eyes have been opened so now I'm making an effort to use it more."
Roberts' TikTok presence netted more than McEntire's digital stamp of approval. The fast social media friends will hit the road together in March during a three-night stretch of the Reba: Live in Concert tour.
"If somebody had told me, 'Hey, Reba is going to take you on tour. She's going to love your version of 'Fancy,' I'd be like, 'You're crazy.' Fast-forward two months, and I'm literally counting the months until I can go on tour with Reba," Roberts added.
Roberts was hardly an unknown before her digital encounter with McEntire. In June 2020, a YouTube video of Roberts singing Carrie Underwood's "Drinking Alone" got shared online by Underwood and Mickey Guyton. She's also toured and co-wrote with Jamey Johnson and gained some notoriety from her song "Stomping Grounds" being featured on ESPN's Monday Night Football. Even with those career milestones in her favor, a well-timed and well-rehearsed TikTok post proved to be invaluable when it got seen and acknowledged by the right person.
"It took me at least 10 takes before I posted the Reba video," Roberts said. "I was like, 'I'm singing Reba? I've got to do this right. I've got to do the best I can. I can't just do one take and put it up there.'"
Roberts' "Fancy" video and other noteworthy TikToks cost and risk way less than typical means of promotion.
"Back in the day, people would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on music videos," Crandall said. "Now for free you can make up a dance, like Walker Hayes and his daughter in their front yard. That has done more for that song than they could have ever done with shooting a crazy music video with a plot."
That's not to say that the DIY freedom of TikTok will render music videos, commercial radio, other social media platforms or anything else obsolete. The structure of the business hasn't shifted that much, at least not for established stars. Simply put, the app offers voices underrepresented through conventional channels a fairer shake at being heard by the masses.
"I never would have guessed that this app would have changed the game as much as it has," Crandall said. "I was really frustrated with some of the other apps right at the time TikTok came around because it felt like you had to pay for your own people to see it when you are posting music. We're spending all this money, and this new algorithm and this kind of new wave of the internet came around where it felt very democratized. It was just like best video wins. I've really loved that as an artist. Sometimes it's incredibly humbling, but when it works, it really works. It's so helpful."
Crandall encourages all creative types to explore his seemingly boundless turf as we near a Grammy Awards ceremony likely to be dominated by the biggest TikTok phenom of them all, Olivia Rodrigo.
"I have a lot of people ask me 'Should I start posting on TikTok? Is it worth it? Am I too late?'," Crandall said. "My advice is always like, 'Of course.' You can have zero followers and literally have never posted a TikTok, post a song and it could be the next 'Driver's License,' it could be the next 'Old Town Road' because that's how that app works. It has nothing to do with what you've done or who you are. It's so cool because I think the best song really does win."
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