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Meet the Producers Powering Country’s Hot 100 Dominance

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Zach Bryan’s “Something in the Orange” spent six weeks atop Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. But the track wasn’t recorded anywhere near Nashville — it was crafted alongside producer Ryan Hadlock, over 2,000 miles away at Bear Creek, the rustic barn-turned-studio that Hadlock’s parents had built in 1977 just outside of Seattle, not far from the birthplace of grunge. The genre-fluid song didn’t just top the country chart — it peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topped the Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart, too.

“Even the term ‘country music’ is almost becoming passé in some ways because in working with Zach, in a lot of ways, he doesn’t really consider himself a straight-up country musician,” says Hadlock, who also produced Bryan’s “From Austin.” “He’s a singer-songwriter who happens to be from Oklahoma, has an accent and sings about the world he’s in… I think he will be doing amazing things for a really long time.”

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Within Nashville, too, a similar genre-mashing ethos has bubbled up on hits such as Morgan Wallen’s muted, acoustic-based chart juggernaut “Last Night,” which spent 16 nonconsecutive weeks atop the Hot 100 in 2023. “He has one of those magical voices that allows him to span multiple formats, really,” says producer Joey Moi, who has worked with Wallen since his debut album. “He can sing a traditional country song, or over a hip-hop, contemporary production or a contemporary country production, and it still sounds like a Morgan Wallen song.”

As more and more country tracks have risen to the upper reaches of the Hot 100 this past year, many of the standouts — not only “Something in the Orange” and “Last Night,” in addition to other tracks by Bryan and Wallen, but also Luke Combs’ rendition of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” (which reached No. 2), Bailey Zimmerman’s “Rock and a Hard Place” (which hit the top 10) and Jelly Roll’s rock and country-blending “Need a Favor” (which broke into the top 20) — demonstrate an instinct for crafting sounds that appeal beyond the genre.

A mix of newcomers and veterans, they include Hadlock; Wallen’s “Last Night” producers, Moi and Charlie Handsome; Zimmerman producer Austin Shawn; Combs’ “Fast Car” co-producers, Jonathan Singleton and Chip Matthews; and Jelly Roll producer Austin Nivarel.

Notably, many of these studio creatives have résumés that extend beyond country. Before working with Big Loud artists like Wallen and Florida Georgia Line, Moi produced Canadian rock band Nickelback. Hadlock has worked with names ranging from Foo Fighters to Brandi Carlile, while Handsome’s credits include Post Malone, Kanye West, Juice WRLD and Lil Wayne.

For Wallen and Bryan, scaled-back production proved essential to the genre-traversing success of their respective hits. “We purposefully kept it simple,” Moi says of “Last Night.” “There are a handful of parts going on, but it’s more about the negative space and making it about the story, the vocal and the instrumental that runs throughout. It lends itself to being accessible by more lanes as far as radio formats; it was tougher to define as just a country song, or just a pop song or [adult top 40] song. It kind of fit everywhere.”

Moi says the song’s sparse production partially resulted from Wallen’s own creative inclinations. “My natural instinct is to build these larger-than-life productions, and Morgan is great about coming behind me and being like, ‘Take this out and that part out,’ making sure I’m not doing too much on certain things,” Moi says. “I’d say he has had his best opportunity on the last two records to really imprint upon every aspect of it, from the songwriting to demos to our approach to tracking in the studio and postproduction. You can hear his contemporary, youthful thoughts over all of it.”

Similarly, Hadlock notes the minimal production on “Something in the Orange,” which utilized vintage mics and gear. “Sometimes old equipment is better at capturing emotion, and part of it is having a good room; I think people don’t always realize how much an instrument the room is that people are playing in,” says Hadlock, whose goal was a recording that sounded like Bryan was “playing right in front of you,” that would make “people listen to it and say, ‘Wow, that’s an amazing live recording.’ ”

For Shawn, the freedom to experiment was key in landing the right feel for Zimmerman’s “Rock and a Hard Place.” He and Zimmerman produced the song a half-dozen different ways before landing on the approach they used for the final recording. “We produced an almost John Mayer-esque, real smooth-sounding [version], then the acoustic version and one that was a dark piano ballad, with strings and fiddle that sounded almost like you were listening to a country Goo Goo Dolls song,” Shawn says.

As he did with “Fall in Love,” Shawn incorporated a “three-minute-long sample of just wind” into “Rock and a Hard Place.” “It feels like you are in a desert, and I wanted to feel that open style — we added fiddle and pedal steel, just subtly to bring out the emotive aspect. We wanted this song to feel like you could play it on acoustic guitar, but at the same time, it can still fit into a country radio modern format.”

Shawn, who co-wrote Zimmerman’s “Fall in Love,” recalls the no-barriers approach he and Zimmerman took early on in developing his sound. “We thought about the kinds of songs he would want to hear and made the music as fans, just encompassing everything we love… There’s no gimmicks with this kid. His gift is making the music that defines him and his lifestyle.”

Ultimately, producers who encourage such experimentation — whether Combs’ cover of a 1980s folk-pop classic, Bryan’s poetic blend of country, folk and rock or Wallen’s country-to-hip-hop range — have shaped songs that are resonating with a multitude of listeners.

“He has always wanted to stay in the country lane, but we all knew he had a sort of contemporary side,” Moi says of Wallen. “If we planted our roots and built our foundation in a good spot, [we knew] we’d have the opportunity to explore other genres, and I think we’re in a sweet spot for that right now.”

This story originally appeared in the Oct. 7, 2023, issue of Billboard.

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