A Field Guide To Chart Folkies

Dennis Leupold

A Field Guide To Chart Folkies

Dennis Leupold

Every few years, pop music rediscovers the acoustic guitar. Beats give way to twang, stilettos give way to suspenders, and Adult Hits radio stations rejoice in their new content.

The data that goes into the music chart is arbitrary, capricious, and ever-fluctuating, and there’s no meaningful difference between the #10 and the #11 song in the country. But it’s still noteworthy that last week, over half of the Hot 100’s top 10 songs were either folk or folk-derived. There’s soul yarler Teddy Swims and the volcano of horniness that is “Lose Control.” There’s Zach Bryan and Kacey Musgraves’ pensive duet “I Remember Everything.” There is, as usual, Taylor Swift. But there are also a couple artists we haven’t seen before, or at least haven’t seen in this particular genre. Let’s take a look.

Beyoncé – “Texas Hold ‘Em”

Chart Peak: #1

The Backstory: Really?

OK, maybe this needs a little bit of introduction. Beyoncé has “gone country” for almost two decades now, usually by twanging up her old stuff. She dueted with “Irreplaceable” with country-pop duo Sugarland at the 2007 AMAs and brought in the Chicks for Lemonade standout “Daddy Lessons.” Each of these was received as kind of a lark, rather than a Houston-born singer returning to her roots.

“Texas Hold ‘Em” isn’t a remix, but its own standalone single. It isn’t just country-inflected, like B’Day’s “Suga Mama,” but a full-on banjo shuffle. And that single has already made a fairly big impact even by Beyoncé standards. After Columbia sent the track to country radio (despite some bad-optics objections by smaller stations), Beyoncé became the first Black woman to top the country charts and then the first Black woman to top the Hot 100 with a country song. Bey’s country crossover, in turn, has given other Black country artists substantial streaming boosts. Should the song’s chart success hold, it might end up as her biggest chart hit since “Drunk In Love.”

The Song: Look, it’s fraught to call a song like “Texas Hold ‘Em” pop. Too many people interpret that to mean “this song is bad,” and too many other people interpret that to mean the song is Not Real Country and an Affront To Country Values and other racial dog-whistles. But like “Daddy Lessons,” “Texas Hold ‘Em” came from the pop writers’ machine. Cowriter Lowell has done songs for Tate McRae, Madison Beer, Lennon Stella, and other artists who are several echelons down from Beyoncé. “Texas Hold ‘Em” sounds nothing like any of those artists, though; it’s clear that the songwriters meant it to sound exactly like this. The genial Western melody recalls June Carter and her ilk, and the banjo, played by Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Rhiannon Giddens, is up front and insistent.

“Texas Hold ‘Em” is also much slighter than “Daddy Lessons” or its companion single, “16 Carriages,” aiming for nothing but a rollicking good time. When pop artists write country songs, they tend to be about the very fact that they are country songs, and the resulting country signifiers can get a bit too on the nose, as when Beyoncé boasts about hitting the dive bars or having a “real-life hoedown.” But slighter doesn’t always mean worse. This is indeed a good time! I especially like the last minute or so, where things get subtler: a faint piano breakdown, some soft Destiny’s Child-esque harmonizing, and an outro that makes it the first and only country song to mention a “solargenic photo shoot.”

Stray Observation: Way too many people have compared the whistling part to various children’s cartoons. Expand your reference pools!

Benson Boone – “Beautiful Things”

Chart Peak: #3

The Backstory: Boone’s been on the charts before, but never this high. He grew up as a non-singing jock and discovered the allure of music at a Jon Bellion concert. He joined TikTok, as one does. Then in 2021, American Idol invited him to audition. That Idol scout recognized casting gold: a songwriter-coded WGWG (longtime Idol-watcher slang for the “white guys with guitars” who do well every season) with a burgeoning online following and a likable, media-ready personality. During his televised audition, judge Katy Perry gushed that he could win the whole thing.

But despite that praise, Boone dropped out of the onetime career-making show for the sake of his career. He said he wanted to grow as an artist – the subtext being that since he’d amassed nearly 2 million TikTok followers and now a big TV spot too, he was well positioned to get some major-label help with that growth. Boone ultimately chose Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons, who signed him to his Warner imprint Night Street Records and mentored him into a series of slow-growing hits. This is all so very old-fashioned, a hit that came not out of viral flash but label cash. Or, in A&R terms: “The artist development piece at Warner Records is no bullshit,” one of the label’s VPs told Billboard earlier this month.

The Song: Benson Boone’s appeal is also no bullshit. The voice he found on that Battle Of The Bands stage is money, combining the electronized tenor honk of Adam Levine or Ryan Tedder with the roar of his mentor Reynolds. He has hooks: “Ghost Town,” his first chart hit, interpolates a melody from Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” (which has had a bit of a Gen Z nostalgia boost lately). Many of his singles, and especially “Beautiful Things,” exude a smitten wife-guy energy meant for fans to find either relatable or aspirational – kind of like early Bruno Mars, with his “Just The Way You Are“/”Grenade” charm offensive. He’s kind of like the Paul Metzler of pop music, enjoying a path to success that’s so smooth it seems pre-ordained, but being too darn affable to resent for long.

Stray Observation: Here’s a clip that just perfectly sums up Benson Boone’s whole thing. During his audition, he brought up his TikTok but made sure to clarify that he wasn’t one of those thirst traps.

Noah Kahan – “Stick Season”

Chart Peak: #10

The Backstory: Noah Kahan’s song has been around for much longer than either of the above. “Stick Season” came out in 2022, and as of writing, it’s been on the charts for 20 weeks. Call him the man who brooded so Benson could bellow.

Kahan was pop first, in sound if not in industry savvy. The folksiness came later. He started his career as a songwriter for artists like Julia Michaels, then steered his way toward the more homegrown stuff on Stick Season – named after New England slang for midwinter blahs. This bemused Kahan’s manager a bit: “I didn’t think him shedding the pop songwriting, introducing banjos and mandolins and making a very time-specific, place-specific album about New England would be the catapult!” he said.

The Song: Vermont bona fides aside, the pop songwriting hasn’t exactly been shed. “Stick Season” has a steady stomp that recalls the Lumineers. Despite the often hyper-specific lyrics, the song has a malleable nature that could suit any genre. You can imagine a re-instrumentation of “Stick Season” against a light EDM beat, like Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” or anything by the Lumineers. You could imagine it as a country song; country singer Jay Allen demonstrated this by turning the song into a chunky hunk o’ Southern rock. You could imagine Olivia Rodrigo covering it — and indeed, she has. That’s probably behind its staying power.

Stray Observation: Isn’t it interesting how “Stick Season,” which isn’t totally dissimilar from “Texas Hold ‘Em,” hasn’t taken nearly as much shit for its folkie credibility (or lack thereof)? There’s also the fact that Beyoncé’s team is heavily marketing “Texas Hold ‘Em” to country radio, whereas Noah’s team is not. But still: Wonder why that could be.


Dua Lipa – “Training Season”

Dua Lipa, queen of pop consistency, drops another reliable pop single. Like “Houdini,” “Training Season” has Tame Impala production that’s like a minor-key fever dream, and a springy melody with low notes on low notes. Like “New Rules,” the song finds Dua ripping into rookie romance in a way plenty of daters can relate to. It’s kind of emblematic of our socially starved times that the magnetic connection Dua Lipa longs for isn’t true love or even really true lust, but “conversation overload.”

Conan Gray – “Lonely Dancers”

Do not let the [DISTANT CLUB MUSIC] subtitle at the start of the video fool you: At virtually no point in the last million decades of ’80s-inspired pop songs has anything sounded more authentically New Wave than this, which is an accomplishment. Maybe it’s the tempo, or the processing on Conan’s low notes.

Knox – “Not The 1975”

Imagine your crush rejecting you by telling you that “you’re not the 1975.” People used to hermit themselves for lesser humiliations. The sheer absurdity of the concept – and the audacity of swooping in immediately after Matty Healy’s semi-cancellation to make a play for his casual fans – elevates this beyond the millennial-whooping “Shut Up And Dance” that, let’s be honest, it kind of also is.

Flo Milli – “Never Lose Me”

Rapper Flo Milli has flirted with crossing over for about two or three singles now (last fall’s “BGC” juuust missed out on the roundup). “Never Lose Me” seems to finally be getting it done – it’s her first track to crack the Hot 100. Why this track? TikTok helped, as it so often does. So did the panoply of chart-juicing mixes – the Lil Yachty remix, the Bryson Tiller remix, the remix slowed down, the remix sped up. (Most of which come back to TikTok.) But one imagines the woozy production and hyper-attached lyrics play their parts.

Muni Long – “Made For Me”

Unabashed luxuriation in retro Babyface vibes. (“Made For Me” was actually produced by Jermaine Dupri – close enough.) The fact that this made the Hot 100 is a pleasant surprise.

Evi – “Ego Rush”

Ironclad pop rule: If you sing the word “rush,” your song should deliver a pop rush.
Evi Giorgi, of the Loud LDN collective, understood that rule. She also clearly understands the appeal of the 2000s Paramore era and the emo-pop that abounded. There’s even a bit of a guitar solo!

Brittany Howard – “Prove It To You”

Did you expect the frontwoman of Alabama Shakes, known for many great things but not beats, to release a scuzzy house anthem in 2024? Or ever? The fact that there is no 15-minute extended mix is an actual outrage.

Georgia – “Too Much Too Little”

Like Xenomania? The percussion from “Vogue”? The EDM from 2012 that’s now old enough to elicit nostalgia? British pop artist Georgia is here for you.

TEN – “Nightwalker”

The Weeknd has never covered “Personal Jesus,” but wouldn’t that suit his whole deal? Thanks to TEN of K-pop group NCT, we now know what that might sound like. “Nightwalker” doesn’t sound like danger, exactly, but the idea of danger: sunglasses at night, strobe lights on dark streets, light panting, sexy tortured paranoia.

Twice – “One Spark”

More K-pop – this time from the opposite end of the emotional axis, but no less energetic. “One Spark” is an ebullient love song. There’s the percussion. There’s the drum-and-bass break that’s practically required in this post-NewJeans world. There’s a bit of Jimmy Jam-y cowbell. And there’s peppy sparky energy for ages.


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