With its big blue skies, fresh air, and vast green fields, the agricultural enclaves of the US have long been an integral part of the nation’s identity. Country living is perhaps one of its most enduring, yet perhaps most misunderstood cultural narratives. The inspiration for countless country songs, rural America is at times both romanticised and disparaged for its simpler way of life and conservative leanings.
While rural communities may have strong ties to their agricultural past and small town values, they’re not stuck in time. In fact, the new generation of Country Boys and Girls are an influential consumer group, with considerable buying power and a healthy appetite for tech. They may value their heritage, but they have their boots planted firmly in the direction of the future.
Despite a population shift to urban areas, nearly 46 million Americans live in rural areas.  However, it’s important to note that far more citizens – both urban and suburban – happily identify with their inner cowboy/cowgirl. Country music is the top reported radio format among 18- to 54-year-olds, and 42% of Americans consider themselves fans of the genre.  Crushing the redneck stereotype for good, this music and its associated lifestyle have formed part of a powerful subculture that’s not only shaping the cultural identity of many young Americans, but is influencing their consumer behaviour as well.
Who are they?
It’s deer season in Aynor, South Carolina, and local youth are buzzing with excitement. From the grocery store to the gas station, local residents decked out in Realtree camo go about their day prepping for their hunting trips with friends and family. Ford trucks are getting filled up with petrol, YETI coolers are being stocked with ice, snacks and drinks, backpacks are being loaded with tools and knives from Cabela’s, and Polaris UTVs are being secured to their tow trailers. With a strong tie to the land, and passion for the great outdoors, deer hunting is one of the biggest pastimes of rural America’s youth. For these Country Boys and Girls, an ideal life can be summarised perfectly by Luke Bryan’s hit single 'Huntin', Fishin' And Lovin' Every Day’.
The ideal illustrated in Bryan’s chart topper is a theme that comes up a lot in country music and its associated lifestyle – a fresh air fantasy that’s becoming increasingly influential in the lives of American youth. In fact, there has been a 54% increase in country fans aged 18-24 over the last decade. 
The stereotypes about the country music listener are that they’re rural and they’re not very tech-savvy, but our research shows that that’s all bunk. This audience is a lot more affluent than even the country industry itself thoughtChris Ackerman, VP of Coleman Insights
While the majority of country music’s 102 million fans live in the in the Midwestern and Southern states, Country Boys and Girls can be found all across the US.  “If you look at the distribution of country music fans, it’s almost evenly distributed across the country,” says Tom Worcester, head of music brand partnerships at the Creative Artists Agency. “People used to have the impression that it was Southern-based, but now you have just as big a distribution in the Northeast and the West as you do in the South.” 
“The stereotypes about the country music listener are that they’re rural, they’re downscale and they’re not very tech-savvy, but our research shows that that’s all bunk,” says Chris Ackerman, VP of Coleman Insights. “This audience is largely suburban, a mix of white- and blue-collar, and a lot more affluent than even the country industry itself thought.”  Country fans are not exclusively white either; there’s been a 25% rise in fans among Hispanic listeners since 2010, and roughly 70% of non-white adults listen to country music once per week or more. 
You don’t have to live in the Bible Belt to enjoy country music
Thomas Hawk, Creative Commons (2011) ©
What they value
There are four core values that unite Country Boys and Girls: family, faith, freedom and fun. The importance of family and the interdependence of these relationships is apparent in their life choices. Settling down earlier than other American couples, the average age of marriage among women in the Midwest and the South is around 25 – two years below than the national average.  Young people in these regions also start their families at a younger age – two to three years before those in the Northeast and on the West Coast. 
County Boys and Girls are also consider themselves fairly religious. Overwhelmingly Christian, the highest church-going states are in the South and Midwest.  Rural residents in these regions attend church more than urban or suburban citizens; 41% go to church at least once a week, and 56% go at least once or a month. And many of these youth are being brought up with a strong tie to their local religious communities, with 90% of Christian church attendees in rural areas willing to help their neighbours, saying they’d bind together in times of need. 
What people like about country is its emotional aspect. It’s authentic, and that’s what everybody says that they love about country music regardless of their age, their race, where they liveKaren Stump, senior director of consumer research at the Country Music Association
These core values may explain why the vast majority of Country Boys and Girls are such supporters of country music, suggests Billboard’s Tom Roland. “Its basic messages – family, home, hope, making the most of life – resonate with its followers, whether they live in a rural Midwestern state or a dense coastal city,” he says. Karen Stump, senior director of consumer research at the Country Music Association, agrees: “What people like about country is its emotional aspect,” she says. “It’s authentic, it’s a storytelling genre, and that’s what everybody says that they love about country music as a genre regardless of their age, their race, where they live.” Stump adds that country music reminds young people that it’s not about money, or where you’re from, but simply about being happy. 
Youth living in traditional ‘red states’ may derive a lot of their world outlook from these close-knit communities with their Christian values.  Candidates who espouse family values, dedication to their Christian faith, and who are fiercely protective of American freedoms are generally viewed favourably among these politically conservative youth. That’s not to say that they are socially conservative however. Young Republicans are decidedly more liberal and open-minded than previous generations; 64% believe homosexuality should be supported by society, 57% believe that immigration strengthens the US, and 48% support stricter environmental regulations. 
Modern Country Boys and Girls are no bumpkins
Thomas Hawk, Creative Commons (2011) ©
What they do and where they shop
Country Boys and Girls are, for the most part, very social. Yet while they may be active on social media, they’re far happier in the woods or on the lake rather than in front of a computer. Compared to the national average of 11%, 18% of Southern youth and 17% of Midwestern youth actively participate in outdoor activities. 
From trucks and deer cams to ATVs and fishing boats, these pursuits require extensive amounts of gear, gadgets and vehicles, and young consumers are willing to splash their hard-earned cash to take part. Country Boys and Girls like their big toys, and are willing to spend their increasing buying power on such big ticket items; 30% of country music fans want to buy a new pickup truck, and are willing to pay up to $31,805 to have their vehicle fully loaded with modern tech. 
Big name country stars are of the same status as pop music stars right now. They’re relatable, and that’s keyKathy Gardner, former US head of marketing at RepuCom
Utility task vehicles – the supercharged blend of the four-wheeler and golf cart – are a perfect example of how these youth want to see tech upgrades integrated in their gear; a study conducted by the Specialty Equipment Marketing Association found that rural southerners and Midwestern consumers made up 71% of the UTV market in 2012. Although they’re used for recreation, general chores and property maintenance, SEMA says UTV enthusiasts, like truck owners, want their vehicles to be fully loaded and customised, noting that this group spend an average of $1,620 accessorising their vehicles. 
This lifestyle is, of course, brought to life in country music tracks and videos; seven of the top ten country singles in 2015 referenced pickup trucks.  Despite young people’s growing disinterest in celebrity endorsements, country music stars have maintained their position as influencers in Gen Z’s lives. “Big name country stars are of the same status as pop music stars right now. They’re relatable, and that’s key,” says Kathy Gardner, former US head of marketing at RepuCom. “[Country stars] scored well in the most important factors that contribute to consumers making a purchase: trustworthiness, likability, and ‘breakthrough’, meaning that when you see them on TV, you pay attention to what they are saying.” 
Country Boys and Girls are splashing out on the outdoor lifestyle
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Creative Commons (2013) ©
Insights and opportunities
The popularity of country music among Americans is testament to the powerful allure of country living and the integral part it plays in the nation’s cultural identity. While listeners may not all be from the farmlands of the South or Midwest, the genre’s stories of hope, resilience and love resonate with listeners in nearby regions and around the world. Country music has a powerful influence over young Americans’ lives, but as the diversity of its listeners grows, it would be advantageous for artists’ messages and themes to evolve as well. Brands looking to connect with this group should realise the changes within its audience and strive to diversify and encompass the universal themes within.
Despite the recession’s economic toll on rural communities in the US – not to mention the shrinking population – country living is still very much valued among Americans. Today’s rural youth may be growing up outside of bustling cities, but they’re aware of the benefits of living in the countryside. Their salaries may not be as high as those in urban areas, but the lower cost of living in the country often allows for money to be spent on other purchases, especially big ticket items like cars, equipment, recreational vehicles, homes, and big appliances. Because this group marry and have children at a younger age, there’s also a great opportunity for brands to establish lifelong connections with growing families far sooner than with those in other areas.
But brands should be careful not to get caught up in ‘country life’ stereotypes. While rural Americans are proud of their country roots, they’re also very aware of how outsiders may view their lifestyle. Academic Natalee Denise Singleton warns that rural residents have been subject to centuries of outsiders creating and perpetuating negative stereotypes of them, and these observations may be more harmful than good.  Because of this, brands looking to connect with rural residents, and those who identify with the lifestyle, may need to be mindful of their narrative to be perceived as authentic. The rural populations across the States have played a tremendous part in the country’s history, economy and cultural identity, and no matter what happens in the future, Country Boys and Girls will carry on this big sky pride for generations to come.
Andrea Graham Richeson is a New York-based writer and consumer anthropologist studying why people love what they love. She specialises in youth culture, gaming, fandoms, social media, and new media. She is the founder of Youth Tribes.
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