Country music hasn’t had a huge presence in the mainstream top 10 since Florida Georgia Line provided a couple of big crossover blips in 2014 and 2017 with “Cruise” and “Meant to Be.” But that changed in triplicate in 2023 with three Nashville exports— the well-established Morgan Wallen and Luke Combs, plus a blazing-hot newcomer, Zimmerman. His first three singles all hit No. 1 on country airplay charts, but it was “Rock and a Hard Place” that landed the 23-year-old Illinois native in the upper ranks of the Billboard Hot 100… and, now, on Variety‘s Hitmakers list of the top 25 songs of the year.
Zimmerman’s secret sauce? He’s between rock and a country place — which is to say that he grew up as a rocker, and his gravelly tone reflects the rock power ballads of his youth. Producer Austin Shawn notes, “He’s from Southern Illinois, and what they listen to over there is Eddie Vedder, AC/DC and Lynyrd Skynyrd and Southern rock.” When they’re trying out different vocal approaches, “I’ll be like, ‘Sing it like Scott Stapp from Creed,’ and he can do that.”
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Even though he brings the party in concert, his singles have tended toward the broken-hearted and balladic. Signed to both Warner Nashville and Elektra, he became an overnight country star with the tearjerker “Fall in Love,” and they stayed in that mode with “Rock and a Hard Place” — his second single — instead of pivoting to an up-tempo, which might have been more the conventional wisdom. Says WMG Nashville marketing chief Jamie Younger, “He had this vision for a trilogy for the first three songs.” The singer’s entire debut album reflects on a bad breakup, and so “Hard Place,” she says, was “just the continuation of a narrative that he had started with ‘Fall in Love’; you wanted to just keep that story going.” (“Religiously,” the title track of his debut album, was third up and completed the trilogy of airplay No. 1s two months ago.)
His climb into the top 10 of the Hot 100 with “Rock and a Hard Place” set a record for the longest ascent into those select ranks for a solo artist in that chart’s history: 41 weeks. Yet on the country airplay chart, he set a shortest record, for the least time elapsed between a freshman artist’s first two No. 1 singles. “Rock and a Hard Place” really didn’t want to vacate the top spot, either. With this track, Zimmerman also became the first male artist in country radio history to have one of his first two singles spend six weeks at No. 1. (Among all artists, only Carrie Underwood’s debut single, “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” had ever accomplished that previously.)
But its airplay monstrosity followed its streaming monstrosity. A huge part of that was the song, of course, but an equally substantial part was the personality that drew in legions of new fans by the day, who didn’t struggle with too much difficulty in reconciling the heartbroken guy they heard in the songs — which all reflect an IRL bad breakup of his — with the vivacious guy on social media.
And he’s one of a breed of young artists who also use their socials to sort of research their own songs, Says Younger, “He’s responsible for picking out where we start with TikTok teasers and things of that nature. He really knows his audience well and he is super in tune with following what they react to, and he started talking about (‘Rock and a Hard Place’) and as soon as he did, fans really clung to it. Bailey always says that he wants to have songs that tell a story and that connect with people. Obviously he always wants hits, but like more than hits, he wants a connection. So when he started seeing fans really connecting with the song, that’s when we all knew that that was the next one that we needed to run towards.”
The first time Zimmerman visited Shawn’s home studio, where they record everything from demos to final mixes, “he pulled into the driveway in this big, black lifted truck, and I was like, ‘What the hell is this, man?’” What it was: a head start on building the singer’s massive social following. Zimmerman already had a huge TikTok following in the lifted-truck community, so when it suddenly turned out he could sing, too, he brought years of prior experience in making fans feel like they’re getting a one-to-one connection online. “With his engagement on social media with lifted trucks,” says Younger, “he had this innate understanding of what you need to do to grow an audience; it just hadn’t involved music up to a certain point.” For Zimmerman, social media will always be an easy place.
SONG: “Rock and a Hard Place,” Bailey Zimmerman
SONGWRITERS: Jet Black, Jet Harvey, Jacob Allen Hackworth, Heath Warren, Bailey Zimmerman
LABEL: Warner Music Nashville / Elektra
Jamie Younger, VP, artist development, WMG Nashville
Kristen Williams, SVP radio, WMG Nashville
Adam Soybel, senior manager, A&R research, data, analytics, Elektra
Jacob Fain, EVP, head of A&R, Elektra
Austin Shawn, producer
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