How Sneaker Culture Found a Place in Country Music

From Willie Nelson to Morgan Wallen, sneakers have an in-and-out history in the country scene.

Via Complex

Everything about country music is changing right now. The genre, typified by sad cowboys writing songs about love lost and the spoils of rural life, has become a staying force at the top of the Billboard charts thanks to the success of artists like Morgan Wallen, Zach Bryan, and Jelly Roll. Pharrell Williams debuted a new collection with Louis Vuitton that’s more Hank Williams than it is the Clipse, and Beyonce found chart-topping success with her own country rendition, “Texas Hold ‘Em.”

As the outside world is dipping their toes into the world of dirt roads, square-body pick-up trucks, and pearl snap shirts, country musicians are swapping out their cowboy boots to dip their toes into the sneaker world.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how country music has gone from a punchline—the classic, “I listen to anything but country”—to the talk of the record industry. To something that’s viewed as cool, as a serious cash cow. A genre with major crossover appeal. But it’s safe to assume that a lot of it comes from the success of “Last Night” singer Morgan Wallen.

His most recent album, One Thing at a Time, completed an unlikely chart takeover with its release in 2023. Wallen was on his way to becoming a legitimate superstar before he was deterred by controversies in 2020 and 2021. His 2021 album, Dangerous, featured hits in “More Than My Hometown” and “7 Summers,” and he was set to perform on Saturday Night Live before he was pulled from the show due to breaking Covid-19 protocols in October 2020. A few months later in February 2021, Wallen was videotaped saying the N-word during a 72-hour drinking bender. He was suspended by his label Big Loud, part of Republic Records, before apologizing and going semi-quiet for some time while his record sales and streams exploded.

Before his “canceling,” Wallen had already started to get recognized outside of country. Justin Bieber gave him praise, before having to apologize for it. After disappearing musically for much of 2021, Wallen connected with Lil Durk, and they recorded the single “Broadway Girls” in 2022. The song blew up. And by the time he was ready to roll out new music in 2023, a three-pack of songs that would be on his upcoming album, opinion on Wallen had changed. 

He had transformed himself in some ways, too. He shaved off his signature long hair and started to slowly swap his boots for athletic footwear. He’d become a big fan of Jordan 4s, wearing the Nike SB pair on several occasions. Wallen broke out the “Guava” Union x Air Jordan 4s for Easter, and he’s also been fond of the “Military Black” pair, too. Wallen stopped by renowned resale shop Project Blitz in April 2023 and picked up the “Cali” Nike SB Dunk Low as well as the “Bruce Springsteen” SB Dunk High, an American Flag-themed shoe that fits Wallen’s Tennessee boy persona. During a performance at So-Fi Stadium in Los Angeles, Wallen wore a pair of $15,000 cowboy boots designed by sneaker customizer The Shoe Surgeon.

He’s since relinked up with Durk for last year’s single “Stand by Me,” and the rapper says the two have an album in the works. Wallen recently teased that he’s also working with Big X Tha Plug of “Texas” fame. Few things were bigger for Wallen’s acceptance in the hip-hop world than his appearance in Drake’s “You Broke My Heart” video. 

Wallen isn’t the only member of his inner circle that’s stepped out in sneakers. Both Hardy and Ernest, friends and frequent collaborators of his, have been stopped in Air Jordan 1s and Air Force 1s alike. 

When it comes to sneakers in country, no one has earned more recognition than Jelly Roll. While some may question Wallen’s authenticity when it comes to a genuine love for sneakers, Jelly Roll’s story is different. His roots don’t start in country music—Jelly Roll began his career in hip-hop, where sneakers are more endemic. The Tennessee native was inspired by local acts such as Three 6 Mafia and Eightball and MJG. His first work came out in 2003 and he’d go on to collaborate with the likes of Lil Wyte and Tech N9Ne. In 2021, Jelly Roll made his debut on the Grand Ole Opry stage and his success in country would turn him into a household name through songs such as “Save Me” and “Son of a Sinner.” His acceptance speech for Best New Artist at the 2023 CMA Awards went viral and opened him up to a whole new audience.

Who was this country singer that sounded like a gospel singer, and sometimes a rapper, with face tattoos and Air Jordans on? His performance that night with Wynonna Judd featured him wearing Air Jordan 11s.

He’s also hit the stage with Lainey Wilson wearing Off-White x Air Jordan 5s. Gone to Wal-Mart looking for his album on vinyl in Union x Air Jordan 1s. Been spotted wearing the Reebok Shaq Attaqs on multiple occasions and been an adamant supporter of Hoka. Jelly Roll, despite his country success, has still immersed himself in the hip-hop world he came from. He performed “Hard Out Here for a Pimp” with Three 6 Mafia in 2023, brought Nelly on stage at the Grand Ole Opry, and has been in the studio with Wiz Khalifa. 

If Jelly Roll is viewed as the biggest sneakerhead in country at the moment, Willie Nelson not only helped pioneer country music but also its sneaker crossover. Nelson, an avid runner, ran in New Balance sneakers, specifically the 320. So much so that New Balance made him exclusive sneakers in the early 2000s. The story of the shoes was unearthed by Wille Nelson blog Still Is Still Moving. “We knew Willie was a New Balance fan so when we were presented with the chance to work with him. I believe it might have also been timed to our newfound ability to do personalized embroidery at our factory in Lawrence when we added new machinery – which was around that same time, said brand rep Amy Dow. “Our manufacturing team members have enjoyed making Willie his 496 New Balance shoes and over the years have added different special embroidery elements on them such as a guitar or his name.”Aside from his 496s, Nelson was also presented with a pair of 498s with his name on the heel counter and forefoot. An American legend in American-made sneakers.

If Willie Nelson is a country OG that’s dabbled in sneakers, it’s only appropriate to mention the sneaker legend that’s also the godfather of the rap/country crossover, Nelly. The St. Louis artist spread the fanaticism of Nike’s Air Force 1 with his 2002 track named after the seminal sneaker.  His music has always straddled the line of poppy, country sounds mixed with hip-hop, his debut album, Country Grammar, and the single of the same name are proof of this alone. But he also helped pioneer the cross-genre collaboration. His 2004 single with Tim McGraw “Over and Over” was a pop hit. It wasn’t really viewed as a rap song, but that was OK. Nelly went onto make two songs with Florida Georgia Line. 

In the past I've been hyper critical about celebrities looking to hop into the sneaker world by popping up at a red carpet event in a pair of Off-White Nikes or something that’s hot at the moment. And I still am.

I don’t think a country music star who’s not into sneakers wearing a pair of Air Jordans is instantly cool just because I’ve found myself listening to more country as of late. But I think it’s interesting to look at from a storyline standpoint. Country is all of a sudden the flavor of the month and the biggest artists making the music are dressing in a way that appeals to those who don’t typically listen to it.

While it might be jarring to see country artists getting into sneakers and hip-hop culture at large, let’s not forget that sneaker culture can’t be pegged just to rap artists. Sneakers have their place in heavy metal, punk rock, hardcore, too. Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine and Slash from Guns ‘n Roses were both known for wearing cool sneakers in the 1980s. Air Max 90s and Nike Dunks have played a huge role in hardcore music. And Liam Gallagher from Oasis is viewed as a sneaker icon.

With that said, it’s still viewed as odd in country to see someone in sneakers. Not only are cowboy boots part of the dress code, but they were a functional part of rural living. And in country music, authenticity is everything. Rodeo Time podcast host Dale Brisby has recalled people criticizing him wearing sneakers to a rodeo. And there’s even an Instagram account and podcast called Converse Cowboy, where the host’s defining characteristic is that he wears sneakers, not boots.

People are still surprised that today’s country stars are wearing cool sneakers. But they shouldn’t be. Country has become pop culture. The Western drama Yellowstone is the biggest show on television. And country artists have branched out to mainstream culture. Jelly Roll’s sound is just as much hip-hop as it is country. And Morgan Wallen can be found singing over standard hip-hop drum kits. Just listen to “Cowgirls” for evidence. 

We’d be remiss not to mention that country music, like the culture of hip-hop where most modern sneaker obsessions trace back to, was invented by Black people over a hundred years ago. And there are still Black stars in country music today. Kane Brown is one of the biggest names in the genre. And his personal style relies more on jerseys, Air Force 1s, and Air Jordan 1s than it does traditional country garb. Jimmie Allen, another Black country star, can be seen in Jordans and playing in custom sneakers at the NBA Celebrity All-Star Game. 

There have been moments where country, or country-ish, artists have dabbled in sneakers and it hasn’t gone well. Lil Nas X’s 2018 “Old Town Road” was viewed as “not country enough” to be country charts at the time, before it was remixed with the help of country music legend Billy Ray Cyrus and hit number one on the Billboard charts for 19 weeks. He then went on to make  Satan-themed sneaker with MSCHF in 2021 that featured real blood in the Air unit of the Air Max 97 sneakers. The shoes were controversial and prompted a lawsuit from Nike.

Billy Ray Cyrus’s daughter Miley Cyrus also had a sneaker phase in 2013 with her “23” song that was Air Jordan-themed and produced by Mike Will Made-it. The chorus featured the lyrics “Js on my feet.” Her fascination with sneakers lasted as long as her time in hip-hop. Post Malone, who debuted rapping about Allen Iverson and has a Sneaker Shopping episode with 12 million views, performed at the CMA Awards and is pivoting to country. Crocs has made multiple cowboy boots that have sold out.

The moment, though, that made me say, “What the heck is going on here?” was when Kenny Chesney performed at the CMA Awards in a pair of Union x Air Jordan 4s in a tribute to Jimmy Buffet. The man that proclaimed, “No shirt, no shoes, no problem,” had one of the most unexpected sneaker moments of 2023. It appears that Chesney has become somewhat of a sneakerhead. He’s worn A Ma Maniere x Air Jordan 3s for Michael Rubin’s legendary white party in the Hamptons last year and is seen in On runners when he’s not tearing up the latest seaside stage in boots.

It would be a miss to not mention one of the most tangential connections to country music and sneaker culture: Michael Jordan and his 23XI racing team. Started in 2021, the team is a partnership between Jordan and Jordan Brand team driver Denny Hamlin. Hamlin, in the past, has drove wrapped cars and trucks with the Jumpman logo and cement print. Former team driver Kurt Busch also drove Jordan sneaker-themed cars, too. It’s not a one to one connection to country music. But few things can serve as a Trojan horse to sneakers like stock cars can.

Heck, just last night I saw Luke Combs, you know the guy who covered Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" and is one of the biggest artists on the planet right now, in a session with Post Malone and matching his Mossy Oak shirt to his Air Max 90s.

There’s some irony in a moment where the broader mainstream is accepting country and obsessing over its style while the biggest country stars are looking outside of their niche and attempting to appeal to the world. Even if sneakers are just a small part of that. Only time will tell if country going worldwide will last, or if the artists within the space will continue to lace up heat on their feet. Or, as Wallen put it, all he’ll bring back is sand in his boots.

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