But around the 2020 presidential election, some posts took on a different tone. “Still my president,” Aldean captioned an Instagram story with a Trump sweatshirt. “Same people counting the Corona cases aren’t counting the mail-in ballots are they? What a damn shame,” she wrote in another. She posted a cartoon of Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris pushing President-elect Joe Biden out of a wheelchair and over a cliff. On Jan. 6, after pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol during a violent attempted insurrection that resulted in the deaths of one police officer and four rioters, Aldean posted a (false and debunked) meme in her Instagram stories that alleged that two rioters were also on a website for antifa, a loosely knit group of far-left activists. “Antifa disguised as Trump supporters. Shocker,” she wrote.
The backlash to the latter was swift. Instagram removed the story, but screenshots flew around Twitter. Fans, as well as country stars Maren Morris and Mickey Guyton, expressed outrage. CMT deleted a Q&A it had recently published with Brittany Aldean from its website. “Why Are Country Music Wives Pushing Baseless Conspiracy Theories?” Rolling Stone reported, noting that Theresa Tritt, the wife of Travis Tritt, was seen supporting pro-Trump conspiracy theories on the app Parler, and Brittney Kelley, the wife of Florida Georgia Line’s Brian Kelley, questioned last year whether pandemic-related shutdowns were part of an “agenda.” This sparked a slew of similar stories from mainstream publications.
It’s not that unusual for influencers and celebrities, whose expertise is often limited but whose reach is vast, to spread false information. But it is a relatively new phenomenon for their spouses — particularly the wives of country stars — to marry into fame and then leverage their status into an influential and lucrative online platform. Long gone are the days when a Nashville singer’s partner already had to be a musician or a Hollywood star (think Faith Hill, Trisha Yearwood, Nicole Kidman, etc.) to capture headlines. Many male artists who dominate country music today are married to people who evolved into public figures with tens and hundreds of thousands — or occasionally millions — of social media followers.
These wives are also a critical part of their husbands’ brands: Spouses become their business partners, star in music videos, make cameos onstage at concerts and are publicly credited as the inspiration for love songs as their husbands strain to move away from the “bro country” tag that has shadowed male singers for years.
For a genre that has always prided itself on down-home relatability, it’s still considered important for married artists to incorporate a cozy domestic image into their public persona. The same expectations are put on women: Morris and Kelsea Ballerini, married to country singers Ryan Hurd and Morgan Evans, respectively, involve their partners in their music and online presence; Miranda Lambert’s husband, former police officer Brendan McLoughlin, starred in her music video for “Settling Down.” But the wives of country artists racking up followers and endorsement deals have created something of a powerful — and controversial — social media empire.
“There’s something unique about this moment, and I think it’s the role of social media and how it’s been monetized,” said historian Amanda Marie Martinez, a doctoral student who is writing her dissertation on the country music industry in the late 20th century. She recently tweeted about how the visible presence of the spouses helps “reinforce country’s supposed synonymity with heteronormativity, domesticity, etc.,” especially in a genre whose target audience is White women.
“The thing for me it really highlights, and I totally believe, is that the music industry in Nashville, they’re not selling music,” she said. “They’re selling a lifestyle.”
Thomas Rhett, who sells out arenas as one of modern country’s most reliable hitmakers, married his childhood friend Lauren Akins when they were in their early 20s. His fans are obsessed with their love story, and Akins has fueled interest by starring in several of Rhett’s videos, notably the swoony, six-time-platinum ballad, “Die a Happy Man.” Rhett marvels at this on his No. 1 2018 hit, “Life Changes”: “Now she’s got her own set of fans, got a blue check mark by her Instagram.” (Akins has 2.4 million followers.)
Akins, who like nearly all of the spouses mentioned in this story did not respond to an interview request through a publicist, has leaned into building her brand intertwined with Rhett’s career. Last summer, she published a memoir, “Live in Love,” marketed as an exploration of “what it’s really like to be ‘the perfect couple’ fans imagine.” She frequently posts photos of their three daughters and sells products (bags, blankets, jewelry) of which portions or all of the proceeds go to charity. In December, the couple was tapped by ABC to co-host the annual “CMA Country Christmas” special.
Although there’s certainly a fascination with the marriages of stars in other music genres, most attention goes toward couples whose partners are also famous: Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Nick Jonas and Priyanka Chopra, John Legend and Chrissy Teigen. In country music, the emphasis on marriage has been around since the beginning of the format, when family bands would perform together at the Grand Ole Opry. Listeners constantly hear “country music is a family,” as the genre goes above and beyond to sell familiarity.
“In country music, you’re a fan for life, and you’re hungry for every morsel about your favorite artist,” said Beverly Keel, dean of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University. “It’s a lifelong relationship between a country fan and artist, and that extends to the spouse. And it’s a two-way street … whereas in other forms of music, artists are on a pedestal, in country, the artist and fan are on the same level.”
On Instagram, the wives of country singers generally take the “accessible” and “authentic” approach, which social media experts say is why the country music world is especially tempting to companies. Although fans decry being constantly bombarded with ads, others rave that influencers, who can run their own businesses even if they want to travel on tour, are shattering outdated stereotypes of industry wives who were long relegated to wait backstage at concerts or treated as “arm candy,” among other offensive terms.
Hayley Hubbard (405,000 followers, married to Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard) posts many photos of her children, who range in age from 3 years old to 4 months, along with recipes and ads for products such as blow-dryer hairbrushes and baby strollers. She’s candid about the challenges of parenthood: “Don’t be fooled, we look much more relaxed in our sunset selfie than we actually are with 3 babies on a beach trip,” she captioned one scenic photo.
Baby-friendly sponsored content is very popular, especially among new moms, including Taylor Young (101,000 followers, married to Brett Young), Kailey Dickerson (131,000 followers, married to Russell Dickerson) and Hannah Mooney (90,300 followers, married to Shay Mooney of Dan + Shay). Katelyn Brown (1.3 million followers, married to Kane Brown) shares lots of shots of their 14-month-old daughter, though she also posts ads for ABC’s “The Bachelor” and a food-delivery service, too.
Lifestyle-centric companies crop up repeatedly, such as Openfit and Teami Blends. Dime Beauty is endorsed by Summer Duncan (103,000 followers, married to Jon Pardi); Amber Cochran Gilbert (69,500 followers, married to Brantley Gilbert); Abby Smyers (61,800 followers, married to Dan Smyers of Dan + Shay). Caroline Bryan (950,000 followers, married to Luke Bryan) also serves up Dime Beauty ads, as well as promos with her husband in their joint ambassadorship with Jockey apparel — while still including plenty of prank videos, the couple’s specialty.
Some are involved in businesses with their husbands: Brittney Kelley (188,000 followers) and Florida Georgia Line’s Brian Kelley operate the Tribe Kelley clothing brand together. Nicole Hocking (741,000 followers) married Luke Combs last summer and has a clothing line on his website called the Luke Combs x Nicole Collection. Her Instagram page, however, gives fans the personal content they crave: One of her wedding photos showed a customized beer can with the label “Nicole & Beer Never Broke My Heart” (a play on the title of one of Combs’s hits).
“Part of that balance for a country star — or really, any celebrity — to have staying power is for people to go from liking their music or art to really liking them as a person,” said Ben Kaplan, chief executive of TOP marketing agency. “The spouse is an important part of that … and if they can develop an audience of their own, they can potentially amplify an artist even more.”
Rick Daniels, programmer for country music station 101.5 FM in Bloomington, Ind., was taken aback when he saw Brittany Aldean’s Instagram story about antifa and the U.S. Capitol riot. He tweeted a screenshot calling it “appalling.” Daniels was one of the few in the country industry who publicly criticized Aldean’s post, though he said he received private messages from other radio staffers who told him, “Hey, it’s cool you’re speaking out, because a lot of us can’t.”
“[At] bigger radio stations, it’s a big risk for your career to speak out against artists,” he said, even though in this case, he didn’t mention Jason Aldean. But he said he was deeply concerned about Brittany Aldean spreading misinformation to her nearly 2 million followers: “It’s very irresponsible.”
Given country music’s stance on uncomfortable topics — avoid them at all costs — it’s unlikely male artists will see consequences if their spouses make headlines for controversial statements. Country radio, the driving force of the genre that typically prioritizes male singers, isn’t likely to bail on hitmakers such as Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line. Aldean didn’t openly support or condemn his wife’s post, but he did share another meme questioning the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election results. Any backlash from radio staffers, such as giving him fewer promotional opportunities, probably would be a more subtle shift over time.
Since Instagram took down her baseless antifa post, Brittany Aldean has mostly stopped posting anything explicitly political and has turned her attention to a new beauty project. (Her first ad for a line of clip-in hair extensions stars — who else? — her husband.) But in a video posted shortly after the Capitol attack, she criticized the social media platform for removing the content: “It’s getting so ridiculous the filters you put on everyone that’s against your narrative.” A representative for the Aldeans did not respond to a question about whether Brittany Aldean was asked to stop posting about politics, but the timing is telling.
While Aldean doubled down, Brittney Kelley attempted to clarify her stance after receiving critical comments on Jan. 6, when she posted a since-deleted photo of her and Brian Kelley riding in a car with an American flag, along with the caption, “God please protect our Country & the patriots who fight for our freedom everyday.” As rioters broke into the Capitol, angry fans flooded the comments section. She soon edited the caption to read “people” instead of “patriots.”
“I do not believe in violence, or mobs/cults rioting or storming buildings. I do not believe ‘patriots’ are the people storming the building,” she wrote in a follow-up post the next day.
Kelley also told her followers she has received many direct messages from people who say they’re afraid to say anything online for fear of being “canceled.” “Cancel culture” has become a popular conservative talking point, which points to another reason influencers and their artist husbands are unlikely to see much industry fallout: While country music has grown increasingly popular among liberal audiences, the industry doesn’t want to risk alienating its huge number of conservative fans.
"Don’t worry about all the crap that hits the media about your comments,” one fan commented on Jan. 13 on a close-up photo of Brittany Aldean’s manicure. “Most of America feels exactly like you do!!!”
Aldean replied with a raised-hands and lips emoji. “Oh I know,” she wrote.
It received more than 200 “likes.”