Country musicians are America’s new rock stars—commercially, at the very least. Of the ten best-selling albums in the U.S. last year, three were country, and only one (Imagine Dragons’ Night Visions) could possibly be classified as rock.
These days, top country acts are even outpacing the biggest names in mainstream pop music. Luke Bryan was the No. 2 best-selling artist of 2013 behind only Justin Timberlake, while Florida Georgia Line’s crossover smash "Cruise” was the No. 4 most downloaded song, topping hits like Lorde’s “Royals” and Katy Perry’s “Roar.”
"I think country is just getting bigger in general," says Brian Kelley, Florida Georgia Line’s co-frontman. "Pop music isn’t really a sound, it’s just what’s popular."
Florida Georgia Line pulled in $24 million over the past year, good for tenth on this year’s Country Cash Kings list—a staggering sum, but less than half of top dog Toby Keith’s haul. The Oklahoma-born singer banked $65 million, ranking first on our list for the second consecutive year, and has tallied $335 million over the past six.
Keith, the subject of last year’s FORBES Celeb 100 cover story, knows a thing or two about crossover hits. Fifteen years ago his single “How Do You Like Me Now” topped the country charts and peaked at No. 31 on Billboard’s broader Hot 100. These days he’s cashing in on his I Love This Bar And Grill restaurants, a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal with Ford, his own Wild Shot mescal and the acts he signs to his Show Dog label.
“I can put them on that 30-city tour. I don’t have to look for a place to play. It’s cost-effective as crap,” he explained. “They’re in Toby’s house. They’re drinking Toby’s liquor. That’s Toby’s act. And then we’re moving to the next town.”
Full coverage: Country Cash Kings 2014
Next up on the list is the biggest name in country—and perhaps in pop—Taylor Swift. Still only 24 years old, she fell just short of the top spot on this year’s list, but her $64 million total is the best of her young career, boosted by heavy touring and endorsements for Diet Coke, Keds and CoverGirl.
Kenny Chesney ranks third with $44 million. He performed just 29 shows in our scoring period at the tail end of his No Shoes Nation tour, but each one was a doozy—he played to average crowds in excess of 30,000. He also earns big from endorsements; down the line, he’ll likely fatten his pockets further with spoils from his new rum, Blue Chair Bay.
“Typically you’re going to do a third of your business with the first week of a record,” Chesney told FORBES last year. “Rum doesn’t work like that, it trickles out little by little.”
Rounding out the top five are two stars who embody country’s move toward the mainstream: Jason Aldean ($37 million), who sounds more like Journey than George Strait, and Luke Bryan ($34 million), who infuses his odes to beer and trucks with shout-outs to T-Pain. Aldean’s hard-rocking brand of country has been on display through 88 shows in our scoring period; all five of his studio albums have earned platinum certification.
Bryan barely made this list last year, but his August 2013 release of Crash My Party rocketed him into the top five this time around. The double-platinum effort continues to sell, moving half a million copies in the first half of 2014 alone—the seventh-best figure of any album in any genre—cementing Bryan’s status as a true country crossover.
Aldean and Bryan owe much of their mainstream success to the aforementioned Keith, as well as boundary-pushing acts like Garth Brooks (who didn’t make this year’s list but is about to cash in on a massive comeback tour) and Rascal Flatts, ranked eighth with $27 million, who helped bring country to wider audiences in the 1990s and 2000s.
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“Most of pop music now is R&B and hip-hop, and really electronic-driven,” explained Rascal Flatts’ bassist, Jay DeMarcus, in Nashville last fall. “So what we did was we filled a void for the baby boomers, in particular, that had grown up fans of bands like Aerosmith and Journey … that sort of helped usher in a new brand of country music that was a little more on the pop side, but was still completely country because of its lyrical content.”
Country’s crossover acts are quite an interconnected bunch. Rascal Flatts is signed to Big Machine Records, which was founded by Scott Borchetta in 2005 with the help of a small investment from Keith, which he still retains. That means this year’s top Country Cash King gets paid whenever Borchetta’s biggest artist—Taylor Swift—does.
As Keith himself said, with a smile: “I know there’s an extra comma if you added up all the money I’ve ever made.”