The ever controversial “bro-country” is dead, and has been for some time. The term “bro-country” is now just tied to any mainstream pop-country male who releases something that the Americana crowd doesn’t consider poignant enough. Never-mind the fact that many in the anti-everything mainstream crowd don’t want to be considered country artists or fans and go out of their way to remind everyone within ear-shot that they were influenced by artists in every genre but country.
This is not going to be a defense of bro-country. Far from it. Let’s get that out of the way first. Rather, I want to revisit the much-maligned era of country that began to lead to a split in the genre on a scale which we arguably have never seen.
We all know the origins of bro-country bynow. The term, originally coined by journalist Jody Rosen, is defined by Rosen as “music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude.” Florida-Georgia Line’s 2012 single “Cruise” was probably the song that started it all, though one could reasonably make the argument that songs which came before “Cruise” like Jason Aldean’s “My Kinda Party” in 2010 or Luke Bryan’s trio of singles “Country Girl (Shake It For Me),” “I Don’t Want This Night to End,” and “Drunk On You” really got the ball rolling for what was to come.
It’s not hard to understand what made bro-country so popular, so quickly. For a generation of college-aged individuals, bro-country was easy and accessible. Songs about parties, alcohol, drinking, and girls were exactly what many millennials were after. I’ll be straight-up honest here. Was I listening to Luke Bryan and Florida-Georgia Line during the weekdays in college? Hell no. I was sticking with my wide array of artists from Eric Church to Pearl Jam to Alan Jackson to Ernest Tubb to Waylon Jennings and many others like them. But I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t be singing along to “Night Train” and “Get Your Shine On” on Friday or Saturday on Frat Row (but you won’t be catching me singing along to Kane Brown or Walker Hayes or Dustin Lynch at Tequila Cowboy this weekend. More on that later).
This really brings us to the first large point of this piece. It’s about production. Taken in a vacuum, some of the songs classified as bro-country, “gasp,” weren’t all that terrible. Justin Moore’s “Lettin’ The Night Roll,” Randy Houser’s “How Country Feels” and “Runnin’ Outta Moonlight,” and Jake Owen’s “Days of Gold” were all solid example of hit singles with solid, country production. Though the themes are all generally the same and not groundbreaking, the sound of each song is modern but still respectful of the genre’s roots.
There have even been legends of the country genre that straddled the bro-country line in a successful manner. Alan Jackson’s “Country Boy” (released several years before bro-country came to dominate radio), George Strait’s “I Got a Car,” and Tim McGraw’s “Shotgun Rider” and “One of Those Nights” all successfully painted pictures of either small-town life or country-themed vignettes.
Remember, songs about living it up on the weekend and letting loose have been around for as long as country music itself. Don’t let any critic ever tell you that every country song has to be some poignant piece of poetry. Likewise, don’t ever let someone tell you that there’s no room for songs that make you think in country music. There’s room for both Haggard-esque barroom stompers and Kristofferson-esque portraits of lost love and regret.
“Stay a Little Longer,” originally recorded by Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys in 1946 and later covered by Willie Nelson in 1973, contained the lyrics “stay all night, stay a little longer/dance all night, dance a little longer.” Hank Williams sang about partying on the bayou in “Jambalaya.” His son became a legend by recording numerous songs about getting rowdy. And George Jones sang about it being finally Friday.
So again, for the most part (and this may be blasphemy for most of the people I interact within the country music blogging community), I never really had major problems with the lyrical content of bro-country. Yes, it did get repetitive. Yes, it did stray into degrading territory at times (though again, that seemed to be a problem with lyrics in songs that strayed away from country roots), and I did have a problem with that aspect. But for the bro-country songs that remained country-sounding with their production, I really was never that put off by it.
And here’s the thing. I’ve mentioned it before, but country music must never lose sight of its rural roots. The two main areas in which county music obtained its sound were the hills of Appalachia which gave us Bluegrass and the cotton fields of the South which gave us African-American blues and gospel. Those two sounds merged to form country music. Songs about rural and country life are something that will live on forever as long as country exists. I don’t care where you’re from. I’m from suburban Pittsburgh and like to think I’m one of the biggest country fans out there. But you better appreciate and understand the roots of the genre and never try to tear those threads away.
So the last two paragraphs really set up the main problem with some of the bro-country songs. Production. Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night,” Florida-Georgia Line’s “This Is How We Roll,” Chase Rice’s “Ready Set Roll,” and Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Backroad” are the biggest offenders that immediately come to mind. I get that we’re living in 2018. I get that the way we consume music makes genres mingle more freely. I’m guilty of it myself as I go through a day or a week. But if I’m down and out and have my heart-broke, I’m going to country. Hard country. George Jones. Conway. Hank Sr. Likewise, if I’m working, and I need music to keep me going, I’m putting on some rock. Pearl Jam. The Rolling Stones. The Cadillac Three. Whiskey Myers. I like to be able to go to certain places and know exactly what I’m getting. And, look, I’m not delusional. Some of my favorite acts blur the lines of genres all the time. Kip Moore and Eric Church are two of my favorites who can play both country and rock. Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson were upsetting traditionalists in the 1970s. But for the most part, I’m a big fan of ensuring genres at least are still tipping their hats to their roots. And that’s where many of the songs and artists of bro-country failed. Artists like the aforementioned Waylon, Willie, Eric Church, and Kip Moore paid and pay homage to the genre’s roots. They were and are respectful of where the genre has come from. Many of the bro-country artists, however, created unneeded controversy by screaming again and again about how the genre needed to evolve. I was never one of those people who thought bro-country artists were bad people. I genuinely believe 99% of them were creating music that they wanted to make, and look, fans were consuming it. But I also genuinely believe some of those bro-country songs should’ve been marketed to the gigantic melting pot that is pop radio. If they wanted to be pop starts and not associated with the roots of country, than they should’ve made it clear where they wanted their music to be played.
Like I mentioned at the beginning of the piece, however, this is not a major defense of the bro-country genre. I don’t want to white-wash everything bro-country gave to the genre. There were and are lasting consequences of what bro-country wrought.
One of the saddest consequences of bro-country was an entire generation of country artists being essentially thwarted from becoming stars or continuing their solid, respectable careers. Some great voices were affected. Randy Houser, who charted a couple of solid number one singles that could be classified as bro-country, released “We Went” in 2015 before only reaching #46 with “Song Number 7” in 2016. Houser, in my opinion, has one of the best voices in modern country music. Gary Allan and Josh Turner both had album delay after album delay reportedly because neither had any songs that would light up the charts in the bro-country era. Allan and Turner are two great country artists who, despite a deep difference in their two sounds (Allan leaning toward Bakersfield country and Turner being more of a traditionalist), could always be counted on for all-round great albums and good, accessible singles.
Promising careers were also affected. Easton Corbin, a budding young traditionalist who was drawing comparisons to George Strait, released the excellent “Clockwork” in 2014 that only reached #32. He then released a couple of trend-chasing bro-country songs that failed to make an impact before being released from Mercury Nashville earlier this year. Josh Thompson and Bradley Gaskin, two artists that I’ve previously spotlighted, saw their radio careers halted in their path thanks to the advent of bro-country.
The lesson to take away from these varying career-path differences is trends. And how to deal with those trends. Trends have been and always will be a part of not only country music, but music as a whole. It’s an artist’s most difficult dilemma. Do they chase the trend or set out on their own path? For some, they chase the trend and become stars. For others, they chase the trend and fail. Then there’s the other side of the coin. Some refuse to play by the rules and never are able to become a star. But there are always the select few. Johnny Cash. Kris Kristofferson. Loretta Lynn. Waylon Jennings. Willie Nelson. Buck Owens. Randy Travis. Alan Jackson. Montgomery Gentry. Eric Church. Miranda Lambert. They stick to what they want to do. They never chased trends. They recorded what they wanted and how they wanted. The risk was and is great. But the reward is even greater. Perhaps that’s the greatest lesson we can take away from the bro-country era. Those artists that refused to chase radio hits and instead focused on their own music and their own fans. They’re what we should remember most of all.