“I’ve got that real good, feel good, stuﬀ. Up under the seat of my big black jacked up truck.” Luke Bryan begins to sing his 2013 chart-topping hit That’s My Kinda Night. These lyrics, part of a trend that has taken over country radio throughout the last four years. “Bro-Country,” the controversial sub-genre of country music, has fans in awe and critics sending it to the dump.
Deﬁned by Jody Rosen, of New York magazine, as “music by, and of, the tatted, gym toned, party-hearty young American white dude.” Encompassing the musical style of artists like Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, Jake Owen, Blake Shelton, Chase Rice, and of course Luke Bryan.
As the regularity of the term bro-country has evolved over the last couple years, the deﬁnition has grown to encompass any country song sung by a young male country singer referencing a range of lifestyle points that include partying, drinking, bonﬁres, and girls…either in bikinis, daisy dukes, or both. I doubt, when Rosen made the initial deﬁnition, he realized how universal and troublesome the phrase would become.
While some feel as though the term perfectly summarizes the trend in country music, others discredit the music of bro-country artists because of the sub-genre they choose to base their career in. There has been several controversial arguments between “old-style” artists and “bro-country” artists. Phyllis Stark of Billboard.com refers to these controversies as the start of a civil war in country music.
Country music star Zac Brown, lead singer of the Zac Brown Band, openly criticized what’s on country radio today, by saying a lot of the bro-country music makes him want to “throw up.” He spoke with Vancouver’s 93.7 JR-FM in 2013 saying, “There’s not a lot of the country format that I really enjoy listening to. If I hear one more tailgate in the moonlight, daisy duke song, I wanna throw up. There’s songs out there on the radio right now that make me ashamed to be even in the same format as some other artist.” Brown continued his remarks by focusing on Luke Bryan and, at the time, Luke’s newly released single “That’s My Kinda Night.”
“I love Luke Bryan and he’s had some great songs,” Zac explained, “but this new song is the worst song I’ve ever heard…I also feel like that the people deserve something better than that.” A statement that has been recurrent by tradiSonal country arSsts since the Bro-Country phenomenon began. A few days later, Brown didn’t retract the comments he made, but instead apologized to Bryan for targeting his music speciﬁcally.
Bryan has never been one to shy away from taking a stance on his bro-country label. He expressed his feelings by saying, “I take a little oﬀense, I feel the initial term ‘bro-country’ was created to be kind of a little degrading to what’s popular, to what country artists are doing right now.”
Is that what’s happening here? Are the traditional artists with the ﬁddles and banjos attempting to sour bro-country music because it’s become more popular than that of their own? Is it out of jealousy?
There’s no denying the popularity of Bro-Country has opened up country music to a larger audience. In fact, as bro country began to take ﬂight in 2012, it surpassed classic rock to become the most popular genre in America, according to a study from the NDP Group. The study also found that 18- to 25-year-olds are twice as likely to say they are fans of country music. Which is a shift in the previous demographic of the suburban housewives country music was aimed towards in the decades prior.
Country artists like Garth Brooks and Tim McGraw have reached across the music divide and gained popularity with non-country fans, bro’ country artists are attracting millions who would never have tuned in to a country station in the past.
So how did it happen? Well, most would agree that it began when Florida Georgia Line came on the scene in 2012. I remember meeting these guys Guilford, New Hampshire during the beginning of that summer. The band hadn’t been signed to a label yet and were playing a side stage at the concert venue we occupied. I purchased the EP they had for sale and I ﬁgured, if I was going to meet this duo, I should probably have some knowledge about their music.
As summer went on, the more Sme I spent listening to the band’s EP, I would say, this band has a fresh new sound but will never be played on country radio because “they’re too pop sounding.” Little did I know, one of those songs titled “Cruise” would make its way to the number one spot and sit there for the next 20-weeks. From this moment on, country music was a changed genre. “We may look back on ‘Cruise’ as a turning point, the moment when the balance of power tipped from an older generation of male country stars to the bros,” said Rosen.
And to the bros indeed. As Bro-country was on a steady rise, women in country music seem to have taken a backseat. Referring to the Billboard Country charts, a solo female artist has not hit the #1 spot since Carrie Underwood’s “Blown Away” in 2012.
In a 2014 issue of Taste of Country magazine, a list of female artists and their peak position on the chart was published: Jamie Lynn Spears, ‘How Could I Want More’ (peaked at No. 55), Kelleigh Bannen, ‘Famous’ (peaked at No. 49), Jennifer NeXles, ‘Me Without You’ (peaked at No. 50), Kellie Pickler, ‘Closer to Nowhere’ (peaked at No. 59), Kacey Musgraves, ‘Keep It to Yourself’ (peakedat No. 32), Cassadee Pope, ‘I Wish I Could Break Your Heart’ (peaked at No. 32), Danielle Bradbery, ‘Young in America’ (peaked at No. 49), Jana Kramer, ‘Love’ (currently at No. 34). This has sparked another movement in country music, a women’s movement.
“Bein’ the girl in a country song, how in the world did it go so wrong? Like all we’re good for is looking good for you and your friends on the weekend, nothing more. We used to get a little respect. Now we’re lucky if we even get to climb up in your truck, keep our mouth shut and ride along. And be the girl in a country song.” Sing new artists Maddie & Tae on their top 5 single “Girl in a Country Song.” A tune that primarily focuses on calling out the bro-country stereotypes, with references to other popular “bro-country” songs within the lyrics, and how these stereotypes classify women within the music.
“If you didn’t wear cut-oﬀ jeans or a bikini top, or sit on a tailgate and drink, then you really weren’t worthy,” says Kenney Chesney, an artist who’s had over 20 #1 singles and over 40 top 10 hits throughout his career. Sure, you can say there are a few females that have been able to thrive during the bro-country times. Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum, Kimberly Perry of The Band Perry, but there are truly only two solo female acts that have seen chart success in the bro-country era. That is Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert. Interestingly enough, both these women received a jumpstart on their career through reality television, American Idol and Nashville Star respectively.
But why? Being a radio disc jockey, I’ve asked that question a million Smes. The response I get, “female artists don’t research well with listeners.” Like with most research, a sample of a station’s audience is asked to rank songs on the radio and, well, country music by female artists do worse than male artists. Outside of the bro-country-era, to some extent, this has always been an accurate statement. What’s changed is how the radio is programmed.
Think about it, we hit a recession just a few years ago. Without a doubt the entertainment industry felt that impact. When radio staSons began trimming the fat to keep themselves running, they had to reply more on this research to keep an active listening audience. To keep the raSngs up. Higher raSngs means a higher adverSsing cost and the more adverSsing the more money that station is bringing in.
When people are gesng ﬁred, there is no room to lose money. So the lower rating songs don’t get played as often, if at all, to ensure listeners stay with the station. That doesn’t mean music by country’s women isn’t great music. Some of the best in my opinion. But it doesn’t sell to the audience as well and unfortunately I think this theory could be extended throughout many industries.
“I feel like Reba McEntire came in and stormed all the doors and opened all the doors, and somehow, in the last 10 years, somebody started closing the doors back,” says Trisha Yearwood, a country star from the ‘90s whos had a rough Some charting her music throughout this decade. Since 2001, Yearwood has had only one song crack the top 20 and still that was a decade ago in 2005. “only one female artist that has released a song this year (2014)— Lambert and Underwood being the exceptions — has cracked the Top 30.” That one arSst, Kacey Musgraves.
Musgraves came on the scene in 2013, with her surprise hit “Merry Go Round.” “a rallying point for country fans unhappy with the current direcSon of country music,” as EW’s Grady Smith said.” Musgraves’ traditional style sings about life in rural America. From a woman’s perspective with modern day issues. “Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay. Brother’s hooked on Mary Jane. And Daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down…We get bored, so we get married. Just like dust, we settle in this town.” Her song peaked at number ten on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart in 2013.
Musgraves has seen some success since her debut hit, but her song has opened the doors to a new wave of fans. Not only for women in country music but also tradition in country music. For many non-bro country artists, aside from radio singles, they still create a traditional country sound throughout their album cuts. It’s the adaptation of the bro-coutnry style that keeps acts like Tim McGraw, Kenney Chesney, and Dierks Bentley aﬂoat in this industry. They can release a bro-country styled tune and see success in airplay and streaming. Then dig deeper into the album, you’ll ﬁnd that many arSsts sSll use traditional elements and instrumentation in their music.
Will bro-country fade away like another sub-genre in music? Or will it continue on paving the way for future generations? Well, I believe it’s the later. While traditional style country music will continue to have its place. It’s not the primetime gold it used to be. Not for a lack of quality, but because the country radio audience and radio industry is moving into a mainstream pop sounding demographic. That’s where the money is at. That’s where they need to be to conSnue to survive in a world of streaming music, iPods, and smartphones. I can’t say there will be a day when there is no longer a tradiSonal sound in country music. I hope that’s not the case. Even though I do enjoy a good bro-country track throughout my day, I am no stranger to the core of the music. I don’t think country music is valued by its sound, but by its history.
Country music has always been the music of the people. The arSsts connect with their fans and the fans get a chance to connect with arSst. I’ve always said there’s no other genre of music that allows its fans to connect and feel a part of the music as country music does. Whether it’s an upbeat bro-country tune to get the party going on a Saturday night or a romanSc ballad to tell the girl of your dreams you love her. The arSsts live it and the audience lives it. The industry will conSnue on. We just have to remain open minded to all of the pieces to the puzzle and why things happen the way they do.