- The Washington Times - Monday, January 6, 2014


Upstarts taking on the establishment, new stars pushing out the old guard, grass-roots purists turning up their noses at those with more mainstream instincts — sounds like Washington and the past two years of the Republican Party, right?

Try Nashville and country music, where a new generation of chart-topping, genre-bending acts has rejuvenated an old format and sparked a backlash from traditionalists who argue that commercial success has come at too high a cost.

PHOTOS: COUNTRY TIMES: 'Bro-country' vs. traditional: Bring on the fight

As a longtime country music fan, I’ve been following with interest the new “fight for the soul of country music” unfolding in Nashville in recent months.

The latest battle has on one side the “bro-country” artists such as Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line, who have taken over the charts by trading fiddles and pedal steel for pop hooks and hip-hop and rap flourishes. On the other side are more traditional artists and their like-minded fans and critics.

The bro-country term was coined last year by New York Magazine’s Jay Rosen, who describes the genre as “music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude.”

I’m well outside that demographic on a couple of counts, but like millions of other listeners, I understood the appeal of a bro-country anthem like “Cruise,” the Florida Georgia Line hit that topped the country charts for almost half a year in 2013. The song, which became the second-biggest country hit ever, epitomizes the sound: big arena-ready guitars, lyrics about trucks and country roads, and (surprise!) a guest rap from hip-hop legend Nelly.

The movement is fronted by artists like Mr. Bryan and the likable Mr. Shelton, who has become one of country music’s highest-profile stars on the heels of his weekly hosting gig on NBC’s singing competition show, “The Voice,” as well as his marriage to country star Miranda Lambert.

Mr. Shelton topped the charts last year with the auto-tune-drenched, rap-flavored “Boys ‘Round Here.”

Mr. Bryan — who put out two albums last year with the word “party” in the title — was named the American Country Music “Entertainer of the Year.”

Bro-country, or “hick hop,” as it’s sometimes called, has been unstoppable on the charts, and the crossover appeal of stars like Mr. Shelton and others has helped put the genre back in the spotlight: Country music even returned as a radio format in New York City last year after a 17-year-absence. When Cumulus Media announced the format change at 94.7 FM WRXP, company chief Lew Dickey said: “Country is at an all-time high.”

But not everyone is a fan of the new sound and its reliance on what has become an increasingly repetitive — and often gratingly banal — songwriting formula.

Classic rocker Tom Petty made waves last year when he talked about how the genre is missing traditionalists like Buck Owens and George Jones, who died in 2013.

“I hate to generalize on a whole genre of music, but it does seem to be missing that magic element that it used to have. I’m sure there are people playing country that are doing it well, but they’re just not getting the attention that the [other] stuff gets. But that’s the way it always is, isn’t it?” he told Rolling Stone.

A few months later, traditional country favorite Zac Brown, a Grammy winner, called Mr. Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night” the “worst song I’ve ever heard. If I hear one more tailgate-in-the-moonlight, Daisy Dukes song, I’m gonna throw up.”

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