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.
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.”
Critically acclaimed Kacey Musgraves said, please, no more truck songs: “Anyone singing about trucks, in any form, in any song, anywhere. Literally just stop — nobody cares! It’s not fun to listen to.”
The backlash may have culminated in recent weeks with a viral video on YouTube, “Why Country Music Was Awful in 2013.”
Produced by Entertainment Weekly country music writer Grady Smith in response to reader complaints about the lack of mainstream artists on his 2013 Top 10, the video catalogs — in a scathingly funny 3 minutes and 29 seconds — the current generation of male stars’ obsessions with pickups, drinking, pickups, girls in tight jeans. And pickups. Did I mention pickups? Lots of pickups.
It’s a funny bit, and a welcome reminder, I think, that performers and their fans ought not to overthink this latest dust-up over who’s “real” and who isn’t.
The fact is, whether you appreciate what Mr. Shelton and his cohorts are producing or not, they’re in good company. Dolly Parton was once the biggest “sellout” in Nashville. Glen Campbell was ridiculed for dabbling in disco. Kenny Rogers, Alabama, Shania Twain — there’s always somebody in country who’s being excoriated for crossing over into “pop.”
But those artists never lost their fan bases, and neither will the bro hunks. Country fans are the most loyal in the music business.
In the meantime, they’ll shake up country music — and the genre will survive.
Whether it’s the Willie Nelson-Waylon Jennings “Outlaw” period of the ‘70s, the “Urban Cowboy” boom of the ‘80s or the Garth Brooks phenomenon of the ‘90s, these fights over authenticity tend to erupt whenever the format is thriving.
The arguing, country fans, is a good sign.