‘Bro-coun­try’ vs. tra­di­tional: Bring on the fight

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY DAVID ELDRIDGE

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 like­minded 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, rapfla­vored “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 tail­gatein-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.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHOTOGRAPHS

Blake Shel­ton (above), Luke Bryan (top center), Ja­son Aldean (top right) and Florida Ge­or­gia Line are some of the new stars giv­ing the coun­try mu­sic es­tab­lish­ment a run for its money.

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