I developed a love of country music in the car. Growing up so far out in the sticks, my parents couldn’t wait for their kids to learn to drive. Between the three of us going to school and sports, we spent hours on the road. By the time I was handed down the keys to the family’s four-banger Chrysler Laser, my older sisters had already totaled it twice on deer. Yet that ugly car meant freedom, as long as my freedom brought me home in time for family dinner. With all this time in the car, I discovered country music.
I fell in love with country music because it traditionally involved stories about normal people. I could relate to stories about the lady in church who always sings off-key (but you love her anyway). Songs like Tim McGraw’s “Something Like That” hit home because it reminded me of the cute girl I had a crush on one summer and never saw again. Most importantly, stories about being a good example to your son made me take a mental to note to pray with my children someday. Country could make me laugh, make me cry [every single time], and even make something like plowing a semi through your cheating wife’s motel room hilarious.
I love these songs, not just because they’re fun to sing along with, but because they involved people living, loving, falling down, and getting back up again. Songs that talk about how attractive you find your kid’s mom after years of marriage, or working hard and never giving up, contrast sharply with pop songs about the sexual excitement of whips and chains or “the beauty of one-night stands.” It’s fair to say I love country music for the same reasons I dislike pop music.
‘Bro Country’ Is Ruining Country Music
But by the mid-2000’s, country music started to change. It was a slow metamorphosis, but artists like Trace Adkins, Brooks and Dunn, Kenny Chesney, and Alan Jackson can’t deny their handiwork in this change, singing less about family or daily life and more about having a “Good Time,” or a woman’s breathtaking heinie. By the end of the decade, up-and-comers had completely embraced “party country” to the point where it seemed the entire genre needed to check itself into rehab.
From Gretchen Wilson’s “Here for the Party” to Jason Aldean’s “My Kinda Party,” every other song on the radio was about getting wasted at a gala. At least when Garth Brooks sang about drinking with his “Friends in Low Places,” there was a sense of comedic self-deprecation. One day, I heard a new Luke Bryan song come on the radio and thought, “Oh goodie, a song about rain being a good thing, this could be okay,” before realizing it was about how rain brought corn, corn makes whiskey, and whiskey makes his girlfriend horny. Real classy, Luke.
Fast-forward to current day. Country radio stations are bombarded with a genre of mainstream music known as “bro-country.” Bro-country, typified bands like Florida Georgia Line, deals primarily with lofty subjects like objectifying women and abusing alcohol. I could forgive that as long as it still sounded like country music. I don’t need to have a pedal steel guitar in every song, but country is starting to sound more like rap and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra every day. Eager to sell out, old fart artists like Tim McGraw and Blake Shelton quickly adapted their style to be less country sounding to appeal to younger listeners.
Some new artists, like the well-manicured Sam Hunt, don’t even try to sing and just talk throughout their songs. If you close your eyes, it sounds exactly like Channing Tatum singing a parody. In past decades, country music was criticized for being cliché: focusing on dogs, broken hearts, and losing the house in the divorce. Now a new generation of artists who claim to have grown up listening to Haggard and Twitty are copying and pasting a new formula in each of their songs, effectively turning the entire country music genre into one giant cliché.
Country Music Has Become Generic And Boring
A quick listen of Billboard’s top 50 songs reveal that as long as you use certain words in your song, it’ll be played on the country radio station.
Test this yourself: the next time you hear a new country song on the radio, count how many times you hear the following words and phrases. As long as you have 5 of these, it automatically makes it a country song:
- Cut-off jeans
- Long, tan legs
- Long, tan legs on a tailgate
- Long, tan legs on a dashboard
- Baby blues
- Dirt road
- Red dirt road
- Driving down a dirt road nobody else knows about
- The troops
- Swimming in a river
- Swimming in a river in the moonlight
In a Rolling Stone interview, the legendary Tom Petty describes contemporary country as “bad rock with a fiddle”, pointing out that the same thing happened in the 80’s when rock became generic. In a reply straight out of the movie “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” Florida Georgia Line tweeted “U think we care?”
Dude, of course you don’t care that you’re destroying country. You’re bringing in bucket-loads of money from tours bro! In a similar response to criticisms, Blake Shelton retorted, “Well that’s because you don’t buy records anymore, jackass. The kids do.”
The Kids Are Ruining Country Music
That’s true; kids do want to hear the same formula over-and-over again. To illustrate this point, Greg Todd, an aspiring songwriter, posted a viral video illustrating how eerily identical six songs currently on the radio are. But there’s nothing odd about it, Todd says: “It was the formula at work: a tight, mid-tempo backbeat; a quick, two-verse set-up, often laced with clever wordplay and bouncy, lyrical melody; and – bam- the power chorus to bring it all home and keep them coming back.”
To be fair, modern country songs are not made to stand the test of time. They are lab-designed to deaden eardrums in clubs and city arenas, where people can play “dress up like a hick” and throw up Fireball whiskey. Fortunately, people within the industry have taken notice, criticizing and lampooning bro-country for selling out the genre with low-quality, cookie-cutter crap. Duos like Maddie & Tae have even gone so far as to release a response to bro-country, particularly regarding the sexist manner in which women are consistently portrayed in songs.
As for me, driving my truck to work each day down a dirt road with my long, tan legs up on the dashboard, I’m slightly curious to listen to this musical civil war play out on the radio. But mostly I just change the channel. I still spend quite a bit of time in the car, but I stopped singing along to country when country stopped singing about anything that mattered. Thank goodness for bluegrass.