Arts & Culture

On Culture: Mainstream push hurts country music

I’ve gotta be honest, I don’t really listen to the radio at all anymore. Once in a while, I’ll scan it and I don’t understand what they’re doing. I can’t find the entertainment in it. I know these guys, occasionally play shows with them and they’re all good people. But I wonder if that record they’re making is something they can actually do. Too much boogie boogie wham-bam and not enough substance.

– Merle Haggard, in an August 2014 News & Observer interview

What’s considered country music these days?

There is no doubt that country music is a very popular genre around these parts. If you peruse through the top 40 albums on Billboard’s Hot 200 chart, you’ll find many of country’s contemporary heavy hitters: Carrie Underwood, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line.

But a lot of country music seems to be appealing to mainstream audiences a bit too blatantly. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sub-genre hideously known as “bro-country.” Coined by Jody Rosen in a 2013 New York magazine article, the term is used for predominantly male artists who mostly sing about drinking, partying, hanging out with girls in cutoff jeans and so on. Guys like Bryan, Aldean and Blake Shelton are stars thanks to performing bro-country songs, which are popular with consumers. Florida Georgia Line’s 2012 song “Cruise,” about a guy who wants to “cruise” a gal in his pickup truck, became the biggest-selling country song of all time last year, selling 7 million copies in the U.S. and holding a record 24 weeks at No. 1 on the Hot Country Songs chart.

Of course, bro-country has its detractors, most of them other country artists. Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson and Zac Brown have criticized the sub-genre’s superficial subject matter. (While he says he has no beef with Bryan, during a radio interview Brown did call his double-platinum hit “That’s My Kind of Night” one of the worst songs he ever heard.) Frivolity aside, there also appears to be a repetitive, formulaic mediocrity that’s oh-so-visible in many of these bro-country tunes. Last November, a YouTube video by someone named Sir Mashalot began circulating, where six hit bro-country songs were mashed together to form one epic number. It’s unnerving (and a bit depressing) how perfectly they all blended together.

Just like with other musical genres, the more pop-oriented, heavy rotation-friendly country music is overshadowing “traditional” (read: good) country. “If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist,” Sony Nashville CEO Gary Overton recently told The Tennessean, while veteran radio programmer R.J. Curtis told Rolling Stone, “Country fans rely on radio to discover new music.”

However, some independent singer-songwriters are making these industry insiders eat their words. Kentucky crooner Sturgill Simpson’s acclaimed 2014 album “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” passed the 100,000 mark despite not getting a lick of mainstream radio play. Meanwhile, Texas boy Aaron Watson’s aptly titled “The Underdog,” which was released last month without major-label backing or national radio push, debuted at No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart, also landing a Top 20 spot on the Hot 200. And thanks to performing the song with Dwight Yoakam at the Grammys a few Sundays ago, Washingtonian Brandy Clark’s single “Hold My Hand” jumped by over 5,000 percent on iTunes in the days following the performance. Clark also got a 3,763 percent increase in station adds on Pandora – meaning custom stations created by listeners from her music – and an immediate 34 percent jump in Spotify streams that night.

If you ask me, country music has gotten too mainstream, whether it’s being done by bros like Shelton or Bryan or a group like Lady Antebellum. I’ve always been fascinated with the country music of the late ’60s and early ’70s, when outlaws like Kris Kristofferson and hellcats like Bobbie Gentry roamed wild and free. There was definitely a dark and dangerous side to country back then. Country stars were just as decadent and debauched as rock stars, doing enough drugs and alcohol to give them plenty of musical material for years to come.

There was also fearlessness and honesty in their music. Thankfully, there are some on-the-low artists around doing that, eventually finding audiences their own way. This proves that there are people out there who still appreciate country music, and not the boogie boogie wham-bam that sadly has become the norm.