Female country singers are complaining that their music is being pushed off the airwaves by a new crew of young, male, “bro-country” musicians singing interchangeable songs about dirt roads, pickup trucks, girls in tiny cutoff jeans and beer, lots of beer.
Carrie Underwood is leading the charge, telling Billboard magazine that the country music business seems to have very limited room for new female musicians, but that it’s different for the guys. “There seem to be so many male singers out there who can be viewed as similar, and there seems to be plenty of room for all of them,” Underwood said.
Her description of the current country scene is pretty accurate. A recent story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune explained what is driving the phenomenon: In the last couple of years, a big share of young men in the commercially coveted 18-to-34 age cohort have switched to country radio, lured there by the tailgate party songs of Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Eric Church and other country bros.
Thanks to my nephew, Scott, I had already noticed the trend. Scott is a recent college grad who spent a summer working an outdoor, muscles-required job with a bunch of good ol’ boys — actually, good young boys — who listened to nothing but country tunes as they labored. At a family party on Thanksgiving, Scott played some of the songs. I liked them and I asked him to download a few for me.
I ended up with a playlist of 80 new country songs. Only one of them was performed by a woman. And, yes, most of the lyrics could have been written by the same guy on the same night at the same wild party.
Of course, the cliché about country music has always been that the songs are all the same. In the old days, every song seemed to be about a weary man sitting in a honky tonk bar, drinking whiskey and bemoaning the lost love of a gal he done wrong or who done him wrong. Back then, country music was a niche genre in the backwaters of the music business, but that changed with a new generation of artists such as Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.
The music got infused with rock guitars, as well as a pop sensibility. The lyrics broadened beyond the backwoods bars and rodeos to include the simple joys and heartaches of suburban women and men who care about their families and just want to keep a touch of spice in their domesticated lives. Crossover was the name of the game and Nashville pulled in a huge new audience.
If bro-country seems to be narrowing the lyrical topics, it is, nevertheless, another example of crossover. Before this, young men like Scott, raised in the suburbs of a big city about as far from the South as one can get, would have stuck with rock or hip-hop. But bro-country beckoned him down the dirt road.
Scott is astute enough to point out that many of the songs he listens to are, essentially, simple lists. You’re a country boy and you’ve got your pickup truck and your bottle of wine or beer (depending on what word you are trying to rhyme it with). You are driving down a dirt road toward a lake or river, usually in the moonlight. Seated next to you is a country girl in skimpy cutoffs and a tight tank top. She is going to dance on your tailgate and the party is going to go all night long. Just put this list of items in no particular order, add electric guitars and you’ve got a hit song.
Admittedly, this is not as creative as Cole Porter or Lennon and McCartney or even the Dixie Chicks. But this music has an appeal not unlike the teen surfing songs of the Beach Boys or the screaming guitar, take-everything-too-far anthems of Bon Jovi and Sammy Hagar. It can be a Woodie with surfboards on the roof or a speeding Corvette on an interstate or a mud-spattered pickup truck rumbling down a dusty road. She might be a surfer girl, a hitchhiking groupie or a frisky cowgirl. For a young man, the allure of reckless freedom is forever strong.
And it’s not just young men. I know I’ve got a 25-year-old bottled up inside my decidedly not young self who still longs for the fantasy. Call me immature or just a sadly predictable American male, but count me as one more man who — in addition to more sophisticated music — likes the simple-minded, testosterone-driven songs.
Apparently, the music industry executives have noticed and are making money off young guys like Scott and old guys like me. Still, I would urge them not to forsake the talented females. I don’t think they want too see Carrie Underwood show up in the parking lot humming “Before He Cheats” and applying a baseball bat to their BMWs.
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