Until recently, country music had been enjoying a nice, quiet existence. It was the sound of the Heartland; of apple pie and American flags, sunsets over cornfields, and stacks of golden, puffy fried food at state fairs. But over the past year or two, country music’s default image has begun to shift. The swaggering, red-state cowboys of the 90s and early aughts are being slowly nudged aside by younger, edgier, tattooed and pierced artists. Heavy rock guitars are becoming a mainstay on country radio: Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood’s single “Something Bad” loosely hints at Concrete Blonde, and The Band Perry’s live shows look more like the Black Eyed Peas or No Doubt than anything even remotely approximating George Jones.
At the center of this growing tremor, though, are a handful of artists who have taken new musical influences in country music even further than mere suggestions of rock. Florida Georgia Line openly work rap into their songs, collaborating with Nelly and dropping some (remarkably respectable) flows of their own. Eric Church’s “The Outsiders” could pass for lukewarm hair metal with a Southern accent. Sam Hunt has infused his tracks with elements of EDM.
And these bands, it seems, have finally taken it too far for some country purists. If 2013 was the year everyone worried about the bros taking over the charts, 2014 faced the perceived threat of country falling apart completely as a genre, thanks to party country that echoed the sounds of other parts of the radio dial.
It was a slow build-up, to be sure. The beginning of 2014 saw the usual bro-country arguments being bandied about, Maddie and Tae getting airplay with the stereotype-mocking “Girl in a Country Song,” and critics bemoaning big male artists’ dopey and uninspired beer + truck + lake mentality.
But by late summer and early fall, talk had turned from irritating bros to musings over the outright deterioration of the genre. In August, Jon Caramanica of the New York Times described Sam Hunt’s newest single, “Ex to See,” as “sweaty and meaty,” noting, in his positive review, that it “has very little to do with country music” Of Florida Georgia Line’s new album, Anything Goes, Josh Schott of the website Country Perspective wrote in October, “An Avicii ad played on Spotify as I listened to this album, and it sounded just as country.”
The most pungent rant, however, came from prolific blogger “Trigger,” who runs the site Saving Country Music. Trigger’s not a fan of most mainstream country—he recently called Miranda Lambert’s new single, “Little Red Wagon,” “formulaic” and “tiring.” But he saves his most choice words for FGL. Calling Anything Goes “The Worst Album Ever,” Trigger went on to deliver a brutal takedown, wrapping up with this unforgiving zinger: “Florida Georgia Line and Anything Goes are an embarrassment to country music.”
Certainly, these critics make some fair points. But missing from 2014’s raging hatred of party country is this: If these new musicians are so clearly what country music is not, who made the argument for what country music in 2014 is? And if it hasn’t been defined, who gets to say what is and isn’t country?
Let’s take a look at some history: Country music’s origins are typically traced back to 1920s Appalachia, where dudes sat around playing fiddles and steel guitars and strumming on banjos. It was loosely defined by a sound, but more than that, country music was defined by a feeling. It was a kitchen-table authenticity, the sense that you could trust these artists scrappily crooning about love and loss and liquor and heartbreak, who had nothing else to do out there in the wilds of Tennessee but feel life’s every tidal wave wash over them.
Fast forward a century. As we’ve established, mainstream artists who are calling themselves country now have very little to do with crinkly old fiddles or cracked banjos. Their tracks aren’t laid over bare steel guitars, and their voices are Auto-Tuned, polished and smooth. And certainly, few are grappling with the profundities of harsh winters, sick kids or the suffocating responsibility of caring for a family.
But there’s something else at play in the critiques of their music, and it’s not just about a desire to see the beauty of traditional country music carried on. As Trigger goes on to write of Anything Goes: “it’s just a contiguous string of carefree party references and virtually nothing else.”
Hey, true enough. The Little Big Towns and the FGLs—a pair of goofy, Ed-Hardy-wearing 20-somethings—of this world are most definitely selling listeners a candy-coated good time rather than a profound reckoning with the human condition. And no one would argue that they sound much like their immediate forebears, let alone the country legends of the early- to mid-20th century. In their best moments, these critiques bring to light the important fact that we should not lose sight of the origins, history and musicianship that makes country music great.
But in their worst moments, they threaten to veer into tantrum mode more than real worries about the state of humanity, as evidenced by Top 40 radio. They teeter right on the edge of despair, in fact, over the possibility that the genre is being corrupted by vapid newcomers who will somehow obliterate, immediately upon arrival, everything sacred in this world.
It’s an argument that’s as old as music itself; and yet, it’s an argument that never pans out. First of all, to suggest that country music—or any genre, because the same debate comes up in rock and hip-hop and jazz—can be ruined by its pop version is to say that you have no faith in the checks and balances of humanity; that the jocks can’t co-exist with the poets. Let’s take another look from history: While some of the Romans were inventing the boot and rally in vomitoriums, others were writing The Aeneid.
It’s also worth nothing that just as mainstream country music is veering off into the great yonder, more traditional-sounding country artists are emerging as well. Jamey Johnson is recording new music. Justin Townes Earle just finished a four-month North American tour. Sturgill Simpson was on Letterman, for the love of Christ. Not everyone is going to love or even understand their music; just as some find Sam Hunt vapid, others will find Simpson depressing.
But maybe most importantly, there’s the fact that, like it or not, bands like Florida Georgia Line actually do represent a large swath of individuals. The heroic bro at the center of their albums wants nothing more than to drop his tailgate, guzzle beer, and bone a pretty girl. Is it the most intellectual of pursuits? Perhaps not. Is it the most soul-searching? Not necessarily. Might it be blunting and downplaying the pain of life, while exaggeratedly celebrating its joys? Sure.
And yet, are there still lots of dudes for whom that’s the ideal Saturday night? Indeed there are. Whether that’s the dude you want to be hanging out with shouldn’t be the issue; he exists, and this is his music. Sometimes, blunting and downplaying the pain of life is a more humane way to handle those things anyway. No one’s saying it’s groundbreaking subject matter, but just like the traditional country music whence it sprang, it is a vision of someone’s everyday life—now adjusted for the 21st century.
Jessica Ogilvie is a writer living in Los Angeles, and she owns at least one pair of cowboy boots. Follow her on Twitter.