The Great Bro-Country Music Debate of 2015 and Why It's Kinda Pointless
Why are so many of the people who seem so invested in bringing "real" country back people who don't actually listen to country music?
Writing about country in 2015, is, like a wise man once said, “all the same, only the names have changed.” The things that happened this year—newcomers getting away from what the old guard considers “real country,” women being marginalized to the edges of the genre, a group of outsiders trying to bring the music back to some ancient ideal that probably never existed—happened in 2005, 1995, 1985, and 1975 too. Country music is forever in a war with its own narrative—commercial and otherwise—and will be even when there are songs about small town boys being brokenhearted by small town girls being recorded straight into our Google Ears.
How the struggle over "commercial" vs. "real" in country music played out this year was mostly manifest in how publications and thinkpiecers all climbed on the “bro-country sucks, doesn’t it?” train in 2015. Bro-country—the genre tag invented to describe the wave of country artists, all men, who wear backwards hats and sing about boning in cornfields—has been the dominant form of country since late 2012 (the genre didn’t get music-crit name till Jody Rosen invented it in 2013). But apparently, this was the year people had enough. “The bros are running the asylum,” wrote Rob Harvilla at Deadspin. “It was all amusing for awhile, but it has since grown intolerable.” “Is Bro-Country Over?” asked Billboard. It got to the point where Luke Bryan, boss don of bro-co, had to comment on the genre tag in interviews, saying, “I feel the initial term ‘bro-country’ was created to be kind of a little degrading to what’s popular, to what country artists are doing right now.”
2015 was a year when guys like Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, and hell, even Don Henley, were used as wedges meant to tell an audience of people who listen to bro-country—and the artists themselves—that the time of their disposal is nigh, despite the fact that bro-country remains one of the most popular genres within country music and that that genre descriptor encompasses more artists of different styles than “real country” (whatever that is) does in 2015. 2015 was the year that bro-country got better—thanks to artists like Old Dominion, Thomas Rhett, and Chris Janson—and had more chart success than ever, and people tried not to notice.
The latest, and probably greatest, wedge used by the Country for People Who Hate Bro-Country in 2015 was Chris Stapleton, who soared over the bros at the CMAs in early November to win CMAs for Album of the Year, New Artist of the Year, and Male Vocalist of the Year. Stapleton, an underground Nashville mainstay who used to play in bluegrass band the SteelDrivers. Stapleton has knocked around Nashville for close to 15 years before he got a shot as a solo artist with his album, Traveller. After the CMA performance that served as his mainstream breakthrough, places as far afield as Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and Deadspin called his wins and performance with Justin Timberlake the “death” of bro-country, and maybe if Stapleton’s surprise gatecrashing at Billboard post-CMAs continues beyond this month they’ll have a point.
But what none of them mention is that a) Stapleton’s album is great, but we can’t pretend Timberlake doesn’t get at least partial credit for Stapleton exploding off the screen into the iTunes accounts of people who hadn’t heard him till the CMAs, and b) Stapleton himself is a bro-country songwriter! He wrote “Drink a Beer” for Luke Bryan, and wrote for Darius Rucker, who more or less invented bro music with Hootie and the Blowfish. He also co-wrote two songs on Thomas Rhett’s Tangled Up: the number one hit, “Crash and Burn,” and “South Side,” a song about wiggling your butt. Unless Stapleton is the most deeply cynical human being on earth, I don’t think he’s singlehandedly trying to take down bro-country. Maybe he, unlike the critics who fought to call him a country music savior, is able to like “traditional” leaning country while at the same time understanding what people like about modern pop country.
That wasn’t it, of course. Pitchfork reviewed, from what I can tell from searching their archives, the only contemporary major label country album in their entire existence (they still have never reviewed Taylor Swift): Kacey Musgraves’s Pageant Material. In a veritable rave—they didn’t hang Best New Music on it, because that would have caused riots on Twitter—they spend part of the review burying bro-country and its trucks and beers, before backing off and painting Kacey as the new Kitty Wells. This was an appropriate response—the “she’s killing bro-country!” histrionics that accompanied write-ups of Pageant Material elsewhere, masking the real issue that many people who reflexively tune out the genre were trying to play catch up on Same Trailer Different Park, Musgraves’s stronger debut album—but the fact that they haven’t reviewed any other mainstream country albums this year speaks volumes. There is value for Pitchfork to review Kacey Musgraves when there’s a chance to set her against the bro-country that people who haven’t even heard of Pitchfork listen to, but not in reviewing Sam Hunt (or even Chris Stapleton!). Pitchfork gets to maintain the illusion that Musgraves is the only country artist worth covering, while never deigning to review the stuff she’s supposedly “against.”
It’s not even hard to find worse examples of this kind of knee-jerk dismissal of bro-country. We live in a world where it’s possible for NPR to consider Old Dominion a band that can “challenge” the characterizations of modern country, while noting they were produced by bro-country’s most sought after producer/songwriter Shane McAnally and ignoring that one of the band’s members co-wrote some Sam Hunt songs.
I realize this is maybe coming off as a “guy rants about the deficiencies of music criticism he doesn’t agree with” but the point is that while critics lined up to tell you why some artist is “killing bro-country,” bro-country remained one of the top genres of music in the US this year. A look at the top country albums on Billboard in 2015 is a veritable who’s who of bro-country. Luke Bryan and Sam Hunt topped the charts for eight weeks each, while newcomers like Easton Corbin and Brett Eldredge topped the charts too. And hell, you could even count the new George Strait album as bro-country too, being that its title track is called “Cold Beer Conversation.” Until Stapleton’s commercial boom post CMA’s, his total album sales could be combined with Jason Isbell’s, Sturgill Simpson’s most recent album, and Don Henley’s solo country album, and they still wouldn’t touch Luke Bryan’s sales numbers (730,000 vs. 555,000). Commercially, the alternatives to bro-country can’t even come close to bro-country’s dominance.
The great myth of the Bro-Country Burying of 2015 is that the genre is as one-note as its critics make it out to be. On one hand you have Luke Bryan turning parts of Kill the Lights into a hair metal album, complete with the requisite power ballads, and on the other you have Thomas Rhett making a serious bid to be the Bruno Mars of country music with Tangled Up. Bro-country somehow encompasses Kip Moore—whose Wild Ones is the best Bruce Springsteen album since Born in the U.S.A.—Sam Hunt—whose Montevallo is as much quiet storm and EDM as it is boots and beers—Chris Janson—whose Buy Me a Boat is the trailer park man’s response to Same Trailer Different Park and Old Dominion—whose Meat and Candy is maybe the first country album that was influenced by Sugar Ray.
To dismiss all these guys as “red solo cups and pick up trucks” is writing off an entire genre that means a lot to a lot of people. It ignores the fact that Sam Hunt (and his team) is one of the best small detail songwriters out right now—listen to “Break Up in a Small Town” and catch the references to the marks a car makes in grass—and that Florida Georgia Line are arguably the most popular modern band out right now. The opinion that all bro-country is trash, full stop, favors throwing in the stuff that really is dreadful—shout out to Canaan Smith and Chase Rice—with the stuff that bangs because it’s easier to do that than dive headlong into a genre in which there isn’t much lucrative money for them to be interested.
It also ignores that vastly more people want to listen to Luke Bryan instead of Chris Stapleton; country music is a shrewd capitalist enterprise, and if the audience that actually mattered to labels—you know, the ones who come to concerts and listen to the radio and not Pitchfork readers—decided they wanted Jason Isbell or Sturgill Simpson more, there’d be an entire industry of “authentic” country singers. It’s hard to ignore the classist elements that come into arguments that paint these guys as someone who can “save” bro-country fans from the music they listen to. You only need to Google search “country festival Midwest” to understand that thousands more people saw Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, or Lee Brice this summer than who went to Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Coachella, and Pitchfork Music Festival. And the myth that their fans are all dudes who look like they could be onstage is just that, a myth. Personally, I saw more women at a single FLAGA concert this summer than I saw at two days of Eaux Claires Festival. Saying that these people need Chris Stapleton in their lives more than Chris Janson is as misguided as someone saying rap fans should listen to Talib Kweli instead of Young Thug.
The thing is, there are way more valid music criticisms you could launch at country music. For starters, there aren’t enough women in songwriting, executive, or even Billboard star roles. The radio promoters and DJs are sexist and stupid. Maddie & Tae’s debut album after their hit single “Girl in a Country Song” was basically buried; it deserved better. Women are too often treated as plot devices and props. And that’s a problem for country music as much as it is for popular media in general.
The issue is that we need to draw a distinction between something being “something I don’t personally relate to” and “something I think sucks.” It’s almost universally acknowledged that “I don’t like country, I only like Johnny Cash” is the second most close-minded, bankrupt position to have re: any music next to “everything but rap and country.” No one in 2015 can make the claim that they don’t want to listen to modern country; they only prefer the Man in Black. Lucky for music critics who don’t want to engage with modern country music—at least every quarter of the year sees the debut of a new person who is going to “save” country fans from themselves. The only thing that needs saving is the time we waste annually reading lukewarm takes on why country music needs saving.
Andrew Winistorfer is a bro who likes country. He's on Twitter.