Anyone who knows anything about country music knows that there is a longstanding and intense war being waged for the soul of country music. Tradition and fortune are at odds seemingly every day now. Traditionalists are fighting to keep country music rooted in the history that made the genre great, while moving forward to new heights. Mainstream country wants to make as much money as possible, while turning country music into a rock/rap/pop hybrid, citing claims of “evolution” and “progress”. While the fight has looked bleak for the true fans like me, the tides have turned. Not only are we making headway, I would go as far to say that right now we are winning the fight for country music.
The numbers don’t lie. When you look across the board, the big names in mainstream country music are all down right now. Sure, Sam Hunt is a new force on the rise, but most of the established acts are not bringing in the same numbers as they did a few years ago. Sure, Florida-Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, and Jason Aldean are still the biggest concert draws right now, but when you look at the impact they were making a few years ago compared to now, it pales in comparison. Why is this the case? The answer is pretty simple. Country music sold its soul to compete for the attention of people who really didn’t like country music. “Being country” became a trend, just like parachute pants and disco. Duck Dynasty was all over TV, kids in the suburbs traded their Camrys in for lifted trucks, and kids who grew up on a cul-de-sac were wearing camo pants and Muck boots. Inevitably, the trend has begun to pass. You’d think country music label heads would be intelligent enough to know that this trend, like literally every other trend before it, would pass. You’d think that the big shots in charge would think of that, but they decided to put all their eggs in the bro-basket. Look at CMT. They are laying off staff members as their ratings and revenue continue to decline. The ship is sailing fast. Many artists are resorting to EDM as the latest cling to relevancy. Sure, Sam Hunt is huge right now, and Gary Allan, Eli Young, and others are trying to follow in his club-infused direction, but this fad will probably die out faster than bro-country did. Why do you think carpet-baggers like Bobby Bones are going out of their way to defend Hunt, Fla-Ga Line, Bryan, and the rest of these goons? Because he is nothing without them. Real country fans can’t stand Bones and his moronic pop-culture themed joke of a radio show. When the yuppies go back to pop and hip-hop once this trend finally wears off, Bones will disappear into obscurity where he and his low self-esteem belong. I feel a little dirty for even mentioning Bones here, as he is a sad man who absolutely lives for attention, whether it is good or bad, so I’m actually playing into his game here by mentioning him. It’s still worth noting that though that the more he defends the bros, the more we know they are on the outs.
Even more important than the decline of the pop-drivel is the rise of the independent artist. Gary Overton, CEO of Sony Nashville, claimed that “you don’t exist” if you are not on mainstream radio. Well, Aaron Watson, Blackberry Smoke, Brandy Clark, and Sturgill Simpson proved him to be very very wrong. Although not technically an independent band, Blackberry Smoke took over the top of the country albums chart during the debut week of their latest album, Holding All The Roses. Aaron Watson then released The Underdog, which hit number one on the album charts and became the highest album debut for an independent artist of all time. His song “Fence Post” also shot to number one on the iTunes singles sales charts the day it was released. Brandy Clark recently performed on the Grammy Awards with Dwight Yoakam and was nominated multiple times despite no radio play. Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music has been a fixture in the top 10 for most of the past calendar year, all while selling out theaters and being nominated for a Grammy. He recently used his momentum to finally sign to a major label, Atlantic, which will hopefully lead to some radio play for the extremely talented Kentuckian. Not bad for a bunch of guys who “don’t exist.” But, if we focus on the guys who do “exist” on country radio, it seems far more of them have been leaning towards a more traditional sound rather than the pop sound. The latest singles from Tim McGraw (“Diamond Rings and Old Barstools”, “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s”), Jake Owen (“What We Ain’t Got”), Eric Paslay (“She Don’t Love You”), “The Band Perry (“Gentle On My Mind”), Randy Houser (“Like A Cowboy”), and Kenny Chesney (“Wild Child”) all lean towards the traditional side of mainstream country. Sure, not of all of those are exactly “Mama Tried” or “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, but they are good mainstream country songs that still feel at home in this genre. The fact that a few songs like these are slipping into rotation prove that enough fans want to hear it. Whether that is because the trend-chasers are leaving or because the traditional fans are getting louder (or, most likely, a combination of both) doesn’t matter. It’s happening, and country music is better for it. The aforementioned Bobby Bones has even tried to talk up guys like Aaron Watson (in between stirring up unjustified and fake controversy with him for ratings). Most likely so he can point to that when he gets the eventual boot, but that’s none of my business.
All in all, this is both good and bad news for country music. Good because we are seeing the end of the bro-era, but bad because as we lose fans, the income generated by the genre will be less, meaning less money to develop young stars. It can’t all be roses, right? That being said, I think that all of us true country fans can give ourselves a little pat on the back. I wasn’t around back then, but I’ve read how people like us fought off The Nashville Sound. We fought off Urban Cowboy. Now, despite it giving us our biggest battle yet, we are defeating bro-country. Don’t worry about this Sam Hunt EDM phase. It’ll be gone quicker than a young girl’s dignity at a Fla-Ga Line concert. Country music is once again proving that our traditions and history are not to be taken lightly. This doesn’t mean it’s over though. The remnants of bro-country and EDM are still floating around. Don’t quit on me now! Get out there and fight the good fight. Go to concerts. Buy albums. Tell your friends about your favorite country artist. Support independent bands and solo artists. Do what you can to keep our genre alive, and most importantly, keep it country, kids!
"Fence Post" -Aaron Watson
"Life Ain't Fair And The World Is Mean" -Sturgill Simpson