In Country Music, Nice Guys Finish First (for Now)

At the time, country music was still reckoning with its bro tendencies. For most of the 2010s, 20-something men in weathered baseball caps injected the genre with an almost comical masculinity — brawny, hip-hop-inflected sounds, lyrics that treated women as objects of lurid attention. Stars like Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line were making intriguing musical hybrids with often woeful gender politics.

.. Mr. Rhett sings gently, with the faintest hint of soul-music syrup in his barely-accented voice. “Die a Happy Man” was so straightforward it landed with a shock. It became Mr. Rhett’s breakthrough hit, topping the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart for 17 weeks.

As often happens, it also became a template: the country gentleman. And so Nashville’s bro tide is now receding, supplanted by a kindlier new generation of male country singers. They focus on uncomplicated, deeply dedicated love or, alternately, being hopeless on the receiving end of heartbreak.

.. They sing with voices light on drawl. They ooze respect, charm and, occasionally, dullness. At times they recall George Strait, the restrained cowboy superstar; at others, Earl Thomas Conley, the emotional ballad specialist of the 1980s.

.. More often than not, they have sturdy, approachable, single-syllable last names: Thomas Rhett, Brett Young, Chris Lane, Michael Ray.

.. They are the men next door, promising undying affection and emotional stability — a cliché, perhaps, but one more appealing than the last.

.. This surge also doubles as a response to the gender crisis that has been gripping country music the last few years, as captured in two parallel phenomena: the rise of the bro, and the disappearance of the female star.

.. For most of this decade, the genre’s male stars have been strutters: egocentric, bumblingly flirtatious, a little dunce-y.

At the same time, female singers have been getting squeezed ever more tightly

.. younger artists like Maddie & Tae and Kelsea Ballerini found success by positioning themselves in opposition to prevailing masculine narratives.

.. It dilutes the toxic levels of masculinity in the genre without offering women songs of their own to sing, instead plying them with ones that place them on a pedestal.

.. This is the emo side of the gentleman, looking inward for shortcomings, not outward.

In the bro era, women were objects to be chased. In these songs, they’re porcelain, gleaming and precious.

Sad Songs And The South

the South is a shame-honor culture, and one where people are deeply rooted in a sense of family and place — for better or for worse. Might it be that non-Southerners, for cultural reasons, simply cannot understand why it’s difficult for Southerners to execrate their ancestors, even if their ancestors did bad things?

.. The researcher discovered that rock music is extremely repetitive, lyrically speaking. Gladwell says that this makes sense: because everybody is from somewhere different, you have to write in cliché, or you’ll lose people.

.. Southern white people are a people of loss, and traditionally an agrarian people. Their Scots-Irish cultural heritage imbues them with a deep sense of pride and loyalty to family and place.

..  Unlike crops, animal herds are much more vulnerable to theft. A herdsman could lose his entire fortune in one overnight raid. Consequently, martial valor and strength and the willingness to use violence to protect his herd became useful assets to an ancient herdsman. What’s more, a reputation for these martial attributes served as a deterrent to would-be thieves. It’s telling that many of history’s most ferocious warrior societies had pastoral economies. The ancient Hittites, the ancient Hebrews, and the ancient Celts are just a few examples of these warrior/herder societies.

.. These rough and scrappy Scotch-Irish immigrants not only brought with them their ancestors’ penchant for herding, but also imported their love of whiskey, music, leisure, gambling, hunting, and…their warrior-bred, primal code of honor. Even as the South became an agricultural powerhouse, the vast majority of white Southerners – from big plantation owners to the landless — continued to raise hogs and livestock. Whether a man spent most his time working a farm or herding his animals, the pastoral culture of honor, with its emphasis on courage, strength, and violence — characterized by an aggressive stance towards the world and a wariness towards outsiders who might want to take what was his — remained (and as we will see later, continues even to this day).

.. While both the North and the South saw the war in terms of honor, what motivated the men to fight differed greatly. In the North, volunteers joined the cause because of more abstract ideals like freedom, equality, democracy, and Union. In the South, men grabbed their rifles to protect something more tangible — hearth and home — their families and way of life. Their motivation was rooted in their deeply entrenched loyalty to people and place.

.. I am not ready to make for the preservation of the Union save that of honor.” Lee did not favor secession and wished for a peaceable solution instead; but his home state of Virginia seceded, and he was thus faced with the decision to remain loyal to the Union and take up arms against his people, or break with the Union to fight against his former comrades. He chose the latter. Lee’s wife (who privately sympathized with the Union cause) said this of her husband’s decision

.. In a traditional honor culture, loyalty to your honor group takes precedence over all other demands — even those of one’s own conscience.

.. The North’s cause was right, but even if I knew nothing of the history, I can feel in my bones the mandate to fight on the side of one’s people.

.. Southerners see him as a tragic figure: a good man who fought in a bad, doomed cause, from a sense of loyalty to his people.

.. Northerners think they’ve found us out when they point out that we are the most religiously observant region of the country, but also the most morally unruly (to put it delicately). “Hypocrites!” they say. We just shrug. We see no contradiction there.

.. even though Northern iconoclasts are morally and historically correct to judge the Confederate cause wicked, they would do well to understand that the fact that we white Southerners feel a visceral sense of piety towards our ancestors does not mean that we hold them blameless. They would also do well to understand that they are asking us to despise our family and our homeland to prove to them that we are morally acceptable.

That’s not going to happen.