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.

Three Chords and a MAGA Hat

the 2014 CMA map is strikingly similar to the 2016 electoral college map. Suffice it to say that country music is the predominant genre of choice for the key demographic that delivered the White House to President Trump.

.. Throughout the song, Lawrence pines for the days of the ubiquitous front porch, not simply as an architectural feature, but as an indispensable facilitator of community life. His chorus dials up the nostalgia to drive the point home:

If the world had a front porch like we did back then

We’d still have our problems but we’d all be friends

Treatin’ your neighbor like he’s your next of kin

Wouldn’t be gone with the wind

If the world had a front porch like we did back then

.. The song harkens back to a time in Middle America when family and community were prioritized.

.. Indeed, as Alan Jackson’s 1997 hit “Little Man” shows, there were signs even then that the unraveling was well underway.  But the commercial success of “If The World Had a Front Porch” indicates at least a nominal respect for the modes and mores of living that had ordered American life for decades. There was a market for a song that touched on themes of place and connectedness, despite the uncomfortable recognition that such themes were rapidly becoming more ideal than reality.

.. Fast forward to 2017, and popular country music paints a much different picture of the priorities of its fan base.

.. Fast forward to 2017, and popular country music paints a much different picture of the priorities of its fan base. What’s most striking is perhaps the extent to which the format avoids discussing the obvious trials of the white working class. Fans of the genre known as “three chords and the truth” seem wholly uninterested in confronting that latter component, opting rather for paeans to partying to provide an escape from the collapsing communities that surround them.

One need only to survey the Billboard country chart in recent years to observe this trend. A quick glance reveals a predominance of songs about girls, trucks, girls in trucks, beer, and more beer. Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road” shattered records this summer as the longest-reigning number one in the history of the Billboard country chart. Hunt’s depiction of his love interest’s physique is as superficial as the title would suggest

.. Luke Bryan’s 2015 smash hit “Kick The Dust Up.” Bryan, arguably the biggest country star of the past decade, has made a career out of cranking out made-for-radio redneck party anthems. But “Kick The Dust Up” is exceptionally noteworthy considering its cringe-worthy lyrics (“We turn this cornfield into a party”), and the fact that most of its listeners will never experience the aforementioned cornfield party.

.. Owen achieved the impressive feat of packing almost every mindless country buzzword into one song: Daytona, Bud Light, stars and stripes, spring break, Ford trucks, fireworks, cheerleaders, quarterbacks, cowboys, country girls, and small towns each gets a shoutout.  Predictably, the songwent number one on radio.

..  Kasey Musgraves painted an all-too-accurate picture of life in the American heartland with her 2012 single “Merry Go ‘Round.” The song artistically details the same hypocrisy, adultery, consumerism, and drug abuse that have been similarly documented through social science (Charles Murray’s Coming Apart) and personal narrative (J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy). But country listeners, who in 1994 sent Toby Keith’s poignant depiction of broken homes to number one, largely panned Musgraves’s in 2012.  Despite its critical acclaim, “Merry Go ‘Round” was largely unsuccessful as a radio single.

.. The genre that once spoke to the “cheatin’ and drinkin’” of Middle America—the good and the bad—has gone silent.

.. After all, vague rallying cries like “Make America Great Again” speak to a sense of loss, without actually requiring the painful introspection necessary to identify that which has been lost.

.. But discussing solutions requires recognizing problems—which, as the Billboard charts show, contemporary country fandom isn’t inclined to do.