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.