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Despite Detractors, Bro-Country May Be a Bellwether of Nashville’s Future

No one can quite agree where “bro-country” started, and most of its primary practitioners are hesitant to embrace the label. Nonetheless, the sudsy, party-hearty, hip-hop inflected, Ft. Lauderdale-fetishizing style that has seen the likes of Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, Jake Owen and others notch chart-topping records over the past two years, is a subgenre that’s thriving. And despite the hand-wringing it may inspire in country purist circles, it may go a long way toward sketching out the future of Nashville pop.

When the Oxford English Dictionary looks for a primary source for the term, it will likely zero in on New York Magazine music critic Jody Rosen, who popularized the label in a 2013 essay about Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise.” To Rosen, the new breed of male stars made a clean break with much of what distinguished a country male vocalist, particularly the “devotion to realism, to songs about Saturday night’s hootenanny and Sunday morning’s moral reckoning, not to mention the kitchen-table truths of Monday through Friday.” For the bro singers of contempo Nashville, the hootenanny has been moved to the frathouse, where the kegs are tapped all week.

While “Cruise” was bro-country’s bellwether — registering a record-setting run at the top of the Hot Country chart — its patron saint is likely Bryan, who notched two No. 1 albums in 2013. Though even he has expressed discomfort with the bro tag, a glance through his album titles — “Tailgates & Tanlines,” “Crash My Party” and this year’s EP, “Spring Break 6 … Like We Ain’t Ever” — leaves little doubt where his interests as a songwriter lie.

Country’s he-man brigade has seen little slowdown in sales over the past few months, with Shelton’s “Bring Back the Sunshine,” Aldean’s “Old Boots, New Dirt” and Florida Georgia Line’s “Anything Goes” all topping the album chart one week after another.

But with this success has come some substantial criticism. Country purists have by and large been horrified by some of the stylistic promiscuity on display — Zac Brown broke with Nashville’s typical code of conduct when he referred to Bryan’s hit “That’s My Kind of Night” as “the worst song I’ve ever heard” — and different groups have taken issue with the actual promiscuity in the lyrics.

In classic Dolly-and-Tammy fashion, newcomers Maddie & Tae notched a 2014 summer hit with “Girl in a Country Song,” which skewers the ornamental role played by women in bro-country anthems with ruthless precision. Even Kenny Chesney, a real-life former frat brother who once bridged the gap between Garth Brooks and Jimmy Buffett, targeted country’s objectification of women in a Billboard interview earlier this month, saying: “Twenty years ago, I might have written a song like that — I probably did. But I’m at a point where I want to say something different about women.”

It’s debatable whether these lyrical themes are anything new; after all, good-time country drinking songs are as old as “White Lightning,” if not white lighting itself. What is notable, however, is the wholehearted embrace of contemporary pop and electronic music trends. Eric Church’s 2014 chart-topper “The Outsiders” (to these ears, the standout of this year’s male country crop), often seems just as inspired by the past two decades of R&B as it does by the last decade of country. Aldean’s summer hit “Burnin’ It Down” incorporates classic slow-jam textures over a prominent drum loop, and electronic dance beats also underpinned Shelton’s single “Neon Light.” The lyrics of Florida Georgia Line’s fall single “Sun Daze” orbit around a Bob Marley quote.

Of course, country has been here before. For a genre often distinguished by its professed conservatism, Nashville has long been willing to accommodate new sounds from across the pop landscape. Chet Atkins’ guitar playing owed as much to Belgian jazz great Django Reinhardt as Kentucky picker Merle Travis. The “Countrypolitan” movement of the 1960s and ’70s brought Brill Building-style songcraft and arrangements into the honky-tonks. And in the 1990s, country’s top tier began to resemble hard rock of the 1980s in ways both aesthetic and melodic — it’s no coincidence that the top-selling country record of the 1990s (Shania Twain’s “Come on Over”) and the top-selling rock record of the 1980s (AC/DC’s “Back in Black”) were both produced by the same man, Mutt Lange.

Bro-country’s embrace of both the themes and the rhythms of mainstream ’90s hip-hop, however, represents an especially long-gestating crossover. Tim McGraw and rapper Nelly teamed up 10 years ago on their top 10 hit, “Over and Over,” but it wasn’t until 2013 that Nelly tried the trick again, rapping over a remix of “Cruise.” Lil Wayne made a surprise appearance on the CMA Awards back in 2008, yet he didn’t rap a single bar. And LL Cool J and Brad Paisley raised the hackles of critics with their well-meaning if cringeworthy duet, 2013’s “Accidental Racist.”

In fact, country and hip-hop have long been uneasy bedfellows, even if they seemed philosophically incompatible. It wasn’t that long ago that self-professed music snobs would freely declare their love of “everything but rap and country,” and when SoundScan was introduced to accurately tally record sales in 1991, bizzers were shocked to learn that artists like Brooks and N.W.A. were actually more popular than the rock and pop acts previously considered mainstream. But now, country’s new vanguard comprises artists who grew up on both genres, for whom Aldean’s boast of “a little Conway, a little T-Pain” sounds less like a hand reached across the aisle than a simple description of their Spotify history. No one expects country’s tailgate era to go on forever, but the hangover from this sort of cross-pollination will likely be harder to shake.

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