Defending Bro Country
Sundry critics have deemed this an amazing era for country albums by smart women (Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark, Lee Ann Womack, Sunny Sweeney, all three Pistol Annies both together and in solo mode) but an awful time for country radio, which frequently tends to be dominated instead by brainless "bro" songs by pickup-flaunting, beer-swilling young men whose lyrics at best use women as racks to hang daisy dukes on. I more or less agree: My Nashville Scene poll top 10 last year was more female than ever, while the radio format's still pretty unbearable. That said, I like a few of the biggest and supposedly dumbest bro country hits anyway; I maybe even think they're smarter than they get credit for.
Zac Brown has famously called Luke Bryan's "That's My Kind of Night" the "worst song I ever heard," and he's not alone. But Bryan's smash (No. 1 country, No. 15 pop) has a funk and push that Brown's own watered-down jam rock can't touch. Beyond signifiers about "rolling on 35s" and making it rain and T-Pain/Conway mixtapes and cornrows (as in hair?), the opening boom-bap beats and Dirty South crunk grunts and eventual internal semi-rhymes are evidence that, a decade after the first Big & Rich album, country has absorbed hip-hop to an extent that it's almost an unconscious part of the sound. This is neither a surprise nor as blasphemous as genre segregationists pretend -- in fact, it's pretty much what country has always done with black pop music. And if the lyric's a sleazy come-on, it's no dumber about it than, say, "Get Lucky" or "Blurred Lines."
But admit it -- dumb can be fun. And as any Ramones fan understands, self-knowledge helps. For my money, one of the most intentionally dumb hooks of recent times was in Lee Brice's No. 11 country/No. 62 pop "Parking Lot Party": "Ain't no party like the pre- [or 'freak,' if you want to hear it that way] party/ And after the party is the after-party." Redundancy FTW! Not sure I buy claims that Brice is bumping an R. Kelly groove, though I hope so. Either way, the song's rhythmic energy, goofball asides, drunken backup chatter and saliva-propelled "p"-pronunciation make for a funnier and more convincing approximation of double-shot '60s frat-rock than anything any so-called indie "garage band" has done in a while, even if this party's particulars involve chicken wings and tailgates rather than shing-a-lings and togas.
Brice tells us Marshall Tucker's on the radio, same band some bikini-top-popping lust object sang along to in Florida Georgia Line's country-chart-topping "Cruise," which took forever and a Nelly remix to make it to Billboard's pop Top 5. But neither song sounds like Marshall Tucker; if anything, "Cruise (Remix)" cruises along with windows down like Nelly's own old country grammar, maybe even in his old Range Rover. Word of Florida Georgia's onstage hip-hop medleys (Lil Troy to Macklemore to 50 Cent to Juvenile to Kanye) suggests untapped potential.
Personally though, I preferred Jason Aldean's far more ridiculous "1994" (No. 10 country, No. 52 pop), which is hip-hoppish in the sense that it's talked on-beat and references "The Real Slim Shady" and advocates imbibing Grey Goose á la the Ying Yang Twins. But it more endearingly rests on the dubious assumptions that (1) it's not too early to get nostalgic for the mid-'90s and (2) the main reason to be nostalgic is that we miss mulletted-and-mustachioed mid-level country lug Joe Diffie, eight of whose oldies get sneakily name-checked. His best, 1994's "Third Rock from the Sun," the only song about chaos theory's butterfly effect ever to scale the country chart, fortunately gets the most action; hence Aldean's truck turns into a time machine. Plus, the throb of "1994" is limber enough that, for its last minute, we get to bask in an instrumental jam. So stop complaining!
Finally, one last good thing about bro country is that it hasn't given up yet on trying to be John Cougar. So we got Randy Houser, who just a few years ago was positioning himself for the serious quasi-outlaw role Eric Church wound up in, now settling for the mere windows-down date fodder "Runnin' Outta Moonlight" (No. 3 country, No. 24 pop), salvaged mainly by that indelible "Jack & Diane" riff. Even better, last year gave us now-enlightened rogue Toby Keith's "Drinks After Work" (No. 28 country, No. 102 pop), which musically is straight-up Lonesome Jubilee Mellencamp and lyrically finds a casual sexiness in the after-quitting-time hump-day liaisons of middle-management office workers in "suits and skirts" sipping 7 and 7s. Suburban and mature, not "bro" at all really, but Toby's 53 and he's been-there-done-that and then some (was hick-hopping without making a big deal of it with "I Wanna Talk About Me" way back in 2001), plus he still sings all y'all young bucks under the floor mat. Enjoy your trucks while you can, boys.