Despite Taylor Swift changing the genre forever, Country Music’s heroes stay true to their roots.
Yes, I blame Taylor Swift for the popularity of bro-country, but we’ll get to that momentarily.
The first time I heard the term “bro-country,” I cringed (it’s even difficult to type without gagging a little). Imagine taking one of your favorite things, like strawberry ice cream, and mixing it with one of your least favorite things, like fingernail clippings.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term bro-country, take a quick look at the definition of “bro” on Urban Dictionary, and you’ll get the idea. It’s essentially a sub-genre of Country Music that combines shallow rap-style lyrics with formulaic pop melodies and disguises itself in a young, burly-armed package. That should make it pretty clear why the ornery troubadours of Country Music past could take it, or leave it.
Now for the Taylor Swift allegation — hear me out. This is more of a theory than an accusation on how she may have been the inadvertent catalyst for the entire bro-country movement. Let me explain:
Up until 2006, before a young curly-haired teenager from small-town Pennsylvania came on the scene, country music was very much like the bars often depicted in its lyrics; dark, smoky and filled with old white guys — certainly no place for 13 year old girls to be galavanting about. Similarly, the audience of Country Music was predominantly — well — old white guys. There wasn’t exactly room on the charts for songs about teenage angst and boy problems, let alone an audience for it. Whether it was foresight, or just lotto-ticket-sized dumb-luck, all of that changed irreversibly when Scott Borchetta of Big Machine Records took a chance on the young Taylor Swift.
You know the story; she catapulted up the charts with her self-penned, autobiographical pop-country tunes like “Our Song” and “Teardrops on My Guitar,” and carved an audience for herself that was previously non-existent. All of a sudden, young girls across the country had someone their age, who was singing about the stuff they liked.
Fast-forward six years to 2012: Swift had become a meteoric success, with legions of fans selling out shows across the globe and buying albums by the fistful. She dominated the music industry, raked in the accolades and quickly became a household name like Oprah Winfrey. Oprah specifically, because of the phenomenon dubbed “The Oprah Effect.” This is where something like 85% of books recommended by Oprah’s Book Club go on to be best sellers.
Likewise, I would like to argue, exists such a thing as “The Taylor Swift Effect.” This is where anything T-Swift approved is eagerly watched, tweeted, or purchased by droves of Swifties.
Around the same time of Taylor’s rise to dominance, an up-and-coming Country Music duo by the name of Florida Georgia Line was starting to make a name for themselves. They had a unique sound that infused rap-style lyrics with pop-laden melodies… you get the idea. Their song “Cruise” was on fire. Then, with one simple tweet, Taylor Swift poured gasoline on that fire.
Next, she took the unknown duo along for 12 of her 86 dates on the Red Tour in 2013, essentially guaranteeing their acceptance by her audience; an audience that without Taylor Swift would have never existed in the first place.
By now, I hope you can see where I am going with this. “Cruise” turned out to be the best-selling country digital song of all-time in the US and set the record for most weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. Nashville record labels scattered to follow the trend and thus bro-country was born (here’s a video mashup of the hit songs released in 2013 to show just how eerily similar they are). If it weren’t for Taylor Swift and her “Effect,” there would be no “Cruise,” which means there would be no bro-country. Sadly, that’s not the case.
So, where does that leave Country Music’s heroes? Well, the way I see it, there are really only three artists remaining who were studs on Country Radio back in the 80s who are still putting out new music today: Garth Brooks (who recently staged a comeback), Alan Jackson, and the King himself, George Strait. From a career standpoint, all three are living legends, and all three continue to do great things as far as album sales and concert attendance. But do they still have a place on Country Radio?
There’s Alan Jackson, who released three singles from the album Thirty Miles West, none of which cracked the top 20. The last two singles for Strait, who has 60 number one’s under his belt, didn’t have much success, either. “I Believe” didn’t chart at all, while his follow-up “I’ve Got A Car” peaked at No. 23 (both would have been Top 10 hits a few years ago). Garth’s big comeback releases “People Loving People” and “Mom” haven’t performed much better, reaching No. 25 and 49, respectively.
So how did these icons react? Did they fire their producers and get some young buck to lay down a sick beat so they could rap a beer-truck-girl ditty over it? No. Did they buy a new wardrobe at Affliction? They did not. They adjusted the brim of their cowboy hats and hit the high road. Jackson released a down-home bluegrass album, Brooks broke all of the touring attendance records, and George? Well, he just rode away.