Labeling the men on country radio's gentlemanly attempts to atone for "bro-country" sins as "boyfriend country" falls short because an influx of sweet love songs hardly breaks new ground. For an even richer period of hit-making softies, look no further back than the '80s, when Kenny Rogers' crossover-friendly material, the sultry side of Alabama and former pop band Exile brought soft rock sensitivity to the country charts.
In the case of Exile, the supposed "middle of the road" pop music on country radio in between the Urban Cowboy craze and the rise of Randy Travis and Reba McEntire was the sonic equivalent of a welcome mat--especially after Alabama netted two huge hits co-written by Exile co-founder J.P. Pennington.
"One of the signatures of their sound was harmony singing, and that was always a focus of ours," Pennington says of Alabama's early '80s success. "We just felt like we could do that, too. We didn't really change a whole lot of what we were doing. 'Take Me Down' and 'The Closer You Get' were two songs that I co-wrote that they covered and had number ones with, but we recorded those songs first on a pop album (1980's Don't Leave Me This Way). The versions that we had on our records were pitched to them and they did them just about like we'd done on our records."
Pennington co-founded Exile (originally called The Exiles) in 1963 as a high schooler in Richmond, Kentucky. The group toured with Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars in the '60s and became pop royalty in the '70s. Highlights from the band's rock-pop heyday include hitting the road with the likes of Aerosmith and Boston and changing the shape of love song compilations to come with the steamy 1978 hit "Kiss You All Over," off the disco-flavored album Mixed Emotions.
As such soft rock performers as decade-defining songwriter Dan Seals started finding success in Nashville, Exile left pop music for country: a genre that could always use a love song.
"There seemed to be elements of country music at the time that were being utilized or modernized that kind of lent itself to us and what we were as a band, and we felt like with a few minor changes, we had a shot to do something," Pennington adds.
Exile teamed with influential country producer Buddy Killen for a 1983 self-titled album, issued by Epic Records. Pennington and his bandmates fit right in with the Music Row establishment, as proven when two of the album's singles, "Woke Up in Love" and "I Don't Want to Be a Memory," became the first two of seven consecutive Billboard chart-toppers.
Between 1983 and 1987, Exile charted three straight top 10 albums and 10 number one hits in an 11-single span. Country hits that are no less "boyfriend country" than the music of Old Dominion or Dan + Shay include "Give Me One More Chance," "She's a Miracle," Hang on to Your Heart," "She's Too Good to be True," "I Could Get Used to You," "I Can't Get Close Enough," "It'll Be Me" and "Crazy for Your Love."
Exile split in 1994 after farewell shows at the Grand Ole Opry house and in Lexington, only to reform in 2008 with its classic country band lineup, featuring Pennington and Les Taylor on guitar, bassist Sonny LeMaire, drummer Steve Goetzman and keyboardist Marlon Hargis. That's quite the gathering of songwriters: Taylor penned Janie Fricke's "It Ain't Easy Bein' Easy" and LeMaire wrote Restless Heart's "When She Cries" and Diamond Rio's "Beautiful Mess."
Through it all, the former pop group that wrote and first recorded Huey Lewis and the News' "Heart and Soul" wowed country crowds with what remains its best-known song, "Kiss You All Over." Still, band members balked at playing its sexually-charged hit during early post-comeback appearances on the Grand Ole Opry stage.
"For years when we'd play the Opry, we wouldn't play 'Kiss You All Over' because we weren't sure if the people from the Opry would accept it," says Hargis. "Finally, we did it at the Ryman, which is about as hardcore as you can get. I don't know about you, JP, but I was nervous. We played it, and they were literally dancing in the aisles."
Country audiences preconditioned by some of Conway Twitty and Freddie Hart's naughtier material accepting "Kiss You All Over" shouldn't have surprised Hargis, Pennington and their bandmates. After all, "boyfriend country" has been around for a long time, and practitioners of this so-called trend sometimes kiss and tell.