Thomas Rhett, Brett Young and the Sound That Replaced Bro-Country
If bro-country has an arch-enemy, it’s Brett Young. The “In Case You Didn’t Know” singer is the antithesis of everything the polarizing sub-genre of country music stood for before Maddie & Tae drove a stake through its heart two years ago. He's a giver in what was once a taker’s world.
Young and Thomas Rhett are leaders of country music's Nice Guy Revolution. The leading men in their songs are gentlemen — the kind of guys mothers hope their daughters will marry. Dan + Shay fit the bill as well. Don't look now, but of the four "ladies first" songs the duo have released, they've notched two Gold-certified No. 1 hits, and another that went Platinum. It's a quiet contrast to how men treated women during the three years that came before and during Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney's rise.
For about three years country love songs were romantic kidnappings that found an assertive male urging a one-dimensional female to get into his truck so they could find some rural clear out and enjoy the moon, some booze and implied fornication. That was the formula, and tone, that became so offensive so quickly. It wasn't really about the trucks and repetitive storyline, although those elements provided nice targets.
It was a taker’s world that found a man rewarded for reaching out with an eager grip at his lover's (or whomever's) wrist. At its best, this style of country song was a show of confidence, and a large audience responded to songs from Florida Georgia Line, Chase Rice, Luke Bryan and Randy Houser. “Cruise” is a good song. “Ready Set Roll” — while not for everyone — is a good song. Jason Aldean’s “Night Train” is a good song.
But in mass, the sub-genre began to feel overaggressive and untrustworthy. “Smooth” and “in control” began to morph into something the Night at the Roxbury guys from Saturday Night Live could embrace. The smart artists (FGL in particular) changed course, while a subset of new talent found space for a new message.
Rhett has led the way. Look at the order of his releases to country radio and you can pinpoint when the switch flipped. “Get Me Some of That” was a Platinum-selling chart-topper that — while infectious, well-written and frankly irresistible — was a “me” song. “Make Me Wanna” was too, but the lyrics were more respectful. It was around this time (late 2013, early 2014) Dan + Shay began to emerge as leaders of the counter-movement.
Singles from Rhett's 2015 Tangled Up album couldn’t be more chivalrous. “Die a Happy Man” is the ultimate married guy’s song, a love song that puts a bride on a pedestal and keeps her there for eternity. The her-centric “T-Shirt” followed, and after an aside with “Vacation” he came with another love song called “Star of the Show.” That title isn’t a play on words.
During his debut single “Sleep Without You,” Young sings about how he can’t fall asleep unless his lover is home safely next to him in bed. The follow-up is “In Case You Didn’t Know.”
"In case you didn't know / Baby I'm crazy 'bout you / And I would be lying if I said / That I could live this life without you," Young sings during a song that has already become a hit on satellite radio. He's quickly branding himself as the ultimate "Ask for permission, not forgiveness" artist, and he's winning because unlike so many others that live there, he's not an intolerable bore.
Go ahead, be skeptical of this new style of country love song, and wonder if the men behind the music are really this dreamy. Young has done nothing to indicate he’s anything less than the man he appears to be. He’s quiet, humble and eager to speak about charitable missions and his relationship with God. The dude was born to be someone’s husband of 50 years.
There are other examples of this messaging on the radio as well. Find Keith Urban’s “Blue Ain’t Your Color” near the top of the Billboard airplay chart. Chris Janson’s “Holdin’ Her” may have been a bit too saccharine when he first started playing it live several years ago, but in the current country climate it sounds like a can't-miss hit song. If anything the song is too personal, and too chivalrous, but those are qualities a guy like Janson is willing to die with.
Then there’s LoCash. “Ring on Every Finger” will be the duo’s biggest hit to date. It’s a song that multiplies their commitment to a lover by a factor of 10.
"I’ll put on a ring on every finger / Just to show that I’m legit / Gonna try my last name on ya girl / Just to see if it fits / If I could baby / Oh I would marry you a million times / Put a ring on every finger just to show the whole world that you are mine," Preston Brust and Chris Lucas sing.
On the current Billboard Top 40, the best example of a song that smells like bro-country is Garth Brooks “Baby, Let’s Lay Down and Dance.” No one is going to accuse the CMA Entertainer of the Year of going bro, but his current single is the most suggestive and aggressive song on the Billboard Airplay Chart. After 10 weeks it’s nearing Top 20 status, so it's difficult to say the tone has slowed it down, but it’s fair to wonder how it would be faring if any other singer had cut it.
Dylan Scott’s “My Girl” (No. 38 on Billboard) is a “me” song, but it’s much more appreciative than his last single, “Crazy Over Me.” That's about it for anything bro-like, and it's stretching to call these men and their songs bro-country, because they lack the objectification and patronization of women that characterized the bro genre.
There is still a place for strong men in country music. Toned up artists like Rice and Kip Moore win by projecting confidence and machismo, although in fairness to Moore, he's long balanced this with earnest, sincere love songs that hold women in high regard. No one ever included him in this conversation.
They say nice guys finish last, but as 2016 turns to 2017 that couldn't be more untrue. The No. 1 song in country music right now finds a guy wishing he could be the thing that lifts his lover's heart at church, while she's dancing or when she's just taking in a quiet solace. Yes, Brett Eldredge is part of Nice Guy Revolution as well, and with "Wanna Be That Song" he's just scored his sixth No. 1 hit.
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