“Baby you a song, you make me want to roll my windows down and cruise.”
This refrain dominated my neighborhood pool’s speakers in the suburban Indiana summer of 2012—the song came on at least once an hour on our local country station. We never got tired of it. Looking back on that song now, everything about it makes me cringe. From the overproduced guitars to the pitch shifted vocals and even the cover art that looks like it was designed in the mid-1990s.
“Cruise” has become the epitome of bad country in Nashville. The band Florida Georgia Line kicked off the beginning of bro-country: a subgenre of country music where guys wearing tight shirts and ripped jeans sing solely about alcohol and sex. To give you an idea of how bad this music is, one of Florida Georgia Line’s main writers, Joey Moi, has extensively worked with Nickelback on some of their worst music (AKA all of it).
Other artists saw the money that Florida Georgia Line was making and decided to get in on the act. Luke Bryan, Keith Urban, Jason Aldean and Brad Paisley all either dipped their toe into bro-country (Brad Paisley) or dove head first into it (Luke Bryan). It is at this point that many country fans, myself included, gave up on country. I stopped listening to it, moving on to other genres of music. I, along with many others, was sick of music whose only goal seemed to be making money off of frat stars in pickup trucks.
Country music needed a savior, an anti-Florida Georgia Line—enter Christ Stapleton. Stapleton’s album, Traveller, won album of the year at the CMA’s and shot up to #1 on the Billboard 200. It was the first country album to hit #1 since Scotty McCreery in 2011. Country fans were overjoyed to have a great album that strayed far away from the bro-country of the last three years.
Traveller kicked off a renaissance in country music that continues to this day as the market opened up to country songs that hearkened back to the genre’s golden years. Despite the fact that country is alive and better than ever, there are still many who dislike the genre. This dislike is understandable. Many have had unfortunate encounters with bro country and dismissed the entire genre. However, I am here to tell you that country music is not that bad.
Here are some reasons that you should pay attention to country music:
It has become much more inclusive of women. It was impossible for women to get in on the bro-country movement. They were simply objects to be sung about. The last two years, however, have seen the rise of artists like Kasey Musgraves, Margo Price and Maren Morris. These women have made some of the best albums of the last few years and have seen massive success.
It is ok that it is all about the same subject matter. Country music does have lyrical topics that it tends to cling to, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Take, for example, Renaissance sonneteers—the best English poets, Sidney, Spenser and Shakespeare, all wrote in the style and subject matter of the Petrarchan sonnet. Despite the uniformity of subject matter, these poems are considered some of the best ever written. This is partly because of the difficulty of writing new work in an old paradigm. Working within a paradigm, however, forces artists to be more creative to stand out amongst the crowd. Shakespeare’s “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” is famous for mocking the beauty traditionally extolled in Renaissance poetry. Similarly, Kacey Musgraves’ song, “Pageant Material” is a catalog of all the ways she does not live up to the current standard of beauty.
It doesn’t all sound the same. One of the most exciting trends in country music right now is folk-country. Itasca, a country singer out of California who has a beautiful, folksy warmth illustrates this point beautifully. There are also country singers that are more concerned with singing wonderfully crafted stories; Jason Isbell writes heartbreaking vignettes like “Flying over Water” that seem to conjure up myriad emotions in a short four minutes.
If it is good enough for Beyoncé, it is good enough for you. Beyonce’s song “Daddy Problems” (which she later re-recorded with the Dixie Chicks) is a flawless country song that shows off how even country and R&B can come together to make something incredible.
Recommended listening: Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Lori McKenna, Lydia Loveless, Luke Bell, Parker Millsap, and Hiss Golden Messenger.