Bro-country, a word that sends shivers down the spines of genre traditionalists, brings smiles to the faces of millions of loyal listeners and sounds like money to industry insiders. Coined in 2013 by Jody Rosen in New York Magazine, he pins down the subgenre as being, “music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty American white dude.” Whether you like it or not, this character (and his infatuation with trucks, beer and girls) defines the past decade of mainstream country music. Popular but polarizing, it’s worth acknowledging the best, or at least the most memorable, bro-country hits of the 2010s — if not for sentimentality’s sake, than to help us figure out where mainstream country music is headed in 2020.
“Dirt Road Anthem” was recorded twice before it became the highest-selling record by a solo male country artist, so it’s significant that its success came with Jason Aldean. It was a glimpse into the future. In 2011, a rap-influenced country song had never broken into the mainstream before, that is until the mash-up was endorsed by Aldean, an already established artist. The popularity of “Dirt Road Anthem” offered just an inkling of the potential that its kind of sound, and shallow themes might hold when given the opportunity to reach a bigger audience. Soon enough, everyone was trying to rap about “cornbread and biscuits.”
“Baby you a song / You make me wanna roll my windows down / and cruise.” In the summer of 2013, with an added verse from Nelly, “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line was inescapable. And let’s be honest, the hook is probably in your head right now. But what is it even about? Literally, it’s about getting a girl to ride in your truck with you. But really, as the first country song to ever go diamond, it’s about country songs not needing to be about anything. That’s key. If the genre’s best-selling song was a heartfelt, acoustic story-song, then that’s what country radio would have been playing the past few years. But it wasn’t. Instead, we have hundreds of “long, tanned legs” copycats.
Later that year, Zac Brown infamously called this song “the worst song (he’s) ever heard” and for good reason: “That’s My Kinda Night” by Luke Bryan can sound painfully cringe-y. “Little Conway a little T-Pain / Might just make it rain,” Bryan croons, which feels more like a threat than a welcome suggestion. If that wasn’t bad enough, an auto-tuned voice echoes the “make it rain” verse unironically. But as hard as it is to admit, I like it. I understand the song’s appeal. It’s insanely catchy, and, for a young woman from the suburbs, it’s fun to play pretend, to embody the swagger of a cocky, hypermasculine bro, if only for three minutes.
“It’s gettin’ kinda cold in these painted on cut off jeans” Maddie & Tae sigh on their refreshing first single, giving country listeners a much-needed reality check. Even though “Girl In a Country Song,” released in 2014, is anti-bro-country, it absolutely is worth acknowledging as it proves that bro-country’s domination was met with some pushback from fellow artists. The song takes the perspective of the one-dimensional prop used in all of the songs mentioned above, the girl, and finds out that being the bro’s muse isn’t as fun as they make it sound. It’s chock full of references to the songs it got played alongside on the radio, but twists their lyrics into funny one-liners to prove a point. “Can I put on some real clothes now?” they wonder. Although the song hit #1 and got the duo plenty of interviews, bro-country continued answering no.
After bashing Bryan’s hip hop-infused country, Zac Brown decided to give the style a try himself on his 2016 album Jekyll + Hyde. “Beautiful Drug” is one of its standouts, exemplary of the way country can blend with EDM relatively seamlessly. It’s a glossy, highly produced, extended metaphor with a beat drop as irresistible as Brown finds his love interest. Because of Brown’s initial resistance to this kind of genre-bending, the song’s existence also demonstrates the overwhelming wave of experimentation country started going through in the latter half of the decade, something that sprouted from bro-country. If Zac Brown got on board, rest assured nearly everyone else in mainstream country music did too.
Released in 2017, “Body Like a Back Road” is “Dirt Road Anthem” 2.0 which makes the genre’s dramatic evolution all the more evident. Unlike Aldean, Sam Hunt is open about his rapping influences. Instead of real drums, Hunt opts to rhyme against a snap track. And the narrative itself is different. The singer no longer meets the girl on the dirt road — in Hunt’s version, her agency has been cut down to the point that she is the dirt road. Hunt’s style had already struck up a conversation about the boundaries of country music, what’s borrowing and what’s appropriating, but ultimately the success of the song pushes all of those questions aside. “Body Like a Back Road” and Hunt himself suggest that anything can be country, so long as that’s what the artist calls themself.
Throughout the past 10 years, country radio has been playing women less and less, bringing in sounds and artists from different genres more and more, and finding new ways to compare women to inanimate objects. But it wasn’t all bad.
As Kacey Musgraves gets recognized for her instrumentally rich and witty style and traditional-leaning Luke Combs starts to dominate the charts, it’s clear that the genre is preparing to start a new chapter. The 2010s raised questions fundamental to the essence of what country music is. For better or for worse, the next decade holds the answers.