Periodically, some magazine informs us that, while of course we wouldn’t know it—living a bit too high on the brow for such matters—country music is no longer the singular province of hicks and rednecks but is broadly popular. It’s an article that succeeds in insulting everyone. Moreover, it’s basically a business piece. To avoid re-creating this strange tradition, let’s be as plain as possible: along with hip-hop, country music is one of the two great indigenous US art forms still standing. It offers arguably the wittiest lyricists, likely the most talented vocal interpreters and surely the best melodists. Much of it is cynically repetitive, pop’s coin of the realm. It also throws off outlaw joy, teenage kicks and breakup songs like nobody’s business.
Moreover, something about its very repetition has much to tell us about the increasingly desperate political situation in which we find ourselves, and what a route out would look like. This may not be the genre’s plan; when it dabbles in explicit politics, country can be hard to love. But something else is to be found there.
We must first tarry with its awfulness. It has been largely the province of white men, allowing it to tell a certain set of stories while leaving the genre often useless or worse for the remainder. This is somewhat different from trading in clichés, every genre’s birthright. But one could scarcely blame great swaths of humans for feeling excluded or even antagonized by many of country’s tropes, rooted in the opposition of country and town—a scenario that is inescapably racialized, among other things. If “Okie From Muskogee” once offered a challenging class and cultural politics (albeit one much misrecognized by friend and foe alike), classics like “A Country Boy Can Survive” are more troubling. What begins as something like communal celebration of hard-bitten self-sufficiency, posed against the venality and alienation of the metropolis, transmutes into an apocalyptic vision with not-quite-disguised hints of race war—a theme song for militias and preppers. Its toxic vision has some epic grandeur; it conjures the diseased appeal of The Walking Dead or the Futurist Manifesto.
The opposition between country and town, however, has been dissolving for some time in the congeries of “New Nashville.” Urbanization and suburbanization call the tune and country music follows, not without considerable boot-dragging. This delay cannot be surprising, given the genre’s investment in tradition. But the recent ascent of what some call “bro country” tells the story clearly enough. This is a good-time music that one could easily imagine blaring at a frat party; its arrival was signaled by Kenny Chesney’s tedious rise and Jimmy Buffett’s reinvention as a country star. Its exemplary scene involves a couple of dudes tossing back drinks by or on the water. It might as well be called “beach country”; its main purpose is to move the genre toward locales where everybody is welcome for a good time, neither country nor town. It is a task popular culture so often sets itself: How do you preserve your ideological core while adapting to a rearranged social reality? A transparent bid to square the circle, the subgenre steers clear of the city limits while burying the outdated conflict in the sand. It makes for an odd mix, but it goes down well with a margarita, now suddenly a drink of choice.