Earlier this year, a single from a Swedish progressive house DJ slipped onto country radio playlists. "Hey Brother," a track produced by Avicii with soulfully rawboned vocals from bluegrass singer-guitarist Dan Tyminski, may not have been a smash (a remixed version reached Number 59 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart) but the fact that the song made it that far is significant. It suggests that at least some people had no trouble hearing Avicii’s global dance hit as a country song.
The real style-swapping is happening at the heart of the format, where some of the genre's megastars have embraced EDM-style production and programmed beats have powered the rise of a wave of explosively popular new acts. The first pulsing dance-pop single to scale the Hot Country Songs chart was Taylor Swift's kiss-off "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," produced by recognized pop architects Max Martin and Shellback. It's no coincidence that the 2012 song landed the Number One spot the week that Billboard tweaked the formula of several of its genre charts. For the first time, data from digital downloading, streaming and airplay in other radio formats — stats likely to reflect the listening habits of younger listeners — was factored into the Hot Country Songs chart, and Swift's single leapt nearly three dozen positions in a week.
"Hot Country Songs didn't have a sales component at all for more than 25 years, and then Billboard poured one in," says professional chart watcher Chris Molanphy. "So that completely rewrites the way hits are made. Now you're looking for whatever element is gonna get crossover play, and get people who aren't necessarily core to the genre to click on that video, or buy that dollar-29 song, because that now counts toward chart position."
"We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" had Swift's signature diaristic attention to detail, which connects tween pop fans and country's narrative songwriting tradition. Many of the country-club chart-toppers since, including a pair of singles that together occupied the highest spot on the Hot Country Songs chart for over half of 2013, are built on down-home seduction and hip-hop swagger. The first was a remix of rookie act Florida Georgia Line’s earworm "Cruise," complete with a Nelly guest spot, a kick-and-snare hip-hop loop and Auto-Tune vocals. Then came Luke Bryan's "That’s My Kind of Night," a gamely goofy take on the pick-up truck pick-up line with a bass line reminiscent of the rubbery groove the Sugarhill Gang borrowed from Chic back in 1979.
Florida Georgia Line and Bryan have since joined forces on the partly rapped Number One "This Is How We Roll," and "Cruise" co-writer Chase Rice has had some chart success of his own with "Ready Set Roll," a track propelled by a mixture of thump-and-thwack beats and rock drumming. And there are loads of other loop-laced examples where those came from, including Cole Swindell's "Chillin' It," Brantley Gilbert's "Bottoms Up" (the hip-hop cadences take a backseat to nü-metal power chords during the chorus) and two singles in a row from Jerrod Niemann, a stylistic shape-shifter who hasn't really relied on beats before this year.
"Sometimes artists get in a place where they record songs that they wanna hear, and you forget that it's not like we're singing in the mirror with guitars. It's a concert," Niemann tells Rolling Stone Country. "And right now, for some reason, people are reacting to uptempo sort of party songs. So you've just got to find songs that are you, that fit within the bounds of what people would like to hear."
Niemann scored a Number One on the Country Airplay chart with his propulsive single "Drink to That All Night," which was just remixed by Latin pop-rapper Pitbull. Its follow-up, "Donkey," has an insistent 4/4 groove topped by Niemann's wry, spoken delivery, which lands much closer to Beck circa "Loser" or Johnny Cash circa "A Boy Named Sue" than to any particular entry in the rap canon.
"Everybody reacts to it," Niemann says of the club-calibrated, double entendre-filled "Donkey." "Whether they love it or hate it, it's there."
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