Avicii aside, country has its own full-time DJs these days. After years of playing club residencies, making unofficial SoundCloud mixtapes and warming up arena crowds for Jason Aldean, Dee Jay Silver became the first mash-up DJ to sign to a major country label, in his case, Sony Nashville, which put out his debut EP. It includes a track featuring Alabama, Southern rap group Nappy Roots and a crisp, programmed loop — a combo that seems perfectly natural to the first generation and a half of country fans who grew up with hip-hop as an integral part of their musical worlds.
This year, the country-dance trend is so inescapable even longtime veterans are retooling their sounds to stay current. Rascal Flatts incorporated club-friendly touches on their new album, Rewind, after their Big Machine label boss Scott Borchetta advised them to study the current pop landscape. "He didn't mean just specifically say country music — he meant all music," Flatts guitarist Joe Don Rooney said. "And I'm so glad he said that, because that EDM movement is so huge right now, and there's some of that stuff I really, really enjoy."
Rooney and his bandmates have toured with Laura Bell Bundy, one of contemporary country's most dance-savvy women (who like most of her female peers in the genre, is getting very little airplay at the moment) along with Dance Y'all, a troupe that taught audiences routines choreographed to her material. Bundy has performed on Broadway and sometimes brings her brand of witty, down-home camp to gay dance clubs. She makes a point to write with female listeners in mind, as she did with the buoyant girls-night-out single "Two Step."
"Women are always first to hit the dance floor," she recently said. "They are. Guys are always like, 'No, I just need one more drink. Oh, I don't really like this song. This song doesn't make me wanna dance.' I'm like, 'Oh, so Radiohead does?'"
Country-gone-club is hardly a new phenomenon, of course. At the height of the disco craze, Dolly Parton made Billboard's Dance Music/Club Play Singles chart with an extended disco mix of "Baby I'm Burnin,'" and plenty of her contemporaries, like Barbara Mandrell, Ronnie Milsap and Bill Anderson, also steered their sounds toward precision thumps and hissing hi-hats. Parton was back on the Dance Music chart in the mid-Nineties, when she and nearly every other country-pop crossover diva of the era — Reba McEntire, Shania Twain, Wynonna Judd, Faith Hill and Martina McBride — released the occasional house-influenced remix of their country singles. In the grand tradition of disco divas, most were big, yearning ballads or effervescent anthems of empowerment.
"They were at a tempo that really made it easy to double-time the beats underneath," says Lenny "Lenny B" Bertoldo, a DJ hired to remix records for a number of female country stars over the last dozen years. "With the bro-country stuff, it's more of a hip-hop tempo. They are kinda like rock songs. You throw your 808 [drum machine] underneath it, and some loops and stuff, add the hip-hop EDM influence to it. You replace that live bass with a synth bass. Next thing you know, it just sounds more exciting than a quote unquote band."
The kinetic tracks of the Nineties and Aughts were meant to go where country radio wasn't yet prepared to venture. "Back then, you didn't need to do a country-dance mix to break the artist," Bertoldo explains, "because country already had its following. But when you did a country mix, that's when it [got] played in the clubs, and that's when it [got] to expose an artist to a completely different demographic."
The sheer numbers of country line dancers in the early Nineties made them a desirable demographic for new-school honky-tonkers like Billy Ray Cyrus and Brooks & Dunn. Cyrus's promotional campaign for "Achy Breaky Heart" involved commissioning a choreographer to create the dance routine for the video, and Brooks & Dunn's "Boot Scootin’ Boogie" received a club remix. A decade ago, the small promotional firm Marco Club Connection picked up where those efforts left off, generating its own annual Top 10 list of country dance hits by polling a network of DJs, choreographers and dance instructors. Bundy has appeared on it, and Luke Bryan has made the cut the past three years in a row. Still, his Billboard chart triumphs are the ones you're more likely to hear about.
The charts, however, are telling an important story: At the moment, electronic dance production is dominating the format and driving chart success. The sensibility is overwhelmingly masculine (one reason music critics started referring to it as "bro-country" last year). And it's bringing in the broader pop tastes of younger listeners. As Bertoldo puts it, "Now it's like, 'If we want our country song to blow up, we kinda need that dance beat underneath it.'"
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