Early in their career, Chris Lucas and Preston Brust of LoCash caught a glimpse of the future while working at Nashville's Wildhorse Saloon. Lucas, a Baltimore native, taught hip-hop and line dancing, while Midwesterner Brust had been making a good living choreographing stage productions for theater companies prior to Music City. As a unit (then known as LoCash Cowboys), they played some combination of deejay, hype man and dance instructor all rolled together, teaching the latest routines to tourists. Though country was still their bread and butter, the guys started to notice something interesting with the way crowds responded to certain songs, particularly ones that came from outside country.
"We started this thing at midnight, where we would just play anything," says Brust, glancing over at his musical partner.
"Wild Time!" calls out Lucas, grinning.
Brust laughs. "I forgot what it was called. It lasted one hour," he says. "We got the managers at the Wildhorse to agree to let us play anything except country just for Wild Time, for one hour. Kids started showing up off Broadway."
In that mix were classic funk and soul songs like the Commodores' "Brick House" and Rick James' "Superfreak," along with contemporary hits by pop stars like Justin Timberlake. The stunt brought in younger crowds to dance along with the existing fans.
"We were just having fun for an hour, and the dance floor was jammed," recalls Brust.
"But it was sad because this is where I think country music started changing," says Lucas. "A lot of people say, 'Oh, it's not the same anymore.' It's not. Everything's gonna change. You have to adapt. We were watching people bum-rush the dance floor and once the dance music stopped, they were off the floor and you looked at an empty floor with country music again. Like, wait a minute, something is wrong here."
This took place in the period directly following country's line dancing craze, which is either fond memory or eye-rolling punchline depending on who's asking. Back in 1991, the Nashville Network began airing a program called Club Dance that dedicated significant time to featuring a range of dance styles, including couples dances, choreographed routines and come-one-come-all line dancing, all bolstered by the booming record sales for country of the time. Then in 1994, TNN added the Wildhorse Saloon Dance Show, airing from downtown Nashville, to its lineup. It was big business and big fun for a time, but it didn't last: both shows, as well as the network, were over by the dawn of the 2000s.
The country-specific dancing trend was on the wane by the time Brust and Lucas were on the job, but fans were still turning up at the Wildhorse to dance to the mix of pop, hip-hop and country hits. Brust and Lucas were paying close attention from their front-row seats and began incorporating their observations about what types of songs really popped into their own musical output. The duo's latest album The Fighters, out now, is the culmination of those years of studying, a contemporary country album that fully embraces the wide-ranging possibilities of dance and its sometimes embattled place in country history.
Dance traditions in country are wide and varied, but the growth of group line dancing "eliminated the cumbersome social requirement of a leader/follower dance pair, as well as communication between dancers other than starting the dance at the same time and moving in the same direction on the floor," writes Dr. Jocelyn R. Neal in her essay "Dancing Together" for the collection A Boy Named Sue. Country line-dancing was open to participants of different skill and genders in a way that couple dances were not. But its historical roots in disco line-dancing and close relationship with the crossover pop potential of country (see: "Achy Breaky Heart") hasn't always made it the most celebrated among country's practices.
LoCash were interacting with the form at a point when it was sometimes awkwardly reintegrating with pop music, looking for enthusiastic young participants to make it a regular hobby. Their hosting/performing gig became a frequent testing ground for new releases.
"You could play a song and just watch," recalls Brust. "'Let's play this song and just see what the crowd's reaction is.' Would they rush the floor and start dancing or would they sit back for a few seconds, or would they not even go out and dance at all? People in the industry were actually bringing mixes to us and handing them to us, saying, 'We just want to watch tonight. Can you play this tonight and see what happens?'"
"Instead of party, party, party, it's more of a smile."
Brust and Lucas scored their first major hit in early 2016 with the Number Two "I Love This Life," an effusive and optimistic foot-stomper that beckoned joyful movement as much as it extolled the virtues of life's small pleasures. They followed that with "I Know Somebody," borrowing filtered synths from electronic music and the hydraulic kick from arena rock. After a sluggish start, that one is now pushing Top 20 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart. They're both representative of The Fighters as a whole — which also does its part to advance the guys' narrative of being affable, optimistic underdogs.
"We write songs about every facet of love and life," says Brust. "But this particular period of time in our life, we feel really good. Things are going really well for us."
"We didn't want to have the party, party, party," adds Lucas. "And instead of party, party, party it's more of a smile. It does make you want to dance a little bit. It does put you in a good mood."
To that end, The Fighters is a party album that talks very little about partying (with a couple exceptions, like the self-explanatory, reggae-lite "Drunk Drunk"). Instead, the sleek grooves of "Ring on Every Finger" and "Moonwalkin'" recall late-Nineties boy-band pop, replete with unabashedly romantic sentiment and the kind of build/release dynamics that are standard practice for any dance-friendly environment. They're emblematic of country's present predilection for pop sounds — Thomas Rhett co-wrote "Ring on Every Finger" with Jesse Frasure and Josh Kear — and dalliances with hip-hop and EDM. Even the songs Brust and Lucas have helped pen for others, like Keith Urban's "You Gonna Fly" and Tim McGraw's "Truck Yeah," have the relentless pulse that could be easily mixed into a DJ's set.
Other recent examples of the country trend to incorporate dance music and dancing have been met with mixed results. Jerrod Niemann topped the Billboard Country Airplay chart in 2014 with the hedonistic bounce of "Drink to That All Night," while Eric Paslay's funky-and-aspirational "High Class" was met with critical sneers coming on the heels of the devastating ballad "She Don't Love You." Thomas Rhett showed off his moves in the video for "Crash & Burn" and Luke Bryan rarely misses an opportunity to shake his posterior — most of the artists dabbling with the style tend to be male, though some pull it off more convincingly than the rest. In some ways it resembles the original growth of country line-dancing from the disco world, now re-entering the format after exclusively country line-dancing lost some of its popular appeal.
"There was one point we were called rappers. I don't remember ever rapping."
Though they correctly identified the stylistic shifts coming to mainstream country music, LoCash's own expression of such hasn't always been met with understanding. They were on the front part of this particular curve, mixing meaty/twangy guitars with dance-friendly grooves before remix-worthy male acts like Sam Hunt and Florida Georgia Line became the focus of traditionalists' hatred. As such, that earned Brust and Lucas the kind of criticism that's usually masking uglier forms of discrimination — something they've countered with characteristic good humor.
"There was one point we were called 'rappers,'" says Lucas. "I don't remember ever rapping in a song."
"We always have had a rhythmic, syncopated thing we love," Brust acknowledges, referencing the word tumble of The Fighters track "Shipwrecked." "And I think that comes from just being very versatile, up and fun, and you take some of those influences and put it into your songwriting. What may have sounded very hip-hop to somebody didn't really sound hip-hop to us but it came through in our influences. I think people 10 years ago were thinking, 'Man, this is really crazy what we're hearing,' but it really wasn’t that far from what we're doing right now."
Even though their bold, street-influenced look still causes people to make all manner of assumptions about them, LoCash have always kept an eye lovingly turned toward the heyday of Nineties country that initially grabbed them. Their self-titled debut album featured a collaboration with George Jones on the Chris Stapleton-Jeffrey Steele honky-tonk number "Independent Trucker" that was previously recorded by Brooks & Dunn. On The Fighters, the love song "Till the Wheels Fall Off" finds a way of referencing the sentiment and feel of the Nineties without drowning in wistful nostalgia. It's also peppy enough that it doesn't kill the album's momentum.
"Obviously, we've matured as songwriters and as young men, artists," says Brust. "But I can say, we've been writing songs like this all along, but we were on different record deals who wanted to pick songs that weren't these kinds of songs. So we got a perception and a stereotype and a perception of what LoCash was, so it took a little bit for us to finally get to this album."
The Fighters stands as an intriguing document of this particular moment in country music, where segments of its critical and fan populations are wrestling with the inclusion of decidedly non-country influences and what that may mean for the genre's future. Without any of those hang-ups, The Fighters simply promises positivity and aims for the precise combination of elements that causes limbs to come unhinged and spurs an exodus of bodies to the dance floor. It took them a decade-plus to get here, but all LoCash had to do was to follow their hearts as well as their feet.