Bro Down! 10 Signs Country's Maligned Trend May Be on the Decline - Rolling Stone
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Bro Down! 10 Signs Country’s Maligned Trend May Be on the Decline

From Dierks Bentley’s secretly somber drinking song to Maddie & Tae’s smackdown, we look at the responses to “bro country”

Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley perform at the 2014 Grammy Awards

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

It's one thing for music critics, entertainment reporters and trend-spotting bloggers to call out the lopsided gender representation, the shallowness or, more charitably, the witting burlesque of youthful machismo that's lately monopolized terrestrial country radio playlists. Song after chart-topping song lays out a guy's view of what will help him round the bases with an anonymous, tanned girl in cut-offs on a truck bench seat. "Bro country," it is by now infamously known. And hearing too much of it — to the exclusion of other styles of country expression and other voices (women's, for instance) — brought on inevitable fatigue.

The real question was when enough of country’s music makers, gatekeepers and programmers would conclude the trend had worn out its welcome and get behind departures from the template. In country, as in any focus-grouped popular genre, these things take time; somebody scores big with a certain sound, sentiment or song structure, and spawns hundreds of tracks in a similar vein. Add to that country's robust tradition of championing emotional and material markers of down-home identity — here the beat-up 4x4s that double as work vehicles and rendezvous spots and the notion that flirtation shouldn't require anything fancier than a six-pack on ice — and you can see why the format might be slow to veer from singles that are an extension of that lineage.

But there are signs of growing impatience with "bro country," from protest songs to bro offenders taking steps to mature their sound. Here's some evidence that the tide may be turning. By Jewly Hight

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Maddie & Tae Fire a ‘Bro Country’ Shot

"Girl in a Country Song" is the first thing anyone's heard from the teenage country singing and songwriting duo Maddie & Tae — and it's no timid introduction. In the grand tradition of country response songs — think Kittty Wells following Hank Thompson's "The Wild Side of Life" with "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" — this debut single is a remarkably witty, point-by-point rebuttal of a slew of "bro country" hits. They are songs that, if you choose to take them literally, depict the seduction of barefoot, scantily clothed, wordless, nameless young women. With knowing hip-hop swagger and mock exasperation, Maddie & Tae finally gave those characters a speaking part: "We're lucky if we even get to climb up in your truck/keep our mouths shut and ride along/and be the girl in a country song."

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Florida Georgia Line Digs Deeper

Florida Georgia Line, who happen to be signed to the same label group as Maddie & Tae, are typically pegged as bro country’s chief offenders, thanks in no small part to their mega-smash "Cruise." But they've taken a noticeably neotraditional left turn from swaggering, mobile party anthems with their new single, "Dirt," which is all about lives grounded in sweat equity and a sense of place. This time, truck-bed hookup rituals aren't even in the rearview. 

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Meghan Linsey Asks Guys to ‘Try Harder’

Even as the wheels turned behind Maddie & Tae's topical single, Meghan Linsey — formerly known as the female half of the duo Steel Magnolia — was crafting a "Hey Girl" antidote of her own. Co-written with Corey Crowder and James Otto, "Try Harder Than That" doesn't focus on the effort it takes a girl to maintain the backwoods pinup image so much as the lack of effort required on the part of the guys delivering the pickup lines. Linsey, who successfully enlisted fan funding for her new EP, upped the ante by digitally releasing two different versions of the single: one features country rapper Bubba Sparxxx standing in for bros and playfully voicing repentance. 

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Kenny Chesney’s ‘Kids’ Grows Up

Kenny Chesney’s instantly appealing new boho country-blues single "American Kids" focuses on the broader theme of the gender-spanning, youthful impulse to figure yourself out by tasting your small town's pleasures and testing its limits. What's more, the song's been savvily framed as a mature alternative to "bro country." "There’s so much more to country than trucks, creek beds and cut-offs," Chesney says in a press release about his new song and upcoming album, The Big Revival. "That stuff is fun, but when you look at how people really dig in and work, the things they face every day, you wanna remind them how hardcore they really are… and show them that you know there's more to them than people might think."

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No More Trucks!

While Lee Brice's "I Drive Your Truck" was an excellent example of a poignant, girl-less truck ballad, Wade Bowen's "Songs About Trucks" offered a more direct critique. "I need something a little deeper," he sang, before launching into a subversively comprehensive laundry list of country's most common vehicular vernacular. Not coincidentally, the song was written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, whose rooted yet contemporary vantage points are much celebrated at the moment.  

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Dierks Bentley Drinks His Pain Away

Dierks Bentley's  "Drunk On a Plane," the current single from this year's Riser, is a party song with a radically different setting and storyline: the girl's out of the picture, but she's left her mark emotionally. The male character's not meant to come across as much more sophisticated than his truck-driving counterparts in other songs, but the sly way Bentley sets up the guy's broken-hearted boozing makes the track feel fresh. 

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Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood Go Alpha Female

There are strong mischievous undertones to Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood's chart-scaling, theatrical duet "Somethin' Bad," as though, on some level, they set out to beat their male counterparts at their own hard rock game. Or at least to present their male-dominated format with a formidable, united front. Likewise, it's no coincidence that the song unfurls an over-the-top, Thelma & Louise-like tale with expendable male characters. 

Lambert herself sees both sides of the bro country fence. "It has this whole theme of party and tailgate and bonfire — I love all that stuff," she tells Rolling Stone Country. "But there is so much more you can sing about and say."

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RaeLynn Hijacks ‘She’s Country’

In spring 2012, with Blake Shelton as her coach on The Voice, RaeLynn flipped the script on "She's Country," Jason Aldean's ode to resolutely rural sex appeal. With a woman taking ownership of the song, it became a sign of country girl power. Now on the roster of Valory Music Co. and promoting her debut single, "God Made Girls," RaeLynn makes a point to keep the cover in her live set list.  

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Josh Abbott Band Lifts the Veil on Real Small-Town Life

The realistic look at small-town life "I'll Sing About Mine" — with lyrics like "tractors ain't sexy" and "the radio's full of rich folk singing about places they've never seen" — appeared on albums by co-writers Adam Hood and Brian Keane back in 2011, a little before the bro status quo set in. By the time Red Dirt act the Josh Abbott Band released a version of the song last year, it registered as an ornery and, most of all, timely complaint about country singles converting the tangible features of working-class life into romantic come-ons. 

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Eric Paslay Winks at the ‘Girl’

A few years after proving himself as a heavyhitting Music Row songwriter, Eric Paslay decided to toy with the idioms he'd come to know so well in his single "Song About a Girl." Artful in its execution, with a blues-rock undertow to the melody and phrasing of the hook, his deconstruction of formula became a Top 20 country radio hit. 

"This ain't about tailgates," he sings in the opening verse. "Ain't about bonfires/Ain't about souped up cars, water towers/Drowning in a bottle of Jack/This ain't about Chevys/Ain't about money/Ain't about blue suede shoes, coo-coo-ca-choos/Got nothin' to do with that."

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