Whither the bro? After a half-decade of radio dominance, country music’s party-hearty dudes are loosening their grip on Nashville. Blame (or thank) the rise of tough, smart female stars like Miranda Lambert, Brandy Clark and Maren Morris. Or call it a cyclical thing: Eventually, every rager stalls out in a puddle of stale backwash. In any case, turn on country radio in 2016 and you’ll hear bros toning down the talk of trucks and Daisy Dukes, and freshening up their sounds.
Exhibit A is the third album by Florida Georgia Line (3 stars). It was the duo’s debut hit, “Cruise,” a simple-minded ode to getting drunk and laid, that announced bro-country’s pre-eminence. On Dig Your Roots, Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley haven’t totally renounced their old ways. (“Ain’t no doubt, ’bout to lay you down on a beach towel/California King style,” they sing in “Summerland.”) But their music is getting spicier; songs like the hit “H.O.L.Y.” and “God, Your Mama, and Me” (featuring the Backstreet Boys) tilt toward pop. And the heart of Dig Your Roots isn’t Saturday-night revelry, it’s Sunday morning; songs about loving God, your dear old dad, your wife and kids, and, on the appealingly burly title track, all of the above.
Hubbard and Kelley turn up in a guest spot on Bury Me in My Boots (3 stars) the new album by their labelmates, Nashville trio the Cadillac Three, adding vocals to “The South,” a bruising paean to Dixieland. The C3 are Southern rockers in the tradition of Lynyrd Skynyrd – scuzzier than run-of-the-mill country bros. Lead singer Jaren Johnston is a top Nashville writer, but he’s a bit too enamored of good-ol’-boy clichés. Luckily, he’s an excellent singer; when he wraps his raspy snarl around ballads like “Runnin’ Red Lights,” your ears prick up.
Jake Owen is far more clean-cut than the C3, but this laid-back every-dude has a secret: He’s quirkier than he looks. Over the course of four strong albums, he’s shown a nose for superlative Music Row material and production flourishes that nudge pop country in interesting directions. The title track from his fifth (co-written by Johnston), American Love (3.5 stars), pumps up a teen-romance yarn with R&B brass; other songs deftly stir in disco and funk, synths and Wurlitzer, beats and loops. There’s a road song, of course, but Owen isn’t singing about steering his pickup to a beer-bash. The vibe is gypsy-hippie: “Who needs a plan, bring the whole fam/Load ’em all up in my VW van.” Destination: the post-bro era.