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.”
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.'”