For music writers, it seems like there has never been a lower-hanging fruit than the ascension of bro-country into the mainstream. Acts like Florida Georgia Line are getting near-equal airtime on pop and country radio while selling millions of records. What's worse, they're also influencing a class of up-and-comers that are poised to sell millions more of the most mediocre records that country music has seen in a long time. Bro-country's popularity may have made country as a whole a ripe target for criticism, but most of us are just plain gobsmacked by how popular these blatantly shitty records are.
Which is how Corby Davidson, co-host of KTCK-AM 1310 The Ticket's The Hardline, got the idea to make fun of country music's serious wrong turn. After reporting about the massive success of Florida Georgia Line's first hit in a regular entertainment news segment, a listener sent Davidson a link to "My Kind of Night" by Luke Bryan. "I got this email from this guy, and he told me that if I thought Florida Georgia Line was bad, I was going to love this guy."
That fateful email spawned an occasional series of segments on Thursday afternoons called Fun With Country Music. If you're not a dedicated P1 who's listening to The Hardline during your afternoon drive, Davidson plays a country song for his co-host Mike Rhyner and producer Danny Balis, and the three proceed to rip it to shreds. Even though these guys spend most of their time lamenting the current state of the Dallas Cowboys and talking baseball statistics, they've carved out an interesting niche as unlikely music critics.
Despite being largely sports-focused, these guys are really not wholly unqualified to speak about what is or isn't good music. In fact, there are some pretty serious music chops in this bunch. Balis is a common fixture in the local music scene, playing bass in bands like Fort Worth's Calhoun and the King Bucks, and Rhyner plays frequent gigs across the city in a Tom Petty cover band called Petty Theft. While not a serious musician himself, Davidson is often derided as a music snob, and generally offers pretty trenchant commentary on country music, even if it's typically punctuated with goofball drops.
Still, The Hardliners consider themselves to be a bunch of "modern country morons." "We just found this Florida Georgia Line or Luke Bryan song and started making fun of it, and it turned into something," Davidson says. And by "something," he means an almost fool-proof formula for identifying a true bro-country song.
After a few segments, the Hardliners came up with a list of seven elements (or "benchposts," as Rhyner has called them) that are essential to make a perfect bro-country song. "It's like the Nashville label executives tell Luke Bryan and these other guys that they have to have these things in their songs or they won't sell a lot of records," Davidson says.
His list, which has undergone a little tweaking since the segment began, is accurate down to the song. "You have to have a truck, girl, beer and/or liquor, farm equipment, mud/dust, rural setting like a river, jeans, boots, guns, critters," Davidson explains. "If you run out of things to talk about, just mention the troops," Balis adds.
To listen to any of the songs that they've covered in this segment is to realize that they're totally right. A few weeks ago, "Fun With Country Music" featured "You Can Tell A Man By His Truck" by J.J. Lawhorn, and won both Balis and Davidson's vote for the worst song on the segment so far. "This kid looks to be about 18 years old, and he's just doing fucking great right out of the chute," Davidson says. Rhyner chimes in to add that it's almost like a contest to see who can get in the most cliches in the shortest time. "You just stack cliches on top of each other and then hit the chorus."
It's an argument that's pretty hard to dispute. In the first 15 seconds of "You Can Tell A Man By His Truck," J.J. Lawhorn manages to hit nearly all seven of the show's identified markers. Once you line up the rest of the tracks the segment has covered, a clear pattern emerges. This segment may have started as a joke, but it's making a pretty solid argument that Nashville producers have turned the genre into the butt of a joke.
"I know for a fact that 'Honky Tonk Badonkadonk' was a joke," Balis says. "A friend of mine plays in a band with the guy who wrote the song with Dallas Davidson, and they were just sitting around getting fucked up and decided to make a bunch of shit up. They're doing bits because that's what the audience wants."
Not surprisingly, the country audience takes a lot of blame from Balis and his cohorts for supporting music that sounds nothing like country's roots. Especially millennials. "I don't know anyone over 30 who is listening to any of this crap seriously," Davidson says, even though Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and most of the genre's biggest hitmakers are pushing 40.
On its face, it seems like The Hardline isn't really making much of a new argument. People have been saying for years that the new version of country music, especially "bro-country," isn't authentic, but for whatever reason this argument somehow feels fresh coming from music fans who aren't particularly close to country music.
For these guys, the criticism isn't so much that bro-country isn't country as it is that the music just really sucks. "It's Nickelback with a fuckin' pedal steel or fiddle or whatever, and there are no elements of country music whatsoever," Davidson snaps. It's the lowest common denominator as far as the writing goes, and it's just cheap. It sounds like shit to me."
Fortunately for Davidson and the future of this segment, The Hardline's fans seem to agree. The audience for bro-country and The Hardline may have some serious overlap, especially in that coveted "men aged 25 to 54" demographic, but the response from the show's fans on Twitter has been overwhelmingly positive. So much so that most of the segment's submissions have come from listeners.
Even though their studio practically shares a wall with KSCS-FM, known to most of us as 99.5 The Wolf, none of The Hardline's hosts really listen to country music. "I love old country, but this doesn't have anything to do with that," Rhyner says. "It's all gotten lumped together under the heading of country, and I guess it all depends on your own point of view, but country is one particular thing and this is not it." It's true that most of the segments focus on comparing bro-country with the classics, but Davidson has hope that there's a revolution in country music's future.
"When you think back to the '80s, that sleaze metal that was so big had really changed what rock and roll was for about seven years," Davidson says. "You had your outliers like R.E.M. and U2 or whatever, but it was just in this really shitty place." Then, along came grunge music and once again, rock music was never again the same. In these guys' view, country music could use a big dose of the same.
"We're waiting to see country music's Nirvana," Davidson says. "Someone like Nirvana or Pearl Jam is going to come along and inspire this revolt that takes country music back to basics." For an audience that has never been particularly receptive to change, this kind of shift could be the only way to change country music's course, which has inarguably gone off track in the past few years.
Unfortunately for country fans, we may very well be years away from any meaningful change, but there is some consolation in the fact that there will be a wealth of material for future installments of Fun With Country Music. Even if you don't give a shit about sports, tune in this afternoon for a new installment for hilarious and sharp criticism that you won't hear anywhere else, especially not country radio.