Zac Brown, Kacey Musgraves on Confronting Country Music’s Image Problem

Zac Brown of the Zac Brown Band.

Like every genre of music, country has its fans and its detractors. But when those detractors include some of the format’s own hit-making artists, country might well be grappling with an image problem even as it enjoys some of its biggest successes in both radio ratings, record sales, and touring boxscores.

Zac Brown sparked the debate in a recent radio interview that got widespread attention this week, but his comments came on the heels of similar critiques of the format from Gary Allan, Kacey Musgraves and even a star far outside the country genre, Tom Petty.

In an interview with Vancouver country station CJJR (93.7 JR FM), Brown spoke with unusual candor about the current state of country music, saying there’s “not a lot of the country format I enjoy listening to.” He added, “If I hear one more tailgate in the moonlight, Daisy Dukes song, I wanna throw up. There’s songs out right now on the radio that make me ... ashamed to be even in the same format as some of those artists.”

The interviewer asked, “So are you saying you’re not a big fan of Luke Bryan then?” In response, Brown said, “I love Luke Bryan, and he’s had some great songs, but this new song [“That’s My Kinda Night”] is the worst song I’ve ever heard.” He added, “I see it being giant commercially successful within what is called country music these days, but I also feel like ... country fans and country listeners deserve to have something better than that; a song that really has something to say. Good music makes you feel something. When songs make me want to throw up, it makes me ashamed to even be in the same genre as those songs ... I’m opinionated because I care so much about the music and the songs.”

Brown also fired on the country music industry, saying it puts “songs and people on a pedestal that have no integrity to them whatsoever ... It makes me sad that there’s all these great songs out there and they’re not going to see the light of day because they’re competing with tailgate songs.” Citing Sheryl Crow’s album cut “Waterproof Mascara,” he added, “It’s sad to me to think country music won’t even play that because they’re playing dance club songs that have some country cliché lyrics in them.”

He took further aim at Nashville’s top writers, saying, “You can look on [song credits] and see some of the same songwriters on every one. There’s been, like, 10 No. 1 songs in the last two to three years that were written by the same people, and it’s the exact same words, just arranged different ways.”

Brown’s comments came to light just days after The Nashville Scene posted this article unfavorably analyzing the lyrical content of the top 20 songs in Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, attempting to make a case that “the songs on the radio sound the same, or ... they’re all about the same thing.” Among the findings: alcohol is mentioned or consumed in 12 of last week’s top 20 songs, and seven of the top 20 mention trucks.

It’s the latter theme that caused fledgling country star Musgraves to recently declare her distaste for truck songs in an August interview with British GQ. Asked, “What musical trend needs to die out immediately?” Musgraves responded. “Anyone singing about trucks, in any form, in any song, anywhere. Literally just stop -- nobody cares! It’s not fun to listen to.”

In an interview with Larry King posted on YouTube Sept. 12, Allan said of the country format, “I feel like we’ve lost our genre ... You used to be able to turn on the radio and you knew instantly it was a country station just by listening to it. Now you’ve got to leave it there for a second to figure it out.”

At a May concert in New York, Petty called contemporary county music “bad rock with a fiddle.” Later elaborating in Rolling Stone, Petty said country music “does seem to be missing that magic element that it used to have. I’m sure there are people playing country that are doing it well, but they’re just not getting the attention that the shittier stuff gets ... Most of that music reminds me of rock in the middle Eighties where it became incredibly generic.”

So, does country music truly have an image problem (or, worse, a music problem) and, if so, what can be done about it? E-mail me your thoughts at phyllis.stark@billboard.com, and we’ll tackle that topic next week.