When Carrie Underwood, Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire co-host the 53rd annual Country Music Association (CMA) Awards tonight (Nov. 13), the ABC telecast is expected to open with a blast of 14 female artists, presumably reiterating the importance of women to the genre.
Female voices have been woefully underrepresented on playlists since the dawn of the bro-country era, though they matter as much as ever in the storylines of the male artists who dominate the charts. The current Country Airplay list is loaded with songs by men extolling the value of their wives or girlfriends, including Russell Dickerson's "Every Little Thing," Matt Stell's "Prayed for You," Dan + Shay & Justin Bieber's "10,000 Hours" and Kane Brown's "Homesick."
It's a development that some music industry and radio insiders have dubbed "boyfriend country," and its impact is present on 2019's CMAs ballot. Luke Combs' song of the year contender, "Beautiful Crazy," and two single of the year entries — Chris Stapleton's "Millionaire" and Dan + Shay's "Speechless" — perfectly embody the boyfriend-country sentiment. Male sensitivity also informs the current singles by male vocalist finalist Thomas Rhett ("Remember You Young"), vocal group nominee Old Dominion ("One Man Band"), vocal duo contenders Florida Georgia Line ("Blessings") and new artist nominee Cody Johnson ("Nothin' on You"). Additionally, defending entertainer of the year Keith Urban runs the boyfriend-country motif through a nostalgic filter in "We Were."
"It's just guys that are writing songs about what their life is like," says Combs, noting that the men behind those tunes are usually married or engaged.
Still, it's a profound change from the old stereotype of country, when cheating, heartbreak and drinking to quell broken hearts were the dominant topics. "Times are different," observes Combs. "I don't know if people were out cheating more in the '70s. It sounded like it."
A number of male acts, such as Randy Travis and John Michael Montgomery, built careers in those earlier decades with songs that put women on a pedestal, but the current level of men affectionately singing about their partners is spiking higher than usual. Women are widely viewed as country's target audience, and while they are not hearing a large number of females in programmed playlists, they are receiving a steady diet of appreciation from male artists that comes from a real place.
"Every time I sing ["Speechless"], I think back to those moments of how in awe we were of our wives," says Dan + Shay lead vocalist Shay Mooney. "They're such beautiful people inside and out."
Brown's former No. 1 "Good As You" similarly casts his wife, Katelyn, in a superior light.
"She wants everybody to feel special, like if you came over as our guest, she wants you to feel comfortable, she wants you to feel like you're staying at a hotel," says Brown. "She's just the sweetest person on this planet."
That stance is different than the one put forth in the bro-country era, when picking up girls at drunken field parties became a cliché part of the genre's lyrics. It started innocently enough with Florida Georgia Line's "Cruise," but when the rest of the business began to emulate it, the collective objectification of women became an issue.
"We had that run, and I think this is just the pendulum swinging to the other direction," says producer Dann Huff, who recognized the change when he directed three major sensitive-guy singles in 2015 and 2016: Rhett's "Die a Happy Man," Urban's "Blue Ain't Your Color" and Brett Young's "In Case You Didn't Know."
"Culturally, politically," adds Huff, "it's in lock step with what's going on."
Indeed, the rise of the MeToo# movement and the record-setting number of women running for president reflects a shift in female power. Plus, songs that encourage cooperation between the sexes help soothe some of the rancor that stems from the current sociopolitical environment.
"Guys singing about their girls and their girlfriends — and they're positive songs — that's terrific; I don't think that ever goes away," says Hubbard/Seattle brand/content director Scott Mahalick. "It might be right now viewed a little more positively or even sought out deliberately because of the [nation's] political climate."
The evolution of country's perspective mirrors the transformation of Florida Georgia Line's Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley from single guys to married fathers. "Cruise" introduced their sound while celebrating a long-legged, bikini-clad woman "poppin' right out of the South Georgia water." Their current single, "Blessings," views their wives in spiritual terms, a tack that likewise worked in Brown's "Heaven" and Stell's "Prayed for You."
"There's a lot of parallels between our relationship with our wives and our family and the people that we love and God as well," says Hubbard. "When we're writing, we're always sort of keeping that in mind."
The results are particularly useful on the younger end of country's target audience. Mahalick noticed that on the TikTok social app, strings of viewers use boyfriend-country songs as lip-sync content for messages of personal affection.
Given the supportive tone in this era, it's a good bet that if women should succeed in the mixed-genre categories at the CMAs — for example, Underwood takes entertainer of the year, or Maren Morris' Girl grabs the album accolade — the men at the awards will cheer just as loudly as the women for the achievement.
It's also likely that the trend has long legs. The songs are, after all, uplifting and positive — ideal for programmers on every platform. It's an easier development for the business to embrace than, say, a rise in murder ballads.
"If that ever becomes popular," says Mahalick, "I just might have to hang it up."