Is Bro Country Over... And What Is Its Lasting Legacy?
When journalist Jody Rosen coined the term "bro country" in a New York magazine article two years ago in August, he likely had no idea the phrase would become either so pervasive, or so divisive.
Rosen defined bro country as "music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude." But it eventually took on a larger context that encompassed any country song sung by a young (or young-ish) male country singer that referenced a broad range of lifestyle pulse points that included trucks, partying, drinking, bonfires and girls in bikinis or jean shorts (or both), and often was heavily influenced by other genres, like rock and hip-hop.
While some thought the term perfectly encapsulated the prevailing trend in country music at the time, for many others -- including a lot of artists who spoke out against it -- bro country took on derogatory connotations, as it often was used to reduce the entire format to a one-note subgenre not everyone cared for. For country radio and record labels, however, there's no denying the positive impact that style of music had on the format. Radio programmers say it introduced more people to country music, and as an added bonus those people tended to be the coveted younger demos. Win-win.
Two years later, is bro country now officially over? Certainly there are fewer songs coming out of Nashville right now that could be defined that way, but not everyone is ready to declare it dead.
Those people include BBR Music Group president/CEO Benny Brown, who told Billboard in an interview earlier this summer that the notion that bro country is done is a misconception. "Listeners don't really think it's over," he said. "You wouldn't see the bro country artists still filling arenas and stadiums if it was, and you wouldn't see the albums and singles from them continue to lead in the sales and streams. You wouldn't continue to see them research."
He added that bro country's themes "are a part of the country lifestyle and always have been, and I think there'll always be a place for it in the format."
Some radio programmers agree. "After Luke Bryan sells over 35,000 tickets for two shows and Florida Georgia Line comes within a thousand of selling out, I would say bro country is still alive and well in Hampton Roads," says John Shomby, director of programming and operations for WGH-FM Virginia Beach, Va. "Is it what it was 18 months ago? Probably not. But I think it has become part of the fabric of what country music is these days … and will remain."
While admitting he has always "hated" the term, WJVC Long Island, N.Y., PD Phathead also says bro country isn't going anywhere. In fact, he feels it has expanded the genre in a positive way. "The hip-hop, rock and R&B influence you hear in Sam Hunt, Thomas Rhett, Brett Eldredge, Cole Swindell and all the others is about to take us to new places, and it's awesome."
Other programmers see it winding down. "I wouldn't say that the bro country phenomenon is over, but I do think that the country music pendulum has started to shift the other way," says Mike James, operations manager/PD of WPCV Lakeland, Fla., who thinks the turning point for the shift may have been that viral mash-up that made the rounds in January showing the startling musical similarities among six current country songs.
"We're now starting to get new music from Nashville that has a more traditional feel, from both a musical and lyrical perspective," says James. "That's a good thing, because it keeps the format umbrella open and it gives us the kind of variety that can satisfy the 35-to-54 demo and the 18-to-34 demo."
AJ McCloud, music director of WDRM Huntsville, Ala., agrees with James that bro country is winding down. "I am hearing more country from new acts with a bit of traditional sound to it. Bro country and even tailgate country brought us a cool new sound and a younger demo, but what kind of future and staying power do those acts have? Much like the urban cowboy and big boom in the '90s, some will have a couple of hits and fade, but the ones who can move beyond bro country will have a future."
WDAF Kansas City PD Wes Poe also sees a wane in the surge of new artists specializing in bro country, but he still thinks the sound has legs in the format. "Whether we like it or not, it is now part of the new country sound, and I don't see it going away completely, probably ever.
"Bro country was very good for the format," says Poe. "It infused our format with an 18-34 audience that we really needed at the time. The non-hipster millennials needed music to connect with. Rock wasn't providing it, and most of the writing was very good, relatable and targeted young, so there were a lot of positives to take away. [However], several established stars and a lot of baby acts jumped on the bandwagon, so I think country radio was a little overwhelmed with the sound for a bit. Over the last six months or so Nashville has mostly self-corrected. The heyday is mostly over for bro country as I see it, but there is still room for it, in moderation."
KPLX Dallas assistant PD Smokey Rivers agrees that country has shifted out of this phase in the past year. But while James and McCloud see it shifting more traditional, Rivers hears more of a pop flavor taking over. And he laments the loss of the bro.
"I may be the only guy in the world now that misses that, but I think that music was wonderful for us," says Rivers. "It brought in so many young people to these stations. I hated it when it was getting lambasted the way it was because … it brought in a tremendous amount of cume, and our numbers were never better. I have a hard time being upset about something that's bringing new people into the station."
Whatever the style of the moment, James says, "The only way country radio can continue to exist as a truly unique format is by including current music that still contains elements of great storytelling combined with organic melodies. Otherwise we'll just evolve into a pop hybrid, and ultimately that won't be good for anyone."
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.