'Strip Club': Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and Jason Aldean Lead Country's Sexual Revolution
When Luke Bryan's "Strip It Down" found its way onto the radio, co-writer Ross Copperman ("Lose My Mind," "Smoke") got a text from reigning ASCAP country songwriter of the year Ashley Gorley ("Crash My Party," "Young & Crazy").
"'I can't even let my daughter listen to the new Luke Bryan single,' " Gorley wrote, according to Copperman. "'I've got to sit her down now and have the birds-and-the-bees talk three years early. Thanks a lot for that.'"
Gorley was joking, but he also summed up the line that country is walking as it pushes into new frontiers of sexual candor. The birds and the bees are not a new topic for the genre — Kris Kristofferson wrote with a then-daring frankness when he crafted Ray Price's "For the Good Times" and Sammi Smith's "Help Me Make It Through the Night" more than 40 years ago. But some of the language in the current landscape is pushing the envelope in ways country hasn't previously experienced.
Bryan's "Strip" has the singer shedding his T-shirt in the hallway and includes a Dirty Dancing reference and a fairly explicit picture: "Feel my belt turn loose from these old blue jeans." Jason Aldean's 2014 single "Burnin' It Down" has a couple lying "naked in my bed."
Even the writers who penned "Burnin' It Down" never expected "naked" would ever get played on the radio.
"Every chorus through, we sang a different line [on the demo]," says Florida Georgia Line's Tyler Hubbard, one of the four co-writers of "Burnin'." "It was 'dreamin' ' the second time, and maybe 'lovin' ' the third time. But he just chose to take 'naked' and run with it [in two] choruses, which I thought was awesome. Out of all the options, I didn't think that was one of them. I like that Jason went out on a limb with that one."
"Strip It Down" and "Burnin' It Down" use the most specifically sexy words, though there are plenty of other current and recent releases that leave little to the imagination, including Eric Church's "Like a Wrecking Ball," Waterloo Revival's "Bad for You," Chris Young's "I'm Comin' Over" and Blake Shelton's "Sangria," which finds two tipsy adults staggering down a hotel hallway toward the bedroom.
"It walks a fine line, especially with the video," says Shelton. "It's almost inappropriate, but it still works."
Part of the reason it works is context. Country radio programmers are acutely aware that "soccer moms," long considered a central target of the genre's audience, are monitoring the music that's played as they chauffeur their kids. And even as nudity and strip scenes infiltrate the airwaves, it's still mild in country compared with some other formats.
"If you think what we play is edgy and sexy," says WBWL Boston PD Lance Houston, "you should turn on [hip-hop sister WJMN] from time to time. Some of the things I hear when I'm walking down the hall just blow my mind. I'm like, 'Can they say — I guess they can say that.' Maybe society is just evolving on some of this stuff in general, because I still think country's one of the safest places you can come to on the radio."
Country has had its own evolution. In the wake of the Kristofferson songs in the early '70s, Freddie Hart's "Easy Loving" in 1972 was the first country hit to use the word "sexy," and Charlie Rich's million-selling "Behind Closed Doors" hinted at marital copulation, though it essentially faded to black and allowed listeners to use their imaginations about the activities that made him "glad that I'm a man."
But more often that not, sex was alluded to in innuendo or double entendres. Billy "Crash" Craddock's suntan lotion celebration "Rub It In," the Bellamy Brothers' cheeky "If I Said You Have a Beautiful Body Would You Hold It Against Me" and Joe Stampley's "Put Your Clothes Back On" mostly alluded to a roll in the hay.
The trend certainly had its detractors. When Ronnie Milsap released "Why Don't You Spend the Night" in January 1980, one radio station banned the single, offended that Milsap would condone sex outside of marriage. The song still rose to No. 1. Two months later, ABC Radio personality Paul Harvey took the industry to task during the Country Radio Seminar for programming "porno-country."
Meanwhile, Conway Twitty made a career out of sex. "You've Never Been This Far Before," "Tight Fittin' Jeans" and "Don't Call Him a Cowboy" made titillating references, while "I'd Love to Lay You Down" put it all on the line.
"That one song is like the nastiest song I've ever heard!" exclaims Houston.
Alabama hit the sack enough that it became a romantic icon. The group's effectiveness as an aphrodisiac is noted in Aldean's "Burnin' It Down" and Brad Paisley's "Old Alabama," which compares the band to love maestro Barry White. The group's "Face to Face," a 1988 release featuring K.T. Oslin, is a thinly veiled celebration of the missionary position.
In more recent years, country's lyrics have been even more revealing. Alan Jackson's "I'll Go On Loving You," Faith Hill's "Breathe," Garth Brooks' "Ain't Goin' Down (Til the Sun Comes Up)" and Dierks Bentley's "Come a Little Closer" have all had a near-voyeuristic quality for the listener. And while that might spur some birds-and-the-bees discussions in the general population, Church, for one, finds it encouraging.
"A lot of times we get too cute," he says. "The thing I love about people like Al Green, even Conway in country; they didn't mess around. They just came out and said it."
Still, the lines of acceptability have become blurred. Songwriter Jon Nite was uneasy about the "belt" reference in "Strip It Down," while Copperman loved the realness of it.
"It excites me," insists Copperman. "I like pushing those limits because I feel like people like to hear that stuff. It's true, real stuff. Not enough people go there, and I feel like when you do, it taps into a huge piece of real estate that nobody else taps into. Everyone else dances around it."
For his part, Bryan never questioned looping the belt into the lyrics.
"If you write a song like that and you don't get really, really steamy, then I think you're kind of dodging what it needs to be," he says. "But if you go over the top with it, then it's kind of icky and weird and not natural either."
"Strip It Down," he adds, is "just the right amount of sexiness, in my opinion."
Listeners seem to agree. It's already at No. 8 in its fifth week on Country Airplay, and early research leads Houston to believe it's a song that will endure in the format for years.
"When the listeners have had enough or when they feel like it's gotten too far one way or another," he says, "they'll do a great job of letting us know."
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.