Backlash Rages After Bro-County Star Calls Outlaw Country Icons Addicts
Luke Bryan doesn’t have to work especially hard to offend traditional country music fans. He’s become the figurehead of the much-maligned bro-country movement in recent years, and even if bro-country is dying , he’s still seen as public enemy No1 when it comes to country music’s diminished perception to the outside world.
But this week, Bryan kicked the dust up in a huge way with traditional country fans when he compared Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson to “strung out” drug addicts in an interview with HITS . “I think that people who want Merle, Willie and Waylon just need to buy Merle, Willie and Waylon,” he said. “I’m not an outlaw country singer. I don’t do cocaine and run around. So I’m not going to sing outlaw country.” He continued, “I like to hunt, fish, ride around on my farm, build a big bonfire and drink some beers – and that’s what I sing about. It’s what I know. I don’t know about laying in the gutter, strung out on drugs. I don’t really want to do that.”
A storm of angry tweets and blog posts followed the interview, and you can bet that people took umbrage at those words – including members of Jennings’s family. Kathy Pinkerman Jennings, the daughter-in-law of Waylon, posted her thoughts on Facebook (and then in a subsequent video) and defended her father-in-law, who did battle with and eventually overcame drug addiction. “You told us Waylon was one of your musical heroes,” she wrote about meeting Bryan at the Grand Ole Opry. “You are a platinum, disrespecting, no singing, whining, grasping for media attention asshole. Use your platform for something good, instead of bashing the LEGENDS that came before you.”
Bryan has since attempted to clarify his comments on Twitter, and according to a Los Angeles Times interview with Shooter Jennings, Waylon’s son, Bryan has personally called Jessi, Waylon’s widow, to apologise, and he asked for Kathy’s number to speak to her as well. “It’s all flush in my book,” Shooter said. “He said some [stuff] and because of the internet it came back on him. But he went above and beyond and manned up and apologized.”
Despite Bryan’s shallow understanding of the outlaw era, which, in fact, had very little to do with crime and drug use from a musical standpoint, I’m willing to follow Shooter’s advice and let his comments lie. What’s far more intriguing to me about the whole debacle is that Bryan made those remarks in response to an utterly innocuous statement from the interviewer, which read : “The party energy of [country music] right now, with all those hip-hop and rock influences, is so infectious.”
Yep, that was the big, scary non-question that elicited Bryan’s kneejerk reaction and subsequent outlaw country quotes. It reveals an internal defensiveness within Bryan about his musical style. It’s clear that he knows he’s a contested figure within country music, that he knows there is mass criticism directed at hip-hop’s fusion with country music, that he knows many people think of him as a twerking mannequin in skinny jeans and not much else. But it’s curious that a platinum-selling superstar normally so well-versed in the PR game would let that frustration out into an interview.
Jake Owen , whose choreography-filled performance of single Real Life at the CMT awards felt like a flashback to 1999 pop music, has also been venting to the media lately. “I get so tired of hearing these people ask, ‘So what do you think of bro-country?’ I don’t care,” he told Rolling Stone . Describing his live show, Owen said, “People are there for the experience and for the music, and they’re there for the way it feels to relate to a song that you just like. There’s not much more thought to it than that.” He concluded: “If you try to put more thought into it than that, you’re a dick.”
Let’s be clear here: Bryan and Owen are not victims of the music industry. They have better careers than 99.9% of musicians, and they can make the music they want to make, and I would hope they could stand by it confidently, not defensively. Thinking deeply about their artistic output does not make you a dick, and desiring substance in popular music does not mean you want stars exclusively singing about being strung out on drugs. Those are both unfair statements meant to reframe legitimate criticism as baseless, antagonistic chatter.
Both interviews are indicative of a mentality currently on the rise in mainstream country music – that the genre should “evolve” into something that sounds and looks different than it ever has, and that all questions regarding that trajectory are automatically villainous. That’s just not the case.
No one is arguing for country music to replicate the past. But people are concerned about what appears to be a conscious step away from thoughtful songwriting and to an assumed tailgate mentality. They’re worried that real instrumentation will disappear in the wake of digital sounds. They’re annoyed that abarely countrified remix of Andy Grammer’s Honey I’m Good is suddenly getting added at country radio. They’re frustrated that labels aren’t pushing fearless artists with irrepressible perspectives, but moldable pop acts like Dan + Shay, who’ll style their hair and roll around in the mud with puppies (for a tune they recently mashed up with Nick Jonas’s Chains ) in their new music video, slap the word “country” beside their names on iTunes, and call it a day.
Labels and many artists would undoubtedly prefer for audiences to look at the puppies and say, “Aw, puppies!” or to look at Luke Bryan’s shaking ass and bite their lips with lust. But it’s a lack of critical assessment that has helped create so many problems in country music today – and if the genre’s stars are finally starting to feel the heat of the public’s desire for more substance – then it’s high time to keep asking questions.