Luke Bryan, who plays Xcel Center Sunday, is the poster boy for the new Nashville, a dude-centric universe where women are welcome (if they wear tight jeans).
It was a one-two punch in the gut from two of country’s biggest stars.
Last fall, Zac Brown declared Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night” the “worst song I’ve ever heard.” This winter, Carrie Underwood called out country radio, saying, “Women really do seem to get the short end.”
Statistics don’t lie: On Billboard’s country chart, Miranda Lambert and newcomer Danielle Bradbery are the only women in the top 25. More than a dozen of the rest are songs by men about trucks, babes in tight clothes, tailgating, drinking or partying — or all of the above, as in “That’s My Kind of Night,” which went to No. 1 in September.
This new wave of mindless party songs — dubbed “bro-country” — has prompted some frustrated country fans to change stations.
“I fit the stereotype of a country fan — 26-year-old, single, a city girl and I like to have fun with friends and listen to music,” said Bethany Dorobiala of White Bear Lake, who blogs about country at IndependentSky.com. “But none of what they’re playing [on country radio] is anything I’m interested in. I don’t want to go for a ride in a pickup truck on a dirt road. I don’t like to be sung down to.”
However, Dorobiala doesn’t fit Nashville’s new image. In the past two years, a lot of men in the prized 18-to-34 age group have switched to country radio. Bryan, who performs Sunday at Xcel Energy Center, is their poster boy and country’s newest headliner.
“Luke is just so likable,” said Leslie Fram, senior vice president for Country Music Television (CMT). “He’s got the ‘it’ factor.”
‘Rock is dead’
The younger guys have always come to party at We Fest and other country-and-camping festivals. Now they’re also tuning in to K102, BUZN 102.9 and other country stations to hear Bryan, Jason Aldean (whose sound is infused with hip-hop and loud guitars) and Eric Church (who brings a gritty rock edge).
“Rock is dead,” said K102 program director Gregg Swedberg, who also oversees national country programming for Clear Channel Media. “The biggest influx to the [country] format has been young men. They came from Top 40 and rock, predominantly — all the [Twin Cities] pop stations and KQRS. In the last two years, it’s up 50 percent on the guy side.”
At the same time, the percentage of female voices on country radio has dropped dramatically. Gone is the time when Faith Hill, Shania Twain, the Dixie Chicks, Reba McEntire, Martina McBride and Gretchen Wilson filled playlists. Lambert, Underwood and Taylor Swift seem to be country’s only women regulars — unless you count the occasional female voice heard in such groups as Lady Antebellum and the Band Perry.
As columnist for the trade publication Music Row, Robert K. Oermann listens to every album and single that Nashville labels release. He can’t believe country’s audience is that different from the pop realm, where women — think Katy Perry, Beyoncé, Miley Cyrus and Lorde — dominate the charts.
“The idea that men don’t want to hear women’s voices is just nonsense,” said Oermann, who wrote the definitive book “Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music, 1800-2000.”
One issue, he thinks, is that the country industry is essentially “programmed by men for women that they think are dumb. Country music is so much more than those 10 songs you hear over and over on the radio. It’s broader, it’s wider, it’s deeper and it’s smarter.”
Oermann cited several female singers — including Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark, Kellie Pickler, Ashley Monroe, Sheryl Crow and the trio Pistol Annies — who released first-rate albums in 2013 but gained little traction on radio.
“It’s a guy-dominated business, but it doesn’t have to be,” said Musgraves, who got a sales boost last month when she performed on the Grammys and took home awards for best country album and song. “I think women are stepping up to the plate and writing songs that matter and using their brains instead of just their faces.”
Never known as an outspoken crusader, Underwood is making noise for lesser known women in country.
“There is certainly not a shortage of talented ladies out there who want so badly to get their fair shot in this business. But there seems to be only room for only a few,” she told Billboard in January. “There seem to be so many male singers out there who can be viewed as similar, and there seems to be plenty of room for all of them.