Reading Into Luke Bryan’s “What Makes You Country”

luke-bryan-what-makes-you-country

We’ll get to diagramming and dissecting the substance of the actual song momentarily, but first it’s important that we all take a step back and appreciate just what an important moment the release of a song and album called “What Makes You Country” from Luke Bryan is.

Right now, Luke Bryan is the biggest artist in all of country music. Sam Hunt may be the one with the monster single, Chris Stapleton may be selling all the records, and Miranda Lambert may need a wheelbarrow to remove all of her CMA Awards out of the Bridgestone Arena come November 8th. But Luke Bryan, from touring to radio presence and the total package, is the biggest thing in country music right now, no matter how begrudgingly one may come to that conclusion. And he now feels the need to respond to what makes someone “country.”

It doesn’t matter if you agree or disagree with Luke’s assessment, but don’t get tripped up by the attempts to divert the question with allusions to rural life. Make no mistake about it, the reason a song like this came about is because of the continued criticism coming at artists like Luke Bryan that question their legitimacy as country performers. This means the spirited dissent being logged by literally millions of country fans at this point is being heard, making an impact, and so much so that Luke Bryan and others feel the need to respond to such a degree that Luke’s released a song called “What Makes You Country,” and made it the title track from his upcoming record due out December 8th.

Of course the writers and other principles involved in “What Makes You Country” will try to soft peddle this truth, but it’s the truth nonetheless. The song was written by Dallas Davidson with help from Luke Bryan and Ashley Gorley. It seems like forever since we’ve heard anything from Dallas Davidson beyond him chucking knuckles piss drunk at the Tin Roof in Nashville and being taken into custody after calling his sparring partner a bleeping “faggot.” As the undisputed Godfather of Bro-Country, his services have been rendered marginal over the last couple of years as everything has shifted to the more Sam Hunt-style Metro-Bro sound that big writers like Davidson are not as proficient in.

When the biggest debates about Bro-Country were occurring, Dallas Davidson became the movement’s biggest proponent, saying that the songs they were writing were just describing they way they live, which is spending every afternoon sitting on the back of their tailgates near a body of water, drinking beer. So every song for some three years was about that very thing. However these days with hybrid producer/songwriters like Shane McAnally, Ross Copperman, and busbee making the biggest splash in the industry, songwriters who start the process by driving to the lake, cracking a cold one, and putting a legal pad on their knee are being marginalized. The way many of today’s hottest songwriters start the songwriting process is by opening up their laptop and selecting “New Project.”

Many of today’s “country” songwriters are not just proficient and penning catchy singles. In fact they don’t really pen anything at all. They start with a sonic bed pasted from a drum machine, and a precomposed melody. Even many MIDI controllers mimicking the look of an electric piano have been deprecated for direct inputs of electronic tones via preformulated templates that go on to make what you hear called a “song” coming out of your radio, with often little to no actual studio time or live musicians involved aside from laying down the heavily Auto-tuned vocal track. This puts a guy like Dallas Davidson at a severe disadvantage. Where years ago he was seen as the arch nemesis of traditional country fans, the paradigm has passed him over, and now he’s country music’s version of dad rock.

But Dallas Davidson has found his firewall, and it’s Luke Bryan’s upcoming album. Where Luke’s last record Kill The Lights only had two Dallas Davidson songwriting credits and it looked like Luke was moving away from that style, there’s double the Davidson tracks on What Makes You Country, including this title cut.

“What Makes You Country” is classic Dallas Davidson, relying on lists of country-isms and self-affirming blather while saying nothing and telling no story. It relies solely on the listener fist pumping and putting on airs about how country they are to get by. Ironically, most of the people this type of stuff appeals to are suburban escapists living vicariously via this idyllic portrayal of a rural culture, while they would never endure true rural life full time.

But as a Luke Bryan song, “What Makes You Country” kind of works, and compared to its current peers on country radio, it’s not terrible. Of course this is addition by subtraction since its only saving grace is it’s not as terrible as the worst stuff out there, and country listeners have been so whittled down by the electronic necessities of modern “country” music, when you sense you’re actually hearing real drums and guitar, you feel sated. “What Makes You Country” hasn’t been released as a single yet. “Light It Up” is the lead single from the new record, and in typical Luke Bryan fashion, it is the absolute worst possible song you could imagine.

But Luke Bryan didn’t get to be the biggest “country” star in the world by solely releasing garbage. Bryan has been significantly more pragmatic in his career than some of his peers, understanding where he could go too far, and always including one or two pretty good songs on his records to point to when the critics start hounding him. This is why he continues to best Sam Hunt and Florida Georgia Line. Expect “What Makes You Country” to be the 3rd or 4th single from the new album, and expect it to go #1. But little will people know this is much more than just yet another vapid Dallas Davidson-penned Bro-Country radio anthem. It’s Dallas and Luke hearing the criticisms, and feeling the barbs, and being compelled to respond.

Luke Bryan releasing a record and recording a song called “What Makes You Country” is significant. It means they’re hearing us. The next question is, will they ever actually listen?