The Gatekeepers of Country Music are Going Away

It was September of 2013, and Luke Bryan’s single “That’s My Kind of Night” was the #1 song in all of country music. So called “Bro-Country” was in full stride and Luke Bryan was becoming one of the subgenre’s biggest vehicles. And the song was terrible. “That’s My Kind of Night” was so bad, fellow mainstream country artist Zac Brown decided he couldn’t stand it anymore, and had to say something about it.

zac-brownSpeaking with Barbara Beam at 93.7 JR FM in Vancouver, Canada, Zac Brown called “That’s My Kind of Night” the worst song he had ever heard. 

“I see it being commercially successful, in what is called country music these days, but I also feel like that the people deserve something better than that,” Zac Brown said. “What we do is not necessarily traditional country, but we play all of our own instruments, we write the best songs that we can, and we put harmony on the songs, we have a real band.”

Those were Zac Brown’s own words speaking less than two years ago. Maybe Zac though his words wouldn’t migrate south since they were spoken in Canada. Or maybe he wanted them too. Either way, it turned into a pretty legendary spat, especially when Jason Aldean came to Luke Bryan’s defense and said, “Nobody gives a shit what you think” to Zac Brown. Zac never really apologized for his words, though he did give Luke Bryan a very public hug at the CMA Awards a few months later.

Zac Brown wasn’t taking out a personal beef with Luke Bryan. He wasn’t jealous of Luke’s success so he decided to flame throw “That’s My Kind of Night.” Zac Brown was showing his love and concern for country music by questioning the long-term viability of a genre that would launch a song like “That’s My Kind of Night” to #1. Zac Brown was participating in gatekeeping, or making sure the boundaries of country were respected, and didn’t become so stretched that it lost its identity.

“There’s songs out there on the radio right now that make me be ashamed to be even in the same format as some other artists,” Zac said. “You can look and see some of the same songwriters on every one of the songs. There’s been like 10 number one songs in the last two or three years that were written by the same people and it’s the exact same words, just arranged different ways.”

Nothing that Zac Brown said was anything different than what was being said by concerned country music fans all across country, but it meant something different because it was coming from another artist, and one who was on the top tier, and on the same level of Luke Bryan at the time.

The examples of gatekeeping in country music go all the way back to the commercial beginnings of the genre. Many of the early managers and stars of the Grand Ole Opry insisted on keeping the traditions of the music alive by not allowing electric instruments or drums on the Opry stage for many years. Of course over time these traditions slowly melted away, but by keeping a close watch on how country music progressed, it was never allowed to get out of hand too quickly, lest country music lose its identity.

Charlie Rich lighting the envelope on fire announcing John Denver as the CMA Entertainer of the Year in 1975 is another example (though some dispute that as Charlie’s intentions, and say he was just ‘lit’). The formation of ACE—the Academy of Country Entertainers started by George Jones and Tammy Wynette after the 1975 CMA awards had many traditional artists concerned that pop stars were infiltrating the genre—is an example of gatekeeping. And of course The Outlaws, Waylon’s song “Are You Sure Hank Doe It This Way?” Alan Jackson and George Strait’s duet of “Murder on Music Row” that became the CMA Song of the Year in 2001, are more examples.

But in the last couple of years, as the country genre has arguably gone more out-of-control than ever, the guns have gone silent, at least with mainstream, top-tier stars showing concern about where things are headed in country. There’s been no high-profile criticism of Florida Georgia Line or Sam Hunt, and these are names who are new to the genre, not seasoned performers with skins on the wall like Luke Bryan was when Zac Brown called his song out.

And what is Zac Brown up to these days? As Big Machine Records CEO Scott Borchetta explained last week, he is releasing his controversial EDM song “Beautiful Drug” as his next single.

“. . . we play all of our own instruments, we write the best songs that we can, and we put harmony on the songs, we have a real band,” Zac Brown said in response to Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night” not two years ago. And now the exact criticisms he leveled at Luke Bryan could be leveled at him.

But they won’t be. At least not by any other mainstream-level artists. The gatekeepers are gone. And in Zac Brown’s case, they’ve turned coat. You almost can’t blame him. If you want to continue as a mainstream-level country artist these days, you’re almost obligated to acquiesce to the EDM influences infiltrating country.

“We’re not really an album band,” Zac Brown Band’s steel player Clay Cook said recently to The Boston Globe about the new record Jekyll + Hyde. “The album is basically a business card to get people to see us play live.”

Pop has always been a part of the country music genre, and so has pushing the boundaries sonically. But so has artists and managers and label heads being willing to swipe artists on the nose, especially younger ones, whether directly or in songs, when things get out-of-hand and grave consequences for country in the long-term could result.

Maybe it’s the social network environment these days that has some scared to start a feud. Maybe there’s nobody left willing to fight in the mainstream. Or maybe it’s perceived there’s nothing left to fight for. But unless some scene control is enacted, the slip in ratings for country could continue, and there could be serious consequences for the music moving forward.