You’ve got to love when an actual music critic does their actual job. It’s so extremely rare in music these days aside from places like Saving Country Music. 99% of the time, seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day when it comes to music coverage, as fawning “critics” with low self-esteem attempt to sow clout for themselves by licking the boots of their favorite entertainers.
One critic named Ross Raihala up in Minneapolis/St.Paul isn’t here for all that though. He attended a Luke Bryan concert at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul on Saturday, October 14th, and let Luke Bryan have it in The Pioneer Press (paywalled) for a host of reasons that are hard to say are invalid.
Mr. Raihala didn’t make it personal, but pointed out empirically true things about the decline of Luke Bryan’s career. Previously Bryan had played big stadium shows in the area, and this year was playing an arena show that included some empty seats. He also pointed out that Luke Bryan’s singles aren’t exactly shooting up the charts like they did in previous years.
“To be sure, the guy is still popular,” the review points out. “Nearly selling out the X is no small feat. But perhaps audiences are more interested in fresher faces like Luke Combs, Zach Bryan, and Morgan Wallen. Combs filled USBS in May, Wallen’s got a pair of shows booked there in June and Bryan will make his Vikings Stadium debut in August. It’s also worth noting Combs and Bryan (but not Wallen) have a more grounded, emotional approach to making music.”
In a nutshell, this guy who reviews arena and stadium shows for all genres, and sees country from the outside looking in, is describing what is happening in country music at the moment. Even if Luke Combs and Zach Bryan are not your thing, it’s undeniable that they are the ones on top now, the Bro-Country acts of the past like Luke Bryan are on the wane, and country music is much better off for it.
The critic went on to call Luke Bryan the “king of bro country,” which is disputable, but not entirely untrue perhaps. He also said Bryan “specializes in sound-alike songs about partying, pickup trucks, boots and beer.” He also said Bryan “was far less animated and physical than previous shows.”
In some respects, you could almost feel a little bad for Luke Bryan. One of the long-standing issues with country music is the ageist nature of the industry and its fans that has also affected artists that are much more country, and of much better quality than Luke Bryan. At only 47, Luke Bryan is slowly being put out to pasture. But then when you hear his recent singles such as “Country On” and “But I Got a Beer In My Hand,” it’s hard not to understand why. They feel straight out of 2015.
Before late 2021, Luke Bryan had 21 straight singles go #1 except for one that went #2. Now his last three singles have failed to go #1. As soon as you lose that love from country radio, it rarely comes back. And when you’re an artist like Luke Bryan and radio isn’t supporting you, you have no grassroots to fall back upon.
Luke Bryan has minted 26 #1 singles according to Billboard, some of which will be memorable country songs from early in his career like “Rain Is A Good Thing,” and a few others here and there like perhaps the 2014 hit “Play It Again.” But his career has also progressed mostly as product, and in the age of Zach Bryan and Tyler Childers selling out arenas and stadiums, fans are just moving on.
Luke Bryan took the rather unprecedented move to call out the Twin Cities critic on X/Twitter. But if Bryan was smart, he’d heed what this critic as saying. Doubling down on the Bro-Country era is not what’s going to keep Luke Bryan’s career sustainable at the arena level for very long.
What is going to be the future of mainstream country music? It’s going to be country songs, it’s going to be country artists, it’s going to be music that can distinguish itself from pop as opposed to pander to it, and be memorable beyond the moment that it’s playing in the background.
With so many options out there today in independent country, mainstream country is going to need to offer music of more meaning to survive, as the independent continues to not just rival the mainstream, but become it. And in many respects, this is already happening. Luke Bryan just isn’t a part of it.
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UPDATE: After Saving Country Music posted this article, Luke Bryan responded on X/Twitter, “You can kiss my ass too.”
He later went onto say to Saving Country Music and the original critic Ross Raihala, “I have never phoned anything in my life. I’ll keep this shit going as long as y’all want. I sit back watch y’all chirp. Over it. Turn around and watch the crowd. Another thing. I played from 9:08 til. 11:05. No encore because I ran over the building codes. 10:40 would have been phoning it in. And you right. I did confuse another review from another publication. Check pollstar numbers if you think I’m in decline saving country dude.”