Remember 2016? Good times, good times. We had so much fun patting ourselves on the back for vanquishing Bro-Country and installing the virtuous and benevolent triumvirate of Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, and Jason Isbell at the top of country music. Florida Georgia Line had been marginalized, Sam Hunt was nowhere to be found. Nobody was selling more records than Stapleton, and Sturgill was up for Album of the Year at the Grammy’s.
But don’t the sinister elements of country music have a way of bubbling back up right when you think the tide has finally turned.
There was a moment in 2016 when it seemed like the country music industry was fixated on the idea that this whole Dave Cobb-produced gaggle could really upset the apple cart. Music Row better be prepared with a Plan B just in case folks actually decided to question what they were being served by the industry, and realized they had much healthier and better alternatives out there. That’s how you get a band like Midland getting signed to Big Machine.
Four years ago, in May of 2013, heading into the summer just like we are now, we were starring straight in the face of the possibility that Florida Georgia Line’s mega hit “Cruise” could become the biggest song in the entire history of country music. Bolstered by a remix with Nelly and Billboard’s recent chart revisions that allowed pop spins to count on country charts, decades worth of records and order were on the brink of being shattered by two dimwits and a dumb song. And eventually that’s exactly what happened, with “Cruise” becoming the longest-charting #1 single in the history of country music.
In May of 2013, Saving Country Music posted an article called, We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now. It’s Called Florida Georgia Line. At the time we knew “Cruise” was set to make history, and how concerns about the music of someone such as Kenny Chesney seemed so innocuous compared to was “Cruise” was poised to accomplish. Now it’s Florida Georgia Line who feel repudiated and marginalized, losing to the much less commercially-viable Brothers Osborne at successive awards shows for Vocal Duo of the Year, and struggling to find the same chart traction as they once did. Florida Georgia Line, and Bro-Country, will never totally go away. But they’re not what’s poised to rewrite country music history.
That distinction now belongs to Sam Hunt, and his mega hit “Body Like a Backroad.” It looks to shatter even the incredible and previously-thought insurmountable records of “Cruise.” Right now we sit in an eerily-similar position as we did in May of 2013. “Body Like A Backroad” is absolutely dominating every single song chart country music has, and has been for weeks. It’s picking up spins left and right in pop, only strengthening its position in country thanks to Billboard’s aforementioned chart rules, and putting it in contention as the “song of the summer” for 2017. Yes, just like “Cruise” before it, “Body Like a Backroad” could go on to define what country music is for the next half decade.
The fact that we’re even sitting in this position is quite astronomical. Back in 2013 when “Cruise” pulled off it’s historic run, the way country radio was ordered was already a very socialistic system among major labels. Each major male star that released a single got at least one week at #1 before seeing a precipitous fall off the charts in subsequent weeks, making room for the next singles to take #1. The quality of the song or even the reception by the public was inconsequential. Today, that system is even more metastasized. It’s rare to see a song on radio spend consecutive weeks at #1, let alone multiple ones. But yes, not only is “Body Like A Backroad” currently grading where it could challenge the “Cruise” record, it’s likely to beat it.
Now you may say, “Well who cares if some stupid Sam Hunt song goes #1 for months at country radio? I don’t listen, and radio’s on the way to imploding.” All of that might be true, but just like what happened with “Cruise,” it’s not just the one song, or even the one artist that’s the problem. Music Row in Nashville is one of the most copycat industries in all of America. If one thing works, you will have knock offs and dopplegangers coming down the assembly line for years to come trying to recreate the success of “Body Like a Backroad.”
In May of 2013, the term Bro-Country hadn’t even been coined yet. We knew “Cruise” was going to be big, but little did we know that it would go on to define what country music was for a generation, and launch a cottage industry of Bro-Country stars, which brings us to the second problem, and possibly the most diabolical one with the success of “Body Like a Backroad.”
Sam Hunt is not a Bro-Country artist. He is something beyond that, and even less country. One of the reasons “Body Like a Backroad” is so successful is because it incorporates some Bro-Country elements—the misogyny, the cultural identifiers in list form. But it’s still a Sam Hunt song, which means it’s decidedly more EDM and pop than anything. The fact that the song is so massive and being portrayed as country works to break down the traditional definitions and borders of what country music is even further, and this time, possibly, irreversibly so. It is so non country, it better qualifies to fit in virtually every other major genre of popular American music before it fits into country.
Ultimately, though Music Row had one wary eye on the doings of Sturgill, Stapleton, and Isbell, and were worried enough to hedge their bets with acts they felt fit in the same ilk, they really don’t give a shit about the sales numbers and accolades of these non radio artists. They’re perfectly fine acting like they don’t exist whatsoever. Chris Staplton’s success was an anomaly because his name found its way onto some awards show ballots and people voted their conscience for once. But they didn’t put him on the radio, and they’ll never acknowledge the accomplishments of Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell as an industry because it’s not of their construction.
“Body Like a Backroad,” just as “Cruise” before it, is poised to break through the crush of media the average American must swim through in their daily lives, be the song that defines an entire summer, and be the very first thing people think of when you mention “country” for the foreseeable future.
The ramifications will be felt for years and years to come, and the mess to be cleaned up will take much work. There is no silver lining here.