Turn on pretty much any commercial country radio station and it wont be long before you begin to see a distinct pattern: Every song has three or four chords, a Southern twang and a kind of carefree earnestness. But this isnt necessarily new for country music—in fact, its simple, earthy sound is part of its appeal.
Take a closer look at the top 30 songs on KSON right now, however, and youll get a clearer picture of contemporary country music. The top song is Burnin it Down by Jason Aldean, which is about drinking Jack Daniels, listening to Alabama and fucking— not necessarily in that order and with no actual profanity. A little lower down is Blake Sheltons Neon Light, about heartbreak, drinking and some rebound fucking. Theres Brad Paisleys Perfect Storm, about a turbulent, smokin hot woman, the way God made her. And then theres Brantley Gilberts Bottoms Up, which concerns kegs, pickup trucks and a pretty little mama.
If all of this sounds maybe a little too much like a Nashville translation of the Jimmy Buffett catalog, well, thats not too far from the truth. It just turns out that most of the time, these weekend warriors dont sound as much like traditional country, or even Buffett himself, as Nickelback. In 2013, Vultures Jody Rosen dubbed this modern subset of watered-down twang bro-country, and it has more than its share of critics. Grammy and CMT Award winner Zac Brown called Luke Bryans Thats My Kind of Night one of the worst songs hes ever heard. And in 2013, rock n roll icon Tom Petty dismissed most modern country as bad rock with a fiddle.
In a sense, the fact that mediocre country is what rises to the top isnt unique to the genre. Theres plenty of bad rock music without fiddles that sells out amphitheatres, too, but considering how far country has come in the last 50 years—and how strong it often still is—its especially dispiriting to see what amounts to a pack of PG-rated Kid Rocks dominate the landscape.
There are plenty of great alternatives to the big country bro-down, however. Maddie and Taes Girl in the Country Song is a cheeky riposte to the sexism so prevalent in country, but even lower down the charts theres an embarrassment of pedal steel riches. Theres the outlaw revivalism of Sturgill Simpson. Theres the wit and charm of Kacey Musgraves. Theres the lush, old-school Nashville sound of Ashley Monroe. And, most notable of all, theres the ambitious, hard-rocking punch of Eric Church.
Eric Church plays Jan. 18 at Valley View Casino Center
Its telling that Churchs new album is called The Outsiders. While hes enjoyed a similar level of success as some of his broier contemporaries, and considerably more critical acclaim, hes cut from a decidedly different swath of denim. He has one spurin classic outlaw country, but he dresses up the influence of Willie and Waylon in tones of Sabbath, AC/DC and Springsteen. In fact, one of Churchs best-known songs is called Springsteen—his tribute to a soundtrack to a July Saturday night—which only goes to show that his roots run just as deep in rock n roll as they do in more conventional Nashville sounds.
Church can certainly hold his own when it comes to more conventional western music; his newest single, Talladega, is a gentle and pretty four-chord paean to weekends at the racetrack. But hes even more impressive as a songwriter when he steps outside of the expected. The title track on The Outsiders brings heavy doses of thunder through some burly classicrock riffs and the backing of a choir. And the eight-minute Devil, Devil, while certainly indulgent, owes more to the conceptual sprawl of 70s prog rock than the Grand Ole Opry, though his monologue is littered with references to George Jones and Hank Williams.
Church isnt without his flaws as a songwriter. Hes got a way with a melody and a riff, but one of the glaring weak spots on his new album is Dark Side, a fairly shallow character study that goes no further than angry-white-guy-with-a-gun red-state clichés. Though it would be flawed on my part to assume its autobiographical, just as it would be wrong to assume that the narratives in gangsta-rap songs are to be taken literally. As Ghostface Killah once put it, amazingly, I aint shoot nobody in like since the early 90s, man.
Still, though Church certainly has room for growth ahead of him, hes already left a heavy impact by offering an ambitious alternative to mainstream country while, ostensibly, continuing to operate inside of it. Country hasnt been a place where artists take many risks, at least since Garth Brooks Chris Gaines alter ego became a punch line. Church is helping to change that by reclaiming the 70s-era ambition of progressive country while updating its sound for a contemporary audience. And, bro, thats my kind of country.