Turn on pretty much any commercial country radio station and it won't 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 isn't 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 you'll 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 Shelton's "Neon Light," about heartbreak, drinking and some rebound fucking. There's Brad Paisley's "Perfect Storm," about a turbulent, smokin' hot woman, "the way God made her." And then there's Brantley Gilbert's "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, that's not too far from the truth. It just turns out that most of the time, these weekend warriors don't sound as much like traditional country, or even Buffett himself, as Nickelback. In 2013, Vulture's 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 Bryan's "That's My Kind of Night" one of the worst songs he's 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 isn't unique to the genre. There's 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—it's 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 Tae's "Girl in the Country Song" is a cheeky riposte to the sexism so prevalent in country, but even lower down the charts there's an embarrassment of pedal steel riches. There's the outlaw revivalism of Sturgill Simpson. There's the wit and charm of Kacey Musgraves. There's the lush, old-school Nashville sound of Ashley Monroe. And, most notable of all, there's the ambitious, hard-rocking punch of Eric Church.
Eric Church plays Jan. 18 at Valley View Casino Center
It's telling that Church's new album is called The Outsiders. While he's enjoyed a similar level of success as some of his broier contemporaries, and considerably more critical acclaim, he's 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 Church's 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 he's 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 isn't without his flaws as a songwriter. He's 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 it's 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 ain't shoot nobody in like since the early '90s, man."
Still, though Church certainly has room for growth ahead of him, he's already left a heavy impact by offering an ambitious alternative to mainstream country while, ostensibly, continuing to operate inside of it. Country hasn't 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, that's my kind of country.