The Toxic Masculinity of “Real Country Fans” is Rotting Country Music’s Core

Country music is a genre built on traditions. Unwittingly at an early age I learned about the tradition of toxic masculinity that plagues country music. I didn’t know at the time how poisonous this mindset was or how ingrained it is in the genre. I didn’t know how it undermines and destroys the credibility of women trying to make country music. But looking back I can remember one conversation amongst friends that sticks with me.

They were discussing who was better between Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. Right away of course the red flag of pitting women of country music against each other, something that fans still do to this day. Me being the one who’s always up for a little bit of music discussion, chimed in that I preferred Underwood’s music. I then heard laughter amongst my friends and one shoots back, “But Taylor Swift is much hotter.” I learned this was not about music quality, but a beauty contest to put it in polite terms. I didn’t like it, but when you’re young and fearful of peer pressure you’re kind of forced to go along with it. I don’t speak to these people anymore.

I bring this story up to highlight how from an early age that boys who listen to country music are seemingly taught that women aren’t to be taken seriously. They’re just there to look at and be judged. But the men who make country music are to be taken seriously. After all this goes back to the days of outlaw country, which has been glorified since it’s incarnation. Waylon, Willie, Merle, George. You know who they are because they’re never stopped being talked about to this day. It wasn’t these brilliant artist’s fault though, but rather the fans of these artists. But I don’t want to get ahead myself. Let’s first define outlaw country.

According to Wikipedia, it’s “a sub-genre of American country music, most popular during the 1970s and early 1980s, sometimes referred to as the outlaw movement or simply outlaw music. The music has its roots in earlier sub-genres like honky-tonk and rockabilly and is characterized by a blend of rock and folk rhythms, country instrumentation and introspective lyrics. The movement began as a reaction to the slick production and popular structures of the Nashville sound developed by record producers like Chet Atkins.”

Let it be known for the record that it was coined outlaw because it was simply a reaction to restrictive measurements placed on artists to sound a certain way, not the themes that many glorify. That leads us to the themes of the songs that these fans take away (never mind the fact this is very little of what the all-time greats of the genre covered in their songs): rough and rowdy men that run from the law, do drugs and alcohol and often lead a reckless lifestyle. It portrays an exciting, tough and ultra-masculine man who plays by his own rules and does what he wants. Cowboy hats and boots are the fashion of choice. It’s no surprise that many young men of the time period and many since gravitate towards this sort of image. Men are pressured since boys to learn how to be the “right man” and how to do “manly things.” These songs reinforce the stereotypes men are taught as normal from their own fathers to shows on television. It’s the right way to be a man and anything that contradicts it is obviously wrong because society says so.

From outlaw country onward this movement combined with traditional country music and Texas country/Red Dirt music have formed this hyper-masculine style and approach to country music that enraptured men. It continued with Hank Williams Jr. in the 80s with his brand of honky-tonk country. In the late 80s there was Keith Whitley, Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis. In the 90s there was George Strait and Alan Jackson. You come to the 2000s onward where you have Eric Church, whose numerous fans have pounded their chest to the fact that Church is “real country.” Today you have Cody Jinks, Whitey Morgan, Turnpike Troubadours and mainstream artists like Jon Pardi, Luke Combs and William Michael Morgan who all have fans who seem to share the same message: This is real country music. This continuation of a brand of masculinity that traces its origins back to outlaw country music.

Again none of these artists I’ve mentioned perpetuate the brand of masculinity in their music that fans created and have kept alive and thriving through the years (except maybe Hank Jr.). It’s fueled by the media and labels, who know what a cash cow and marketing tools are with words like traditional, outlaw, real, authentic. These are words that resonate with people because they seem to hold authority and respect in the eyes of society. And of course if you’re paying attention, I mentioned no women throughout my timeline of “real country music.” That’s because they aren’t considered in these conversations usually. Notice the connection here? Oh sure you can find some people who will mention nowadays the likes of Margo Price or Nikki Lane. If we’re talking historically maybe Jessi Colter or Tanya Tucker will get a mention. But almost always it’s about men and the men being described in the songs. The women are secondary.

(I should note from here on out I will refer to outlaw, traditional and Texas country fans as “real country fans.”)

This is the beginning of the rabbit hole. There are many other aspects to consider. What is often the most derided period of country music by “real country fans”? The 90s, which happen to be one of the best eras for women in country music. There were lots of women country stars constantly played on the radio like Reba, Lee Ann Womack, Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill, Martina McBride and many others. Yet you don’t hear these artists ever get glorified by these “real country fans.” The Dixie Chicks, a harbinger of traditional country in the late 90s and early 2000s, don’t get the same shine and respect of the likes of Strait and Jackson. But hey Toby Keith made himself a great career after the group was jettisoned from the genre for having the gall to call out a man.

Then we get to bro country, which you think that the “real country” crowd is on the same side as the people who want equality for women in country music. But you’re not looking close enough. You see the “real country music” crowd don’t hate bro country because it degrades women and treat them as props. It’s because the men aren’t being portrayed manly enough for them in the music. They don’t want to be associated with “pretty boys” in backward baseball caps who incorporate influences from hip-hop and R&B. This just isn’t manly enough for them and directly clashes with the idea of the ideal manly man. I won’t even mention the other conclusion that can be drawn from this and at minimum makes for bad optics for a genre that is pre-dominantly white.

Finally we get to the current state of country radio, where it’s a barren wasteland when it comes to finding the voices of women. Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris are about the only consistent solo women voices you’ll hear. The rest either show up once or get a small feature on a solo guy’s song. Radio “experts” like Keith Hill love to cite data that says women don’t want to listen to women and men even less so. Data that of course was debunked by the late, great Dev Ghosh. But can’t you see why the numbers bear this conclusion for radio guys? Country music is a genre driven and dominated by a masculine brand of country music decade after decade. It’s music about men for men and made by men. It takes on new forms, but at the end of the day it’s all summed up as “real country music.”

It doesn’t have room for women or any man who isn’t willing to conform to the image and brand driven by “real country music.” It has media empires and major label dynasties that gleefully push this brand because it makes a lot of money and is the most proven brand ever in country music. The “real country music” crowd love to whine that they aren’t the center of attention and aren’t dominating the radio charts. But it’s ridiculous because they’ve been driving the culture, rules and image of country music for decades. No matter what trends come along, they all wither away and the genre has some sort of shift back to “real country music.” It’s all one vicious cycle that spins around and around and around.

Unfortunately in the process, the “real country crowd” is going to take down the entire ship with them. Just like jazz and rock music before them, old gatekeepers will drive country music into the irrelevancy graveyard alongside them. The “real country crowd” will cheer this on because they would rather crash the whole car than share it with someone who doesn’t wholly agree with them.

Right now nobody is really sure what the future of this genre holds. But I do know what I would like to see and that’s women leading the way into the future of the genre. Women will not only get their longly deserved equality, but will show the creativity and drive to keep this genre thriving for years to come. Because one thing I think all country fans can agree on is we want a bright future for the genre. We can hold onto the great traditions of the genre, but it’s time we shed some old ones.

Essential Review – Blackberry Smoke’s ‘Like An Arrow’

While much of rock languishes in today’s music world, Blackberry Smoke is thriving. The southern rock/country rock group has yet to put out a bad album and continue to relentlessly tour across the country putting on some of the best live shows you can see. While all of their albums are enjoyable, it’s their 2016 album Like An Arrow that is the true gem of their catalog so far. It was their second album to reach #1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and rightly racked up a lot of critical acclaim. If you’re a fan of fusion country, this is an essential album to hear.

This album kicks ass from the moment you hit play on “Waiting for the Thunder.” The impressive roaring guitars hit you in the face like a ton of bricks. The lyrics scathingly take down powerful institutions that put down the men and women who bust their ass to get by. It’s a tornado of a song that just sort of leaves you in awe after hearing it. This may be one of the band’s best songs ever. “Let It Burn” can be interpreted as a dig at Music Row and it’s bullshit or any old small town across the country where people are fed up with the way things are run. Either way the lyrics hit hard and the guitars hit harder.

One of the more sentimental moments on the album is “The Good Life.” It’s about a father passing onto his son the advice his own father gave him when he was young. It’s a song that promotes the values of family, hard work and tradition. The heart behind the lyrics could bring a tear to your eyes. “Running Through Time” is one of those songs that band makes look and sound so easy. I love the soulful touches added in throughout the song, with an organ sneakily playing in the background. That soulful influence shows up again on “Believe You Me,” a song about you controlling your own destiny. Again the guitar work blows me away and combined with the soulful touches it just makes the band’s sound even better.

There are some songs on this album where you just have to sit back and admire the instrumentation work, like on “What Comes Naturally” and “Ought to Know.” The latter especially has a memorable riff in the bridge. The album’s title track is about going through the ups and downs of life. The guitar work on this song is extremely impressive and you’ll find yourself jamming along to this song with ease. Both the lyrics and instrumentation are so damn infectious and catchy. The same can be said about “Workin’ for a Workin’ Man.” Starr and the band sing about the grievances and pains of the workingman under the boss man. It’s a battle cry for everyone who feels short-changed at their jobs and at life. I mean look at lyrics like, “This bait and switch is a son of a bitch, it ain’t workin’ for a workin’ man, I got to shuck and jive just to even survive.” I find it impossible not to be hooked by lyrics like this because it’s not only catchy, but it can have real anger and power behind it thanks to the great delivery by Starr.

One song that sort of sneaks up on you is “Sunrise in Texas.” On the first listen it may not stand out as much as other songs on the album do, but with more listens it just gets better and better. Charlie Starr delivers one of his best vocal performances here, just belting the lyrics with conviction and fire. Then you have the crunchy guitars in the bridge and you just have to marvel at this song. “Ain’t Gonna Wait” leans more country than rock and shows this band could go straight country if they wanted to and sound just as great. But why choose one genre when you can nail two at once? The late, great Gregg Allman of the iconic Allman Brothers joins Blackberry Smoke on the album’s final song, “Free On The Wing.” This song is about finding your way in life and saying goodbye to old stories to say hello to new ones. It felt like this was a special passing of the torch moment between one of the best southern rock groups from yesteryear and arguably the best southern rock group today. To me Like An Arrow is going to be one of the moments that ultimately define the excellent legacy being set by Blackberry Smoke.

Album’s Top Highlights: Waiting For The Thunder, Workin’ for a Workin’ Man, Like an Arrow, The Good Life, Sunrise in Texas, Free on the Wing

Producer: Blackberry Smoke

Songwriters: Charlie Starr, Travis Meadows, Paul Jackson, Brandon Still, Richard Turner, Brit Turner, Michael Tolcher

Album Review – Kenny Chesney’s ‘Songs For The Saints’

I have to be honest. I did not see myself chomping at the bit to discuss new Kenny Chesney music in the year 2018. Take it back two years ago when Chesney released Cosmic Hallelujah, an album I absolutely ripped to shreds for its lazy and uninspiring content. I remember declaring that Chesney would have to make one hell of a turn around to get me to ever take him seriously again. And well here we are, as Chesney delivers one of the most surprising albums I’ve heard this year in Songs For The Saints.

It’s important to know this album is inspired by and revolves around the Virgin Islands and the destruction caused by Hurricane Irma on the islands in 2017. Chesney has a home on one of the islands, Saint John, and felt compelled to give back to a place that’s meant a lot to him. Not only is this album about the islands, but all proceeds for the albums are being donated to relief funds that help rebuild the islands. It’s an incredibly classy and heartfelt move by Chesney and his label. While Chesney’s legacy is defined by beach and island songs at this point, I don’t think I’ve heard this much passion and drive from Chesney in his music in years. His beach music is usually on the casual/party side, but this is the most mature take he’s ever done on this sub-genre of country music.

The album’s opening and title track is a direct ode to the islands. The saints in this song refer to each island, as they were each named after a saint. It’s the perfect opener, as it establishes what this album is all about and that’s the people of the islands, who clearly mean a lot to Chesney. “Every Heart” is a soft and sentimental song about the general struggle everyone shares in life. It’s a little sweet, but a nice message. I really enjoy the little touches in instrumentation in this song, particularly the bouzouki and organ. The lead single of the album, “Get Along”, is my least favorite track of the album. While I can appreciate the message of peace and happiness, I still don’t like the “buy a boat” line in the song. It’s just so consumeristic, although it doesn’t sound as bad I guess in the context of the rest of the album and can be interpreted as more of a throwaway line rather than some subliminal message.

Chesney has recorded several pirate-themed songs over the years, but “Pirate Song” is his best take on the theme yet. I particularly enjoy the details Chesney goes into as he fantasizes the life of a pirate sailing the open seas. By setting the scene well, you as the listener can really picture the life being painted in the song. This is what makes atmospheric songs work. Chesney collaborates with Ziggy Marley on the reggae-influenced “Love for Love City.” Love City is the nickname for St. John, Chesney’s home in the islands. Chesney and Marley sing of the people coming together in good times and need, highlighting the tight-knit nature of the communities on the islands no matter the situation. It’s a peaceful and easy-going song that makes you feel good in many ways.

I thought Carrie Underwood and Ludacris would be the most unlikely collaboration of the year, but Kenny Chesney and Lord Huron top it. Chesney covers the indie rock group’s “Ends of the Earth” and it’s one of my favorite tracks on the album. The song is about the endless thirst for adventure and exploring the unknown. The soaring, spacey production of the song is immediately infectious and memorable. This has my vote for a future single. “Gulf Moon” is another standout on Songs For The Saints. The John Baumann-penned song gives you a look inside a little town along the gulf coast and the lives of the people who inhabit it. The storytelling in this song is absolutely great, as the little details of the surroundings and the people put you right there in the town with them. It’s great to see Chesney give an artist like Baumann a spot on this album and for Chesney it’s a legacy-type song.

“Island Rain” is about the relief and therapeutic attribute of an island rain. It goes on to relate it to general relief from an uncomfortable situation in everyday life. It’s yet another song on this album that does such a great job of relating to the everyday person. This track is a breath of fresh air to a person having a rough day. The touches of steel drum and organ throughout add even more to this peaceful nature. Beach country’s most recognizable face Jimmy Buffett joins Chesney on a cover of Buffett’s “Trying to Reason With Hurricane Season.” The song is about the stress and anxieties of anticipating the impending hurricane season, a regular preparation for those who live in the islands and coasts. While they tire of this yearly happening, they continue to live and deal with hurricane season. It’s another good cover pick from Chesney, as it fits the theme of the album well.

The sing-a-long “We’re All Here” is about finding escapism from the troubles of everyday life, something Chesney has perfected many times in songs and does so again here. These are the kinds of simple songs that may not offer much variety, but it’s a comforting familiarity to many. The album’s closing track “Better Boat” is perhaps one of the best songs Chesney has ever recorded. Written by Travis Meadows and Liz Rose, the song is about getting better at coping with the everyday struggles and stress of life. This is likened to learning how to build a better boat, which is such an apt and fitting metaphor. Chesney is joined on the song by a wonderful vocalist in Mindy Smith, who adds another layer with her harmonies with Chesney. There’s so much heart and truth in the lyrics that you would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t connect with this song. It’s a small reminder of what country music is all about.

Songs For The Saints will go down as one of Kenny Chesney’s best albums at the end of his career. On this album he casts away the lazy tropes and paper-thin depth that has plagued his career at times and delivers an album full of songs about love, happiness and finding peace after destruction. This album’s biggest strength is its songwriting, as it’s rooted in a place of reality of real people and places, highlighting the ups and downs of life. The production of this album is pretty good too, as it’s varied and does a wonderful job of weaving reggae, island and pop influences throughout. Kenny Chesney should be quite proud of this album, as he delivers a real gem in Songs For The Saints.

Grade: 8/10

Album’s Top Highlights: Better Boat, Gulf Moon, Ends of the Earth, Island Rain, Love for Love City, Trying to Reason With Hurricane Season

Producers: Kenny Chesney & Buddy Cannon

Songwriters: Kenny Chesney, Tom Douglas, Scooter Carusoe, Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, Ross Copperman, Jon Randall, Ben Schneider, John Baumann, Mac McAnally, Jimmy Buffett, Casey Beathard, David Lee Murphy, Travis Meadows, Liz Rose