• If you want to understand America, you have to understand the South. And if you want to understand the South, you have to understand country music.
• Country — I'm talking here about mainstream country music, not offshoots like alt-country — is so rooted in geography and ideology that it's impossible to separate the art from its roots. Other genres and performers have had ties to different places, sure: musical sounds vary by region and history, and lyricists have romanticized specific places in ways that make those places feel universal, eternal. (E.g., Springsteen's mythical Jersey Americana.) But most pop and rock is about feeling, not place. Love, heartache, excitement, partying, story, dance, whatever: the songs aren't designed with a specific city or home town in mind. Country, though, is descended from Southern communities and tied inextricably to Southern states. By extension, that means it's tied to ideologies that are traditionally popular in the South, like religion or social dynamics.
• An example of the religious specificity of country and its relation to region: Dotted throughout the South are Churches of Christ — autonomous churches of varying size (some downright tiny) that are typically conservative and trace their roots to the Restoration Movement. These churches don't answer to any kind of diocese or broad leader, and they tend to be off the radar in ways that, say, the Southern Baptist Convention isn't. The denomination doesn't really have much of a pop culture presence, or an awareness among the general public, but it has still been mentioned in hit country songs like this one and this one. That is the closeness of the bond between country and the South. Many of the genre's songs are acts of in-group identification.
• Country music is often reactive; that is, as much as it relies on certain sounds and styles, it just as often seeks to define itself in opposition to pop, rock, and mainstream genres and ideologies. This goes back to the South's notion of representing itself as set apart, special, and differently formed than the rest of the country. It is not even remotely accidental that a region of the country that once seceded to form its own nation still champions a musical genre that is stylistically and narratively based in opposition and separation.
• Country's reactiveness tends to make itself known most sharply when mainstream culture is undergoing progressive shifts. In 1969, with the youth movement and civil rights battles in full swing, Merle Haggard released "Okie From Muskogee," an anti-protest song that railed against pot, draft-dodging, long hair, and just about every possible hippie stereotype you could name. This is country music: a down-home sound that resists social change.
• Similarly, periods of conservatism tend to bring out more peaceful, nostalgic country music. The Reagan presidency saw a rise in pop-oriented country that yearned for a return to the good old days. Songs like The Judds' "Grandpa (Tell Me 'Bout the Good Ol' Days)" literally spelled out these requests, and the mega-success of the band Alabama (who had 21 consecutive No. 1 hits on the country charts from 1980-1986) relied on it, as well, with songs like "Song of the South," "High Cotton," "Mountain Music," and the blue-collar ode "40 Hour Week (For a Livin')." Ronnie Milsap's "Lost in the Fifties Tonight (In the Still of the Night)" is another ode to Boomer wish-fulfillment.
• As the 1990s arrived, though, bringing with them Bill Clinton and renewed mainstream discussions of social progression, country music veered into neotraditionalism, which placed an emphasis on classic sounds. This was more of an aesthetic rebellion than a lyrical one, more interested in drawing a line in the musical sand, and many of the artists who emerged here put out some strong music.
• Country's opposition isn't solely about who's in the White House, though, but about the social discussions we're having as a nation at large. It was the first George W. Bush administration's launch of the war on terror, after all, that gave us Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" — though interestingly, Keith had started his career with blander tunes in the neotraditional era. It wasn't until he caricatured himself that he went to a new level of fame (or infamy).
• This is the context of bro-country, a recent subgenre that assembles song lyrics from a list composed of dirt roads, short skirts, and fishing trips. Critic Grady Smith made this in 2013 to examine the phenomenon:
• Bro-country's reductive, almost hilariously one-dimensional understanding of women and relationships was skewered in 2014's "Girl in a Country Song," by Maddie & Tae. The song is its own call for a return to the past, one in which women were at least allowed to do something more than wear cutoffs and ride shotgun in pickups:
• Bro-country is the genre's latest retaliation against broader cultural trends, this time those dealing with evolving ideas of marriage, relationships, and sexuality, as well as the openness with which such ideas are addressed. Gay marriage is now legal in 37 states; award-winning TV shows revolve around transgender stories; pop culture storytelling now has gay characters whose sexuality is not a joke, nor their defining characteristic. Bro-country is a cliche-ridden attempt to push back at this. Its subtextual call for a return to the good ol' days is similar to the one country music is always, in some way, sounding out, but this time it's specifically about the nation's changing attitudes toward its gay citizens and country music's reticence to follow along.
• Country can be a tough place for gay artists to find acceptance. Performers like Chely Wright and Ty Herndon have come out, but given the genre's historical connection to the South — and to Southern religions — country is still years (or decades) behind pop and rock. When Ricky Skaggs was ambushed by TMZ and asked his opinion about country singers coming out, he expressed his approval not that they be themselves, but that they should be accepted because "we're all sinners." This is the backdrop of country music. The importance of the connections between the music, the region, and the religion cannot be overstated.
• Bro-country, then, isn't just the latest disposable fad within the genre, or a way to mark this particular era, but a reflection of the genre's and the region's discomfort with progressive attitudes toward and discussions of adult human sexuality outside the traditional "two straight white people in love" model. It's a defense mechanism, born of a desire to avoid change and conflict and get back to the way things used to be. But things weren't better in the great Back Then; they were just hidden. The best thing for country to do here is the thing it has the hardest time doing: embracing the future.