Merle Haggard had a No. 1 country album in June when he and Willie Nelson released “Django and Jimmie.”
Wednesday, Chris Stapleton took three Country Music Association awards, including best album for “Traveller,” a traditional country collection and Maddie and Tae took the video award for “Girl in a Country Song," a funny, but pointed thumbing of the nose at “bro country.”
So has the worm turned on the hip-hop, pop and rock-infused party songs about dirt roads, tailgates and drinking that have driven country for most of the last decade?
The answer to that question may be “yes.”
That is, if the cycle of country music that began when Hank Williams pushed his way in front of the Carter Family in the 1940s continues as it has decade after decade.
“One thing people in the industry all talk about quite a bit is country music has a 10-year pendulum of how the music changes,” said Ritch Cassidy, morning show host on Omaha country station 93.3 The Wolf. “I’m not surprised to see Chris Stapleton winning last night. “We’ve had about 10 years of ‘bro country.’ ‘Bro country’ has been around longer than people are willing to admit. It’s just gotten more popular with social media.”
Much derided by country purists -- Haggard scoffs at the stuff -- ‘bro country’ made its appearance about a decade ago when Luke Bryan, who was named CMA entertainer of the year Wednesday, got his record deal, put out his first album and started touring.
By the time Jody Rosen coined the term ‘bro country’ in New York magazine in 2013 to describe the music of Florida Georgia Line, the likes of Bryan, Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean and Jake Owen had hits and were drawing huge crowds on tour.
Asked earlier this year if he thought Florida Georgia Line and its fellow travelers were changing country music, FGL’s Bryan Kelley replied:
“We never set out to do that. I think it’s definitely happening. It’s a product of influences coming together to create a new sound. You know my favorite thing to hear is when somebody tells me, ‘I never liked country music until I heard you guys. Now I can’t get your CD out of the player or Dustin Moore or Thomas Rhett …”
Like it or not, Cassidy points out, ‘bro country’ has brought thousands of new listeners to country. FGL’s “Cruise,” the prototypical ‘bro country’ song, is the most downloaded song in country music history -- at 7 million copies.
“That’s what it’s about, connecting with everybody,” Kelley said in an interview before FGL’s February Lincoln show. “It’s hard to put a label on it. People like to shout it down. But we’re having a great time, going out and connecting with people. We don’t worry about any of that. Call it what you want. We like what we do.”
So do fans who, for example, have sold out Pinnacle Bank Arena for concerts by Aldean and FGL and gave Owen his biggest crowd ever. The arena also was packed for Eric Church, who certainly isn’t traditional country and for “beach country” star Kenny Chesney and Shania Twain, a pop crossover artist from a previous country sound cycle.
There are some who date the beginning of the end of country music to 1989.
That’s when Garth Brooks exploded on the country scene, bringing a sound that he always admitted was influenced by Kiss and James Taylor and a show he lifted from rodeo rock ‘n’ roller Chris LeDoux.
Brooks, however, also drew on George Strait and other purveyors of traditional country, part of the “class of 1989” that included the likes of Clint Black, Alan Jackson, Joe Diffie and Travis Tritt. And Brooks and company were following in the footsteps of Randy Travis, whose 1986 album “Storms of Life” and the hits from it marked another country cycle change.
In the mid ‘80s, industry types in Cassidy’s words “worried that Nashville was moving into disco country” with the dance-beat incorporating, pop-rooted hits by the likes of Kenny Rogers and Ronnie Milsap. Enter Travis and new traditionalists, Dwight Yoakam and George Strait.
While there’s long been much talk about traditional and pop versions of country, the dividing line between the two isn’t all that distinct.
Take Stapleton, for example.
A well-established Nashville songwriter, Stapleton co-wrote “Crash and Burn,” the platinum-selling No. 1 country airplay hit by Thomas Rhett that people have complained “doesn'’t sound country.”
Most famously, Stapleton wrote “Drink a Beer,” which ‘bro country’ king Bryan turned into a smash. Bryan then took Stapleton on tour with him, giving wide exposure to Stapleton’s hardcore country.
Even with all the attention he’ll get from winning the CMAs, Cassidy doesn’t expect to see a giant increase in airplay for Stapleton -- or other traditional country artists.
“It’s still a pretty easy formula,” Cassidy said. “Your superstars with a hit are going to get played more than a newbie. Even if the newbie has a smash, the superstar with a mediocre hit will get played just as much or more. That’s what people want to hear. The fans determine it.”
That said, Stapleton is getting some new visibility this week -- and probably got some new fans through his collaboration with Justin Timberlake on the CMA Awards telecast. Haggard is still going strong at 78. He’ll be at the Lied Center for Performing Arts Tuesday night.
And traditional artists like Sturgill Simpson and Jamey Johnson, who preceded Stapleton and has now divorced himself from the Nashville machine, are drawing ever larger crowds and making acclaimed albums.
Traditional country might just be on the way back. The cycle says it’s time.