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Did ‘Bro Country’ Drive Political Diversity Out of America’s Music?

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Matt K. Lewis
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      Matt K. Lewis

      Matt K. Lewis is a senior contributor to The Daily Caller, and a contributing editor for The Week. He is a respected commentator on politics and cultural issues, and has been cited by major publications such as The Washington Post and The New York Times. Matt is from Myersville, MD and currently resides in Alexandria, VA. Follow Matt K. Lewis on Twitter <a>@mattklewis</a>.

A few months ago, I wrote a jeremiad against “bro country” music. But I never delved into why it seems to have conquered country radio. And I neglected to note how this phenomenon seems to have coincided with a sort of political homogeneity.

As the Dish notes, country music once boasted a wide array of complex and diverse political opinions. This was on full display with “The Highwaymen,” an all-star group of country musician friends who recorded and performed together. (The group’s politics broke down like this: Waylon Jennings was decidedly on the right, while Kris Kristofferson is decidedly on the left; Johnny Cash’s politics were nuanced, but probably leaned right, while Willie Nelson’s politics probably lean left.)

The tension worked.

That was then. Today, country radio (not to be confused with Americana or alt-country) is understood to be culturally conservative — even if it is generally apolitical and vapid.

It’s probably impossible to point to the exact moment this occurred, but as Eric Kleefeld observed, it seems to have coincided with the Dixie Chicks’ effectively being drummed out of country radio. (This is not to suggest that they were the most important band in country music, but instead that it symbolically signaled country would no longer be a safe environment to air controversial and liberal political views, and that the future would look more like Toby Keith than Natalie Maines.)

I was reminded of the timing of this recently, when Alyssa Rosenberg talked to music journalist Chris Willman, author of “Rednecks & Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music,” who told her:

“Once upon a time, country was better than any other genre at doing ‘issue’ songs,” he said. “Now, they’ve all but abandoned that, with the rare exceptions that have something to do with cancer or patriotism, and even then, I’m thinking more of a few years ago than right now. I’d say there are at least a couple of reasons for that. ‘Bro-country’ is so dominant right now that it’s hard to put out a song that isn’t about tailgating or beer or partying or booty-chasing.”

There are, no doubt, many business reasons country radio has gone in the direction of “bro country;” I’m not suggesting it was the inevitable result of a sort of political orthodoxy being imposed on the genre. It likely has more to do with commercial appeal than any sort of censorship. But it does seem one symptom of the “dumbing down” of country music has been the absence of artists pushing the political envelope.