Boots on the ground: Exploring the culture of bro country

Bro-country god Luke Bryan on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium

Bro-country god Luke Bryan on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium

[This article originally appeared in City Pages in June 2015; Bryan's set to baptize our newest sports complex, U.S. Bank Stadium, in Miller Lite on Friday, August 19.]

I have a confession to make. It’s been weighing heavily on my conscience, especially as someone who prostrates herself at the altar of Georges Jones and Strait. Someone who asks herself, “What would Tammy Wynette do?” Someone who, in times of trouble, prays to Patsy and cut her teeth on John Prine.

... I really like five bro-country songs.

Whew, OK. You’re probably wondering what the big deal is. But for a classic-country devotee, admitting this is a big step. “Bro country is ruining our beloved genre!," critics cry. And it totally is. Bro country - that dominant force in country music featuring songs about babes, beers, and trucks - is terrible. At the same time, I grew up in the smallest of small towns, with a population of about 300, and I can’t help but feel nostalgic when I hear bro-country songs. They sound like fooling around with my farmboy boyfriend in his F-150 pickup, or like hanging out at an abandoned farmhouse and drinking Smirnoff Ice as a teenager. Really, I was that girl in a country song.

It’s time to be that girl again. My friend Emily (also from Climax, Minnesota) and I shimmy into cutoffs and cowboy boots and slick on some lip gloss. We’re at TCF Bank Stadium last Saturday to explore bro country and the rabid culture surrounding it. Tonight’s headliner is Luke Bryan, the bro-country god who began his career with legitimate country albums before Nashville capitalized on his good looks. Now college-age women and their moms both get their jollies watching him shake his ass onstage as he sings about spring break, tank tops, and tanlines. Luke Bryan is almost 40. Joining Bryan at TCF are Randy Houser, Thomas Rhett, Dustin Lynch, and bro-country heavyweights Florida Georgia Line. It’s like a mini WE-Fest, and the streets of the University of Minnesota campus are crawling with country folk who are ready to party.
But first, what exactly is bro country? Well, it swept country radio like a monsoon with the advent of Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” in 2012, and it isn’t stopping anytime soon. The songs are perfect for frat parties, the kind of slick music you can enjoy without actually listening to. They sing about girls, mostly – girls in short-shorts, girls in bikinis, girls with sand on their skin, girls with sunburnt lips, girls sitting shotgun and shaking their sugar shakers on a tailgate. They sing about whiskey and beaches and havin’ a good time. Bro country is barely country at all, but rather twangy pop or rock with elements of hip-hop thrown in. A new bro-country artist is born every day, and the radio stations like K102 (102.1 FM) are drowning in them. Nashville is divided, with half its artists decrying the genre and half cashing in.

Back outside of TCF on Saturday, there are sorority girls in white mini-dresses and plastic cowboy boots. They're joined by frat dudes in minty shorts and boat shoes. Cougars in tight, sparkly jeans and embroidered, sequined tank tops with teased-up hair are on the prowl. They’re here for girls’ nights, leaving their kids at home. Everyone is here to get wasted, to smoke and drink outside with like-minded people. It's honestly surprising no one is playing Flip Cup.
“There are sooo many bitties here,” says my brother, and his eyes light up. It’s true: Pretty girls love bro country. For every pretty girl in the requisite ensemble, there’s an older man in cargo shorts or a bro with his shirtsleeves cut off. And upon first listen, the bro country emphasis on females can seem sort of sweet. All these guys wanna do is get you drunk and tell you you’re pretty. It seems romantic until you realize what you want is not a man with a brand-new Chevy with a lift kit,  but a man with a Roth IRA and a plan for the future.

Everyone I meet at various tailgate parties is from the suburbs. Some have come as far as St. Cloud, like friends Brad Huyck and Troy Laurent, who are both wearing tight jeans and big white hats. They’re here to see Luke and Florida Georgia Line. “I think I would call it ‘pop country’ instead of bro country,” Huyck says. “It’s not true country like we were raised on, that’s for sure,” adds Laurent, who grew up listening to Alabama and Montgomery Gentry.
I meet Mike Keller of Shakopee, who won backstage passes to meet Luke Bryan at BUZN 102.9’s “Shake your #DadBod” contest. He’s wearing a Bud Light cowboy hat and has “Not So Magic Mike” painted on his stomach, which he proudly displays to me in front of the stadium. He and his wife like country music in part because it’s “clean, and we’ve got kids.”

“I like country music because it tells stories … it used to, anyway. Now it’s all about girls and trucks,” says Allison Shoaff of Apple Valley. She’s here to see Luke Bryan with her mother Susan.

I’m starting to sense a pattern here.

“We’re here to see Luke Bryan!” says every single female I approach, and there are many of them. When questioned as to why, they all reply with some variation of: “He’s so hot! And he shakes his ass!”

George Strait doesn’t shake his ass. George Strait would never.

Then again, George Strait wouldn’t change into a sliced-up tank top and throw on a backwards baseball cap and sunglasses to rap onstage, either. But here we are at the end of Florida Georgia Line’s set. I swear I can hear George Jones doing laps in his grave right now.

“I would rather watch you lick that pretzel cheese for 45 minutes than watch these guys,” Emily says. With their tattoos, gelled hair, and piercings, Florida Georgia Line are reminiscent of the dads on Teen Mom. Their set is undeniably terrible. It sounds like Limp Bizkit. It becomes clear why they call this “hick hop.” Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley, the bros comprising Florida Georgia Line, occasionally strum a guitar half-hardheartedly, but they mostly pose and posture down the runway ... er, stage. When we spoke with Kelley ahead of the show, he predicted, "I bet there will be a lot of Minnesota country girls sitting on dudes’ shoulders having a good time. That’s my favorite thing to see." A young guy wearing a frat-classic Vineyard Vines T-shirt sings every word; he's having a great time. 

Luke Bryan takes the stage as soon as the sun sets. He’s wearing a jacket, baseball cap, shiny black shoes (no cowboy boots?!), and tight-ass jeans. He starts off his set with his new single “Kick the Dust Up,” which may actually be the worst song ever. He rhymes “up” with “up” through the entire thing. The crowd doesn’t care. They’re going nuts. They go even crazier when he rips off the jacket during 2007’s pre-bro gem “All my Friends Say.” Luke Bryan is just not my type, I guess.
But it's fun, I’ll admit it. Emily and I are eventually dancing along with the rest of the crowd. Revisiting the moment in my head, though, I can’t help but be disappointed. Does shaking your ass and looking hot onstage make you a country idol? I can’t abide by this. It feels so shallow, so sad. Luke Bryan doesn’t even pick up an instrument for the first half hour. The touring musicians do all the heavy lifting, he does all the strutting. 

These bro country artists were clearly inspired by Garth Brooks’ incredible showmanship and spectacular stadium concerts. But they all lack true charisma and talent, the genuine care for music and fans that Garth has in spades. It’s not as though they’re untalented; Luke and his openers are super charming when they gather to cover Maroon 5’s “Sugar.” It just feels a little too slick, like you can hear the money already being stacked. Bro country is a never-ending party, but eventually someone’s gonna call the cops and bust it up, right?