The Country Music Association's website for the big CMA Music Festival at LP Field and a handful of other venues this weekend reveals a momentous change in the all-important issue of male-country-star headwear. Only three of the solo-male performers (Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley and Jason Aldean) are still sporting the familiar cowboy hats, while six of the hottest male singers — Eric Church, Dierks Bentley, Kip Moore, Brantley Gilbert, Luke Bryan and Randy Houser — are wearing baseball caps. Bentley's even wearing his backwards. In addition, Zac Brown is wearing a stocking cap.
Goodbye, Hat Acts. Hello, Cap Acts.
This is more than fashion news — it reflects a musical shift as well. Male country stars are finally getting tougher, more urban. If they're not moving into the city itself, at least they're moving from the outer to the inner suburbs. If they're still stuck in a pre-grunge time warp, at least they're leaving the '70s for the '80s, trading Jimmy Buffett and the Eagles for Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. The guitars are less twangy and more distorted; the rhythms are less laid-back and more aggressive; the vocals are less sweet and more confrontational. It may still be retro-pop-rock disguised as country, but at least it's higher quality retro-pop-rock.
We like to think that such shifts in musical styles are driven by visionary artists, but they are in fact almost always driven by audiences. Springsteenish country singers have been common in Americana circles for years, but such artists are just beginning to appear on country radio because only now is there a large enough audience for them to go platinum. There's a new generation of country music fans who live in the inner suburbs, who listen to Foo Fighters and Kanye West as well as Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert. If those fans wear baseball caps like their indie-rock and hip-hop heroes, well, by gum, young country singers will wear baseball caps too.
As Gilbert (who performs at Friday's CMA stadium show) put it on his No. 1 single last year, "In foreign cars and four-wheel drives / There's cowboys and hillbillies / From farm towns to big cities / There ain't no doubt in my mind / Country must be countrywide." If you're a young male country star looking for a country audience that hasn't already chosen its heroes, and you find those uncommitted listeners wearing St. Louis Cardinal caps as they drive around the beltway in their Toyota Corollas, punching the radio buttons to switch between The White Stripes and The Band Perry, you're going to going to stick a baseball cap on your head and borrow some of Jack White's guitar sound.
In fact, the cap has become an emblem of mild rebellion, a line drawn in the sand between generations. Kip Moore (who performs a full-band set at the Riverfront Saturday afternoon and an acoustic stadium set that night) implies as much in his new song, "Reckless (Still Growin' Up)." In this fable, a Nashville producer offers to sign a young singer if the latter will just make a few changes. "He said, 'A rhinestone suit and a cowboy hat ought to do the trick,' " Moore sings. "I told him I had something he could stick way on up his ass." He backs up that retort with a stomping beat and a slide-guitar lick straight out of early-'80s rock.
"To be honest, those guys like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger were country artists at heart," says Moore. "They were storytellers. If those artists were starting out today, they'd be country artists. I believe country music is always evolving, always changing, and what's changed recently is that country music is a much broader genre today. When Webb Pierce was around, country was one thing. When Johnny Cash came out, I'm sure the Webb Pierce fans were going, 'What's going on?' "
"I was 17 years old when I got into country music," adds Bentley, who performs at Sunday's CMA stadium show. "When I heard Hank Williams Jr. singing about naked women and beer with a bit of rock 'n' roll, I thought it was the greatest thing ever. Now you have 17-year-old kids looking for the same thing. They listen to a lot of music. Not just country — they listen to a lot of rock and rap as well. Just going out there, standing at the mic and holding your guitar doesn't cut it anymore. There has to be more energy; the songs have to be more aggressive. People say, 'Ah, country's going too rock,' but people are always saying that. They said it about Hank Jr. and they said it about his dad too."
"When I think about you, I think about 17," Eric Church sings on his latest album. "Funny how a melody sounds like a memory / Like the soundtrack to a July Saturday night." That song, "Springsteen," is a country single that climbed to No. 3 on the June 9 Billboard country chart, even though it's named after the rock 'n' roll bard of East Coast cities. The lyrics really aren't about the singer; they're about an old summer romance for which The Boss supplied the background music. But the fact that many in Church's country-radio audience have had similar experiences with summer rock songs explains the shift happening in country music now.
If, singing on the radio, you want to reawaken a listener's memory of a first love linked to Springsteen or Bono, you have to do more than name-check the singer. You have sound a little bit like that record — and Church's does. The Boss may not wear a baseball cap onstage, but he does have one dangling conspicuously out of his back pocket on the cover of Born in the U.S.A.
Three rungs above "Springsteen" on the June 2 Billboard country chart was Kip Moore's No. 1 hit "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" from his debut album, Up All Night. The lyrics may be standard country fare — drinking beer with a hot girl in a red dress on the tailgate of a pickup truck parked in a field — but the guitar sounds are crunchier and the vocal phrasing choppier than anything you'd hear from Brad Paisley. It sounds more like a 1984 rock number than a 2004 country song.
"Those are just the guitar sounds that after years and years of tinkering with I want people to hear," says Moore. "You're trying to make a record that not only you're going to love but also that people want to hear. I want to entertain a big audience; I want them to feel those guitars in their chests, because that's what I like to hear. Chris Young has a very traditional sound — and I love it — but what I do is different.
"The audience has completely changed," he continues. "Country music has gotten massive, which is great. There's a much bigger demographic that's listening to it. That makes the sound change and gives us more leeway to try things. You've got more people who love rock 'n' roll but also love country music."
If this new wave of Cap Acts is eager to embrace Springsteen's anthemic guitars, they're still wary of his populist politics. Moore's "Hey Pretty Girl," for example, is almost an exact copy of Springsteen's "I'm on Fire," right down to the crosstick drum pattern, reverb-heavy guitar arpeggios and opening line — Moore sings, "Hey, pretty girl, won't you look my way?" to the same melody that Springsteen uses for "Hey, little girl, is your daddy home?"
But when Moore dips his toe into the sea of working-class politics, he quickly yanks it back out again. "You worked all week to barely make ends meet," he sings. What's his response to this blue-collar dilemma? "We can dance in the dark," he sings, echoing Springsteen again, "blow the speakers out of this car." But the song is called "Beer Money," and Moore's idea of class consciousness is, "Tonight, tonight, baby, we're drinking."
"People have tough lives," Moore argues, "and they need somewhere to escape to. That's part of my job, to help them escape to somewhere they can be happy. People don't want to be reminded of hard times every day. After work they want to get out and have a little fun. We're saying it's OK to do that."
Not even Church, the most thoughtful songwriter of the Cap Act movement, can resist this temptation. Church, who plays Saturday's CMA stadium show, nods in the direction of the 1 percent/99 percent dichotomy by singing, "Early Monday morning till Friday at five / Man, I work, work, work, but I don't climb, climb, climb." But on his first-ever No. 1 single, his solution to this problem is, "Boss man can shove that overtime up his can / All I wanna do is put a drink in my hand." An alcohol anthem as catchy as "Drink in My Hand," especially with its Rolling Stones guitar intro, will always find it easy to get cheers from the frat-boy contingent in any audience, but perhaps it's a little too easy.
Bentley, who plays the CMA stadium show Sunday night, takes a similar approach on a song called "Tip It on Back." He begins with a very promising couplet, "I see Main Street closin', miles of for-sale signs / And them fields ain't growin' fast enough to get us by." But his response is the same as Moore's and Church's: "Sip a little more than you know you should; let the smoke roll off of your lips / Let it all go, whatever it is, and tip it on back." Even the Bush Recession is just one more excuse for getting high.
"What I love about that song is it paints that little scene at the beginning," says Bentley. "So the listener goes, 'OK, it's a song about the current time,' then the rest of the song is about blowing off steam and having a good time. It paints just enough of a picture of the for-sale signs and then it has that groove and the second verse is about being in the bar with your girl. Because it's rooted in something real, the song is more impactful."
A more nuanced approach is the title track from Bentley's new album Home, also a No. 1 single this year. It's a patriotic hymn to America, but not in the usual way. The music is slowed-down and brooding, as if worried about a loved one, and the lyrics match the mood. The only finger-pointing is aimed at Bentley's own chest.
If teen romance is all about loving someone by pretending they're perfect, adult romance is all about loving someone while recognizing their flaws — and the same distinction can be made between juvenile patriotism and mature patriotism. "Been a long, hard road," Bentley sings on the chorus, "got a ways to go." On the second verse, he adds, "Free, nothing feels like free, though it sometimes means we don't get along / 'Cause same, no, we're not the same, but that's what makes us strong."
"Writing a patriotic song is a challenging thing," says Bentley. "To write it in a way I would sing it, it can't be all good-good-good. To be real, to be a great country song, you have to talk about the good and the bad. A lot of pop songs are all fun, and I've recorded a lot of those too, but the great songs talk about the bad times and how to get through them. That's what makes it real, that's what makes it long-lasting. That's what makes a song more than background music while I'm driving — it speaks to me. The same is true of songs about heartbreak.
"When I wrote 'Home' with Dan [Wilson] and Brett [Beavers], we were back in Arizona and the atmosphere in the room was charged, because Gabrielle Giffords had been shot four days before. I didn't want to write a jingoistic song, I couldn't sing that. The song had to face up to the hardships, the challenges we face as a country. It's not enough to just say it's the greatest country in the world — we all believe that, and I do too. But that doesn't add anything. We already know that."
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Home is the way it strikes that hard-to-find balance between electric and acoustic instruments. Bentley has always included at least one string-band arrangement on every album, and his previous record, 2010's Up on the Ridge, was a mostly bluegrass project. He spent much of his early years in Nashville hanging around The Station Inn, and he knows how to use banjos, mandolins and fiddles as more than mere window dressing.
On Home, Sam Bush and Tim O'Brien are featured on the string-band version of the wonderfully ambivalent "Heart of a Lonely Girl." But even on an arena-rock rave-up like "Gonna Die Young," banjo and fiddle from Bryan Sutton and Andy Leftwich (a former and a current member of Ricky Skaggs' Kentucky Thunder, respectively) are woven into the mix — and Leftwich takes the second solo, matching J.T. Corenflos' guitar break for intensity.
"It's fun to find out how these instruments work within country music," Bentley says, "but it's always a challenge. I want to make music that sounds good in a bar but also sounds good in an arena. It's not about throwing banjo on to make it sound country; it's about the instruments jiving with each other, responding to each other. They have to be integrated from the beginning. You can't record the rock band and then throw banjo and fiddle on top at the end. You have to produce the track with all those instruments in mind."
This integration of bluegrass and rock 'n' roll instruments is especially effective on Bentley's duet with Little Big Town's Karen Fairchild: Jamie Hartford and Gary Nicholson's song about a male-female friendship teetering on the brink of something more, "When You Gonna Come Around." (Little Big Town plays the Saturday stadium show.) Even better is the very funny old-school country song "Diamonds Make Babies," on which Bentley sounds like Alan Jackson singing a Roger Miller composition (cf. "Tall, Tall Trees").
Jackson, who performs Sunday, is one of the few CMA Music Fest acts this year born before Merle Haggard's first charting single in 1963. A Hat Act before the term was popular, Jackson is on the verge of entering that peculiar limbo of country royalty where an artist is name-checked by every young country singer yet can't get a new single played on the radio. Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings suffered this fate before they died, and Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and George Jones are stuck in the same limbo now. Jackson hasn't had a Top 10 single since 2009, but he's not ready to stop trying.
Jackson's brand-new album, Thirty Miles West, is his finest in years. Producer Keith Stegall has cut back on the production clutter to give Jackson's magnificent, honeyed tenor even more room to maneuver. When a guitar or fiddle solo comes along, it pops out from the minimal background with dramatic impact. Because Jackson is now willing to reach beyond Music Row to Americana songwriters, he has some of his best material in years: Guy Clark co-wrote the smart, catchy "Talk Is Cheap" with Morgane Hayes and The SteelDrivers' Chris Stapleton; Shawn Camp co-wrote the sing-along "Life Keeps Bringin' Me Down" with NRBQ's Al Anderson.
Jackson wrote some strong numbers himself, including his witty advice on how to avoid sexual temptation ("Look Her in the Eye and Lie") and his sobering look at coping with a dying loved one ("When I Saw You Leaving"). Jackson's "Dixie Highway" opens with a banjo intro, lifts the riff from Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama," features a duet with Zac Brown (Thursday's CMA stadium show), describes "rabbit tobacco" and a "butter bean and tomato garden," and climaxes with boogie-woogie piano and Western swing fiddle. If that's not a comprehensive tour of the rural South, I don't know what is.
If Jackson represents country music's past at its best, the new wave of Cap Acts mark a tentative groping towards the future. It's encouraging to find country radio's male stars finally busting out of the rigid roles the Hat Act formula had imposed on them. For too long, the male acts have been limited to two modes: chest-thumping jingoism or purring sweet-nothings.
For most of this new century, it has been female acts such as Miranda Lambert, Pistol Annies, The Dixie Chicks, Alison Krauss, Lee Ann Womack, Taylor Swift and Patty Loveless who have been driving innovation in the genre (and dominating the Nashville Scene's annual Country Music Critics Poll as a result). Jamey Johnson, who broke the female stranglehold on the poll, is lying low these days and is a subgenre unto himself anyway, but the Cap Acts are intent on proving that fresh ideas can come from a new male movement. And this year's CMA Music Fest may be their coming-out party.
"I believe better days are coming," Bentley declares. "I think Eric Church is writing great songs and making great records. Thomas Rhett is going to shake things up — he's got a bit of a hip-hop groove." Rhett plays the Riverfront Stage on Friday.
"I read this radio report that said the typical country listener was a mid-30s mom with two-and-a-half children who buys two-and-a-half CDs a year," Bentley adds. "I don't think that's true anymore. The country audience is more aggressive now, younger and more rebellious. A while ago, there were a lot of love songs from the men, kissing up to the girls. Even if all those tractor songs are clichéd, I'd rather hear that than all those kissing-up songs."