Bro Country – The End. C’est tout fini. All Done.
I started this self-imposed challenge to figure out why people love Bro Country because I’m genuinely curious and hate missing out on fun, traits that explain a few “incidents” I can laugh about now and where the phrase “what Mum doesn’t know can’t hurt me” came from. In comparison to stealing a Camero, Bro Country seemed tame. For a while, I thought I was cracking the code, getting a bit big for my boots, until Darius Rucker showed up at Bangor’s Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion. I admit defeat but wish to offer special thanks to my main interpreters, Dennis and Jasmine MacIntosh, who have been kind enough to answer countless questions, share opinions, and validate perceptions.
A good soaking rain was forecast for Friday, the day of Rucker’s show, but that failed to materialize – no downpour, no double rainbow. It makes a person wonder if that means that maybe Darius Rucker isn’t full-fledged Bro Country. Yes, I know that isn’t logical, but based on our current political lack of reasoning, it’s not the craziest argument we heard this month. Anyway, I’ll get back to Rucker in a minute, but first, I have to say the crowd for this show was one odd mix: one part craft beer, one part Trumpers, one part tattoos, one part fraternity boys, one part original Hootie and the Blowfish lovers, and if you don’t recognize yourself in those parts then you were the one part regular country music fan. As I said, an odd mix. Moving on…
The show started with Michael Ray. He and his band came out ready to put on a big, wild show to warm up the crowd, electric guitars blazing, tattooed, and ready to roll. These guys gave it all they had. Ray has a nice country voice, big and rich when he is warmed up and really works the pipes, and his vocals were fantastic on “Real Men Love Jesus” and his cover of David Lee Murphy’s “Dust on the Bottle,” an 80s country classic. The crowd gave Ray a positive response to this cover, all joining in and grooving to Murphy’s hit. Remember David Lee Murphy? He looked like a skinny 70s version of Elvis but with a cowboy hat. Yes, I did start thinking about David Lee Murphy during Ray’s performance. Why? Because that helped me stop wondering why in the world he chose to wear those ugly, low hanging skinny pants to perform in front of a few thousand people. What were you thinking, son? Okay, I’m done. Objectively, Ray has a nice voice, great energy, a fun band, and besides the apparent audio trouble, he did a nice job.
Dan & Shay were next. I’d make more skinny jeans jokes, but I don’t know where to start, and the crowd seemed happy so I’m just going to let it drop because I can be an adult. Where were we? Yes, back to Dan & Shay. Dan & Shay feel like the twin offspring of ‘N Sync and Rascal Flatts, I bet that was one drunken night, nice harmonies, high energy, working the crowd, and hair. Their band was balls to the wall and giving it all they could to increase the excitement of the show. Nice job. They played their hits and did some covers. The crowd sang along.
I got bored, folks, I cannot tell a lie, and I really crashed during set changes. I always listen to the music piped into the venue between bands. You see, they played New Grass Revival’s “Callin’ Baton Rouge.” That voice, the banjo, and the fiddles. Just like a cool newgrass breeze. I knew I had it bad – I mean Bad – when I was thrilled to hear Alabama’s “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band),” the second most overplayed country song of the 20th century. Fiddles. Country guitar. Is that asking for much? I started reminiscing about my old cassette collection of Dwight Yoakum, Foster & Lloyd, The O’Kanes, and Clint Black…sigh. Dear Jesus, please let there be fiddles and a little bit of twang.
Ask and you shall receive.
Darius Rucker came on stage just as the sun was setting. Wearing a trucker hat, a t-shirt, and a pair of wrangleresque-fitting jeans, he was the most regular looking guy that stage had seen all evening. And he brought with him all the fixings of country music – a fiddle, a banjo, a pedal steel guitar, Southern keyboards, and country guitar – and put on a fantastic show. The crowd went nuts for Rucker and his band as they launched into their set that covered new releases, his older country hits, and even included his work with Hootie and The Blowfish.
Darius Rucker has that vocal style that crosses easily between pop and country music: sweet, velvety, and a full range. He was generous with the crowd, enjoyed himself on stage, and gave the fans, younger and older, what they wanted to see – him. People just love Darius Rucker. He has an interesting stage show with lots of video and special effects. He isn’t heavy on the choreography, he tells a few short stories, and he graciously shares his music with the audience. This setlist seemed to have more variety than his earlier Bangor performance and spotlighted his strength across several styles. Rucker’s show felt similar to what I remember as a country music concert. I may be a fan of that “old fashioned” country sound, but I’m still picky about my country music. Rucker was top notch.
Rucker’s band looked like a hard rock band, and by the sounds could have as easily covered Black Sabbath as George Jones. Having mastered a wide range of instruments, they were tight, energetic, and just kept pumping out the Southern-style country music. Rucker did not let up for a minute, delivering some favorite covers, “Friends in Low Places,” slowing down for “Let Her Cry,” and even went in for the twang from time to time, including “Southern State of Mind,” my favorite, complete with glorious southern keyboards. And before it all ended for the night, there was a cover of “Purple Rain,” unexpected but fantastic.
Fiddles. A little twang. A great voice. Top notch musicians. That’s country music and another great show on the Bangor Waterfront.
So back to my exploration of Bro Country. Here’s how I see it. The bands like Michael Ray and Dan & Shay, and countless others that look and sound pretty much the same, are doing what they can to make a mark while they can. These smaller acts clinging to their labels are doing just that – clinging. And God love ‘em, hold on boys! There is no money in record sales, little more in touring, and the only part of the music industry really able to draw crowds is Country. That doesn’t give artists much to work with if they really want to hone their craft and make great music. Christopher Joles, my husband and photographer for Maine Music News, hit it on the head when he said these young, small Bro Country bands are akin to Hair Bands of the late 80s, packaged and trying their best. The musicians can play, there is a lot of talent on the stage, and the vocalists can without a doubt sing, but if you want to play in the big label sandbox, you have to do what sells. And this look and sound and style sells. For now. Remember what happened to the hair bands? It was all eyeliner and girls, girls, girls until one day the grunge sound came out of the garage; spandex was out and stringy hair and flannel was in. Good bye, Aquanet. Hello, Cobain. We all got to make a living, right?
I’ll wrap this up, my trip through Bro Country, by paraphrasing Luke Bryan from a NBC interview with Willy Geist on July 31st, 2016…Bryan said that he may be criticized for not being the most artistic country performer but he considered his artistry to be bringing people together to have a great time. I’ll give it to him and all the other artists dedicated to giving the fans a party – they are indeed entertaining and worth the price of admission. Country music is in the eye of the beholder of the beer – if it makes you shake your ass and sing along, it’s getting the job done.