Bro Country – Part One
Never let it be said that I am unwilling to try new things. When the Machias Savings Bank Summer Concert Series lineup was announced and it was loaded with popular country artists, I knew it was time for me to stop being a country music crank and start figuring out what makes the crowds go nuts for this music. This is the first installment of what will be my summer long sojourn through Bro-Country. Wish me luck.
At Thursday’s show, an old friend reminded me that I had liked country before country was actually cool. I believe Barbara Mandrell had a similar hit single along that same sentiment. Although I have no recollection of dragging my friend to a country show back in the 80s, I have always liked some country music – Johnny, Waylon, Willie, Kris, Dolly, and Patsy, of course, but particularly the rebel in Hank Jr, the hard core hillbilly of Dwight Yoakum, and the dark whiskey lonesome of Gary Allen, to name a few. (Eric Church was a favorite as well, but I’m still holding a grudge after his flaccid showing on The Waterfront in 2015.) Long story short, I didn’t get on the Bro Country hay wagon. Well, it is time to come to terms with the new face of country. If any tour lineup was going to put me through my paces, it would be that of Florida Georgia Line as they cross the country on the Dig Your Roots tour.
Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion was packed. I don’t have a ticket sale count, but the place was redneck deep in flannel, cowboy hats, and beer sales Thursday night. From my perch, the lawn area was as full as the GA pit, probably moreso. Maine does love its country music and fans come out ready to party. We even had another double rainbow after a good down pour went through town.
First up on stage was newcomer Kane Brown. He said he had always wanted to sing in the rain, and he finally had a chance to do so. His set was full of electric guitar riffs and hard-driving rhythm. We can call this country, but this style of music is, at least to my mind, closer to rock music than to The Grand Old Opry, and the fans love it. And what’s not to love? The songs are clever and full of that wonderful double entendre that country writers do best. Brown was engaged, loved the crowd, and the musicians in his band were great. Brown’s vocals can really dig down deep and seem to be best when he pushes a bit. The fans knew his work and responded well to “Wide Open,” “Used to Love You Sober,” and enjoyed his next single for radio, “Thunder in the Rain.”
Next was something somewhat different – The Cadillac Three. This trio came to Maine a few years ago with Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top and at that time were known as The Cadillac Black. I was interested to see their performance this time around since my first experience was a good one. They seem a bit more polished but have retained the Stars and Bars as well as the kickass swampy twang and holler that sets them apart from the other acts in the lineup. TC3 takes a really gritty posture on Southern rock and gets their money’s worth from Jaron Johnson on guitar, Kelby Ray on lap steel guitar, and Neil Mason on drums because this band makes a big sound on stage. Johnson’s vocals are near and dear to my heart as they are eerily similar to Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr. Ray’s work on the lap steel guitar makes the signature sound here, adding interest and depth. For fans attracted to the energy of TC3, I recommend checking out their studio work as it offers more variety than the setlist for this show. These boys have a lot to offer and will be interesting to watch as they find their way.
Now back to Bro.
Cole Swindell took the stage and the fans were happy to see him. With rock guitarists on each side of him, Swindell’s set started off with the driving, Aldeanesque “Down Home Boys,” but he then put on the downhome charm and delivered hit after hit, including “Chillin’ It,” “Middle of a Memory,” and “Ain’t Worth the Whiskey.” Based on the amount of love he received from the fans, Swindell is all that and a bag of chips: he fits the mold of Bro Country, does a great job working the crowd, is full of energy, and the sentiment of his songs – alcohol and women – are on target. Add to this an exciting lead guitarist, Joel Hutsell, who looks like Tarzan, plays like a bonafide rock star, and creates dimension in the music on riff after riff. (To be fair, there is another guitarist as well who does a great job, too, but I wasn’t able to track down the name – nice job, dude.) Swindell has been fully embraced by the big names of Bro Country, and he even has a clever drinking song, “No Can Left Behind,” that will make him the toast of tailgates, gravel pits, and beer tents all summer long.
As the stage was being shifted for the headlining act, I was struck by the music being played – it was pop, not country. What? And no one noticed. Even a little. They liked it. It seemed normal to them. The crowd was singing along and knew all the words, they even strutted in rhythm on their way back from the beer tent, usually double-fisting it and not spilling a drop. A special shout out to the cowboy hat couple in section 7 who entertained the crowd with their dance moves for several songs. They were good, great fun to watch, full of joy, and even received a round of applause, myself included. This all got me to thinking…
Then it was time for the Big Guns of Bro Country. Just about dark, Florida Georgia Line took the stage and set Bangor on fire, figuratively of course, although there was a substantial amount of fire involved in their stage show. Made up of Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard, FGL are the sliced bread of country music currently, Bro or otherwise. If you take off the traditional country music goggles for a minute, it is easy to see why FGL has risen to prominence so quickly – these boys have elevated the art form of powerhouse country entertainment. Sharing the stage, vocals, and harmonies means they have twice the energy to give. Maximizing technology, they are visually exciting, sometimes almost blinding. FGL keeps the crowd going full throttle song after song, hit after hit. The setlist was full of their established hits, “This is How We Roll,” “Smooth,” and of course “Cruise,” as well as newer releases such as “H.O.L.Y.,” already a hit, too. Adding in a bit of acoustic and some other touches, FGL rolled through the show without ever slowing down. And the fans kept up, loving every minute of it.
As a FGL newbie, it appeared to me that Hubbard is the ringleader by a smidge with Kelley a bit more sedate. On that subject, Kelley seems to have a new look with longer locks, a bandana, and were those Tom Brady’s Uggs? Probably not, and in fairness, it was quite chilly. All joking aside, what these entertainers may lack in the original elements of country music department, they make up for in smarts. Seriously.
Looking at the band objectively, this duo has wrapped two big personalities, the hard edge of rock and roll, the dance-ability of pop, subtle choreography, tons of pyro, state of the art video, talented electric guitars, a killer beat, the occasional rap/reggae vibe, the lure of alcohol, pretty girls, and the term “boondocks” into an impressive brand strategy that fans love because who doesn’t want to have fun? (Twang is only so much fun, but beer and fire? Even I know that’s fun.) Clearly musically adept and smart enough to work with the pros to fine tune their vision, Florida Georgia Line are in it to make a mark on the industry, and they may just be a game changer. Time will tell. And right now, everyone is having too much fun to care. There’s a lot to be said for that.
Stay tuned for the next Bro Country installment.