Is the New Country Music Making us Weak?

Exploring the Shift From Struggle to Comfort

In Monday’s post, “Grit and Godliness,” I explored how country music from the 60s and 70s built on the biblical truth that life is hard and that we grow through embracing struggle.

In the evolution country music went through in the 20th century, it never left behind struggle and suffering as dominant motifs. In fact, country songs often romanticized suffering to the point of perversity, thus leading to the joke that if you play country music backwards you get your dog back, your job back, and your wife back.

In the corpus of country songs about the anti-hero that emerged in the 70s, struggle and hardship remained central, including the self-inflicted suffering that comes from vices like crime and drink. Yet even when country music glorified the anti-hero, it continued to accept hardship as a natural part of life. The blues influence, rooted as it was in Negro spirituals about suffering (i.e., songs like “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”), contributed to an ethic in which hardship rather than convenience was the accepted norm for life. When hardship comes as the consequence of sin - as it frequently was in songs about the anti-hero - this was often tinged with moral awareness, as when Johnny Cash reflected in “Folsom Prison Blues,” that he should have listened to his mother tell him to be a good boy and never play with guns.

From Hardship to Hedonism

I’m not a country music scholar, so I can’t tell you exactly when the themes in country music began to shift. But I can tell you that when I listen to contemporary country on the radio, it has a very different ethic from what we find in Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard, etc. As country music has become gentrified - a costume act that features urban pop artists dressing up as cowboys and singing with a fake twang - the message has shifted from hardship to happiness, from struggle to comfort.

A 2018 NPR report, “How the Sound of Country Music Changed,” reflected on how, in the second decade of the 21st century, a shift began to occur in which “hard times, relational strife and emoting in general receded from country radio playlists.” In place of these older themes, contemporary country music celebrates a frictionless life. The songs romanticize comfort, pleasure, and the life of ease. Instead of singing about that heartbreak feeling that comes from suffering, new country music is about the happy feeling one gets from partying.

This new ethic is exemplified in the music video for Eric Paslay's "Friday Night." Driving through the Nashville nightlife in a Cadillac convertible, Paslay picks up a group of half-dressed girls who party in the backseat while he sings

I wanna be your Friday night sweet ride
Summertime sunshine barefoot in the moonlight
I wanna be your jackpot hot spot
Wide open road in a candy apple rag top
I wanna set you free, I wanna take you high
I wanna be, wanna be your Friday night

Passivity and Escapism

With this shift, the locked-and-loaded mentality that is ready for a showdown with the devil (as exemplified in Charlie Daniels's 1979 hit “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”) has been exchanged for passivity in the face of challenge. The message is, don't fight, don't stir things up, but take the route of least resistance. Kenny Chesney’s 2018 hit “Get Along,” is typical of the message:

Paint a wall, learn to dance
Call your mom, buy a boat
Drink a beer, sing a song
Make a friend, can't we all get along

In addition to the passive “can’t we all just get along" motif in modern country music, there is also a strong message of passively accepting fate: what will happen will happen, so just relax and don't struggle. This ethic featured in Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s phenomenal 2017 hit, “Meant to Be.”

Maybe we do
Maybe we don't
Maybe we will
Maybe we won't

But if it's meant to be, it'll be, it'll be Baby, just let it be (sing it, Bebe)

Even modern country songs that deal with dark themes still routinely hold out passivity as the answer, as if the solution to our woes is to just sit tight and not to rock the boat. For example, Kane Brown’s 2018 song “American Bad Dream” reflects on how messed up America has become. But his recurring theme is not to fight or struggle, but just to wait for someone to wake him up so he can realize that none of this hardship ever really happened.

Bro-Country’s New Ethic

With these shifts, a genre of country has emerged known as “Bro-Country.” Drawing on influences from pop music, this new style enables the listener to escape to a utopian realm in which everything is sunshine and roses. Elena Sheppard explains:

In a bro-country song it is summer, endless summer. I understand the South is warm, but there definitely are a few brisk days. Not in bro-country. In bro-country everyone is “high on summertime,” and it always feels like, "southern summer, whiskey's in the air." Without the omnipresence of the warmest season our bros couldn’t make all those deep, moving, and powerful declarations of love like, “baby you’re my summer jam."

With the new emphasis, the classic broken-heart love song has seen a decline. In 2016 Joe Blevins noted that songs within the category of “It’s Not Working Out” “represented a huge percentage of country music back in 1965.” But now, “those songs have been virtually squeezed out of existence… People would rather hear about partying, it seems.”

From Work Week to Weekend

In my previous article, “Grit and Godliness,” I discussed how the work week played an important role in older country songs. Here, too, there has been a discernible shift. From Elena Sheppard:

In country music of yore, weeks had seven days. There were drinks on Saturday, church on Sunday, and a 9-5 the rest of the week. In bro-country there are Fridays and there are Saturdays. The end. Every bro wants to be “your Friday night” but none of them want to be your Monday morning. As for the ladies, the bros only want someone that "everybody wants on a Saturday night.” Again, no Monday mornings please. These bros have given up on the antiquated Rascal Flatts idea of "every day love" and traded it in for late night liaisons. 

Inversion of Masculinity 

If the older country music instilled in us the values of being capable and sturdy, the new country music instills the values of weakness and passivity. The music videos accompanying this style are not the rugged cowboy braving the elements alone with his horse, and they are a far cry from Marshal Kane walking alone to meet almost certain death after all his friends have abandoned him in the 1952 film High Noon. Rather, these videos show men who never seem to work driving brand new Chevrolet Silverados, wearing $7000 boots that have never got dirty, with gorgeous female models who seem always available. If the old country music encouraged us to be tough, the new country music makes us weak, offering an image of comfort and convenience that is an inversion of true masculinity.

As an antidote to the new country music, let me leave you with "The Ballad of High Noon," sung by Tex Ritter for the opening of High Noon.  This movie, and the music that so perfectly captured its values, will always resonate with us, because we know in our gut that we become more human only by embracing struggle.

has a Master’s in Historical Theology from King’s College London and a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is the blog and media managing editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a regular contributor to Touchstone and Salvo. He has worked as a ghost-writer, in addition to writing for a variety of publications, including the Colson Center, World Magazine, and The Symbolic World. Phillips is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches (Ancient Faith, 2020), and Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation (Ancient Faith, 2023). He operates a blog at

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