Purists scoff. Detractors, who are often vocal, will tell you that its soul has been lost. Those who are indoctrinated are often divided themselves, gravitating toward certain aspects and shying away from others.
Country music has never been more dynamic or divisive, and few artists know this quite like Chase Bryant and the Eli Young Band.
Both are artists with major hits in the past few years, the likes of which you could sing along to at any country bar in the Valley, yet both acts represent two different facets of modern country music – one has been cranking out hits of an alternative variety (“Drunk Last Night,” “Even If It Breaks Your Heart," “Crazy Girl”) for almost 15 years, and the other is a relative newcomer who’s had huge singles for two years straight, all without a debut record. Of the two, however, Bryant’s had more to prove with his sound, as it’s often the solo artist that seems like he could be a pop star more so than a band.
“We played a show the other night, and this guy came up and he said, ‘Man, you gotta be fed up with people telling you this isn’t country,’” Bryant recounts. “I thought ‘Wow, this is coming from a guy in his mid-60s.’ He said that when he was listening to country that it changed every five years, and it’s a different sound.”
And change it has. For the Eli Young Band, who formed in 2002, their mere structure wasn’t even en vogue when they were starting out. It was the era of Martina and Alan and Toby and Tim, and as Eli Young Band drummer Chris Thompson recalls, his newly formed act was often met with confusion.
“For the first couple years of our career, we’d tell people that we were a country band, and they’d ask us what that is,” he says. “We have a joke in the band: When we started, we were way too rock, and now we sometimes we feel like we’re not rock enough. I remember when we started, we’d crank the distortion up too far or play the drums too loud, and people would say that that’s not country, but now that seems to the be opposite.”
Loud is often the new twang. Take Eric Church’s The Outsiders from a few years back: The title track alone has a wall of guitar that’s large enough to drown out the naysayers, a handful of hair metal where there should be lap steel and fiddle. If anything though, it’s songs like these that so unabashedly hold the guitar at the forefront that are keeping the instrument alive and well in 2016.
“How many times do you turn on a pop station anymore and hear really heavy, guitar-driven music? You listen to guys like Walk The Moon and DNCE, and then you can go listen to something like Selena Gomez or Ariana Grande, and it might not have a bit of guitar on it,” Bryant says. “And that’s the really cool thing about country radio; even if you listen to something like a Thomas Rhett record, you’re still going to hear steel guitar, you’re still going to hear a banjo, you’re still going to hear a fiddle. The instrumentation has kept country music alive for so long, and the general sound of it is still there.”
Radio, however, is what keeps that sound, that genre, alive and kicking as well. Country is arguably the last genre that relies on the medium as a marker of success. If streaming is the new benchmark, then radio spins are the hatch marks on the measuring stick. While serving as a indicator, Bryant feels that radio is also an incubator for whatever that next five-year wave will consist of.
“I just think that I’m not really against anything that’s out right now, because I think that’s why the country-music radio market is alive,” he says. “When you think about what is paving the music, it’s really country radio. Country music is one of those things that’s opened [the genre] up to so many sounds. Through the years, I think it’s really special that you’ve got three or four or five different-sounding things on the radio on one station and I think there’s so many styles of music.”
Bryant’s claim is backed by “Room To Breathe,” his latest country radio single. It’s decidedly steamier than anything else he’s put out, the full evolution of his singles if you view “Take It On Back” as one end of the spectrum and “Little Bit Of You” as the waypoint between the two songs. It has the slinking sexiness of a walk-down bass line that’s as Backstreet Boys as anything else, and the searing guitar solo that’s become something of Bryant’s calling card.
Alternatively, “Saltwater Gospel,” the latest Eli Young Band single, is one of those lyrically left-of-center tracks on country radio at the moment. It’s not lamenting the loss of a partner, the joys of a truck, the longing for a riverbank and a moonlit country night – its message is daringly religious of sorts and sunnily presented, trading church-pew euphemisms for feet in the sand and toes in the surf. It’s proof that, yes, Bryant may be right and country may be the only radio market that could play songs like “Saltwater Gospel” and “Room to Breathe” side by side.
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However different, both singles do what country music does best: They tell stories and they tell them well. Bryant’s may be of lust and longing, while Thompson’s is of making his own church, but they represent the dynamic that’s present in country music and the voices that make them each relatable.
“I usually rely on my nieces or nephews, just younger people in general, what they think about that, and what I keep hearing is that a lot of younger kids are missing the authenticity of music,” Thompson says. For Bryant, that authenticity lies in the music he makes, not just the aesthetic or perceived audience around it. Everyone has a story, and country may be one of the only commercially viable vehicles to convey each one while still pushing the format forward.
“I finally figured out that it’s not about wearing a cowboy hat – it’s about telling the truth and country music has always been about stories and real-life things,” he says. “That was kind of the hardest thing to me, just people saying ‘This isn’t country, this isn’t country,’ and then just one day waking up and going ‘Well, it’s real, it’s what I believe, it’s what I feel, so it’s gotta be country.’”