And I thought Brantley Gilbert was protesting too much…
The question of what defines “country music” has been a hot-button issue in the genre for decades, and Luke Bryan has been one of the most–recent lightning rods for this debate. His incorporation of elements commonly associated with other genres into his own sound has put him in the crosshairs of traditionalists who bemoan the corruption of the genre, and while he’s far from the only artist taking this approach, his immense popularity makes him an easy target when someone wants to highlight “what’s wrong with today’s country.” Now, Bryan is punching back as his critics over the airwaves by releasing “What Makes You Country” as the fourth (and final?) single from his album of the same name. However, while I appreciate his inclusive attitude, this song comes across as a wolf in poorly-fitting sheep’s clothing, and is more of a vehicle for Bryan to show off his own country credentials than it is to advocate for a big-tent approach to the genre. It’s just one of those “I’m so country” songs that I lost interest in hearing years ago.
On the production side, the song tries to find a happy medium between contemporary and classical country, hoping to both appease Bryan’s existing fanbase and win over some hardcore traditionalists. The track opens with a rollicking electric guitar and a hard-hitting drum set, but eventually turns the melody duties over to a slow-rolling (token) banjo (at least for the verses). There’s no fiddle or steel guitar to be found, but there aren’t any synthetic elements either, and the song ends up having more of a light country-rock feel than anything else (imagine a decaffeinated version of a Jason Aldean song). Unfortunately, the slower, methodical tempo means the song doesn’t have a lot of energy either, and it’s got a clean, cookie-cutter feel to it that doesn’t do enough to hook the listener and draw them into the story. I’ll leave the debate of whether this mix is “country” or not to smarter pundits, but one thing this sound is not is interesting.
For a guy with Bryan’s talent, I haven’t been all that impressed with his performances as of late, and that trend continues on “What Makes You Country.” On a technical level, he checks all the boxes: Solid range, decent flow, and the ability to own the narrator’s role and really make the song feel personal. Where he fails, however, is in forging a strong connection to the listener and actually making them care about the narrator’s country credentials. I’m sure the protagonist did a lot of hunting, fishing, and hay baling during his formative years, but I’m also zero percent interested in hearing them talk about it, and Bryan just isn’t able to inject enough life into the writing to make the story worth hearing. While the lyrics certainly deserve a lot of blame for this issue, I expect a much stronger sales pitch from a veteran performer with a shelf full of awards like Bryan, and he just doesn’t deliver here.
I tend to talk a lot about how the production complements or detracts from a song’s lyrics, but in this case it’s the poor fit between the artist and the lyrics that really hurts this track. On the surface, this song serves two purposes: It argues for a broader definition of “country” to accommodate a wide variety of experiences, while also firmly establishing the narrator as someone who fits that definition. Coming from a newer artist like Riley Green or Travis Denning, this premise wouldn’t raise any eyebrows: They’re still feeling out their place in the genre and trying to convince the audience that they belong, and pushing country music to broaden its horizons would feel more heartfelt than self-serving. When Luke Bryan delivers this message, however, his prior baggage makes this argument feel a bit less genuine.
With tracks like “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” and “That’s My Kind Of Night,” Bryan became one of the faces of the genre-bending Bro-Country movement, and his “country-ness” has been questioned by fans and journalists for the better part of a decade now. In this context, Bryan’s tone when bringing up the debate over what’s “country” feels more combative than it should, because he’s the one people are often talking about. The long, drawn-out laundry list of activities in the chorus makes him sound like he’s trying way too hard to convince people that he belongs in the genre, and he comes across as small and defensive as a result. Finally, his message of inclusiveness feels more hollow than it should because he’s clearly someone who stands to benefit from such an arrangement, making the listener wonder whether he really feels that way or whether he’s just trying to save himself from the pitchforks and torches of the traditionalist crowd.
There are other fundamental issues with the writing (the imagery is boilerplate by design, and the chorus feels like it needs a stronger narrative to bring everything together), but the bottom line is that screaming “I am too country!” isn’t a good look for Bryan, and makes him appear to be punching down at critics when he should be staying above the fray.
“What Makes You Country” is not inherently a bad song, but it’s a bad Luke Bryan song because he’s just too polarizing a figure to come across as impartial in this debate. “Country,” like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and with a discography like Bryan’s, no amount of fishing line or bird dogs is going to change peoples’ perception of his authenticity. There’s no point in him wasting time and energy talking about it, and there’s no point in you wasting time and energy listening.
Rating: 5/10. Pass.