I grew up in a rural town in central Oregon. When my family moved there in 1999 the population was less than 1,000. The main attraction was, at the time, a rodeo. Country music was the first music that I encountered that was popular amongst my peers. And it is with great shame that I tell you, dear reader, that in August of 2001, the first album that I ever bought with my own money was Toby Keith’s PULL MY CHAIN. And then 9/11 happened.
We all, of course, have memories of our childhood that come back and kick us Spartacus-style into a pit of despair and prolonged embarrassment. For me, that memory is sitting at the lunch table that fateful afternoon with a bunch of other now-faceless second graders. I knew something was wrong. I knew all of the adults and a lot of the other kids were very upset, and I knew I was too—being a little kid, I didn’t fully know how to express that. And in that moment, I pounded my fist on the lunchroom table and exclaimed “I HATE those terrorists! I hope they go to jail!” and cried. It’s a bit of a funny thing in retrospect, but more than anything, I feel a lot of remorse about that moment in my young life. I didn’t know what was meant by the word “terrorist” at the time, other than someone who did a very bad thing, but I sure as hell know what that words means to most Americans now, and knowing that I associated and enabled that rhetoric, even in a moment of youthful ignorance, makes me incredibly ashamed. I don’t want to get too “Hillbilly Elegy” on this point, but if you’re a white person, you’re lying to yourself if you haven’t, at some point, come face to face with this specific brand of xenophobia and seen how easy it is to be sucked into it.
That event changed the course of the entire music industry in a lot of ways, but it had a particularly galvanizing effect on country music. Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” was a massive hit in the country world, winning a Grammy and sitting atop the country charts for several weeks. But as the song has sort of marinated in my head, I can’t get past the lyrics of the song, in which Jackson sings proudly about one of the oldest things in the country playbook: being a simple man who’s just trying to reckon with the crazy world around him. The only thing about this song that sticks with me out of its original context, though, is its lyric about not being able to tell the difference between Iraq and Iran, nor particularly caring to know that difference and excusing himself for what is, at best, malicious ignorance because, you know, he’s just a simple, country man who does simple things. Not much later, though, the American nationalism train in country music went full-steam ahead with the aforementioned Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” a song that’s so jingoistic and aggressive that it’s almost laughable.
But this stuff is NOT A JOKE, FOLKS! Toby Keith’s early 2000s persona, from the jingoism era to “Red Solo Cup,” a song that sowed the seeds for egregious frattiness that was yet to come in country, laid the framework for the thing that an act like, say, Florida Georgia Line, claims to represent. Toby Keith’s songs about having fun with pretty girls and trucks are built on some morbid foundations, and this is very important to understand and acknowledge when evaluating the country industry.
Truthfully, the boys in Florida Georgia Line seem to actually be real Southern country boys, and it’s not necessarily difficult to buy that from them, as they look and sound the part enough. But like Toby Keith, they have watered down what “country” means to them and to their identities to such a degree that it’s sort of impossible to decipher what that even means, having built their houses upon endless pro-redneck virtue signaling and a dizzying amount of references to jeans, parties, mamas, various hard alcohols, musicians, and all the things that Nashville uses to convince us that this version of “country” culture is something that exists and is not just made up for money. While other country musicians do this too, Florida Georgia Line seem to have it down to an absolute science.
Everything about Florida Georgia Line as a band is relentlessly cynical. Each new song they release seems to be competing against other Florida Georgia Line songs in a race to see which song can get out of the verse and into the hook quickest. They aim for universality in describing the down-home, God-fearing, rustic lives they lead, constantly pandering to Small Town, USA with a cheapness that has only been surpassed in recent memory by party rockers LMFAO, whose song “I’m In Your City, Bitch” has over 50 versions, each one referencing a specific city with the lyric “I’m in your city, bitch” (for example, “I’m in Chattanooga, bitch”—the Miami version has Pitbull on it, a refreshing and inspired choice). And so, the title of their latest album, CAN’T SAY I AIN’T COUNTRY, sits there and taunts, like that petulant Covington Catholic School kid. “Neener neener neener! YOU can’t say I’m not country!” While they never really try to define what country is, other than listing several semi-abstract concepts and references that provide a vague view, even that view of “country” seems pretty narrow and exclusionary. So if we are to understand what “country” is we must look elsewhere, because these two are not looking to be any help.
Instead, we should set sail to the gorgeous, rocky shores of Scandinavia. Sweden’s Rednex is (in my opinion) a critically underexplored phenomenon. It’s rare for the American consumer, who is often so wrapped up and overwhelmed by the culture that surrounds them that they are completely lacking in self-awareness, to see themselves in the funhouse mirror that American artists often hold up to various subcultures as they adapt them into simpler, more complex forms. Take, for example, the video to 1998’s “The Way I Mate.” The Swedish interpretation of one of America’s great musical traditions is 100% id-driven; big breasted and garishly made-up women in cutoff shirts, lots of hay, grotesque male yokel-types who do lots of dances that involve kicking. And for some reason, they all want to have sex with each other. Why? Who knows! But that’s just what they do, because they’re a bunch of dumb rednecks who roll around in hay and, I guess, ride trains a lot? (The plot[?] of the video revolves around some sort of mystical train on which the group dances and, at the end, has sex. I think.)
Fast forward to 2013. Florida Georgia Line releases the video for their hit song “This is How We Roll.” The video opens on motocross rider Travis Pastrana and his friend, “Kenny,” an overweight man with a large beard who has gotten his motorcycle stuck in a tree. But that’s okay! Because the boys in FGL (and their friend Luke Bryan) just pulled up in a semi-truck full of gorgeous, 100% white, scantily clad women, and they’re ready to show Travis Pastrana and Kenny a good time. They then sing their song while partying in, around, and on top of the semi-truck. What these men seem to believe “country” means is a couple of bad false teeth away from just straight up being the Weird Al Yankovic version of “country.”
The goal of pointing these similarities out isn’t to try to tell anyone that they need to be offended by Rednex or by Florida Georgia Line, nor is it to necessarily even defend these things we’ve come to know as “country.” Instead it’s a cheapening of one of the few interesting artistic and social traditions America ever had! It’s not a productive exercise to try and point fingers at when “country” became a set of aesthetics rather than a tradition, but that loss is worth lamenting, in particular because the existence of something like Rednex makes it clear (as if it wasn’t already) that country aesthetics have become synonymous on a worldwide scale with American ignorance and excess. Groups like Florida Georgia Line make it clear that not only were we (or, at least, the powers that be) okay with giving up on that history and tradition, but leaning into the association once it became apparent that they could make tons of money off of it.
Still, that tradition isn’t without saving. One of the greatest things about the country music tradition is the way that its female artists have used it as a platform for feminist themes and ideas, and even though country music trended toward the syrupy pop-with-pedal-steel-guitar-underneath stylings of folks like John Michael Montgomery and the Amy Grant/Vince Gill power coupling, the 1990s certainly had its moments. Reba McEntire brought the 1969 Bobbie Gentry song “Fancy” back into the spotlight, a song that unapologetically celebrates and lionizes its sex worker protagonist, and one of the decade’s biggest country hits, Martina McBride’s “Independence Day”, is a brilliant subversion of the “patriotic” country song trope and tells a frank and empowering tale of a woman leaving an abusive relationship. Shania Twain absolutely dominated the latter half of the decade on the charts with a trailblazing string of hits that were unapologetically self-celebratory and pushed the boundaries of genre convention in a way that hadn’t been done for years. I really can’t overstate this—when Nashville figured out that aggressive nationalism sells in America, they never went back. Though there were outliers like Natalie Maines and the Dixie Chicks, who vocally opposed the war, those outliers found themselves at risk of losing their careers, and if they had any allies in the industry, they sure didn’t show out for them. So, not only did the “simple man” jingoistic nonsense of Toby Keith cause direct, likely permanent links between American patriotism and Islamophobia, it killed the momentum of a movement of women that could have made country music one of the most progressive genres of American popular music and doomed it to stay in an infantile state for years as it was lapped by everything else.
Alan Jackson. 9/11. “Red Solo Cup.” Rednex. Dixie Chicks. Add all this together, and it’s particularly insulting and almost inevitable that Florida Georgia Line’s entire schtick would become incorporating elements of mainstream hip hop into their music. They aren’t the first to do this, lest we forget the R&B-meets-country-meets-midwest-emo (kind of) stylings of Nelly and Tim McGraw’s “Over My Head.” But Florida Georgia Line’s gigantic hits of 2013 made it commercially acceptable in the mainstream country world to add a drum machine to your country song, even if other artists like Kane Brown and Sam Hunt had more interesting takes on this idea. CAN’T SAY I AIN’T COUNTRY’s play for authenticity is even more puzzling in the current landscape, when thinkpieces are being commissioned about the reappropriation of the “cowboy” ideal by women of color, and a viral trap-country hit by a black man is being retroactively scrubbed from the Billboard Hot Country chart once it seemed to have a realistic shot at a high spot. The early points of Florida Georgia Line’s career show some of the most clear cut examples of cultural appropriation that has ever existed, and the fact that they are now clearly trying to distance themselves from the things that they are appropriated would be generously described as frustrating and accurately described as cowardly.
On CAN’T SAY I AIN’T COUNTRY, while they still seem to be aiming in the same direction marketing-wise, Florida Georgia Line do seem to be veering away a bit from their cartoonish bro-country roots and into some more “mature” territory, at least in terms of the kinds of emotions they’re choosing to invoke. I’ll get the part I was thinking about most out of the way: “Meant to Be,” FGL’s Billboard-topping song with Bebe Rexha, is not on this album. There are, though, some more tracks that similarly obscure the lines between top 40 pop and Nashville country. One that stands out is “Women,” a gospel-tinged waltz that features FGL’s Black Friend Jason Derulo and claims to celebrate all women, but really just kind of celebrates the ones that are either their mothers or conventionally attractive, and does so in a way that’s insufferably heteronormative and really lacks any interesting qualities. It’s a far cry from “Independence Day,” that’s for sure.
“Y’all Boys” utilizes a bizarre half-rockabilly, half-stadium country backing and, like many FGL songs, is a list of things that sets up a false binary between “them boys” and “y’all boys,” with “them boys” being city slicker/hipster types and “y’all boys” being country boys. “Swerve” sort of sounds like a rejected *NSYNC song that was retooled for this record. Some songs like “Talk You Out of It” and title track “Can’t Say I Ain’t Country” seem to aim to prove that the band can sound like a more traditional Nashville country group, and I suppose they succeed in that, but they don’t stand out from that crowd in any particular way. In fact, “Speed Of Love” sounds a lot like one of the great mainstream country songs of the new millenium, Dierks Bentley’s “What Was I Thinking,” a wildly fun ode to youthful disobedience, to the point that it’s hard to listen to it and not think of a separate and overall much better song.
Florida Georgia Line’s whole schtick is resting on a falsely inflated sense of authenticity that is undeniably ironic given that their music consciously steers so far away from what “country music” aesthetics have been in the past. So, at least intellectually, this record, and this band as a whole, are sort of subversive, at least. But at the same time: COME ON. They are the grinning, silent, and inoffensive faces of a popular music system that has been complicit in the fostering of violent racism and in quelling the voices of its female artists. CAN’T SAY I AIN’T COUNTRY is, at 16 songs and 50 minutes, an endless well of Country™ identity politicking—the musical equivalent of Blake Shelton being named “Sexiest Man Alive.” It’s proof that the powers that be bought into the cartoon vision that was projected onto country music—and onto Americans themselves—by others, and it’s proof that we’re all okay with that as long as its avatars are nice enough to look at.
While it’s not, at face value, anything more than a boring record, CAN’T SAY I AIN’T COUNTRY is a symptom of something deeper that must be actively purged from the country music industry. Prideful of its ignorance and self-satisfied its in mediocrity, it’s a far cry from “three chords and the truth.” It might sound like an exaggeration, but we owe it to the centuries of people who have come together to build the musical cultures that we love and enjoy to this day to reject this and to say that it, in fact, ain’t country. There’s reason for cautious optimism that it’s a new era in country music. The overwhelming cultural success of Kacey Musgraves’ GOLDEN HOUR is encouraging, and Musgraves, along with the holy throwback triumvirate of Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, and Jason Isbell, seem to be the standard-bearers for the future of what “country” is. But that won’t happen unless this part of it is buried, so go give those folks your money instead.