That Dustin Lynch played a Justin Timberlake song Sunday at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival hardly seemed a big deal.
But when Lynch, best known for his hit single "Cowboys and Angels," moved from Timberlake's "Rock Your Body" into a remarkably faithful rendition of "Say Aah" by the R&B star Trey Songz — and his audience squealed in excited approval — then it was clear: Country is changing.
The headliners at this year's Stagecoach — which brought Eric Church, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and over 60,000 fans to the Empire Polo Club in Indio — were three of the highest-profile purveyors of what's often referred to as "bro country." It's the hugely popular Nashville variant that sets words about tailgates and tan lines (to borrow the title of one of Bryan's albums) against crunching arena-rock guitars.
The bros didn't disappoint, either. Church opened his show Friday with "That's Damn Rock & Roll," an AC/DC song in virtually all respects but the singer's Southern accent, and Aldean had pyrotechnics and huge video screens straight out of the hair-metal style guide.
On one of the festival's smaller stages, the grizzled veterans of Lynyrd Skynyrd — bros emeriti, let's call them — even played to an enormous overflow crowd that seemed to regard "Simple Man" as though it were a foundational roots-music text. (The crowd was right — it is.)
Throughout the weekend, though, many of the younger artists at Stagecoach — guys (and a few women) who came up in Aldean's shadow — looked elsewhere for inspiration. For them, rock songs from the 1970s and '80s are nearly as old-fashioned as the midcentury rockabilly tunes you could hear 76-year-old Wanda Jackson play Sunday afternoon. They're borrowing more widely, from pop and hip-hop and dance music and R&B.
Was this the birth of baby-bro country?
Fresh-faced Hunter Hayes made you think so with the Daft Punk-style robot voices he used in his hit "Storm Warning." Ditto Thomas Rhett, who appended a bit of the rapper J-Kwon's club classic "Tipsy" to his song "All-American Middle Class White Boy."
And there was no way to deny it while watching Florida Georgia Line, the thrillingly boisterous duo whose Sunday night set put more bass in my face than any country show I've ever seen.
"Give me something with a backbeat, with country in the rap beat," Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley demanded in "Party People," "And twist it on up to 10." On at least four occasions Hubbard thanked the audience for changing his and Kelley's lives by making huge hits out of their songs.
But after "Cruise" — the biggest-selling country download of all time, according to Nielsen SoundScan — he went one better and told the group's fans that they'd also "changed country music history." He was referring, presumably, to those fans' endorsement of the full-fledged integration of hip-hop and country.
Florida Georgia Line didn't invent that hybrid. The Georgia rapper Bubba Sparxxx made waves over a decade ago with a strong debut album produced by Timbaland. And Colt Ford has been rhyming over twangy guitar riffs for years; in 2008 he and Brantley Gilbert wrote and recorded "Dirt Road Anthem," which Aldean later covered and took to No. 1 on Billboard's country chart. (Aldean and Gilbert both performed the song at Stagecoach.)
But those artists combined the two styles with the zeal of self-conscious outlaws. Today the fusion is commonplace, even expected among young listeners for whom country is more a lifestyle than a type of music. Lynch wasn't trying to shock anyone by covering Trey Songz; he was merely expanding his sound to encompass what plays on his and his fans' iPhones.
The gesture has become so safe, in fact, that it's trickled upward (or is it backward?) to the bros, who now risk appearing out of touch if they limit their adventures to Tom Petty and Bon Jovi.
In his festival-closing performance Sunday night, Bryan worked hard — well, as hard as this twinkly-eyed charmer ever works – to come across as a product of the heartland. "Rain Is a Good Thing" was about how rain makes corn, which makes whiskey, which makes "my baby feel a little frisky"; he introduced "Muckalee Creek Water" with a bit of invective about unfettered gun rights.
But he also did a slick version of "Can't Hold Us" by the pop-rap duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. And during his encore Bryan injected a few lines from Jason Derulo's "Talk Dirty" into his hit "Country Girl (Shake It for Me)."
Do these songs mean anything to Bryan? Or was he just exploiting their appeal to a large portion of his audience? It's anyone's guess. Either way, the country girls happily obliged.