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Sorry, Bro: Country’s Next Hot Thing Has Arrived

Dustin Lynch, Canaan Smith
Rick Diamond / Ethan Miller, Getty Images

Someone will think of a snappy name soon enough. It’ll rhyme with “Bro” and end with “country” and will stick the way “gate” sticks as a suffix to every scandal of the last decade. Country’s next big thing won’t be quite as disposable, however. Suddenly, everything old is new again.

It’s too early to call Canaan Smith a budding country superstar, but it’s fair to collar Thomas Rhett, Brett Eldredge and Dustin Lynch with the label. All three are taking a page from the Billy Currington songbook with songs that mix country and R&B. Sam Hunt’s tonic defines the new sound, perhaps pushing it further than some are comfortable with. Rhett and company keep their sound between country’s well-defined (but increasingly broad) rails.

Thus far, Lynch hasn’t released any of the R&B tracks from his Where It’s At album, but give him time. The singer agreed with Taste of Country when asked if avoiding those cuts (“Mind Reader” and “Sing It to Me” are two examples) would result in a misrepresentation of his album.

“It will happen,” Lynch admitted at the 2015 ACM Awards. “We’ll definitely release that flavor into the world.” His live show often includes these highlights, and at times, a sexy cover of Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” as seen here:

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Rhett’s R&B roots are less specific and more vintage. On “Crash and Burn” he brings some country soul — a sound he’s said for over a year will define his sophomore effort. Smith includes two R&B flavored tracks on Bronco. It’s likely the title track will become a single, but — like Lynch — avoiding songs like “One of Those” and “Love at First” would be a poor representation of what his debut album is all about.

All of these artists are 35 years old and younger, and all grew up with, or at least developed an open mind about what country music is and can be. You won’t catch Eldredge defining the genre in narrow terms. Old Dominion are another act that mix a smoother sound with their twang. Almost lost in the laugh-out-loud lyrics of “Break Up With Him” is the song’s R&B flavored arrangement. Like Chase Rice (“Gonna Wanna Tonight” and the red-hot “Ride” are two of his most R&B influenced cuts), OD have been very popular on satellite radio and streaming services, two sources that rely on non-traditional country fans. They’re bringing fans to the genre, which is good for everyone’s bottom line.

"If you strip away that Oklahoma accent, Blake Shelton becomes John Legend."

Direct influences from artists like Usher and R. Kelly are part of the reason for this marriage of styles. It’s also a result of an old country sound getting a fresh coat of paint. Trace Adkins pointed out years ago that many of today’s top producers grew up on ‘80s country, a sound that often takes its time, is synth-heavy and loaded with harmonies. The influences are different, but it’s not a stretch to draw comparisons between what Lynch and Smith are doing, and what Alabama did so successfully on songs like “Feels So Right.” Exile (“KIss You All Over”), Ronnie Milsap and Thomas Rhett? It’s not strange to put all three in the same sentence.

Unlike “Bro-country” or country music’s flirtation with rap, this style has legs because it’s not as immediately off-putting to a large slice of the fanbase. In fact, if not pointed out, a traditionalist not schooled on the genre’s finer points may miss the obvious comparisons. Currington has been pushing those boundaries for over a decade, but few call him anything but a country artist.

Don’t look now, but if you strip away that Oklahoma accent, Blake Shelton becomes John Legend.

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