Where Have All the Cowboy Hats in Country Music Gone?

To the history books, thankfully. The latest crop of male country singers doesn’t need ’em

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Keith Urban is inducted into The Grand Ole Opry on April 21, 2012 in Nashville, Tennessee.

The cowboy hat holds a changing place in American culture, particularly in the pop culture of male country-western singers. Whether you were a 1980s neotraditionalist inspired by the singing cowboys of an earlier generation or a millions-selling megastar of the ’90s, whether you were an outlaw, a throwback, an aging balladeer or a young upstart, if you were making it in the genre, you were wearing a cowboy hat. It was the seal of the authentic American, assertive of rugged-individual masculinity, of bigger-is-better bluster, of flag-pin-symbolism patriotism.

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Then came what the format might call urban renewal: the late-’90s arrival on the scene of Keith Urban. The Aussie’s hair was too pretty to be hidden under a hat, and as he ascended the country and pop charts, his name proved a signifier of things to come. As happens with many a genre in its mainstream-ization, gruff everymen with rural identification gave way to a more Hollywood-ready and rock-oriented generation that could appeal more broadly with snapbacks than Stetsons.

This change was lamented by some industry vets, most notably on the gripey and hyperbolic George Strait and Alan Jackson duet “Murder on Music Row.” (Really, guys: hanging someone for not being a traditionalist?) But the country genre’s appeal has moved firmly from honky-tonks to arenas and frat basements, and those ten-gallons now seem out of place and out of taste, largely the province of middle-agers hiding receding or nonexistent hairlines.

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The trend away from the gear has been noted before, but what has gone unsaid is that this is a good thing. Indeed, a 2004 CMA performance of the Hank Williams chestnut “Hey Good Lookin’ ” by Strait, Jackson, Clint Black, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, an out-of-his-element Kenny Chesney and a just-happy-to-be-there Jimmy Buffett was plodding and wheezy, a last gasp of old-fartdom that illustrates why nobody gives a damn about traditional C/W anymore. Black’s and Jackson’s sales and airplay performances have declined precipitously in recent years, and a scan through the latest Billboard charts reveals in their stead a slew of fresh young faces, nearly all hatless and Hollywood-ready: Hunter Hayes, Jake Owen, Luke Bryan, Jerrod Niemann, Greg Bates and so on. I believe these children are country’s future.

It’s time for the remaining holdouts to give up the ten-gallon ghost. The small number of young singers who continue to pose with the hats seem woefully misguided; it’s not as if a herd of cattle in need of roping might walk in on their Friday-night tailgating. Nashvillians, you don’t need to assert your patriotism visually that way; you’ve still got your lyrics establishing your American bona fides. As bigger-is-better signifiers of masculinity, those oversize accessories are simply transparent and ineffective. And we’re certainly not in an era of Waylon Jennings or David Allan Coe disciples; as Jon Caramanica noted last year in the New York Times, “the outlaw era — any outlaw era — is over for now.”

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It’s time for the likes of Justin Moore and Dustin Lynch to set themselves free from the needless headgear. Brad Paisley in particular has broad enough appeal to shake loose; if the lipless Blake Shelton can get by without a shield, he surely can. Give those things the old Mary Tyler Moore heave!

Let’s leave a grandfather clause for traditionalist long-timers like Jackson and Strait. (And, of course, John Bult.) Plus a get-out-of-Texas-free card for the sartorially unclassifiable Colt Ford and Zac Brown. The rest of you: You’re not fooling anyone. You can’t play flip-cup in a ten-gallon. Just stop it.

7 comments
RyanNelson45
RyanNelson45

Fuck this guy, I'm sorry for the profanity, but you can't go making fun of an entire culture like that and think it's okay. Hunter Hayes, Jake Owe, etc..are not country. They are a bastardized version of a music that defines my life and my culture. I would knock this fool out if I could. God Bless the country yall!

gooner12
gooner12

...and this is why Country Music now sucks.  (pardon my language)

Nonaffiliated
Nonaffiliated

I have to agree with you.  Most of what they call country music today isn't worth listening to.  But, you could say the same about pop...

Phyllis Stark
Phyllis Stark

Oof, this is disappointingly ill-informed for Time right out of the gate with the "country-western" reference in the very first sentence, a term that hasn't been used in the music genre for literally three decades.And let me get this straight, Keith Urban turned the tide on country stars wearing cowboy hats? And it was because his hair was too pretty?What the what?Also, the reference in the last graph to Zac Brown getting a free pass is just mystifying, given that he's never once been photographed in a cowboy hat.

Ashley
Ashley

Brad Paisley has long prided himself on being a happy mix of old and new. He can write the hiliarous radio hits just as quickly as he can write the twangy tug-on-your-heartstrings story song. The man is BFFs with Little Jimmy Dickens, for pete's sake. Asking him to give up his hat just because Greg Bates (all together now: Who?) doesn't wear one is ridiculous.

At least Brad has mostly given up on the Nudie suits.

BrianAdam
BrianAdam

like Mary explained I am in shock that any body able to make $5464 in 1 month on the network. did you see this(Click on menu Home)