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.
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.
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.”
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.