Starting in 2014, Dierks Bentley and his band started a side project dubbed the Hot Country Knights. It was a clear tongue in cheek, winking the whole way, gag of his band putting on purposely tacky 90s country gear and acting like the biggest deal of that decade. So basically, Wheeler Walker Jr. without becoming too self-aware of the joke and ruining it. The side gag then eventually morphed into an opening act for Dierks himself on his tours. Now in 2020 this band is officially dropping music. The music leans hard on all the 90s country elements, has over-the-top lyrics and doesn’t take itself that seriously.
And I absolutely love it. In fact, I would go as far to say it’s brilliant and I’ll tell you why: country music has forgotten how to have fun and this band can help bring it back. This has been a quiet fear of mine ever since the rise and fall of bro country. But you can go back even further than this to see where country lost its way in being fun.
A lot of proponents of 90s country like to say this era of music was a great because of all the pedal steel guitar, fiddles and the general presence of more traditional country elements. And I would agree that it’s a big part of what made that era of country music so enjoyable. But also Garth Brooks and Shania Twain were the biggest artists of this decade. I don’t see anyone flying the traditional country flag for them, but their music was still great and beloved by many. What these two did have in common with the traditional artists of this era though is the fun factor. Pretty much all the popular country music of this decade was fun.
Then we get to the 2000s and the party stopped. 9/11 happened and gave rise to patriotic country, which took on a more serious tone (and also started the slide into more politics in the genre). The Dixie Chicks were ran off and grocery store country made its presence known once patriotic country was beaten like a dead horse. Then the transitional period of checklist country gave rise to the biggest boom the genre had seen since the 90s: bro country. The fun element this genre had missed for so long had returned (the surge in popularity of country in this time is undeniable), but the baggage of creepy lyrics and the stripping of country elements came with it.
Critics like myself rightly ripped the shit out of this, but in the process this led to the overcorrection that we’re still in the midst of now. The rightful, yet intense criticism of this sub-genre compounded with the industry overplaying it’s hand (and throw in the rise of Stapleton), it scared artists of mainstream country into the soupy, soulless, vanilla “boyfriend country” that has slowly permeated over the last couple of years into the current “it” trend of the genre.
See now what I meant about the quiet fear I’ve had since the fall of bro country? While the unsavory elements of bro country were rightfully knocked down, it also led to the fun element being brushed aside too and it explains why enthusiasm for the genre has waned so much over the last couple years. Who wants to go to a party where everyone is being so straight-laced and serious? It’s important of course to have serious songs that speak to the heart and soul of the human condition, conveying important life lessons and stories that help you grow. But this is a drum that critics always have and always will beat.
We need to have balance. We need to have fun, not-so-serious music too. Because as much I love Willie Nelson’s Spirit, it’s not the album I want to listen to after working a 40-hour week. I want something more along the lines of the Hot Country Knights. I want something that’s fun to sing along with and it’s catchy. I want some drive in my country. Country music has given the world of music so many meaningful and heartfelt songs and I hope that these types of songs will continue to be delivered. But country music has demonstrated it knows how to throw a damn good party too. It’s time the genre rediscovers this side of itself. And don’t forget to bring the fiddle.