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Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line and the evolution of sex songs in country music

Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line perform at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. as part of Jason Aldean’s Burn It Down Tour. (Photo by Kyle Gustafson / For The Washington Post)
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Anyone who has ever heard 1970s star Conway Twitty croon “I Love to Lay You Down” or “You’ve Never Been This Far Before” knows that sex has been a prominent theme in country music for a long, long time.

That remains the case, but things sound quite different these days. While country music lyrics have never shied away from what goes on between the sheets, many tunes still use euphemisms: Some call it an “all-night kiss” or “a one-night rodeo” while others sing of dates that end in a truck bed sleepover. And we can all assume what those couples are doing in the avalanche of “bro country” songs about driving down a dirt road to a river bank.

So it took some by surprise recently when songs from two of Nashville’s biggest acts took the sex talk to a new, very blunt level. Jason Aldean’s latest steamy single, “Burnin’ It Down” (on his new album out Tuesday), talks about how much he loves being naked in bed with his lady friend. Florida Georgia Line, the popular duo that accompanied Aldean on a stadium tour this year, has a similarly frank new song on their upcoming album (which drops next week) called “Sun Daze.”

“If I’m lucky, yeah, I might get laid,” lead vocalist Tyler Hubbard sings, describing the perfect Sunday that includes getting stoned. The song takes things a step further in talking about ideal afternoon activities with a girl, including quite the double entendre: “I’ll sit you up on a kitchen sink/And stick a pink umbrella in your drink.”

Again, it’s a familiar subject matter: Turn on the radio at any point in the last decade and you’ll hear a number of songs about one-night stands (Toby Keith’s “I’m Just Talkin’ About Tonight,” Gloriana’s “Wanna Take You Home”); booty calls (Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now,” Chris Young’s “Tomorrow”); and the joy of sex (Big & Rich’s “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy,” Keith Urban’s “You Look Good in My Shirt.”) Still, this is certainly a very different way of discussing it.

And yet, there’s not really much outrage from listeners of a genre that some still (somewhat inexplicably) think is family friendly. Keep in mind, this is also a genre of music in which, a few years ago, Lady Antebellum’s coy “Lookin’ For a Good Time” got a radio edit for the line “Would you get the wrong impression if I called us a cab right now?” (It was changed to “if I asked you to dance right now,” presumably because of what was implied to happen at the end of that taxi ride.)

But a couple years later talking about getting naked in bed and doing the deed on the kitchen sink is apparently no big deal. In fact, people seem to love it. “Burnin’ It Down” (written by Chris Tompkins, Rodney Clawson, and incidentally, Hubbard and Brian Kelley of FGL) rocketed up the charts. At the moment, “Sun Daze” (written by Kelley, Hubbard, Cary Barlowe, Jesse Fraser and Sarah Buxton) is in the Top 20 of iTunes most popular country songs. How did country music get here?

Nashville has been through these cycles before, says country music historian Don Cusic. In the 1940s, Floyd Tillman had a hit with “Slippin’ Around,” about two people having an affair — some stations outright refused to play a song about cheating. Eddie Dean’s similar “One Has My Name (The Other Has My Heart)” also arrived in the late-’40s, right around the time was a large number of divorces after World War II.

Kris Kristofferson came along in the ’70s, a time when, Cusic jokes “there were a lot of warm and tender bodies floating around.” (As in Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night.”) Conway Twitty’s aforementioned tunes described lots of physical romance, along with Hank Williams Jr. and songs like “Women I’ve Never Had.”

Then, the 1980s arrived with President Ronald Reagan and a conservative era of pushing family values; the sexual songs seem to fade away. After the Dixie Chicks controversy in the early-’00s, singers got a lot more careful about speaking their minds — even though the group’s banishment from country airwaves had to do with their political views, artists simply stopped taking as many chances.

Now, we seem to be coming full circle. The country demographic is changing. In the ’90s, women and housewives ages 35+ was the target audience. These days, Nashville is making a concerted effort to win back the male audience. The most popular songs are rock-oriented tunes about drinking beers, having bonfire parties and bringing a lucky lady back to your truck.

“Country music is not loyal to a sound, it’s loyal to a market, and this is what’s selling,” Cusic said. “The artists are younger, the songwriters are younger, and they’ve grown up in a looser atmosphere.”

Plus, people can simply get away with more on the radio, which is still the most powerful way for a country artist to gain traction. This leniency has led to many country songs about sex, although some writers have a more veiled way of talking about it: Come on, Brad Paisley doesn’t want to actually check someone for “Ticks.” Josh Turner’s “Why Don’t We Just Dance” isn’t really about dancing. And Craig Campbell’s “Fish” goes with the less-than-subtle lyrics: “I had everything we needed in the bed of my truck/Turns out my baby loves to…fish/She likes to do it all the time/Early in the morning, in the middle of the night.”

So with these genre leaders just coming out and saying what everyone else is just hinting, can we expect to hear more songs about Nashville’s bros explicit adventures? In short — yeah, it’s pretty likely. If the songs are getting attention and airplay, Cusic said, they will last as long as the audience keeps buying them. While “Sun Daze” isn’t confirmed as Florida Georgia Line’s next single (and radio would obviously edit the marijuana references anyway), if it continues selling, then that’s what will be playing.

Even Cusic, who feels like he’s seen it all, was a little taken aback by the recent evolution. “I was surprised at ‘Burnin’ It Down,'” he said. “When I heard that I thought, ‘Whoa, they’re not hiding anything there.’ I thought it almost crossed the line — is the public going to accept that?”

For now, it appears that’s what the public wants. According to Billboard, Aldean’s team was concerned about releasing an overtly sexual song, especially when he’s been in the news for dating Brittany Kerr, the woman he was caught kissing while he was still married (he and Kerr are now engaged).

But Aldean insisted on it being the single, and it paid off. “We definitely got a few sideways looks and some raised eyebrows when we released this thing,” Aldean said in a statement that announced “Burnin’ It Down” was the fastest country single to go platinum this year. “It’s so awesome that my fans trust that I have a pretty good ear for the kinds of songs they will like, and that they follow me to new places with each album.”

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