When Brad Paisley twangs out the hits in Tampa this weekend, he will be the rare Nashville chart-topper still wearing tradition on his head.
Once the chief sartorial signifier of the tear-in-your-beer crowd, the good ol' cowboy hat has lost some country cool.
Blake Shelton, the hottest country artist around, doesn't bother with one. Eric Church and Luke Bryan don't either. Darius Rucker has a smooth hit with Wagon Wheel — and a smooth-pated head on proud display. Carrie Underwood and Florida Georgia Line are too pretty to obscure their lush locks.
It's a trend among a lot of talented folks at the top of today's country music charts. In fact, when Paisley picks out such hits as Ticks and Waitin' on a Woman at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre on Saturday, his white felt Serratelli cowboy hat will stand out more than usual.
Paisley's opening act, however, will be a different — and more modern — story. Chris Young made headlines a few years ago when he changed his image, starting with the top of his head.
"People made a big deal out of Chris Young ditching his cowboy hat," says Veronica Alfaro, radio personality on WQYK-FM 99.5, a country music station in Tampa Bay. "But it worked. I think he had, like, five No. 1's after that."
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Whither the Stetson?
On Billboard magazine's mid-June list of the most-played country songs on the radio, only two of the acts on the list routinely wear cowboy hats: Paisley and the black-hatted Tim McGraw, who, at 40 and 46, respectively, were also two of the oldest singers on the chart.
On iTunes' recent list of top-selling 50 country videos, only five featured a star singer wearing a cowboy hat, and Big Green Tractor growler Jason Aldean counted as a couple of those.
The far more popular lid these days is the venerable baseball hat, the trucker cap, gritted up and brim-curled. Maybe even a camo ball cap with a fish hook in the bill. Down-home casual is in; formal and traditional is out.
"It's the 'urban cowboy' fashion trend," says David Harb, the general manager of Live Nation Tampa. "The ball cap is more universal, more palatable than the cowboy hat these days. But the cowboy hat is never going to go away. It means too much."
He's probably right. Country, for all its traditions, is cyclical, subject to style and trends like any other popular music genre. Not just in sound (traditional, outlaw, pop), but in fashion, as well. In the early 20th century, a country singer wore a cowboy hat. During the '60s and '70s (your Glen Campbells, your Johnny Cashes), thick, handsome hair was in and hats were out.
In the '80s and '90s, when Charlie Daniels' Devil Went Down to Georgia and then Garth Brooks was hot, many country artists, especially male ones, wouldn't be caught dead without the appropriate topper. The charts reflected as such: Alan Jackson, George Strait, Toby Keith, John Michael Montgomery. Even female hitmakers a la Terri Clark and Shania Twain would sport a cowboy hat.
Over the past decade or so, there's been another change. Yes, Kenny Chesney, the king of the summer, wears a beach-bum version onstage — although he wears a baseball cap everywhere else he goes. But more important, Taylor Swift, the queen of summer and then some, has brought seismic change to country music, and she's done it all, from her very start in Wyomissing, Pa., without a cowboy hat. She lets her blond curls fly.
WQYK's Alfaro says some artists are indeed trying to be more mainstream, to soften their Southern geography a bit and do a pop cross-over. Before he blew up, Shelton also used to be cowboy-hatted; now his high handsome 'do is on full display as a judge on The Voice. "When Blake first started, he had a cowboy hat AND a mullet!" she laughs.
Folks in the cowboy hat biz aren't worried about the trend. "The cowboy hat is still extremely popular," says Anthony Emrich, assistant manager of Russell's Western Wear in Tampa. "Trust me, the newer artists, nine out of 10 of them, still wear 'em, just not everywhere they go. If they're going to a fancy banquet or a wedding, they're still going to wear a nice dressy cowboy hat."
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @seandalypoplife.