Going To The Country
With more pop and rock acts reaching out to Nashville's faithful fan base, a genre’s boundaries continue to widen.
Lionel Richie was joined by Jason Aldean and other country superstars on this year's best-selling album, 'Tuskegee.'
Photography: Alan Silfen/Courtesy UMG Nashville
Movie stars and models filled the red carpet. Celine Dion hit the stage first. Pop star Rihanna, Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, and James Taylor helped provide the entertainment. It didn’t seem like a typical Academy of Country Music Awards show.
The 2011 ACM Awards represented an obvious shift in country music, demonstrating a surge of pop and rock musicians banking on the Nashville sound. That, or the sound of cash registers.
“What’s so attractive about country,” industry heavyweight John Rich says, is the long-term dedication of the fans, as well as the acceptance of a wider range of subject matter for songs. “Country music sells more tickets and sells out more stadiums every year than any other genre of music.”
With overall record sales plummeting in the face of streaming music services that sell music by the song or give it away for free, that’s certainly something to keep in mind if you don’t plan on touring 365 days a year and selling your own merchandise out of a van with 200,000 miles on it.
A sampling of a few recent attempts at a Nashville crossover, some successful, others misguided.
Kelly Clarkson, “Mr. Know It All”: After the Texas belter released a countrified version of her pop hit (and collaborating with Jason Aldean on “Don’t You Wanna Stay), she received a 2012 nomination for CMA Female Vocalist of the Year.
Bret Michaels, Custom Built: The former Poison frontman raised a few fans’ eyebrows with his 2010 foray into country, which includes duets with crossover star Miley Cyrus and traditional crooner Chris Cagle.
Bon Jovi, Lost Highway: In the 2007 single “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” Bon Jovi — with the help of Jennifer Nettles from Sugarland — became the first rocker to put a song on the top of the Billboard country singles chart.
Lady Gaga, “You and I”: Gaga’s Southern-rock-infused single “You and I” — produced by Shania Twain’s former hubby and producer Mutt Lange — made its way onto country stations across the nation in 2011. Miranda Lambert eventually covered it at live shows.
Darius Rucker, Learn to Live: After a long hiatus from Hootie & the Blowfish, Rucker has been making big waves as a country artist, having released two twangy albums and accepted a 2012 invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry.
Kid Rock, Born Free: One-time rap-rocker Kid Rock seems to get more country by the year, but he went past the point of no return with 2010’s Born Free, on which he collaborated with the likes of Zac Brown, Martina McBride, Bob Seeger, Sheryl Crow, and hip-hopper T.I. (His new album, Rebel Soul, follows the same model and recently hit stores.)
Dave Stewart, The Blackbird Diaries: USA Today called this countrified solo effort by the one-time Eurythmics member “a warm and nostalgic valentine to American roots music” — from a Brit, no less. The album features a duet with Martina McBride.
Rich and his other half in the duo Big & Rich, Big Kenny, are considered country largely because they operate out of Nashville and because the former wears a cowboy hat. But their music defies country convention. It’s a mash-up of urban and rock ’n’ roll, with banjos running underneath. “Nobody ever heard anything like that until we showed up,” says Rich.
Rich has turned country inside out, yet he has a devout country fan base. As a producer, he has brewed several melting pots of music with country as a main ingredient. His breakthrough was with Cowboy Troy, who raps in a style dubbed “hick hop.” Rich also enlisted Kid Rock and the rapper Lil Jon for his 2011 EP Rich Rocks. The embrace of so many different styles is indicative of what’s becoming the norm in country’s modern class of superstars.
And that’s a perfect segue for the $64,000 question: What is country music? Is it a twang to the instruments and a drawl to the voice? Does it have to do with what you wear, whom you associate with, and where you call home? Is it traditional country, real country, commercial country? Good luck finding an answer.
Just consider Lionel Richie’s 2012 album, Tuskegee. Even though every song was a reinterpretation of his earlier pop and R&B hits, the platinum-selling CD became one of the most successful musical endeavors of his solo career. Why? He added some twang to the arrangements and invited Nashville’s biggest acts — Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean, and Rascal Flatts included — to duet with him.
Some consider that a shrewd re-imagining of one’s own catalog. Others would label it sheer commercial opportunism.
Of course, pop and rock musicians crossing over into country is nothing new, and some of those records have had enormous influence. In 1962, Ray Charles released Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, a reinterpretation of classic country songs (read more about the album here). Rolling Stone ranked it 105 on its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, calling what would be Charles’ biggest-selling record “the audacious racial-boundary-smasher its title promised, applying gospel grit and luscious soul-pop strings to standards by Hank Williams and Eddy Arnold.”
Others had come before and more followed. Some were in it for the money. Others — the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello — were in it to sate a creative impulse. Still others were reflecting ourselves back to us from across the pond, as The Rolling Stones famously did with 1971’s country-seasoned Exile on Main Street.
Regardless of who is in the tent and what is energizing the burgeoning crossover scene — market forces, a backlash against more lightweight pop music, artistic experimentation — a lot of inspired and commercially viable tunes continue to come out of it.
Perhaps it’d be best to leave it to the executives to decide whether it’s country, pop, rock, soul or all of the above. We should simply try to enjoy the good and avoid the bad.