We like to rag on people around here like Jennifer Love Hewitt and 80’s pop star “Tiffany” for “Going Country.” This has prompted a few to criticize me and others for thinking anyone that didn’t start in country cannot “go country” or dabble in the music, or that I have some predisposed problem with rock influences mixing with country.
So I wanted to compile a few examples of when it has been good for artists to “go country,” and hopefully I will turn a few people on to some great country music, performed by non-traditional country artists.
One of country purist’s prerequisites for someone “going country” is that they pay more than just lip service to the legends and traditions of country music, and what better way to do that than to team up with Loretta Lynn. In 2004, Jack White (The White Stripes, Racounters) produced and played on Lynn’s Van Lear Rose album. White encouraged Lynn to write her own songs for the album, and this one of the standout tracks:
There are country influences in a lot of Jack White’s music, and I wouldn’t count out a full on country project from him in the future.
The leader of California punk band Social Distortion has a solid country solo career that has produced some great songs and albums. His first album Cheating at Solitaire featured great original songs and performances by Bruce Springsteen and Brian Setzer. He also released the album Under the Influences of country covers.
On a side note, Mike Ness is the only male artist approved by Saving Country Music to wear eyeliner.
Jerry Lee Lewis & Bob Dylan:
It wouldn’t be a proper list if I didn’t look to the past for a few examples. After his rock career went down in a blaze of scandal, Jerry Lee Lewis re-emerged by beginning a full fledged country career. Far from a marketing ploy, Jerry Lee put out some of the best piano-based country music I have ever heard. If you ever find a vinyl copy of one of his Country Music Hall of Fame Hits volumes, don’t pass it up.
Another oldtimer that went country was Bob Dylan. His album Nashville Skyline might be one of the best country albums ever cut. Recorded in Nashville with country set musicians, and with an appearance by his friend Johnny Cash, this album is about as good as it gets.
Though he’s never officially put out a complete country project, Beck is about the only artist in my opinion who has successfully blended country influences with what could be considered “techno” or “hip-hop”; things involving turntables and such. It has been tried many times and failed, and one reason that I think Beck can do this in a respectable manner is because he approaches the music from a respectful point of view.
On an album called Stereopathetic Soulmanure, an album you can’t get except for in bootleg form, Beck does a couple of outright country songs with steel guitar and all. One of them is the song “Rowboat,” which is probably one of my top 20 country songs of all time, and probably my #1 from a non-country performer. Johnny Cash took a shine to the tune as well, and covered it as the opening track to his Unchained album.
Here is Cash and Beck talking about the song:
Beck wrote and recorded the song while recording Mellow Gold, his big debut album, so he wrote the song before he was a well-known, national artist.
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So not every non-country artist or actor (like Billy Bob Thorton, for example) who wants to stick their toe in the country waters has to worry about it getting bitten of by country purists. The main the is the approach by the artist. If they want to “go country” as a marketing ploy, they take a risk. Some have been successful, like Hootie and the Blowfish’s Darius Rucker. And sometimes it goes over like a poop in a punch bowl, like Jessica Simpson. The main thing is that their heart truly has to be in the music. Country music has a way of starring into the soul of artists and exposing the truth. That is why I still have some faith in our tarnished genre.