Look who’s gone country

Special to The Times

IN a 2005 commercial, Hootie & the Blowfish singer Darius Rucker donned a glittering rhinestone suit and a Stetson to promote Burger King’s latest sandwich. He wasn’t a real cowboy then -- he was just playing one on TV. Two years later, however, he’s singing a different tune: The multiplatinum-selling ‘90s pop singer is making his first country record.

“This is a career move for me,” says Rucker, who says the group will continue. “I’m not just making a Hootie record with mandolins and fiddles.”

He’s not alone in boot-scooting from pop to country. The Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in recent months has been dotted with such rock radio-friendly names as Bon Jovi, John Waite, John Mellencamp, Sheryl Crow, Bob Seger and Michelle Branch (as part of the Wreckers).


And the party’s picking up steam. In addition to Rucker, Jewel is shopping a country album produced by Big & Rich’s John Rich, Crow plans to make a country album (she’s on the chart now in a duet with Vince Gill). Even Justin Timberlake and Barry Gibb (who now lives outside Nashville) have talked recently about recording country CDs.

Bon Jovi is so enamored with Music City, there’s even a song on the band’s Nashville-influenced album, “Lost Highway” (due June 19, its title from the Hank Williams country classic), called “I Love This Town.”

And Nashville is loving them right back. In 2006, Bon Jovi became the first rock band to score a No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart with “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” a duet with Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles. The tune subsequently landed the group its first Grammy. After two platinum-plus pop albums, Branch topped a singles chart for the first time when “Leave the Pieces” hit the country summit. And in a sure sign they had been accepted by the locals, the Wreckers’ debut, “Stand Still, Look Pretty,” garnered Branch and Jessica Harp nominations for both Country Music Assn. and Academy of Country Music awards following their stint last year opening shows for Rascal Flatts.

Former top-of-the-poppers are headed for country’s greener pastures, in part, because with the exception of Timberlake, as Jon Bon Jovi flat-out admits, “None of these artists could go on Top 40 anymore.” Today’s Top 40 stations, such as L.A.’s KIIS-FM (102.7), favor urban beats, samples and rhythms over songs with traditional choruses and verses.

Additionally, many of these artists are now over 30, and Top 40 is about capturing the 12-to-24-year-old listener. When Capitol Records Nashville president/chief executive Mike Dungan calls the 41-year-old Rucker “young,” he means it: Country, which targets a 25-to-54-year-old demo, is the only mainstream format in which anyone over 35 isn’t automatically over the hill.

“These artists have nowhere else to go [but country],” says Universal Records South exec Fletcher Foster. “I don’t mean that they’re choosing country as a default. Over the last few years country music has become a lot more embracing, whereas Top 40 over the last five to 10 years, it just doesn’t match up with what they’re doing.”

Indeed, even 23-year-old Branch says that while performing at multi-artist, radio-sponsored pop festivals, she felt like “the orange in a sea of apples. Everyone was dancing and singing to [a recorded backing] track and I’d go out with my guitar and feel like I didn’t belong. I had a really positive experience at pop radio, but everything started changing and I wasn’t Beyonce.”

Jewel, who co-hosted USA Network’s country talent-search show “Nashville Star,” puts it more plainly: “I don’t feel like I’ve changed, the formats have changed.” In the past, she says, “a lot of the producers tried pretty hard to take the country out of me. I had to finally get off [Atlantic] to do this record, or I would have done it a long time ago.”

John Rich says Jewel’s fans shouldn’t expect a radical revision of her music. “It’s a really cool combination of Jewel’s singer-songwriter folk blended with real commercial country energy.” The pair left the production deliberately spare. “I didn’t want more than four or five instruments at a time,” Jewel says. “It’s pretty raw and live.”

Such moves seem organic, says Justin Case, a radio program director in Birmingham, Ala. “It’s a natural progression. What I’ve heard from a lot of [listeners] is that country is similar to the ‘80s guitar-based pop/rock. They can’t relate to current pop; it’s too hard for them, they can’t understand the lyrics. The natural place for them to go is country. These artists are following the evolution of their audience. It’s a good move.”

Case is one of many current country PDs who used to work in pop radio. They have brought with them a broad musical perspective and an eye toward expansion.

“Today, lots of stations are being programmed by a younger breed of country programmer and many of those don’t have the brand loyalty to traditional country music that their forefathers and foremothers did,” says Billboard senior country chart manager Wade Jessen. “They grew up on arena rock, not the Grand Ole Opry.”

Case believes listeners are also aching for some familiarity -- even if it comes from an unusual place. “There was a point a few years back where the consumer said, ‘You are giving me so many new people I can’t tell them apart.’ [Now] when Kenny Chesney plays on the radio, people know it’s Kenny; same with Bon Jovi, Darius, Wreckers, Mellencamp -- that’s where the record companies are headed. If your vocal is instantly recognizable, they’ll listen to the station or song longer. That’s why the doors are wider.”

Additionally, many of Nashville’s label heads previously worked for or ran pop divisions outside of Nashville, including Foster, Dungan, Sony BMG Nashville chairman Joe Galante, Warner Bros. Nashville’s Bill Bennett and Universal Music Group Nashville chairman Luke Lewis. “It’s not as parochial a town as it once was,” Billboard’s Jessen says.

Indeed, these label heads look at a much bigger playing field. Bennett says he is talking to pop singer-songwriter Tyler Hilton, who played Elvis Presley in “Walk the Line” and stars on the CW Network’s “One Tree Hill.”

“He’s not making a country record, he’s making a Tyler Hilton record,” Bennett says. “But it would not surprise me if he makes a record that fits country radio.” (A tune of Hilton’s from the “One Tree Hill” soundtrack has received play on country video outlets and the actor appears in teen singer-songwriter Taylor Swift’s new video).

In country’s halcyon days of the mid-’90s, folks flocked to Nashville from all corners hoping to capitalize on its mega-popularity. Alan Jackson captured the flagrant attempts at exploitation in his winkingly cynical 1994 chart-topper “Gone Country.”

Taking it to the next level

BUT observers say it’s different this time because artists aren’t making huge shifts musically to curry country fans’ favor. Many of them already have long ties to country -- Mellencamp founded Farm Aid with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, for example. Jon Bon Jovi first appeared on the country chart in 1998, when he and cowboy singer Chris LeDoux duetted on “Bang a Drum.” Chris Cagle covered Bon Jovi’s gunslinging smash “Wanted Dead or Alive” in 2005.

Plus, these artists are willing to do the footwork. The Wreckers visited 75 radio stations to show that their aim was true. “We took them to country radio to make sure [programmers] understood it’s not a drive-by,” says Bennett.

Still, Branch admits, “Jessica and I were a little concerned that people would say, ‘Who’s this pop girl thinking she can do country music because she has nothing better to do?’ ” says Branch. “The thing that really surprised me is no one really tested us as to whether we were country enough; no one folded their arms and said. ‘You’re not allowed in the club.’ ”

That’s because no station can afford to be too precious in these days of dwindling market share. “Country radio is looking for hits wherever they come from,” Jessen says. “In the competitive environment that terrestrial radio is in, it’s not a time where they can afford to be arrogant about what their audience wants. They can’t afford to be just dismissive of something based on stereotype or lack of a country pedigree.”

Such was Jon Bon Jovi’s message when he delivered the keynote address at February’s Country Radio Seminar, an annual Nashville gathering of country radio executives: “We’re not pandering, we’re not pretending to be something we’re not. Give it an open-eared, open-eye listen and do with it what you will,” he said. The first single “(You Want to) Make a Memory” had the highest debut ever for a rock artist on the country chart, but it since peaked at No. 35.

Even the notoriously feisty Mellencamp played the game, shaking hands and kissing babies during CRS. Still, Mellencamp’s “Our Country” stopped mid-chart at No. 39 and the subsequent single “The Americans” only reached No. 55. There are no plans to work more songs to country radio.

While some passes at country radio are an attempt to reach a broader audience beyond the existing pop fan, for others -- such as Branch, Jewel and Rucker -- country is their new address. (Branch’s switch is literal: She is moving from Los Angeles to Nashville; Crow also has a home in Nashville.)

Branch simply says, “My only regret is not figuring out how to do this earlier.” A year later, “Stand Still, Look Pretty” has sold close to 800,000 copies, and a third single is climbing the charts.

Bon Jovi says regardless of what happens with “Memory,” there are more country singles coming from his group’s “Lost Highway,” which blends Bon Jovi’s trademark radio-friendly guitar rock with country overtones. Many tracks would sound right at home on a Keith Urban or Kenny Chesney album and Bon Jovi and LeAnn Rimes veer into Tim McGraw/Faith Hill territory on the lonesome lovers’ ballad “Stranger.” “I was always one of those artists who wanted to share [my music] with as many people as were willing to listen to it,” Bon Jovi says, “so if country is another place for me to get ears to give it a shot, hallelujah.”

That’s the right attitude, says Bennett. “The worst thing you can say is, ‘I’m going to make a record for [country fans]’; it’s like saying, ‘I’ve found a parking place, let’s go buy a car.’ ”