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Move over, Detroit – rock's new city is Nashville

By Erik SpanbergCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 16, 2007



The Dixie Chicks keep running away from Nashville in their successful quest for crossover cachet, but those in the pop and rock worlds have a reverse commute in mind.

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This month, pop pianist Bruce Hornsby unveils a bluegrass-tinged collaboration with Ricky Skaggs, and a fleet of similar blur-the-lines projects are slated to follow soon. The rash of Strum und Twang interlopers includes upcoming releases by New Jersey rockers Bon Jovi, fresh off a Grammy win for best country collaboration with Sugarland; Sheryl Crow; and a collaboration between country Americana queen Alison Krauss and former Led Zeppelin yowler Robert Plant.

"Everywhere you go in Nashville, you run into [Jon] Bon Jovi and [guitarist] Richie Sambora," says Brian Philips, general manager at cable network CMT, which helped contribute to the crossover craze with its "Crossroads" series of rock-country collaborations. "The notion that the Nashville music scene is closed and tries to lock everybody out who isn't from here is completely outdated."

Bon Jovi's country-influenced album is set for release in June. For much of the past year, band members have been holed up in Nashville recording, with frequent dalliances in local music circles. The band most responsible for mall hair and no small share of pop-metal theatrics now kicks back with self-proclaimed redneck woman Gretchen Wilson and the eclectic hillbilly duo Big & Rich at Ryman Auditorium. (Where have you gone, Giants Stadium?)

Pop star Crow and the Plant-Krauss combo will elicit curiosity, but the Bon Jovi album commands the most attention. How will it sell? Can the band attract country fans and retain its core rock audience? How country can a band from Jersey sound? And what does country sound like these days, anyway?

"Country people aren't interested in rock crossover," says Chris Willman, a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly who follows country music. "You're seeing something different with Bon Jovi and some of these others. They're not trying to just cross over, they're trying to make country fans a part of their fan base."

At least part of the reason stems from financial gain. Fortune magazine recently dubbed the home of country music "Cashville." Country CDs sell at a faster rate than those by pop and rock artists – and they move a lot more high-margin discs than those genres, whose audience tends to download music at a higher percentage than country listeners.

Then there is the cultural factor. Nashville carries a bit of cosmopolitan cool at the moment. Jack White has a house in town and reportedly recorded the new White Stripes album there (though no one knows what, if any, country influence the work may carry). Mr. White has already dipped his toe in the country canon, producing a well-regarded album for Loretta Lynn in 2004. Music City is also a sometime-home to Aussie super-couple Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman, and party-crooner Kid Rock.

Hornsby, who struck pop gold in the late 1980s with "The Way It Is" and other piano-based songs, says the crossover for many artists makes sense.

"You've got a guy like Bob Seger – his hits from the '70s and '80s would fit very naturally on country radio now," he says. "Don Henley's a perfect candidate to do this. It's a really short step for a lot of artists. Maybe no step at all."

Observers say the latest round of country crossovers represents a cyclical crescendo that has been running hot and cold ever since Bob Dylan released "Nashville Skyline" in 1969. On that album, Dylan recorded with Johnny Cash, Charlie Daniels, and a batch of Nashville session stalwarts. Gram Parsons, a member of The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, further fused the worlds of rock and country, anticipating the alternative country movement by two decades.

Now, say CMT's Mr. Philips and others, the styles blur more readily, fueled by a current generation of country artists who count rockers Tom Petty and John Mellencamp as major influences as much as they do Cash and Hank Williams.

If Bon Jovi covets the audience of Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney, it only makes sense.

"They're more loyal and less fickle," says Mr. Willman. "When you're an aging rock star and see no chance to be on MTV again, this is a way to have a viable career."

Translation: Old rockers can't go home, but they can go to Nashville.

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