Country hangs its hat on rock and rap

Wondering where arena rock went? Flip on CMT - that's Country Music Television, for the uninitiated - and you'll see (and hear) a fleet of genre-busting acts happy to nick Lynyrd Skynyrd guitar licks and pay homage to Stevie Nicks.

All along Nashville's Music Row, plucky artists such as Big & Rich, Gretchen Wilson, Keith Anderson, and Shooter Jennings name-drop rock icons in their songs (Aerosmith, Neil Young, and countless others) while incorporating dizzy guitar solos with fiddles and twangy vocals. Not to mention Cowboy Troy, an African-American country rapper who describes his amalgam as "hick-hop." (See review, at right).

Much of the credit for the current country renaissance goes to Big & Rich, whose debut album last year unleashed an unprecedented blend of styles and songs. Appropriately titled "Horse of a Different Color," the Big & Rich album struggled to get airplay on country radio stations but flooded CMT and other outlets. It boasts cheeky lyrics ("Yeehaw! I'm a rock star, I'm a cowboy, everybody loves this song") as well as a cavalcade of cameos, including the aforementioned Cowboy Troy. Musically, it spans psychedelic rock, hard-core country, rap, and whatever else might be handy.

Suddenly, founders Big Kenny and John Rich's collection of bar-band never-weres, known as the Muzik Mafia, command intense interest in Music City. Ms. Wilson, another breakout star last year with her hit "Redneck Woman," co-written with Mr. Rich, defies the Nashville pop-diva syndrome embodied by Shania Twain and Faith Hill. Instead, she jams with Heart's Ann and Nancy Wilson and offers kudos to Lynyrd Skynyrd.

"We love that girl," says Johnny Van Zant, who succeeded his deceased older brother, Ronnie, as lead singer in a revamped version of Skynyrd 18 years ago. This month, Van Zant, paired with brother Donnie, the longtime singer with Southern rockers .38 Special, released a country collaboration, capitalizing on the newfound Nashville passion for melding country with elements of arena rock.

"People are asking us, 'Why have you gone country?' " he says. "And we say, 'Man, we were born country.' They gave us the tag 'Southern rock' years ago as a way of not saying country. With this new record, we just added a fiddle here and there and did what we always do."

Examples of rock-tinged country abound. Veterans credit Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings with first assaulting the barriers between the two genres, but much of what followed those 1970s outlaws hewed to rigid, narrow formulas. Hat acts (Garth Brooks, Clint Black), pop divas (Twain, Faith Hill), and traditionalists (George Strait, Alan Jackson) have all given country renewed life on the charts during the past two decades, but almost always at the expense of everything else.

Now, in the iPod era, no single branch of country thrives, or is dismissed, at the expense of another. While Brooks often cited theatrical rockers KISS as a major influence during his 1990s reign, evidence of the band's impact could be seen (in Brooks's pyrotechnical stage shows) but not heard. Compare that with the present, when Anderson's highly anticipated debut album is entitled "Three Chord Country and American Rock & Roll."

Nothing embodies the blurring of rock and country as much as "Crossroads," the signature series on cable network CMT. It pairs rock and country musicians for live performances featuring duets from both artists' catalogs. Recent episodes include Sheryl Crow with Willie Nelson, Dave Matthews with Emmylou Harris, John Fogerty with Keith Urban, Elton John with Ryan Adams, and Kid Rock with Hank Williams Jr.

Toby Keith, whose new "Honkytonk University" debuted this month, duets with Merle Haggard and Sammy Hagar without shifting gears - or fan bases. Martina McBride, a traditional country singer by most accounts, has taken the stage with Pat Benatar. And none other than Loretta Lynn picked up two Grammys this year after collaborating with White Stripes leader Jack White.

"I haven't seen a time in country where there have been as many tributaries flowing as there are right now," says Brian Philips, executive vice president at CMT. "There is a strong [rock] echo rumbling through a lot of these things, but there's no phony pop masking. It's raw country. And there are no battle lines drawn between styles."

The arrival of Shooter Jennings, the son of country singers Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, heralds a passing of the torch, says Philips. Who better to help break down barriers, he says, than the son of an avowed Nashville rebel? The formula, as Jennings sings on his new album, involves "a little Merle Haggard and a little bit of the [Rolling] Stones."

But it's not just rock injecting country with a much-needed shot of SoundScan adrenaline. Consider Kenny Chesney, a beach-bum country superstar whose blend of laid-back lyrics and sun-splashed lifestyle evoke the manner of Jimmy Buffett. For that matter, Buffett, a hard-to-define pop-culture phenomenon, released an album of duets last year with Strait, Chesney, Keith, and others - and watched it shoot straight to No. 1. Then there's Cowboy Troy, the hick-hopper who is crashing country's Caucasian party. His arrival follows Tim McGraw's recent smash duet with hip-hop star Nelly.

Such diversity makes industry executives giddy. CMT's Philips says John Rich has so many hits in the pipeline with other artists' upcoming releases - including Ms. Hill - that it's hard to keep count. And on and on.

All of which explains why Anderson, yet another Rich collaborator, doesn't hesitate when asked whether he envisions a "Crossroads" turn some day.

"You put your feelers out there," he says. "I'd love to do it with one of my rock heroes, someone like a Jon Bon Jovi. That would be a dream come true."

Translation: Ready or not, here comes a pedal-steel guitar version of "Livin' on a Prayer."

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