Country music used to have its own distinct identity, one that was tied to rich traditions of lonesome country roads, hard work, low pay and drinking. These days it's a black hole of insipidity. Following the Grammys, the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons are now reportedly making inroads on country radio. It's not hard to see how this sort of thing has happened. With country's ongoing identity crisis, exemplified by crossover acts like Kid Rock and Darius Rucker being embraced, it seems that any music made with acoustic guitars can be construed as country. The genre kind of brought this on itself, though, by straying from the established template. Continue on for a quick look at a few examples of country's attempts at incorporating the music of other genres. Some, as you'll see, have fared better than others.
Country vs. Hip Hop
"Dirt Road Anthem" - Jason Aldean
The opening line of this Colt Ford/Brantley Gilbert tune is "I'm chillin' on a dirt road, swerving like I'm George Jones..." Change the George to Mike, and this is a rap song. That's sort of the problem. "Dirt Road Anthem" clearly appropriates the language of hip-hop to discuss a bevy of stereotypically country past times, like driving under the influence and fishing. After the opening, Aldean spits a verse -- albeit somewhat uncomfortably given his enunciation and the challenges of breath control (which are a lot different for an MC than a singer.)
Country and hip-hop share a lot of similarities. Both started out as unique forms of self-expression championed by forgotten peoples suffering under the weight of abject poverty. Both were written off as fringe styles by major labels until after SoundScan revolutionized the science behind the Billboard charts in 1991. And both were adopted by suburban teens thanks to an image of rebellion and authenticity that was later turned into a caricature of itself by corporate influence. This is another signifier of the declining integrity of two formerly proud traditions at the hands of major labels. No one wins.
It's cool that country music isn't stuck in the mud of its pro-segregation ancestry, but this tune is the kind of corporate-crossover nonsense that some one with no ears and an armful of marketing research says is a good idea based on profit margins not self-expression.
Country vs. R&B
"Back At One" - Mark Wills
While a lot of cover songs wait a few years for the original to run its course before launching into an adaptation, McKnight and Wills's versions of "Back at One" both came out in 1999. To release these songs around the same time is just one of several strange decisions that lead up to this tune's entrance into the country catalog. To release these songs around the same time -- albeit to different audiences -- would only seem to highlight the failures of smoothness by Wills in comparison to McKnight.
One peculiar aspect of the video for Wills's version, besides the fact that anyone thought to have a country artist cover a Brian McKnight song, is the recurring American flag imagery. The original is very clearly a song wherein McKnight is professing his love to the girl of his dreams -- just like every McKnight song ever, actually. Why, or how, the simple counting down of reasons why McKnight loves this special lady could be construed as something patriotic by Wills (and in a pre-9/11 world none-the-less) is beyond comprehension.
Wills's version isn't offensive to the ear, but the only thing that differentiates it from McKnight's version is the addition of some slide guitar to the arrangement -- well, that, plus the fact that Wills doesn't have a fraction of McKnight's vocal abilities.
Country vs. Alternative Rock
Dolly Parton - "Shine"
If you were over the age of ten in 1993, then you pretty much had to hear Collective Soul's anthemic "Shine" at least once a day. And why not? It's got impeccable alt-rock construction where a simple-yet-powerful guitar riff during the verse explodes into a powerful, easy-to-remember chorus topped with overt religious imagery.
It might be the presence of the Lord in Collective Soul's tune that first drew the attention of Dolly Parton, who covered the original in 2001. Immediately noticeable is the all-acoustic arrangement. On Dolly's rendition, Collective Soul's crunchy electric guitar give way to a banjo, acoustic guitar and fiddle, adding some extra pluck (and some extra notes) to the original's stripped down chord progression.
While the melody might stay the same, Dolly's delivery scours away the grunge better than a dish soap commercial. It goes from grunge-gospel to gospel-gospel in no time flat, and if you hadn't heard the original, you could imagine that the tune was written with her honey-sweet vocal stylings in mind.
You can't front on Dolly Parton. The country legend, who's aged nearly as well as Suzanne Somers, has her own theme park, and after 9 to 5, she can do no wrong. If she wants to tastefully cover a grunge hit, then who are we to argue.
Country vs. Industrial
"Hurt" - Johnny Cash
Not even the wildest gambler would've placed a long-odds bet that Johnny Cash would one day cover one Trent Reznor's most iconic tunes. Reznor's dark, industrial ode to cutters and the chronically depressed, which includes lyrics about "crowns of shit" and "stains of time" just doesn't immediately lend itself to a country arrangement. Or does it?
Leave it to Rick Rubin -- the man who brought hard rock sounds to the early days of hip-hop -- to find a way to make Cash's Man in Black moniker seem more like a goth than a desperado. Cash's version captures all of the emotional intensity of the original, while his advancing age and litany of hardships in life lend the song a sense of mortality missing from Reznor's isolated emotional duress.
Clearly the artistic fortitude of Rubin and Cash is a major reason why this works so well, but if every inter-genre cover turned out this well, it could be interpreted as a sign that the dawning of a new age of enlightenment were approaching. We're not there yet, unfortunately.
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