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Gone Country

By Jof Owen

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These days it feels like everyone’s got a country record in them, just waiting to pop out whenever the times get tough and the mood feels right. Lady Gaga, Jon Bon Jovi and even Tiffany have all “gone country” in recent memory; with everyone from Steven Tyler to Jessica Simpson also pullin' on them boots and going back to their roots in search of country gold.

Here, we take a look at occasions when non-country artists hit the motherload and unexpectedly came up with some (mostly) solid country classics.

Kylie Minogue - Golden

We’d had ‘Pop Kylie’, ‘Disco Kylie’ and ‘Indie Kylie’, so it was only natural that we’d eventually end up with ‘Country Kylie’. Originally intended to be a synth-pop record, Kylie’s A&R manager suggested she should try recording 2018's Golden in Nashville. Once she was there, she soaked up Music City’s storytelling legacy and found herself writing some of the most personal songs of her career.

“When I go out I wanna go out dancing”, the Aussie pop princess sang on lead-single ‘Dancing’, proving that only Kylie could sing about death and make it sound like the most joyous country-disco dancefloor filler you’ve ever heard.

Despite its Nashville credentials and high profile co-writes - the song ‘Golden’ was written with Liz Rose – the album never managed to embrace country music enough to make it more than just another passing phase in Kylie’s oeuvre. She described the album as being like “Dolly Parton standing on a dance floor”, but sadly, it was all dance floor and not enough Dolly. A valiant attempt nonetheless, ‘Dancing’ in particular an absolute country-pop banger. Get it on.

Ringo Starr - Beaucoups of Blues

To be fair to him, Ringo had “gone country” long before this album. His love affair with country music was front and centre when he took lead vocals on The Beatles’ version of Buck Owens’ ‘Act Naturally’ (his admiration for the genre was the reason behind their excursion into country-tinged pop on Beatles For Sale).

It was on Beaucoups Of Blues, though, that we found Ringo fully embracing country for the first time. Recorded over three days in Nashville and produced by American pedal steel guitarist Pete Drake, like Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline it’s country music but with something a little bit askew. 12 cuts of straight-up, no-nonsense honky-tonk, with Ringo’s loveable Liverpudlian boom delivering the familiar tales of heartache and woe.

‘Losers Lounge’ and ‘Without Her’ are the highlights of an album made all the more charming by Ringo’s unwavering affection for the genre. Sadly, it wasn’t that well received at the time and Ringo went off to pursue his acting career, never finding his way back to country on the solo albums that subsequently followed.

Millie Jackson - Just A 'Lil Bit Country

Like Ringo, Millie Jackson had always been way more than just a little bit country. By the time this 1981 album came along, it was less of a foray into the genre and more of a flag of declaration for anyone that had ever overlooked her undeniable country leanings.

Although her sassy big city image might have suggested otherwise, she was a country girl at heart. Born in rural Georgia, Jackson was raised on country radio and had been putting out some of the finest country-soul ever recorded since her breakout in the early 70s. Songs like ‘Cheatin Is’ and ‘Angel In Your Arms’ off Feelin Bitchy from 1977, or ‘Loving Arms’ from her 1975 album Still Caught Up, are just a few of the moments when she nailed the country-soul crossover with her no-fucks-given, no-shit-taken delivery.

By the time Just A ‘Lil Bit Country came out, she’d been so frequently overlooked by country music that the album felt more like a disgruntled middle finger to the genre for not recognising her than it did a genre hop. Her rewrite of Kris Kristofferson’s ‘If You Don’t Like Hank Williams’ as ‘Anybody That Don’t Like Mille Jackson’ is her at her absolute badass best, laying it all out for the haters. You sure wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of Millie Jackson.

Elvis Costello and The Attractions - Almost Blue

When Almost Blue was originally released in 1981, it came with a warning sticker that read: 'WARNING: This album contains country and western music and may cause offence to narrow minded listeners'. It wasn’t so much a stop off as a complete change of destination for Elvis Costello and his band; producer Billy Sherrill warily taking the Countrypolitan sound he’d trademarked with Tammy Wynette and George Jones and applying it to the post-punk sensibilities of the angry young man of new wave.

The album consisted entirely of country covers - Merle Haggard’s ‘Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down’, Charlie Rich’s ‘Sittin’ and Thinkin’’ and George Jones’ ‘Good Year For The Roses’ sitting neatly alongside Gram Parsons cuts - as Costello travelled back in time to revisit a bygone era in country music. It was the first time he’d steered away from his new wave persona and set a precedent for many more makeovers throughout his long and varied career. Thankfully, he hasn't yet gone so far as to embrace country-trap.

Lionel Richie - Tuskegee

When you are an international pop megastar who’s written as many hits as Lionel Richie, it would be easy (rerecorded here with Willie Nelson) to just kick back, sail on (rerecorded here with Tim McGraw) and let the royalties roll in - but Lionel’s a driven man. Well, not quite driven enough to actually write any new songs, but he did get it together to rerecord all of his old hits in a brand-new style.

Tuskugee turned out to be an unlikely hit, marking the first time he’d hit the Billboard top spot since Dancing On The Ceiling (rerecorded here with Rascal Flatts) in 1986. Clearly what everyone had secretly been wishing for all these years was countrified versions of Lionel Richie classics. So, he delivered ‘Hello’ (rerecorded with Jennifer Nettles), ‘Deep River Woman’ (rerecorded with Little Big Town), ‘Stuck On You’ (rerecorded with Darius Rucker) and a whole host of other household favourites (rerecorded with everyone from Kenny Chesney to Shania Twain and Jason Aldean). It’s an enviable roll call of guest country singers that made for an enjoyable - if slightly calculated - career move.

Ween - 12 Golden Country Greats

In 1996, Ween followed up their two previous Elektra albums - Pure Guava and Chocolate And Cheese - with an off the wall collection of country songs that pretty much invented the anti-country genre. Equal parts sadness and smut, its raunchy lyrics and oddball take on classic country set the tone for Nashville’s current crop of outsiders like Birdcloud and Jonny Fritz.

It was recorded at the legendary Bradley’s Barn studios with a selection of highly regarded country session players; Hargus “Pig” Williams, Charlie McCoy and The Jordanaires among others all bringing their A-game to the sessions. Originally destined to be a 12-track album, two songs were omitted after the artwork had been finished, so in typical Ween fashion, 12 Golden Country Greats is actually only 10 songs long.

It features the classics ‘Piss Up A Rope’, ‘I Don’t Want To Leave You On The Farm’, ‘Mister Richard Smoker’, and Gene Ween’s drawling paean to his faithful canine friend, ‘Fluffy’. Sometimes you don’t have to take country entirely seriously to make a seriously great country album.

Country Mike (aka Beastie Boys) - Greatest Hits

It might not have been the most obvious way to follow up their GRAMMY Award-winning Hello Nasty album, but Beastie Boys have never taken the obvious route. Originally recorded as a Christmas present to give to friends and family, there were only 300 copies pressed (which were presented with greeting cards from “Country Mike and The Boys”). Since then a few bootlegs have surfaced, but the album still remains something of an unlikely lost country classic.

As Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch recalled in the liner notes to the Sounds Of Science compilation – which included ‘Country Mike’s Theme’ and ‘Railroad Blues’ - “At some point after Ill Communication came out, Mike got hit in the head by a large foreign object and lost all of his memory. As it started coming back, he believed that he was a country singer named Country Mike. The psychologists told us that if we didn’t play along with Mike’s fantasy, he could be in grave danger. Finally, he came back to his senses.”

The album is exactly what you’d expect from a Beastie Boys country album. Hijinks abound as the loveable pranksters set their sights on the honky tonk with such classics as ‘Don’t Let The Air Out My Tires’, ‘Sloppy Drunks’, ‘The Ballad Of Kenny Jones’ and ‘How Do U Mend An Achin’ Heart’. It features Bucky Baxter on pedal steel – most notable for his work with Steve Earle and Bob Dylan – and, more implausibly, Mix Master Mike playing “chicken fiddle”.

The album’s most seminal moment comes with a reimagining of The Sugar Hill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’, entitled ‘Country Delight’, which reworks the original bass line into a country funk hoedown. If you can track it down, it’s an absolute anti-country gem - and the best Christmas present ever given.

Jonathan Richman - Jonathan Goes Country

On the cover of Jonathan Richman’s third solo album, Jonathan Goes Country, a Western Wear store clerk holds up a pair of red cowboy boots for Jonathan to try on; he is understandably cautious. Regardless of the size, this doesn’t feel like it would be the right fit for the cult proto-punk troubadour, but flip the record sleeve over and there’s Jonathan hobbling off down the sidewalk in his brand new Tony Lamas, determined to make it fit - and fit it does, with often spectacular results.

Jonathan Goes Country is one of country music’s most overlooked lost classics. Set alongside a mix of perfectly picked standards – ‘Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad’, ‘Satisfied Mind’ and ‘Man Walks Among Us’ – it’s the Jonathan Richman originals that make this album such an unexpected delight. Released in 1990, the album is a goofball left-field take on neo-traditional country that ends up sounding more genuine and exciting than a lot of country albums being made at the time.

Original Buckaroo Tom Brumley guest stars on pedal steel as Jonathan adds a little Bakersfield to his trademark surf guitar, and it never feels ironic or forced. It’s not a joke, it’s just Jonathan Richman finding the best fit for these songs of his and it just happens to be country music that suits them best. If the boots fit, wear them, I guess. It’s high time Jonathan went country again.

Tina Turner - Tina Turns The Country On

In a way, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that Tina Turner’s first solo album was a country record. Born and raised in rural Tennessee, by 1974, Tina’s life story was already full of enough pain and heartache to fill a whole lifetime of country albums. It came out while she was still a member of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, but Ike wasn’t involved in the making of the album. It was Tina’s first breakout attempt, like a hidden nail file in a musical cake.

Two years later she would file for divorce from Ike and be free of her violent marriage and controlling husband, but Tina Turns The Country On catches her smack bang in the middle of the beginning of the end. The song choices feel like messages in bottles, pushed out into the waves to whoever might find them; “Is it really any wonder the love that a stranger might receive / you cast your spell and I went under / I find it so difficult to leave”, she sings on her version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You’, changing the lyrics from the original to fit her own autobiography.

Elsewhere, it’s a smorgasbord of delicately dialled down ballads and 70s country soul belters, with versions of Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’, Hank Snow’s ‘I’m Moving On’ and Dolly Parton’s ‘There’ll Always Be Music’ included alongside the only original, ‘Bayou Song’. She takes John Rostill’s ‘If You Love Me (Let Me Know)’ - already a hit for Olivia Newton-John that year - and ramps it up into a stomping country soul workout; “If you love me let it be / if you don’t set me free / take the chains away that keep me loving you”, she sings. It’s raw, it’s real and it’s unbelievably country.

Ray Charles - Modern Sounds in Country and Wester Music

When Ray Charles put out Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music Volume 1 in 1962, he gave country music an expected shot in the arm at the height of the civil rights movement in America. As it climbed the charts, the record began its journey in becoming a landmark record of modern American music.

Country music was dragged out of its post-rock and roll slump and back into the mainstream, as Charles reinterpreted modern country standards by Eddy Arnold, Hank Williams and Don Gibson among others, infusing them with jazz and R&B touches and making them feel relevant and exciting to the burgeoning pop audience of the early 60s. “He kicked country music forward fifty years”, as Willie Nelson described it years later. “Before him, a lot of people had probably never heard of songs by Don Gibson or Hank Williams.”

Charles, for his part, seemed relatively unfazed by it all. “I just wanted to try my hand at hillbilly music,” he wrote in his 1978 autobiography. “After all, the Grand Ole Opry had been performing inside my head since I was a kid in the country.” Six months later, he released Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music Volume 2 and almost bettered the first volume, setting the stage for the dominance of the Nashville Sound in the process, whilst also prefiguring the emergence of soul music in the 60s.