Pop Goes the Country

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October 27, 2010

The new Sugarland album is a failure. Of this, I am sure.  But as I wrote in my review, the problem isn’t that they made an eighties rock album. It’s that they didn’t make a good one.

Which got me thinking about others who made pop or rock albums after building a fan base as a country artist.  Sometimes it works, and their pop/rock music is as good or better than what they did under the country umbrella.

So I ask this question:

What artist did the best job of transition from country to pop?

I can think of quite a few, but I’m going to start with a less obvious one, since her Aussie/English roots make her easy to overlook. And also because I keep putting off a Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists feature on her.

Olivia Newton-John started off as a folk-type singer, but her first two million-selling singles were country to the core. She won her first Grammy in the category of Best Female Country Vocal Performance, earning the honor for her breakthrough single “Let Me Be There.”

She went on to have three #1 country albums and a few top ten singles, and was named the CMA’s Female Vocalist of the Year in 1974. That same year, she was the second woman (after Loretta Lynn) to be noninated for Entertainer of the Year.  Everyone from Loretta Lynn to Donna Fargo covered her hits.

Songs like the very country “Let it Shine” made in impact on fhe pop, AC, and country charts, but like Carrie Underwood did with “Before He Cheats”, Newton-John crossed over in spite of the country arrangements, not by making pop music and calling it country:

But Hollywood came calling, and her starring role in the film Grease required her to sing pure pop/rock.  But she didn’t abandon the country format entirely.  In fact, the soundtrack contained a new song specifically tailored for the country market, even though it did better on the pop charts when released. But “Hopelessly Devoted to You” has a steel guitar that can’t be ignored:

Even on her next album, Totally Hot, she continued to record country music, scoring her last real country hit with “Dancin’ Round and ‘Round.”

After that, it was pretty much all pop, and she so successfully transitioned into that format that she became more popular than ever. Not a bad second act for a woman who was the most popular female country artist of the mid-seventies.  But I’d argue that her pop music was better as well, perhaps because I bought this 45 so many times, always having to replace a worn out copy:

Which country artists do you think segued into other genres most effectively?  Who would you like to see try?

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  1. Ben FosterNo Gravatar says:

    There are really no country artists that I would WANT to see switch to pop, and that’s just because I know I would miss hearing the fiddle and steel. But I think Shania made some of the best pop music for one who started out as a straight-up country crooner (though she never abandoned country music entirely). Her songs were always well-written, catchy, expertly sung, and tastefully produced, and those characteristics were always found in her music whether she was singing country or pop.

    Here’s a little feature I wrote on Shania, in case anyone’s interested. http://1to10countryreview.blogspot.com/2010/10/top-ten-greatest-women-of-nineties-4.html

  2. Erik NorthNo Gravatar says:

    I’m going to say Linda Ronstadt…of course.

    Remember that she began in folk-rock with “Different Drum” in 1967; then, with her 1969 album Hand Sown, Home Grown, she explored country in her own left-of-center, California-based fashion; and for much of the 1970s, she had hit singles and huge hit albums that routinely crossed between country and pop…and this isn’t even counting the two Trio albums she made with her pals Dolly and Emmylou in 1987 and 1999.

    Linda, however, was very straightforward and honest in saying that she didn’t put herself in the category of a country singer, even though a lot of today’s female country artists, including especially Trisha and Martina, have given their props. And Linda isn’t really country, not in the strictest Nashvillian sense of the term. She’s always been more Sunset Blvd. than Music Row.

  3. Mike M.No Gravatar says:

    While it’s not as good as his country stuff, “Chris Gaines” wasn’t an entirely bad album. Bad idea maybe, but actually a pretty good album spanning two decades of pop music styles.

  4. I can’t necessarily answer this question offhand, but it did remind me of Shelby Lynne. I don’t know if you’d say she’s gone pop, but she’s certainly outgrown the country identity she had earlier in her career. I’m also pretty sure that Rosanne Cash fits more of a “folk” label than she does the “country” label these days (“The List” notwithstanding).

  5. ZackNo Gravatar says:

    I think females tend to do a better job of making the move from country to pop, but as Ben said, I don’t want any artists to abandon the genre completely… But I will say that Underwood would definatly make a smooth transition into pop.

    I think Faith Hill made one of the best albums of her career with Cry, her soulful voice made such a good fit, but her pop career never really took off. Dolly is probably my favorite example of an artist who can have a successful pop career after being a country artist for so long.

    I agree with Ben in that Shania made great pop music, but at the same time, she never really abandoned country music; she made both, and did it well.

    McEntire is one of the best examples of flailing in the pop charts, because even though she has a hell of a voice, she is much too well associated with country music. So, I’d not want to see her make a jump [I also would shudder to see Lambert try, but I doubt she will].

    ………Did the whole crossover thing start with Dolly or was this just the most well known example of this?

  6. Erik NorthNo Gravatar says:

    I think Patsy Cline was one of the first (if not the first) examples of country-to-pop crossover, at least as far as female artists are concerned. It became a much bigger thing in the 70s, however, with Olivia, Linda, and Dolly; and it escalated from there, sometimes, unsurprisingly, with controversy.

  7. Paul DennisNo Gravatar says:

    I think k d lang made a better pop chanteuse than a country singer, although her country efforts were okay. Olivia Newton John issued some decent country but most of her pop efforts bore me to death. Ronstadt never really was a country singer, although for a fellow traveler, she was pretty good. Ditto for Kenny Rogers

    Roseanne Cash was never very country (except by the dubious standards of the Urban Cowboy era) and if her dad had been anyone other than Johnny Cash I doubt that she would have gotten all that much country airplay

    I think the absolute best at straddling the line between country and pop was Anne Murray who started out as a folk singer, but was able to score with her MOR vocal stylings both as a pop and a country artist with great success. In fact I would regard Anne as the best female vocalist of the post-1970 period, ahead of Ronstadt, ON-J, or anyone else I can think of

  8. JessicaNo Gravatar says:

    I hate pop remixing. It takes all the soul out of the song and just waters it down. That said, I have no problem with a country song crossing over in its original form (ala Carrie’s “Before He Cheats”). To me, when an artist remixes their songs to take all the country out of it, it feels like they’re selling out – changing their music just to get more airplay/sales. However, I do understand that for some artists, the remixing decision is up to the label, and of course the label is going to want to go with the option that will make them the most money.

    This is why I really respect Carrie Underwood in the country genre. Some of her songs lean pop, occasionally, but she generally releases her most country-sounding singles to radio, and refuses to remix them. She refused to remix “Before He Cheats,” but people loved it so much that they played it in its original version anyway. That’s what I would like to see more of, but unfortunately I think the pop world has gotten so used to being catered to with pop remixes, that they won’t play a country song without a remix ever again.

  9. Erik NorthNo Gravatar says:

    With respect to Rosanne Cash–I think she outlasted the Urban Cowboy trend on the country charts by a good seven or eight years, before the “hat acts” pushed her off it at the beginning of the Nineties. The venturing into modern folk was a fairly natural progression for her; even her father had been influenced by, and was very supportive of, the folk music revival of the 1960s (e.g., his famous 1964 protest hit “The Ballad Of Ira Hayes”).

    And it’s true that Linda was never a country singer in a strict sense, but she understood and appreciated its traditional spirit and musical roots about as well as any singer whose music lies on the fringes between country and pop, and mixed it all in with a rock and roll attitude back when it was still “unhip” for young people to listen to country music and not have all the prejudices against it. She may be a fellow traveler (she and Emmylou), but then there are a lot of singers who have followed her in the last 40 years.

  10. [...] Country Universe: Which country artists do you think segued into other genres most effectively? Who would you like to see try? [...]

  11. Ben FosterNo Gravatar says:

    I doubt Rosanne’s parentage had that much to do with her country success. There have been plenty of other artists who had famous family members, but who were unable to build a career as successful as Rosanne’s.

  12. ZackNo Gravatar says:

    If we were to say that Rosanne’s success was based on Johnny Cash being her father, we might as well say that Pam Tillis had success based on her father being Mel Tillis… but I don’t want to start something here.

    Anyways, I was going to say that it’s interesting that it is generally the females who get the rap for being crossover, and the males tend to be more ‘country.’ (which might have some bearing on why there are a low amount of females on country radio)…. However, when we look at Underwood and Swift (which are the genre’s two current mainstays for females, with possible exceptions of Lambert & McEntire), they are pop-sounding… so maybe my theory is out the window?

    Just a thought.

  13. OllieNo Gravatar says:

    Well, by asking about the “best job” of transitioning, I’m not sure if you’re referring to “most sales” or “greatest artistic success.” And if you are using Sugarland as an example, since you refer to their new album as a “rock record,” I suspect you may be asking about transitions from being marketed as a “country artist” to putting out records better described as belonging to a different genre– and not just “pop” music.

    If you are looking at artistic success, I agree with those who mentioned Rosanne Cash, Shelby Lynne and K.D. Lang. I’d also add some other artists who have aged gracefully into what is now commonly referred to as Americana music, such as Emmylou Harris, Kelly Willis, Kathy Mattea and Patty Loveless.

  14. BennyNo Gravatar says:

    Brenda Lee did it better and longer lasting than Patsy Cline I think. Of course no one really knows what Patsy might have become, but she always kept a foot in Country, while Owen Bradley pushed Brenda Lee more into Pop direction until she returned to Country in the 70s..

    Anne Murray is also a good point in case and maybe also Kenny Rogers who recorded pure (and good) AC/Pop many times in the 80s..

    Leann Rimes is also a good example.. Here in Europe no one considers her a Country artist and knows her mostly for “Can’t Fight the Moonlight” and the ‘Twisted Angel’ album is a good Pop album for what it is, while ‘Whatever We Wanna’ is another example (pure Pop aimed for the Euro-market). Her Pop success might have lasted longer if she’d have had better management..

  15. DiamondNo Gravatar says:

    Glen Campbell seemed to do well with both country and pop fans for quite a while.

  16. Erik NorthNo Gravatar says:

    Yes, GC did a heck of a lot at his peak of popularity (and oh, how much money he put into Jimmy Webb’s bank account, too). Of all of those who’ve ever crossed between pop and country, he may be one of the most underrated, if not the most underrated (IMHO).

  17. Yesterday I heard “Stuck Like Glue” again for the first time since streaming it online when it was released as a single and I thought about this post. It’s a reasonably fun, upbeat song where I can’t see myself caring to hear it repeatedly but it’s tolerably harmless. Then last night I had to endure Rodney Atkins’s “The Farmer’s Daughter” followed by Josh Thompson’s “Way Out Here.”

    I honestly don’t know what’s worse for country music: artists turning in music that bears no resemblance to the aesthetic standards of the genre, or those whose output is on roughly the same level as a political campaign commercial, jamming in as many buzzwords as possible in the hopes of getting a rise of an uncritical audience.

    I think if I had to pick, Sugarland’s misguided pop is actually the lesser of two evils. I say this because there’s a chance that someone who is not fond of country music might be introduced to material they would otherwise have overlooked, whereas the Josh Thompsons of the genre are doing nothing more than lowering the already embarrassing common denominator. I fear it’s less likely their audience will explore anything more intelligent or artistic.

    Hearing Johnny Cash’s name dropped yet again in a song that bears no resemblance to his poignant discography and legacy was bad enough, but to be shoehorned in between John Wayne and John Deere? Maybe Jennifer Nettles mangling the word “changing” isn’t so offensive.

  18. TomNo Gravatar says:

    …shania twain was not the first, but probably
    the most consequent former country artist crossing over to pop. a job well done.

    rascal flatts are a pop-outfit pretending for god knows what reason to be a country band. only results count.

    it’ll be interesting to see, where lady a. will end up. their best songs are the pop-songs. remains to be seen…

    taylor swift is a sensation in her own right. but like shania twain – global superstars are way above petty genre-questions.

  19. ObserverNo Gravatar says:

    Not a bad topic, but, for me not really controversial. Also, the way the question is posed is too limiting: “…transition from Country to Pop”. As though it’s a one-way street. Clearly, it is not: Jewel, Darius Rucker, and others are attempting the opposite.
    The issue that I think needs to be addressed by Country fans is, as Jessica pointed out, the re-mixing of a song. This practice is both fraudulent and insulting. I don’t think it should be tolerated by Country fans.

  20. Razor XNo Gravatar says:

    The issue that I think needs to be addressed by Country fans is, as Jessica pointed out, the re-mixing of a song. This practice is both fraudulent and insulting. I don’t think it should be tolerated by Country fans.

    Country fans don’t have to listen to the pop remixes if they don’t want to. If anybody has a legitimate beef about this practice, it’s the pop fans, not the country fans. They hear the pop mix on the radio but most of the time they can only purchase the country mix on CD.

  21. ObserverNo Gravatar says:

    Well, this is a Country Music blog. For someone who is, presumably, a Country fan, it’s pretty damn twisted to be defending the “legitimate beef” of Pop fans.

  22. ObserverNo Gravatar says:

    My concern isn’t so much what Country fans may or may not want listen too. It has to do with who they welcome as genuine Country artists and which artists will receive the coveted Country Music Awards.
    That the Country fans can choose to ignore the Pop re-mixes does not mean they don’t exist. Frauds and charlatans like Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum are pandering to the “I can’t stand Country” crowd. Country Music fans should not only be aware of that fact, but they should shun all so-called Country artists who do it.

  23. Razor XNo Gravatar says:

    I’m not “defending” anything — just pointing out that while country fans think they’re losing out when a country record is remixed for the pop market, when that is not the case at all. They can still hear the “country” version on country radio and when they buy the CD. No one is forcing them to listen to the pop version. Imagine how annoyed you’d be if you could only hear the country version on the radio but the pop remix was the only version that was available for sale.

    Pop remixes don’t bother me in the least. What bothers me is that none of these songs that are being remixed were very country or very good to begin with.

  24. Razor XNo Gravatar says:

    My concern isn’t so much what Country fans may or may not want listen too. It has to do with who they welcome as genuine Country artists and which artists will receive the coveted Country Music Awards.
    That the Country fans can choose to ignore the Pop re-mixes does not mean they don’t exist. Frauds and charlatans like Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum are pandering to the “I can’t stand Country” crowd. Country Music fans should not only be aware of that fact, but they should shun all so-called Country artists who do it.

    This is nothing new; it’s been going on forever. In the past, before it was technologically or economically feasible to release alternate mixes, artists with crossover aspirations would release only one version of their records — and guess what — the vast majority of the time they were middle-of-the-road arrangements designed to appeal to the pop market. They would just hope that country fans wouldn’t notice or care.

    Nowadays what is going on is exactly the opposite of what you described. Artists aren’t remixing country records for the pop market; they’re adding a little fiddle, steel and sometimes banjo to pop records to make them sound more country.

  25. ObserverNo Gravatar says:

    It is not as you say “the opposite of what you described”, that is precisely why I referred to “Frauds and charlatans like Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum”.
    Furthermore, the fact that it is nothing new, in no way justifies what is being done today.

  26. Razor XNo Gravatar says:

    No one is trying to justify it. And the problem with acts like Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum isn’t that they’re remixing their records for the pop market — who cares? The problem is that they’re on country radio in the first place.

  27. ObserverNo Gravatar says:

    Let’s just see if the CMA, ACM, (the new) ACA, and other Country Awards institutions agree with you that “Artists aren’t remixing country records for the pop market; they’re adding a little fiddle, steel and sometimes banjo to pop records to make them sound more country.”
    Because, if they see what you see, then the recipients of the awards should not include such artists. The 2010 CMA nominations don’t make me particularly hopeful in this respect.

  28. ZackNo Gravatar says:

    It’s not fair to include the ACA in this since they are entirely fan-voted.

  29. ObserverNo Gravatar says:

    Fine, never mind the ACA.

  30. Soul Miners DaughterNo Gravatar says:

    9 out of 10 *acts* in Nashville are failed pop/rock acts. When all else fails, let’s go country! Gotta love when the celeb du jour out of nowhere releases a *country* album and swears they were ALWAYS country! That THIS is the music that they grew up on and always had inside them. Sheeesh… if I had a nickel for everytime I heard that lame bio.

  31. Razor XNo Gravatar says:

    Let’s just see if the CMA, ACM, (the new) ACA, and other Country Awards institutions agree with you that “Artists aren’t remixing country records for the pop market; they’re adding a little fiddle, steel and sometimes banjo to pop records to make them sound more country.”
    Because, if they see what you see, then the recipients of the awards should not include such artists. The 2010 CMA nominations don’t make me particularly hopeful in this respect.

    Those organizations hand out awards to whoever is currently making the most money for the industry. They stopped recognizing artistic merit a long time ago. Don’t look to them for validation of what is good or bad country music.

  32. Razor XNo Gravatar says:

    9 out of 10 *acts* in Nashville are failed pop/rock acts. When all else fails, let’s go country! Gotta love when the celeb du jour out of nowhere releases a *country* album and swears they were ALWAYS country! That THIS is the music that they grew up on and always had inside them. Sheeesh… if I had a nickel for everytime I heard that lame bio.

    The flip side of that nickel is the country artist who, when asked to name his or her influences, lists several pop, R&B and rock acts, with — if we’re lucky — one token country act, in order to prove that he or she isn’t “too country.”

  33. KatieRNo Gravatar says:

    Country TO Pop? I’d say top 3:

    1.) Shania Twain (Up, & most of her albums)
    2.) Faith Hill (Cry, I really loved it)
    3.) Dixie Chicks (TTLW, still country, but more pop-soft rock-country than any of the others)

  34. CodeNo Gravatar says:

    Is this even a question? SHANIA TWAIN!! The queen of country-pop, and the only country star one to actually DOMINATE international charts, despite with pop music.

    Reba failed in 1995, with her starting over album, and she even told larry king that she wanted to make a move to crossover, but failed ultimately. She laughed about it though, saying her voice was wayy to country, and that crossing over should just be left to the pros like shania and faith.

    Faith hill had some crossover success but not as much as shania. Dolly had some too in the 80s. And i dont see miranda lambert crossing over, thats the main reason she has that massive fan base, BECAUSE SHE’S ACTUALLY COUNTRY.

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