NASHVILLE SKYLINE: When Country Goes Pop …

Is It a Surprise When Pop Goes Country?

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

It’s very instructive how, following nature’s lesson that it abhors a vacuum, music always follows that dictum. Every time in country music’s history, when its artists stray too far over into pop songs, pop stars begin cutting country.

The pop-to-country tradition goes back to at least the beginnings in the 1920s when pop and light-opera singer Vernon Dalhart (real name: Marion Ty Slaughter) sold an unprecedented 6 million records in the then-named “hillbilly” market with the double-sided single “The Wreck of the Old 97″/”The Prisoner’s Song.”

There have been many other instances. Tony Bennett killed pop audiences in 1951 with a cover of Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart.” British crooner Tom Jones recorded his most successful single ever with his 1966 cover of “The Green, Green Grass of Home,” which Porter Wagoner had cut the year before. Gram Parsons cut records that out-Nashvilled Nashville. The Byrds came to Nashville to be booed by the Opry audience — not for their authentic music but for their hippie appearances. There are endless lists of people who always yearned to be truly country to name them all. They still hit town every day. Everyone in pop music will one day end up in Nashville.

When both Neil Young and Van Morrison set up camp in the Ryman Auditorium not too long ago, though, and sang the hell out of some stone country songs, I think that sent a significant message. I would put both Young’s Prairie Wind and Morrison’s Pay the Devil up against any of this year’s y-clept country albums and defy anyone to say what is more country.

Now, Bruce Springsteen has cut an album that is straight-up roots country, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, which will be released on April 25. The first video clip is a very spirited version of the old railroad song “John Henry.” There is plenty of country fiddle and banjo and Tejano accordion, and I could almost swear that I hear the ghost of the late Tex-Mex savant Doug Sahm chiming in from time to time. Springsteen will preview this work at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on April 30 with a 17-piece “Seeger Sessions Band.” Then he’ll take it to Europe on tour.

I have to confess that I have been a Springsteen fan ever since I saw him play Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters in the early 1970s, when he could powerfully match the previous night’s Willie Nelson set. But I think that this recorded paean to country-folk’s patriarch Pete Seeger is a very fitting work for Springsteen, whose best work has been patterned around the workingman song ethic of artists such as Seeger and Woody Guthrie.

In another vein, art-rocker Jenny Lewis has done the best parody of the old country show Hee Haw that I’ve ever seen with a video that’s featured on her Web site. I had always thought Hee Haw was immune from parody, but Lewis does a fabulous job here of sticking the needle in. Check out the pastel, sequined overalls for one thing and all the other subtle touches. It also amounts to a gentle send-up of the Loretta Lynn-Jack White collaboration that’s both affectionate and funny. Lewis seems both drawn to and appalled by country music — which is not a strange place to be and where many people have been for years.

Which brings up Neko Case, the so-called alt-country artist who has been the so-called next big thing for years. She still is. Case’s new CD Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is a solid mix of alt-rock yearnings and alt-country realities that logically shouldn’t mesh. But with her, they do, wonderfully.

When you look elsewhere, Michelle Branch now pops up as half of the Wreckers with a country video running on CMT. And besides his recent Top 10 country single, the “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” duet with Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles, Jon Bon Jovi had already charted country in 1998 with a Chris LeDoux duet on “Bang a Drum.”

And now, the White Stripes’ Jack White (who of course produced Loretta Lynn’s last album) has moved to Nashville, bought a house on historic Franklin Road — that’s Hank Williams’ and George and Tammy’s old stomping grounds — and is tooling around town in a pickup truck. What’s next?