Editor’s note: CMT Crossroads featuring Taylor Swift and Def Leppard premieres Friday (Nov. 7) at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
When Def Leppard lead singer Joe Elliott is asked how he discovered country music, he answers immediately, “Just the same way as everybody else, but from a lot farther away.” Even as one of the most recognizable voices in rock history, with classic albums like Hysteria and Pyromania, Elliott says country is part of his musical heritage, too.
“In Britain it wasn’t something that was on the radio all the time, but the cream rises,” he says. “Even in the early ’70s, and long before then, there’d be the odd song in the Top 20, even in England. It would be country-based music — Glen Campbell and Johnny Cash and people like that. Occasionally the BBC — at midnight or maybe twice a year — would show the Grand Ole Opry. You’d see all these people whooping it up with their hats and their boots on, which was very unusual for us. We came from working-class Sheffield, which is more comparable to somewhere like Pittsburgh. It’s a steel town. So it was totally alien.”
Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen says their producer, Robert “Mutt” Lange, was always bringing in country music to their recording sessions. (Lange, of course, went on to produce — and marry — Shania Twain.) Collen says Lange’s influence is still being felt by the band today.
“Back in the day, a lot of rock bands — back when we put out Pyromania — were pure rock, and they’d say, ‘You can’t go anywhere else with it.’ But Mutt said, ‘Yeah, you can sing harmonies, you can do this, you can do that.’ It pushed us. I think Mutt had a lot to do with that, and I think the trend continues now,” says Collen.
The band was Taylor Swift‘s first choice when the opportunity arose to collaborate for an episode of CMT Crossroads. The 18-year-old singer-songwriter says she grew up listening to the band because her mother has always been a huge fan. Plus, she says, “The harmonies that they do on their songs are perfect for my range. When we initially started talking about it, I told [Elliott] my favorite lines from my favorite songs. And he said, ‘You can sing all of them. Whatever you want to sing, you can sing it.’ I was like a kid in a candy store! I was like, ‘You mean I can sing the first line of ‘Photograph’? What?!”
“I offered the entire song,” Elliott concedes. “I’ve been doing it for 25 years. I can take the night off, trust me.”
Swift had initially reached out by e-mail to introduce herself to Def Leppard’s drummer, Rick Allen, but that didn’t pan out. However, when she mentioned her aspirations in an online interview, the band’s tour accountant brought it to their attention.
“We said, ‘Who is it?’ — because, of course, we didn’t know,” Elliott says. “There’s always a first day when you discover a band, whether it’s the Beatles or Taylor Swift. You hear the name for the first time, and then you go and check it out. We Google’d her, iTune’d her, listened to it all and said, ‘Well … wow!’ Look at how many records she’d been selling and look how young and pretty she is and how exciting it is to be at that point of a career — because we were there once a long time ago before (she was) born. Of course, the first thing we did — 15, 20 minutes later — was try to get a hold of her. ‘Let’s see if we can actually get this going.’ It took a year, but you know, here we are.”
Collen believes Swift’s presence has helped take country music to another place. “It’s actually opened it up,” he says. “It’s more popular than your new country was a few years ago. And now it’s younger people in the mainstream, which is really cool.”
Elliott adds, “I think we first noticed a change in the ‘country attitude,’ if you like, when we started seeing videos. … I remember the first time I saw a Garth Brooks video where they smashed two acoustic guitars together on stage. I looked beyond that and said, ‘That’s Van Halen’s lighting rig.’ It moved into rock, really. The cowboy hat was still there, but the way it was dressed up was very much similar to the way MTV was in the late ’80s.”
The concept of CMT Crossroads — which pairs a country artist with a performer from another genre of music — immediately appealed to the band, Elliott says.
“It’s brilliant,” he says. “I’ve always loved the idea. Once you’ve established yourself as an artist, you need to stretch. And part of stretching is going places that other people don’t think you should. It’s like a fence that says, ‘Do not climb over.’ You have to look to see why not. To do any kind of spillover … into whatever kind of music, it’s curiosity. Sometimes it’s not going to work. Sometimes it is … and this has been jelling real tight. It’s a lot of fun.”
Indeed, when Swift gushes that she gets to sing “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” “Hysteria” and “Photograph,” Elliott quips, “I can’t believe I get to sing, ‘You be the prince and I’ll be the princess.’ I’m so looking forward to that one.” (The line comes from Swift’s new single, “Love Story.”)
Collen says the band’s collaboration with Tim McGraw earlier this year on “Nine Lives” was “a very natural thing.” (Def Leppard’s drummer and McGraw’s tour manager are brothers.) But he’s also quick to point out, “We never really want to be constantly looking for other artists to work with. We just let it fall naturally. We’re not really on the lookout to work with anyone else.”
“But I would have loved to have done a duet with Johnny Cash,” Elliott says. “It’s been done before, where they get the tapes and you put your voice on the top. Ethically, I’m not really sure it’s a good idea. …. If one day it’s cool to do that, and it’s not like grave-robbing or something, I would do it.”