(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Nashville has long served as a sort of El Dorado for outsiders, a veritable fountain of youth for the faltering careers of rockers and poppers or just plain celebrities who have more money than musical talent.
So, this month we need to add Tiffany and Styx’s Tommy Shaw as the latest candidates to seek salvation and redemption in the healing studio sounds of country music and Nashville. Hey, look at Staind’s Aaron Lewis, who came to Nashville and now has a No. 1 country album with Town Line. Lionel Richie, who did a very successful CMT Crossroads show with Kenny Rogers, is now finishing a Nashville album of duets with country stars. And then there’s Gwyneth Paltrow.
The notion of “Gone Country” is not necessarily a bad thing. A move to Nashville has gone pretty well for Carrie Underwood. Ray Charles’ album Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music is a landmark that altered country music as well as pop music history. With the albums Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, Bob Dylan has done some of his best work in Nashville. Paul McCartney came to Nashville to record “Junior’s Farm,” “Sally G” and “Walking in the Park With Eloise” and more. Elvis Costello’s Nashville album, Almost Blue, remains some of his best work. Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant came to Nashville to work with Alison Krauss, and they won five Grammy awards for their album together, Raising Sand. Jewel and Darius Rucker both came in from the cold to country careers.
Tiffany actually does have a bona fide country history. As a child, starting when she was 10, she reportedly opened for such artists as George Jones and Jerry Lee Lewis and appeared on Ralph Emery’s TV show in Nashville. Now, many years after her mall tour led to stardom with “I Think We’re Alone Now” and after her subsequent success dwindled, here she is again with her new country album, Rose Tattoo.
Tommy Shaw of the group Styx will be on the Grand Ole Opry on March 26 and will release The Great Divide, his bluegrass album, on March 22. Guest performers on the project include Jerry Douglas, Alison Krauss, and Sam Bush.
This inevitably brings to mind one of the more spectacular gone-country flops of recent years. Namely, Jessica Simpson. She was booed by country crowds at her first country concert at Country Thunder in Wisconsin. She famously demonstrated she didn’t know the lyrics to Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” during a Parton tribute at the Kennedy Center. Simpson finally realized Nashville was rejecting her transplant — and she moved on.
Antagonisms such as that are nothing new. In 1974, when Australian pop singer Olivia Newton-John was named CMA female vocalist of the year, there was a hue and a cry among Nashville’s traditionalists. George Jones and Tammy Wynette hosted a meeting of some two dozen prominent country artists. Out of that grew the Association of Country Entertainers (ACE). That became essentially a keep-it-country movement that eventually lost steam.
Those sensitive feelings were also exacerbated the following year when pop-folkster John Denver won the CMA entertainer of the year award. In announcing the winner, Charlie Rich summed up the town’s feelings when — on the live CMA Awards telecast — he set fire to the slip of paper with Denver’s name on it.
Some other musical visitors to country music have included Clint Eastwood, Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart), Joaquin Phoenix Walk the Line, Reese Witherspoon Walk the Line, Sissy Spacek (Coal Miner’s Daughter), Robert Duvall (Tender Mercies), Sylvester Stallone (Rhinestone), Keith Carradine (Nashville), Billy Bob Thornton, Kevin Bacon, TV battle-show host Jerry Springer, jazz artist Charlie Haden and his son-in-law (actor Jack Black), actress Mamie Van Doren, Jon Bon Jovi, Kelly Clarkson, former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw, former Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks Don Meredith and Danny White, Snoop Dogg, actress Susan Anton, actress Mary Kay Place, Rick Nelson’s sons, Poison’s Bret Michaels and every American Idol graduate who has nothing else going on.
John Kay of Steppenwolf moved to Nashville, as did Donna Summer, Peter Frampton, the Rascals’ Felix Cavaliere and many others. Jack White moved to Nashville and has produced memorable albums for Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson. Led Zep’s bassist and multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones has produced all-female bluegrass group Uncle Earl and jammed with numerous artists at Bonnaroo. The Dukes of Hazzard’s John Schneider had four No. 1 country hits during his recording career. Fellow Duke Tom Wopat didn’t hit No. 1, but he charted 10 country songs. Famous banjo picker Steve Martin is doing well. Kid Rock spends much quality time in Nashville. So does his Michigan bud, Uncle Kracker.
And Shania Twain liked her country career so much that she’s reportedly coming out of retirement.