Cyndi Lauper’s new country album, Detour, isn’t the first project she’s recorded in Tennessee. The musical voyage east comes after her 2010 album, Memphis Blues.
“You’ve got a great state here, Tennessee,” Lauper said during a recent visit to CMT’s offices in Nashville.
Memphis Blues featured the likes of B.B. King, Allen Toussaint, Ann Peebles, Tracy Nelson and Charlie Musselwhite on songs made famous by Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Albert King and Robert Johnson. In a similar vein, Detour features guest appearances by several country artists on some classics, as well as a few slightly more obscure songs.
A conversation with Lauper confirms her knowledge and love of all musical genres, but many are surprised that her Nashville roots were planted more than two decades ago with musician-producer Jan Pulsford and the late David Schnaufer, a local musical treasure who served as an adjunct associate professor of dulcimer at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music.
“I was his dulcimer student,” Lauper explains. “I wasn’t as good as he was. He was great — and a great history teacher. He bought me my first dulcimer in 1989, and I sang on his record (2000’s Delcimore). He was my teacher, but I also wrote dance music here. I recorded ’Fearless’ at Jan’s place in Hendersonville.”
Detour, her first album for Sire Records, came at the suggestion of label founder Seymour Stein and was created in Nashville with the assistance of Tony Brown, a veteran record producer who has worked with George Strait, Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell and many others.
“I wanted to sing with the Nashville Cats (studio musicians), and I knew it had to be a combination of old and young,” Lauper said. “I also felt like the sound had to be modern, but reminiscent of an older time. Even the blues album … they didn’t want an old-sounding record. So no matter what I do, I try to bring the modern electronics in.”
The sonic result is a warm-sounding album with a clear connection between the singers and the musicians. Among the tracks are two Patsy Cline classics (“Walkin’ After Midnight” and “I Fall to Pieces”) and a cover of Wanda Jackson’s 1960 rockabilly hit “Funnel of Love.”
One of the album’s highlights is Lauper’s version of “Misty Blue,” a Bob Montgomery composition that shows the connection between country music and R&B.
“That’s why I did it,” she said of the song. “That’s what Seymour was talking about — that R&B and country, at a certain time period, walked hand in hand. But I think it kept walking hand in hand. ’Misty Blue’ is a perfect example. In 1976, Dorothy Moore had an R&B hit with it. In 1966, Wilma Burgess had a country hit.”
In coming up with her version, she said, “I had to straddle what the story was going to be and somehow walk in the middle and tell the story — the right story — and have it live in the mix of country and R&B.”
She also delivers a chilling interpretation of “The End of the World,” Skeeter Davis’ 1962 hit. One factor was the recitation within the song.
“I didn’t know if I should talk in ’The End of the World,'” she said. “I started really thinking — and this goes back to acting. I acted in some things. Of course, I took the method class, which was torture because they made me hop up and down on one foot and sing in a totally different rhythm. It just made me angry.
“But I thought about that moment in your life when it really felt like it’s the end of the world. And I just spoke from there. It was honest as I could be.”
Ironically, the song that almost didn’t make the album was the title track.
Lauper is certainly not the first to sing it. Written by Paul Westmoreland in the 1940s, it’s been recorded in various arrangements by numerous artists, including Patti Page, Dean Martin, Ferlin Husky and Jerry Jeff Walker. But bandleader Spade Cooley had the big country hit when vocalist Tex Williams sang it on a record that spent two weeks at No. 1 in 1946.
Lauper was familiar with the song but didn’t know the entire tragic story behind Cooley, who was sentenced to life in prison in the 1961 murder of his second wife. Cooley’s 14-year-old daughter reported testified that she witnessed the crime. The musician died of a heart attack in 1969 while awaiting parole.
“Oh, my God, I didn’t even want to know the history of it,” she said. “And then I wasn’t even going to freakin’ do it because I was like, ’Are you kidding me? … I love this song. We’re doing it. It’s all good. … What?!’
“It was really, really out there. And his poor daughter, who knows?”
But “Detour” remains a great song.
“And Spade Cooley didn’t write it,” Lauper pointed out. “Another guy wrote it.”
Explaining her personal take on the song and the album, she said, “I thought, ’Life is a detour,’ and sometimes you make a detour that’s a lot of fun. You don’t have to always walk the straight and narrow.”
Lauper laughs when it’s pointed out that after she completes her headlining tour to promote her new albulm, she’ll do what other acts do after releasing a country album: She’ll co-headline a tour with Boy George.
“Why not?” she said. “It’s fun. It’s going to be so much fun.”
She launches her solo tour Monday (May 9) in Nashville, and she’s a little nervous.
“I’m starting at the Ryman Auditorium,” she said. “It’s such a sacred place. I hope I’m good. I hope I sing good.”