It comes down to this: musicians like music. And most of them are into what’s happening in and out of their chosen genres. So that’s why some country singers continue to put their heads together with artists from the rap, pop and rock worlds. While they might seem like strange bedfellows at first, the music they’re creating is thoroughly likable.
The trend isn’t all that new. As far back as 1993, U2 recruited Johnny Cash to record a song Bono wrote called “The Wanderer.” Cash and Bono had even written a tune together back in 1988 called “Ellis Island,” but it was never recorded.
In 1997, Toby Keith’s Dream Walkin’ album has a Sting duet on it, “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying.” And on and on: Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow (2001), Tim McGraw and Nelly (2004), Sugarland and Bon Jovi (2005). In 2007, Reba McEntire released her Duets album that featured duet partners from Kelly Clarkson to Justin Timberlake to Don Henley. The 2009 CMT Music Awards opened its broadcast with Taylor Swift and T-Pain rapping a “Thug Story” duet.
Which brings us to right now. CMT Hot 20 Countdown gives an inside look at nine of the most unique collaborations with artists from the worlds of pop, rap and rock in today’s country music.
The song may have landed on Rexha’s pop album, but when you get down to it, it is a textbook done-me-wrong song. And FGL’s Tyler Hubbard told CMT that the whole experience, from start to finish, was all good. “It was amazing working with Bebe on ’Meant To Be,’ you know from the first night writing it together to getting to watch it come to life in the studio and kinda dreaming it up together,” Hubbard said. He added that making the video and hitting up awards shows together has been cool for both he and his FGL partner, Brian Kelley.
“God, Your Mama, and Me”
Florida Georgia Line and Backstreet Boys
Album: FGL’s Dig Your Roots (2016)
Songwriters: Josh Kear, Hillary Lindsey and Gordie Sampson
Kelley explained how working with the legendary boy band was a decision they didn’t take lightly. “We were raised with multiple influences, we love all sorts of music,” Kelley said, “but you know, we’re not going to do every song that comes our way. We have to feel like it’s a part of us. We gotta feel like it’s our song as much as it is the person we were collaborating with. We love collaborating, can’t wait to do more. But just when it’s right, you know what I’m saying?” The song’s video was shot using GoPro cameras and cell phones as the squad of male singers surprised their loved ones with unexpected acts of kindness.
Both Stapleton and Timberlake admit that their friendship and their collaborations are a little unlikely. “We had an opportunity to make music together and write songs and hang out, but it’s also weird because he’s one of the biggest stars in the world,” Stapleton said backstage at the 2018 Grammy Awards. And Timberlake gets that, saying, “We probably look like we don’t belong in the same song, but we have so much in common.” When it came time for their songwriting session, Timberlake recalls Stapleton asking him what he wanted to say. “I said, ’Honestly, I want to say something but I just don’t want to get caught up in the rhythm of it.’ And we just looked at each other and he was like, ’Hold on. Let me get my pad.’” The video was shot — reportedly in one take — in the labyrinth of L.A.’s Bradbury Building.
A Russian-German record producer, an American country singer and an American EDM duo walk into a recording studio. It’s seriously no joke. While the collaborative effort between all the artists has had international success, it’s done the best in the United States on the EDM and top 40 charts. It’s not quite country enough to make its mark on Billboard’s country airplay chart, but never say never. When the song was released, Morris shared her thoughts about its potential reach in a press release. “The sound is reflective of my many influences as an artist — a little bit country, little pop, little R&B, relatable, emotional and catchy as hell. There are no limits with this song and I can’t wait to see how the fans react,” Morris said. Morris, Zedd and Grey performed the song together live during this year’s 60th Grammy Awards.
Remember when Ludacris joined Jason Aldean on his remix of “Dirt Road Anthem”? Well this time, Luda got in on the ground floor of a new country project, and he chose well. He was one of the co-writers of Underwood’s powerful — and invincible, unbreakable, unstoppable and unshakeable — anthem. Her parts are so her, and Ludacris’ parts are so him. Meaning that before the otherwise country song is over, Ludacris jumps in to rap an acrostic for the word “champion.” The song was released in January 2018, and was used as an opening theme for Super Bowl LII.
Pop star Tori Kelly was an American Idol hopeful during season nine, just two years after Chris Lane beatboxed his way through his season seven audition. But still, the odds of this pop star and this country newcomer coming together on a song seemed to come out of the clear blue sky. “My label asked me who would be a dream collaboration, and I said Tori Kelly,” Lane said, “not realizing at the end of the day she would end up doing it. But she heard the song and loved it, and decided she wanted to be a part of it.” Lane and the song’s writers changed the second verse for Kelly, making it more of a true duet. “I say this a lot, but I’m definitely very lucky to have her on the song because I feel like she took what was already a really good song and made it even better.”
You can come from different worlds, but deep down, no matter where you are from, common threads tie us together. And that’s why it made sense when Cam and Sam Smith got together for a songwriting session. “When me and Sam were writing, I felt like both of us were on the same page with the same heartbreak and the same visiting this old love in your mind and these ruins,” Cam told CMT, “and it just came out real easy like that.” It was their mutual writer-producer-friend Tyler Johnson who initially brought Cam and Sam together.
There is no song yet. No album title. No concert announcement. But the collaboration between Thomas Rhett and Nick Jonas is ongoing, and it’s very likely that it won’t just be a one-and-done situation. Both young men grew up surrounded with families full of music. Rhett had his father, country singer-songwriter Rhett Akins. And Jonas had the Jonas Brothers, the sibling band he was part of from the time he was 13 until he was about 20, when he and his brothers disbanded to pursue solo projects. Nick’s included everything from TV, film and theater — he was in Les Misérables twice, once as Gavroche when he was 11 and once as Marius when he was 18 — but it was at the taping of a CMT Crossroads in 2016 when Jonas came into the country world to make music with Rhett. “What a time for music and what a time to for all genres to kind of respect what others are doing and have other people featured on their stuff. I think it’s great that people are starting to do that now,” he told CMT.
Even the Academy of Country Music will celebrate all kinds of collaborations when the category for vocal event of the year is called on April 15 in Las Vegas. This year’s nominees are country artists who teamed up with other country artists and they include:
Thomas Rhett and Maren Morris’ “Craving You”
Maren Morris and Vince Gill’s “Dear Hate”
Glen Campbell and Willie Nelson’s “Funny (How Time Slips Away)”
Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood’s “The Fighter”
Kane Brown and Lauren Alaina’s “What Ifs”