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Look who's gone country

Onetime pop stars who've watched themselves edged out of Top 40 radio find a welcome sign and a warm reception in Nashville.

May 27, 2007|Melinda Newman | Special to The Times

IN a 2005 commercial, Hootie & the Blowfish singer Darius Rucker donned a glittering rhinestone suit and a Stetson to promote Burger King's latest sandwich. He wasn't a real cowboy then -- he was just playing one on TV. Two years later, however, he's singing a different tune: The multiplatinum-selling '90s pop singer is making his first country record.

"This is a career move for me," says Rucker, who says the group will continue. "I'm not just making a Hootie record with mandolins and fiddles."

He's not alone in boot-scooting from pop to country. The Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in recent months has been dotted with such rock radio-friendly names as Bon Jovi, John Waite, John Mellencamp, Sheryl Crow, Bob Seger and Michelle Branch (as part of the Wreckers).

And the party's picking up steam. In addition to Rucker, Jewel is shopping a country album produced by Big & Rich's John Rich, Crow plans to make a country album (she's on the chart now in a duet with Vince Gill). Even Justin Timberlake and Barry Gibb (who now lives outside Nashville) have talked recently about recording country CDs.

Bon Jovi is so enamored with Music City, there's even a song on the band's Nashville-influenced album, "Lost Highway" (due June 19, its title from the Hank Williams country classic), called "I Love This Town."

And Nashville is loving them right back. In 2006, Bon Jovi became the first rock band to score a No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart with "Who Says You Can't Go Home," a duet with Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles. The tune subsequently landed the group its first Grammy. After two platinum-plus pop albums, Branch topped a singles chart for the first time when "Leave the Pieces" hit the country summit. And in a sure sign they had been accepted by the locals, the Wreckers' debut, "Stand Still, Look Pretty," garnered Branch and Jessica Harp nominations for both Country Music Assn. and Academy of Country Music awards following their stint last year opening shows for Rascal Flatts.

Former top-of-the-poppers are headed for country's greener pastures, in part, because with the exception of Timberlake, as Jon Bon Jovi flat-out admits, "None of these artists could go on Top 40 anymore." Today's Top 40 stations, such as L.A.'s KIIS-FM (102.7), favor urban beats, samples and rhythms over songs with traditional choruses and verses.

Additionally, many of these artists are now over 30, and Top 40 is about capturing the 12-to-24-year-old listener. When Capitol Records Nashville president/chief executive Mike Dungan calls the 41-year-old Rucker "young," he means it: Country, which targets a 25-to-54-year-old demo, is the only mainstream format in which anyone over 35 isn't automatically over the hill.

"These artists have nowhere else to go [but country]," says Universal Records South exec Fletcher Foster. "I don't mean that they're choosing country as a default. Over the last few years country music has become a lot more embracing, whereas Top 40 over the last five to 10 years, it just doesn't match up with what they're doing."

Indeed, even 23-year-old Branch says that while performing at multi-artist, radio-sponsored pop festivals, she felt like "the orange in a sea of apples. Everyone was dancing and singing to [a recorded backing] track and I'd go out with my guitar and feel like I didn't belong. I had a really positive experience at pop radio, but everything started changing and I wasn't Beyonce."

Jewel, who co-hosted USA Network's country talent-search show "Nashville Star," puts it more plainly: "I don't feel like I've changed, the formats have changed." In the past, she says, "a lot of the producers tried pretty hard to take the country out of me. I had to finally get off [Atlantic] to do this record, or I would have done it a long time ago."

John Rich says Jewel's fans shouldn't expect a radical revision of her music. "It's a really cool combination of Jewel's singer-songwriter folk blended with real commercial country energy." The pair left the production deliberately spare. "I didn't want more than four or five instruments at a time," Jewel says. "It's pretty raw and live."

Such moves seem organic, says Justin Case, a radio program director in Birmingham, Ala. "It's a natural progression. What I've heard from a lot of [listeners] is that country is similar to the '80s guitar-based pop/rock. They can't relate to current pop; it's too hard for them, they can't understand the lyrics. The natural place for them to go is country. These artists are following the evolution of their audience. It's a good move."

Case is one of many current country PDs who used to work in pop radio. They have brought with them a broad musical perspective and an eye toward expansion.

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