2016: The Year Pop Went Country

Nov 22, 2016
Originally published on November 21, 2016 7:58 pm

2016 will be remembered for a lot of things. But for me, 2016 will be the year that everyone made a country album — including Lady Gaga.

OK, so not everyone made a country album this year. But artists who you would never expect to dip into the Americana pool have done exactly that. With Aerosmith, Steven Tyler made bombastic, groundbreaking rock mashed up with hip-hop and anthemic ballads. But country music? Not until this year, when he released We're All Somebody Somewhere. Even new-wave icon Cyndi Lauper went full twang on her latest album, Detour. On "Funnel Of Love," the girl who just wanted to have fun covers rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson.

So why have all these disparate artists chosen to explore country music? Perhaps they were looking to stretch out creatively. Nashville is a professional musician's dream, with more songwriters, producers, session players and legendary studios per square mile than just about anywhere. Or maybe they were just looking to feel connected to something uniquely American. (Aaron Lewis, formerly of the hard-rock band Staind, falls into that camp with tradition-touting songs like "That Ain't Country.")

One reason artists are able to make this leap into country music is because the country audience itself is far from monolithic. For example, fans of Lewis' strident sound and mainstream message might not be the same folks who embraced Beyoncé for teaming up with the Dixie Chicks at this month's CMA Awards — together, they turned Lemonade's "Daddy Lessons" into a rootsy stomp.

Will longtime fans of these established musicians follow them down the country path? Probably. If you love the shape-shifting artistry of Lady Gaga, chances are you'll love her in a cowboy hat playing at a dive bar, which is how she spent a few weeks of 2016. Tyler's big country sounds a lot like his big anthems. And Lauper's signature hiccup is magically suited for mountain music. These artists' surprising forays into country may even win them a few new fans without alienating their loyal audiences.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

With six weeks left in 2016, music reviewer Meredith Ochs looks back on the year and highlights one surprising trend.

MEREDITH OCHS, BYLINE: 2016 will be remembered for a lot of things. But for me, 2016 will be the year that everyone made a country album, including Lady Gaga.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SINNER'S PRAYER")

LADY GAGA: (Singing) Hear my sinner's prayer. I am what I am. And I don't want to break the heart of any other man but you, but you. Oh, hear my sinner's prayer. It's the only one I know. It sure as hell don't...

OCHS: OK, so not everyone made a country album this year. But artists who you would never expect to dip into the Americana pool did exactly that. With the band Aerosmith, Steven Tyler made bombastic rock, a groundbreaking mashup of rock and hip-hop, and even anthemic ballads. But country music - not until now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RED, WHITE AND YOU")

STEVEN TYLER: (Singing) Bang bang, baby, like the 4 of July. A lightning strike in the midnight sky. Don't give a damn about the summertime blues. All I need is red, white and you. Can't let those colors fade. Tell me you're going to stay. American girls making drums come true, all I need is red, white and you.

OCHS: Even Cyndi Lauper, a new wave icon, went full twang on her latest album "Detour." The girl who just wanted to have fun covered the girl who dated Elvis, rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FUNNEL OF LOVE")

CYNDI LAUPER: (Singing) Here I go, going down, down, down. My mind is a blank, my head is spinning around and around as I go deeper in the funnel of love.

OCHS: So why have all these disparate artists chosen country music as their new genre? Perhaps they were looking to stretch out creatively. Also, Nashville is a professional musician's dream, with more songwriters, producers, session players and legendary studios per-square-mile than just about anywhere. Or maybe they were just looking to feel connected to something uniquely American, like former Staind singer Aaron Lewis, who recently released his second country album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT AIN'T COUNTRY")

AARON LEWIS: (Singing) So I'll keep listening to the old songs that my granddad used to play. Full of pain and heartache and desperation and the ones that got away. The ones that speak to me the way I feel today. The ones that speak to me the way I feel today.

OCHS: One reason artists are able to make this leap into country music is because the country audience itself is far from monolithic. For example, fans of Aaron Lewis' strident sound and mainstream message are probably not the same folks who embrace Beyonce for teaming up with the Dixie Chicks at the CMA Awards. Together they turned this song from Queen Bey's latest album into a rootsy stomp.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DADDY LESSONS")

DIXIE CHICKS: (Singing) Texas.

BEYONCE: (Singing) Came into this world daddy's little girl, but daddy made a soldier out of me.

OCHS: Will longtime fans of these established musicians follow them down the country path? Probably. If you love the shapeshifting artistry of Lady Gaga, chances are you'll love her in a cowboy hat playing at a dive bar. Steven Tyler's big country sounds a lot like his big anthems. And Cyndi Lauper's signature hiccup is magically suited for mountain music. These artists' surprising foray into country may even win them a few new fans without alienating their loyal audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DADDY LESSONS")

DIXIE CHICKS: With his gun, with his head held high he told me not to cry. Oh, my daddy said shoot. Oh, my daddy said shoot. With his right hand on his rifle...

MCEVERS: Meredith Ochs is a talk show host and DJ at Sirius XM Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.