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Entertainment News

Sunday, 29 March, 2009 3:14 PM

Darius Rucker and Jessica Simpson Cross the Pop-Country Divide (CMA)

Photo by Russ Harrington

Darius Rucker

Photo by Wayne Maser

Jessica Simpson

 

By Vernell Hackett
© 2009 CMA Close Up News Service

The key to moving a former pop or rock singer into the Country market seemed pretty straightforward to the record label folks who had engineered that transition for Darius Rucker and Jessica Simpson.

It was as simple as it was essential: Both singers truly love Country Music.

Sony Music Nashville Chairman Joe Galante knew this from his first meeting with Simpson. "Jessica came in with her dad," he recalled. "I asked her, 'What makes you think you want to get into this format?' She said, 'Well, I grew up on Country Music. I lived in Texas. This is not foreign to me.'"

The same story applies to Rucker, according to Cindy Mabe, VP of Marketing, Capitol Records Nashville, who insisted that no amount of marketing can make someone be something they are not. "If you have doubts, just ask him," she said. "He convinces people it's been his dream to sing Country Music. And he has been doing Johnny Paycheck and Hank Williams Sr. in his shows since his Hootie & the Blowfish days."

"My producer, Frank Rogers, and I agreed that in order to have credibility in the format I would need to write or co-write every song," said Rucker. "I wanted to make a great record, but more importantly, I want a career in Country Music, so it was crucial that I earn respect from the songwriting community."

Crossing genres, however, can require balance as well as a sincere commitment to the music. Though Capitol gave the South Carolina native free creative rein as he recorded his Country debut album, Learn to Live, the label did persuade Rucker to reconsider his decision to release the honky-tonk shuffle "All I Want" as its first single. "They said it might be too Country," he said. "In hindsight, people might have thought I was trying too hard."

Instead, they picked "Don't Think I Don't Think About It," written by Rucker and Clay Mills, which promptly shot to No. 1, opening the way for Learn to Live's rise to the top of the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. "The best thing I think we did to promote the single was to get in a car and drive around and meet as many people as we could," the singer said. "I'd never done that before, but I wanted to and the label told me that's the way they do it."

Jimmy Harnen, Senior VP of Promotion, Capitol Records Nashville, accompanied Rucker on that baptism into the Country artist's life: the radio tour. "We started in Cincinnati and they loved him," Harnen said. "Then we went to Fort Wayne, Ind. That was the first conference room where Darius played for fans that the radio station brought in to meet him. They loved him too, and he enjoyed playing for them."

That set the model for Rucker's reception as the tour continued. "When we went in, the people didn't know him or what to expect, and within 10 minutes everyone was onboard," Harnen said. "I called Mike [Dungan, President/ CEO, Capitol Records Nashville] and I said, 'This is amazing. I'm watching him become instant friends with all of these people.'"

For Simpson, the first step into the Country Music world was to reintroduce herself as a musician. "I don't really look at myself as a crossover artist," she insisted. "I treat myself as a new artist. I'm doing a lot of what I did in my career when I was 18 years old, visiting tons of radio stations and doing the things a new artist would do. It's more like I'm carrying over into the next chapter of my life."

Simpson's recollection of that first meeting with Galante was her sense that he understood not only how much she loves music but that she sees her talent as a gift that God has given her.

"I have a lot to sing about and write about, and I just needed someone to give me that chance," she said. "I think Joe saw me get tears in my eyes and he saw the passion I had for making this record and for Country Music.

"It's rewarding for me to have my first No. 1 album be a Country album and the best record I've ever made," she added. "That is my roots and that is who I am. This record gave me an opportunity to think about what I've been through in my life."

As with Capitol and Rucker, Sony put no restrictions on Simpson's plans for Do You Know, produced by Brett James and John Shanks and released on Columbia Nashville.

"The situations I was put in while writing pop music was we were writing to the beat, so we'd come up with a melody but there weren't any in-depth lyrics," Simpson explained. "It wasn't the deep emotional therapeutic situation I found in writing Country Music. In Nashville, it wasn't about 'Let's find a hit.' It was more like, 'Write whatever you want to write, work with these songwriters that you love and adore and we'll see what happens.' I never felt the pressure to be something that I wasn't."

"We focused on covering different subjects and the things that were very personal to her," Galante said. "There wasn't any song that we listened to that we thought was too pop for us."

Sony heralded Simpson's upcoming album with a spectacular surprise onstage interview with host Storme Warren at LP Field during the 2008 CMA Music Festival last June, much as they'd lofted Carrie Underwood into the limelight at the 2005 Festival when she had signed with the label after her win on "American Idol."

"We had her at Music Fest so she could meet people in and around town and spend time with fans," Galante said. "That's why we went down to the Nashville Convention Center [a.k.a., Fan Fair Hall] and signed autographs for hours. After that, we took great pains to go to radio around the country in order to build relationships."

For both artists, success on the Country charts and the welcome extended by new fans more than paid back the effort they had extended and the risks they had taken. "The one thing I know about Country radio is, if fans don't like you, no one is going to buy your record or call in," Rucker said. "I think one of the reasons we did so well with 'Don't Think I Don't Think About It' is that so many people can relate to it."

Simpson was similarly encouraged when "Come On Over," which she wrote with Rachel Proctor and Victoria Banks, went to Country radio. "The song showed my personality and is about that fun upbeat moment when you just want the guy there now," she said. "It took me less than an hour to record and I was definitely happy with the outcome."

Rucker and Simpson will both concentrate on Country radio through the year as well as taking their shows on the road. Both will be in Nashville for the Country Radio Seminar in March to

o. And each has signed onto a major artist tour, with Rucker opening for Brad Paisley and Simpson for Rascal Flatts.
"Being on tour with Rascal Flatts is incredible," Simpson said. "I'm very blessed to be a part of that tour. The fact that the guys wanted me out there to open for them is one of the highest compliments I have received. The last time I was an opening act, it was for Ricky Martin. I was 19. And now I'm starting all over again."

On the Web: www.dariusrucker.com; www.jessicasimpson.com

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