Sunday, 29 March, 2009 3:14 PM
Darius Rucker and Jessica Simpson Cross the Pop-Country
by Russ Harrington
by Wayne Maser
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
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."
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.
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.
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
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