Attention, all those still hoping to become country before country becomes cool: Too late. 2007 saw a steady stream of mainstream pop stars flee their sinking ships for the USS Nashville, a slightly more seaworthy vessel where album sales are less apocalyptic and uncharted radio-airplay waters await. Kelly Clarkson duetted with Reba McEntire and is toying with a down-home sound. Bon Jovi parlayed the success of their country-chart-topping single ”Who Says You Can’t Go Home” (which features Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles) into the country-esque release Lost Highway. Heck, even Led Zeppelin vet Robert Plant hit No. 2 alongside alt-country stalwart Alison Krauss with Raising Sand. But for every Jewel Kilcher — whose Western-tinged seventh album is being recorded in Nashville, the same place she’s cut all but one of her discs — there is a Jessica Simpson, whose father recently announced she’s considering going ”back to her [Texas] roots,” twanging up her next record in a move that smacks of relevancy-deprived desperation.
So are pop-to-country crossovers making an honest attempt to explore new sonic territory, or is this just a shotgun-blast approach to gaining new fans? Here’s a thought: What if, in a zeitgeist dominated by the bleeps and blips of computer-generated, ringtone-ready singles, these folks are yearning for something a little more…real? Take the Dec. 7 broadcast of CMT’s long-running performance series Crossroads: Given the pairing of Joss Stone and LeAnn Rimes, it’s possible to cynically assume that the British soul songbird — whose last album was only a modest Stateside hit — is banking on the show to increase her profile outside the U.K. But two songs in, the pair engage in a searing duet of Rimes’ ”Nothin’ Better to Do,” and you realize maybe the girl just wants to sing. No backing track, no lip-synching. In front of actual musicians. You know — like they did in the olden days. ”Without naming any names, the people that get into discussions about doing the show and fall away quickly are the ones who realize, ‘You mean I’m not gonna have a safety net?”’ says Bill Flanagan, an executive producer on Crossroads. ”That separates the players from the phonies really fast.” Of course, he could be talking about the country genre as a whole, too. So here’s a challenge, pop stars: Why not make 2008 the year you stop trying to go country, and instead, just start taking notes?