Making tracks to collaborations

by Alison Bonaguro
Special to the Tribune
Published April 16, 2006


Whatever you do, don't call them duets. That word conjures up images of old-school country artists, in ruffled dresses and bolo ties, singing into a single mic at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry.

No, what today's country artists do is collaborate. Which could mean sweating out every last vocal side by side in the studio. Or that, through the miracle of recording technology, they don't ever even hook up. "Some artists who are collaborating never actually meet," said Phyllis Stark, Billboard's Nashville Bureau Chief.

Regardless of how they're created, the kinds of pairings have also changed. Couples such as Tammy Wynette and George Jones sang together because they were married. Loretta Lynn sang with Conway Twitty because they were pals. So why did Nashville go from those friendly get-togethers to Tim McGraw and Nelly?

McGraw a wanted man

"Over & Over," rapper Nelly's 2004 hit with McGraw, came about because Nelly set his sights on McGraw. According to MTV.com, Nelly wanted McGraw because, as he reportedly told his manager, not only can the crooner sing, but "He's got game . . . and he's got a fine [woman]."

But Mike Peterson, program director at Chicago's country radio station US99 (WUSN-FM 99.5), said listeners weren't so sure about the single. "People called in to say it was interesting but it wasn't what they wanted to hear on our station."

Some purists, and fans of other genres, don't necessarily like the country influence these singles are taking on. Longtime Bon Jovi fan Anne Bassett, of Chicago, isn't so sure about the rock band's work with Jennifer Nettles of country's hot-right-now group Sugarland. The song "Who Says You Can't Go Home," which pairs the coiffed rocker with the country crooner, was an instant hit. But, Bassett says, "Why can't anybody sing alone anymore? When I want Jon Bon, I just want Jon Bon. But I guess if she's good enough for Bon Jovi, she's good enough for me."

All Jon Bon Jovi was trying to do, according to CMT, was "try to find the right voice to complement mine." The single now sits at No. 3 on Billboard's country charts, and No. 10 on its adult top 40 charts.

At least Bon Jovi and Nettles are contemporaries. But now, anything goes in these new collaborations, regardless of genre or generation. Jack White, garage-rock hero and lead singer for the White Stripes, produced Loretta Lynn's latest album "Van Lear Rose." And on it, the ultimate odd couple sing together on "Portland, Oregon." Yes, that Loretta Lynn. And yes, that Jack White.

Sometimes, it feels like these collaborations are a gimmick for broadening an artist's audience. That may come from the artist's recognition of his limited appeal, or from a brainstorming session at the record label. Jimmy Buffet's a good example of a man trying to steal his share of the true country audience. First, he joined up with Alan Jackson on "It's 5o'clock Somewhere." Then he remade Hank Williams' "Hey Good Lookin'" with help from Jackson, Clint Black, George Strait, Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney. While it's hard to put a label on an icon like Buffet, his collaborations make it feel like he's trying to put one on himself.

Doobie time

Billy Currington, whose "Party for Two" with Shania Twain catapulted his career, recently turned to ex-Doobie Brothers frontman Michael McDonald for "She's Got a Way."

"I grew up on the Doobie Brothers, and Michael's one of my favorite cats," Currington says. "He's the guy I always wanted to sound like. When we got together to write this, it was just him on piano and me on my gut-string guitar. When he came in to sing harmonies on it, everyone in the studio was just in awe."

Crow and Sting. Chesney and Kracker. Tritt and Mellencamp. There's no end to the possibilities when you mix country with outsiders. But not everyone is taking such detours to find a partner. Gretchen Wilson, a born-and-bred Merle Haggard fan, was finally in a position to call on her hero for guest vocals on "Politically Uncorrect."

The song's chorus says, "I'm for the Bible and I'm for the flag/And I'm for the working man, me and ol' Hag." Wilson says, "It just don't get no better than Merle." While she says she has never met Haggard, Wilson loves the results of the virtual collaboration. "I recorded the song and then sent it to Merle. When we got the tracks back, the hair on my arms stood straight up and I had goose bumps that didn't go away until the song was over," she said.

For Brad Paisley, Dolly Parton was a natural for his current hit single "When I Get Where I'm Going." The song celebrates the afterlife, and Paisley told the Associated Press that Parton's voice "is angelic and that takes [the song] to a more spiritual realm instantly." While Paisley certainly isn't in need of more accolades, the song does push Parton back to the top of the country charts, where she hasn't been since 1991.

Even George Strait, who has had plenty of hits on his own, is jumping on the bandwagon. For the first time, he has put a collaboration on one of his albums. And for the first time, he has teamed up with a woman. Lee Ann Womack sings with Strait on "Good News, Bad News."

"I used to go to his concerts and I'd tell my girlfriends, `I'm gonna sing with him someday,'" Womack says. "I was changing planes in Dallas when I got the message that Strait was cuttin' our song. I don't have the words to describe what a big deal that was."

Teaming with wife

McGraw's back at it too. Although this time, no rappers. He teamed up with wife Faith Hill for her current hit, "Like We Never Loved at All," and will soon be collaborating with his 16-year-old cousin Catherine Raney on a song for his upcoming film "Flicka."

This trend of uniting two artists may have roots that date to the early days of country music, but where's it headed? If it's down the same road as hip-hop, there could be much more to come. Collaborations between rap artists are one of the very things that defines the genre. You might find LL Cool J with Mary J. Blige, 50 Cent with Eminem, 2 Pac with Snoop Dog, or Ja Rule with Jay-Z. Browsing the hip-hop songs on the iTunes makes you wonder if any of these artists ever sings alone. Almost every album these days has multiple tracks that get by with help from friends. It's like the music industry's popularity contest, and your posse can make or break your album.

Billboard's Stark says, "Country radio used to have tightly closed arms to any pop or rock collaborations. Now they've embraced them." That could be the reason we're seeing more of them. But CMT's editorial director, Chet Flippo, chalks it up to a need to feel validated. "Country music has always felt and to a great degree still does have an inferiority complex," Flippo says.

Whatever the reason, collaborations seem to have become a rite of passage for country artists. And once they've checked it off their to-do lists, most go back to their solo careers -- where their own vocals take center stage and the song's success is theirs alone.

Copyright 2006, Chicago Tribune