The Dixie Chicks keep running away from Nashville in their successful quest for crossover cachet, but those in the pop and rock worlds have a reverse commute in mind.
This month, pop pianist Bruce Hornsby unveils a bluegrass-tinged collaboration with Ricky Skaggs, and a fleet of similar blur-the-lines projects are slated to follow soon. The rash of Strum und Twang interlopers includes upcoming releases by New Jersey rockers Bon Jovi, fresh off a Grammy win for best country collaboration with Sugarland; Sheryl Crow; and a collaboration between country Americana queen Alison Krauss and former Led Zeppelin yowler Robert Plant.
"Everywhere you go in Nashville, you run into [Jon] Bon Jovi and [guitarist] Richie Sambora," says Brian Philips, general manager at cable network CMT, which helped contribute to the crossover craze with its "Crossroads" series of rock-country collaborations. "The notion that the Nashville music scene is closed and tries to lock everybody out who isn't from here is completely outdated."
Bon Jovi's country-influenced album is set for release in June. For much of the past year, band members have been holed up in Nashville recording, with frequent dalliances in local music circles. The band most responsible for mall hair and no small share of pop-metal theatrics now kicks back with self-proclaimed redneck woman Gretchen Wilson and the eclectic hillbilly duo Big & Rich at Ryman Auditorium. (Where have you gone, Giants Stadium?)
Pop star Crow and the Plant-Krauss combo will elicit curiosity, but the Bon Jovi album commands the most attention. How will it sell? Can the band attract country fans and retain its core rock audience? How country can a band from Jersey sound? And what does country sound like these days, anyway?
"Country people aren't interested in rock crossover," says Chris Willman, a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly who follows country music. "You're seeing something different with Bon Jovi and some of these others. They're not trying to just cross over, they're trying to make country fans a part of their fan base."