- The Washington Times - Monday, March 3, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Like a lot of fans, I’ve always been fascinated hearing a country artist cover an unlikely song. The Dixie Chicks’ fearless take on Fleetwood Mac’s classic “Landslide.” Sugarland’s soaring, out-of-the-blue (and Grammy-nominated) version of “Life in a Northern Town.”

Johnny Cash’s gut-wrenching, drop-the-mic rendition of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” — so iconic, so stunning that the song’s author, Trent Reznor, said: “Wow. [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore.”

Whether it’s the Southern accents or the familiar instrumentation — fiddles, pedal steel, banjos — there’s something about the aural lens of country music that can bring a song into focus for me.

And I know I’m not the only one who feels that way. That’s why Nashville always seems to have a handful of cover albums in the works.

This year, buzz is already building for a just-announced country album of Doobie Brothers hits. There’s also a tribute album for Jackson Browne that will feature contributions from a couple of familiar Nashville voices.

Both albums are the latest in an ongoing Nashville trend that has country stars dipping into the seemingly bottomless well of affection for the classic rock sound of the 1970s.

(I’m not the first to point this out, but a lot of the ‘70s California rockers like the Doobies, the Eagles, the Allman Brothers and the aforementioned Mr. Browne would be much more likely to break out in country today than on rock radio.)

And when you think about the Doobie Brothers, in particular, with their early Southern-flavored boogie, you have to wonder what took so long. This idea just seems like a natural — and the band’s foray into country has attracted some of the biggest acts in Nashville, eager to collaborate with the ‘70s rockers.

The currently-untitled project, set for release later this year by Sony Music Nashville, will feature the Doobies working with Brad Paisley, Sara Evans, Chris Young, Toby Keith, the Zac Brown Band, Jerrod Niemann, and Love and Theft, among others.

The Doobies, still playing and touring behind founding members Tom Johnston and Patrick Simmons, even convinced former frontman Michael McDonald, who sang their biggest hits, to rejoin the group for this project. That’s a lot of stars (and egos) for one album, but fortunately this is a band with a deep-enough catalog — from “China Grove” to “Black Water” to “Takin’ It to the Streets” — to make it work.

Music industry types got a sneak preview last month when Mr. Paisley, Mr. Young, Miss Evans and the band performed a short showcase at the 2014 Country Radio Seminar in Nashville.

It wasn’t a long set, but it was enough to get people thinking the Doobies could be 2014’s version of 2012’s countrified Lionel Richie album — a collection of collaborations with superstars like Jason Aldean, Tim McGraw and Blake Shelton that went platinum and put the former Commodores lead singer back on the top of the Billboard 200.

The whole point of Mr. Ritchie’s “Tuskegee” was to showcase the influence growing up in Alabama had on his music, rooting his sound in the rural South.

The country artists who joined the rockers and singer-songwriters on “Looking Into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne,” (Music Road) are a more eclectic group — less Nashville, more Austin — than the heavyweights who worked on the Ritchie album and the Doobie Brothers project. But no less interesting.

The always compelling Lyle Lovett tackles “Our Lady of the Well” and “Rosie,” Lucinda Williams takes on the iconic “The Pretender,” and the album’s big get — Bruce Springsteen — offers his version of “Linda Paloma” with Patti Scialfa. Kevin Welch, J.D. Souther and Texas native Don Henley round out a two-disc set that drops on April 1.

It’s not that hard to hear the musical threads that connect the Doobies and Jackson Browne to today’s generation of country music, but there’s another tribute project in the pipeline that’s a little tougher to explain: the as-yet-untitled Motley Crue album. That’s right. Motley Crue. (I know there’s an umlaut in there somewhere, but I have no idea where that key is on this keyboard, so you’re on your own.)

Don’t laugh. This one could the biggest one of all. It’s got Florida Georgia Line — listen, everything they touch now turns to gold — and superstar-in-waiting Brantley Gilbert, who has the current No. 1, “Bottom’s Up.” Which, now that I think about it, could have been a pretty decent Motley Crue song.

Also on board are LeAnn Rimes, Eli Young Band and Cassadee Pope, among others. No release date yet, but Nashville label Big Machine Records plans to have the album out before Motley Crue finishes its “farewell tour” this year. The band is “retiring,” and the country album is just part of what is being billed as a year of celebration of the biggest hair-metal band of the 1980s.

It’s not as crazy as it might seem: Superstar Carrie Underwood, who hasn’t signed onto this particular tribute album, actually did her own version of Motley Crue’s “Home Sweet Home” a few years back.

Now, if you’re a purist and all this genre-mining to find a few nuggets of country gold seems a little hit or miss, you’d probably rather go straight to the mother lode. Musical bloodlines don’t come much purer than last year’s “Bakersfield” — Vince Gill and Paul Franklin’s whiskey-soaked take on 10 honky-tonk gems from two of country’s originals: Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.

A tribute album with no need for a lot of explanation, that one.

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