Dallas, TX –
Jack Ingram's new album, This Is It, recently debuted at number four on the Billboard country charts - but it was a bittersweet victory for those of us who have been rooting for this rough and rowdy 37-year-old SMU grad ever since the early 90s, when he triumphed over the half-pound cheeseburger to become the most popular attraction at Adair's Saloon in Deep Ellum. On one hand, coming on the heels of his 2006 breakthrough with the chart-topping "Wherever We Are," it proved that hard work indeed can trump major-label hard luck; on the other hand, it happened because of his half-hearted remake of "Lips of an Angel," a wretched 2006 rock ballad by Oklahoma City band Hinder that makes resisting temptation sound like a multiple-choice question instead of a morality test.
Country artists used to turn to the pop charts for crossover vehicles more often. But then Garth Brooks came along and essentially turned country music into pop music - and Nashville continued feeding off its own bottomless pool of hook-for-hire songwriters in an attempt to keep the publishing royalties in the 615 area code. We still get the occasional classic-rock throwaway, like Rascal Flatts' low-octane take on Tom Cochrane's "Life is a Highway" - but mostly we get novelty numbers like Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby's bluegrass version of Rick James' "Super Freak" that answer the unasked question: What would this song sound like with fiddles and banjos?
And that's a shame, because as a handful of risky new interpretations prove, well-executed country cover songs can do more than just add a twang: They bring out nuances that add depth to seemingly simple love songs. Country singers tend to understate rather than over-emote. The tempos are slower so the emotions linger: Something tender becomes touching, something haunting becomes chilling, something lovely becomes romantic. Just listen to New York singer Dawn Landes and Austin's WST Bluegrass Band transform Swedish alternative trio Peter, Bjorn and John's "Young Folks" into a giddy backporch celebration of commitment.
More important, a country interpretation of a pop hit can uncover a real song hiding underneath the trendy production. On her new album Miles Away, California singer Gina Villalobos remakes Yvonne Elliman's Bee Gees-penned "If I Can't Have You" with a tortured soul-baring arrangement that is more desperate than disco.
In the coming weeks, you'll be hearing Nashville rebel Elizabeth Cook's mimosa-sunrise rendition of the Velvet Underground's "Sunday Morning" and Austin singer Kelly Willis' gleeful ransack of Iggy Pop's "Success." The lost art of country-fying pop tunes may be coming back in vogue. Always ahead of the curve, Jack Ingram had the right idea - he just picked the wrong song.
David Okamoto is a content production manager at Yahoo in Dallas and a former contributor to the Dallas Morning News, Rolling Stone and ICE magazine.
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