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Pop stars turn to country music

Singers like Michelle Branch, Norah Jones find a new audience of fans
/ Source: The Associated Press

If pop star Michelle Branch and her pal Jessica Harp had their way, their new country album “Stand Still, Look Pretty” would have registered even higher on the twang scale.

“We had people holding the reins back and saying maybe you should approach this very slowly and adjust as you go,” Branch said of the duo, called the Wreckers.

“I think if Jessica and I totally had our way it would have been a bluegrass record.”

The group, whose album comes out Tuesday, is among a spate of artists from outside Nashville who are going country and finding success.

The Bon Jovi-Jennifer Nettles duet “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” hit No. 1 on the country singles chart and stayed there two weeks, while new albums by Van Morrison and Norah Jones’ outfit the Little Willies (named in homage to Willie Nelson) also are doing well (Nos. 24 and 27, respectively, on the country album chart).

The Wreckers’ first single, “Pick Up the Pieces,” was at No. 29 on Billboard and rising after six weeks.

“Toward the end of my last solo tour I was trying to figure out what else I might want to do,” said Branch, 22, whose string of pop hits includes the Grammy-winning “The Game of Love” with Santana. “I started thinking about making the organic singer-songwriter country-type of record I’d always wanted to do.”

An outlet for singer-songwritersPop and rock artists have long been drawn to country music for its vivid story songs and crack musicians. Everyone from Bob Dylan to Elvis Costello to Kid Rock have flirted with Nashville.

But there’s been a spike recently. Neil Young made an album and concert film here that channel country’s golden era. Morrison and Jones mined the classic country songbook for their respective discs. Mark Knopfler teamed with Emmylou Harris for his latest project, “All the Roadrunning.” And former Pixies frontman Frank Black tapped Nashville session players for his record “Honeycomb.”

Even David Lee Roth joined a group of Nashville pickers for an upcoming bluegrass tribute album, “Strummin’ With the Devil: The Southern Side of Van Halen.”

“I think if there were a common trait among all these artists it is that they all treat country music and country musicians with terrific respect,” said Brian Philips, general manager of Country Music Television.

For Branch, country seemed the perfect fit for the Wreckers’ rootsy sound, which combines mandolin, banjo and fiddle with tight harmonies and a rock beat. The duo and their label, Maverick/Warner Bros. Nashville, are promoting the record exclusively to country radio. Later this month, the Wreckers will hit the road with Rascal Flatts.

“Anyone who has followed me from the beginning, who knows my writing and is interested in me enough to really care about this won’t feel like this is too shocking,” Branch said. “Nothing about my writing has changed.”

While the 1970s were a fertile time for the singer-songwriters who inspired Branch — like Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens — she said country is more open to the style today than pop.

“It’s too hard for a singer-songwriter to break into pop music, especially for a new artist. You get half a second to even make an attempt,” she said.

‘The stars just lined up’Country listeners have long accepted singers from outside the genre, but it’s been a while since a pop star has had a sustained career in country the way John Denver or Linda Ronstadt did.

The more common pattern is for country singers to cross over to pop, a la Shania Twain or Faith Hill.

Wade Jessen, director of Billboard’s country charts, views the current crop of outsiders more as an anomaly than a trend.

“For lack of a better analogy, I think the stars just lined up timing-wise,” Jessen said. “The Bon Jovi thing is maybe as country as we’ll hear Bon Jovi go. I don’t see that band making a run at the format in hope of a crossover career.”

Despite strong sales, neither the Morrison nor Jones albums is getting mainstream radio airplay.

CMT’s Philips thinks country fans are more adventurous than radio gives them credit for. Perhaps more than any other outlet, CMT has helped blur the lines of country music. The cable network airs videos by pop and rock stars like Sheryl Crow and Jewel, and it’s most popular series, “Crossroads,” pairs country singers with outside artists such as Dave Matthews and John Mayer.

This month it has been airing specials on a recent Van Morrison concert in Nashville and on the recording of Bruce Springsteen’s new album, a tribute to folk singer Pete Seeger.

“Twenty years ago, when you talked to people who listened to country radio, most would say, ‘I grew up in a house where we heard only country music,”’ Philips said. “Now, it’s impossible to grow up in a house where only one genre of music is accessible. If you’ve got electricity, that’s probably not the case.”