After Kelly Clarkson went to No. 1 on Billboard‘s Country Songs chart last year with the Jason Aldean duet “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” I wondered hopefully if the Texas-born pop star would finally go country with her next album. So I was a little disappointed a few months later, when she debuted the bland “Mr. Know It All” as the lead single from her fourth album, Stronger. But months after the song came and went as a moderate Hot 100 success (it peaked at No. 10) and was supplanted on pop airwaves by the chart-topping follow-up “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” something happened that made my initial reaction quite ironic: “Mr. Know It All” was remixed as a country song. It peaked at No. 21 on Country Songs earlier this month, and cable country music networks have the video in heavy rotation—the same video VH1 was airing six months ago, with a new audio track dubbed in.
“Mr. Know It All” seems like an odd candidate for the country treatment in many ways. Brett James, a country songwriter who’s penned hits for Kenny Chesney and Carrie Underwood, had a hand in the original, but he was just one member of a large team of writers and producers dominated by writer Ester Dean and producer Brian Kennedy, who’ve both worked on chart-topping Rihanna singles and a bevy of other R&B hits. Country has always placed a high value on big emotional ballads and carefully crafted lyrics; this is a strident midtempo song with the painfully vapid opening couplet, “Mr. Know It All, you think you know it all/ but you don’t really know it all, ain’t it something, y’all?” Perhaps it was simply the presence of “y’all” that marked the song for country crossover potential.
“Mr. Know It All” was not re-recorded or substantially reworked. The new version—remixed by Dan Huff, a two-time winner of the the Academy of Country Music’s Producer Of The Year award—simply places Clarkson’s vocal from the original album version over some softer, slightly twangy new instrumentation. It’s a clever and relatively cheap way to open a song up to a new audience, and I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often—after all, country crossover stars like Shania Twain and Taylor Swift have often dialed back the fiddle and banjo for pop radio mixes of their singles, so why can’t pop stars just dub some in? A year ago, when Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep” achieved the rare feat of appearing on pop, rock, dance, R&B and even Latin airplay charts, I remarked, “The only thing left for Adele to do is throw a steel guitar and maybe a Reba McEntire verse on the song and see if she can make a run at the country charts.” After all, the country music establishment has proven quite welcoming to big stars from other genres willing to don the proverbial (and sometimes literal) cowboy hat, from Kid Rock to Jimmy Buffett.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Clarkson has countrified one of her hits. In 2007, a couple years after “Because of You” became one of the biggest hits off of her blockbuster album Breakaway, she and Reba McEntire re-recorded the song as a duet and hit No. 2 on Country Songs. McEntire took on another pop hit recently, covering Beyoncé’s “If I Were A Boy” last year, but it didn’t work out nearly as well for her: it peaked at No. 22, making it her least successful single in five years. Still, the songs McEntire chose to interpret are far more in the tradition of pop ballads being reworked in country hits.
In some ways, ballads and sappy slow songs are the universal language in which different genres of music most easily speak to each other. Two of the biggest R&B hits of the ’90s began as country songs: All-4-One’s 1994 hit “I Swear” followed John Michael Montgomery’s original earlier that year, while Whitney Houston’s record-shattering “I Will Always Love You” was written by Dolly Parton. But more often than not since then, country has poaching ballads from other genres. Classic rock staples have always been up for grabs, like the Dixie Chicks’ 2002 version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” and countless Eagles covers. But increasingly, country singers have been covering songs within just a few years of their original pop chart appearances.
During the late ’90s and early ’00s, countrified pop hits became commonplace. Mark Chesnutt’s cover of Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing” topped the country chart, while Mark Wills’s version of Brian McKnight’s “Back At One” and Sara Evans’s cover of Edwin McCain’s “I Could Not Ask For More” both hit No. 2. The practice may have peaked around the turn of the century, but it has a long history. In 1982, Conway Twitty topped the country chart with a cover of the Pointer Sisters’ then recent hit “Slow Hand,” and the next year did it again with Bette Midler’s “The Rose.”
In the last few years, the countrification of pop songs has slowed down significantly, and perhaps it’s because, “Someone Like You” aside, there haven’t been a lot of big ballads on the pop charts lately. Country artists have continued recording pop ballads here and there, but rarely even with the level of modest success attained by the remix of “Mr. Know It All.” Rissi Palmer, the first African-American woman on the country charts in decades, scored her biggest hit covering Jordin Sparks and Chris Brown’s “No Air” in 2008. Faith Hill covered OneRepublic’s “Home” last year. And a few months ago, Martina McBride recorded the Train hit “Marry Me” as a duet with the band’s frontman, Pat Monahan. The biggest pop cover on country radio in recent years was actually a rare uptempo track: Rascal Flatts’ cheesy cover of the already cheesy Tom Cochrane hit from 1992, “Life Is A Highway.”
Of course, sometimes country covers can make a big splash on popular culture without crossing over to country radio. In the last decade of his life, country legend Johnny Cash mounted a career resurgence with a series of Rick Rubin-produced albums in which he covered songs by alternative rock acts and singer-songwriters far outside the country world. But even his widely acclaimed cover of “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails, which Cash released a video for mere months before his death in 2003, only peaked at a modest No. 56 on the Country Songs chart.
Lionel Richie, long one of pop music’s favorite balladeers, recently scored big with Tuskegee, an album of country duet versions of his classic hits that has become the U.S.’s biggest-selling album released in 2012 so far. But the album’s huge success has come without much actual country radio support; it’s gained more traction on adult contemporary formats. It’s certainly not a matter of color; Richie appeared on the country charts during his ’80s heyday, and one of his Tuskegee collaborators, former Hootie & The Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker, has become a staple of the format in recent years. The only track on Tuskegee to make the Country Songs chart at all is “Deep River Woman” with Little Big Town, which has peaked at No. 60. Which isn’t bad—unless you compare it to the No. 10 peak of Richie’s original version with Alabama in 1987.