By Mike Seely
[Editor’s note: Country Time is a new biweekly column for our sister music blog in Seattle.]
With the nation’s major-party political conventions drawing to a close recently with a rousing reelection appeal from the nation’s first black president, it seems fitting to cast a spotlight on an equally rare profession: the black country music artist. Or, rather, the former black pop star seeking to reinvigorate his career by moving to Nashville. Lionel Richie and Darius “Hootie” Rucker both fit this description. Fittingly, their performance of Richie’s “Stuck On You” was just nominated for a Country Music Association award for duet of the year, quite certainly the first time two African-Americans have been nominated together in any category.
Will this mark an Obama-like moment in the genre’s evolution? All signs point to yes.
Eight years ago, Richie was big in Germany, which is a polite way of saying he couldn’t quite recapture his superstar status in the States (which, in turn, is an even more polite way of saying he couldn’t book a gig singing the national anthem before a charity golf tournament in Delaware). So what’s a brother to do to rejuvenate his career back home? Simple: Go country. Rucker did it, so surely Richie could. And, boy, did he ever, with his 2012 album Tuskegee–featuring twangy reworkings of his hits backed by country luminaries like Shania Twain and Kenny Chesney–topping both the country and pop charts.
Nashville’s embrace of Richie and Rucker actually has more to do with Republican politics than it does with Obama. When right-wingers identify a person of color who’s genuinely interested in joining their flock, they can’t move fast enough to put that individual on a pedestal (anything to avoid looking like a Ku Klux Klan rally). Same with Nashville, which quickly put together a tribute concert honoring Richie, with the genre’s biggest names performing his hits as Lionel gazed admirably at them from a prime seat in the audience. Does anyone really believe Luke Bryan spent his college years sipping white zinfandel in the back of his truck while listening to Can’t Slow Down? Doesn’t matter: Nashville’s embrace of its newfound brethren was swift, absolute, and warm as a Smoky Mountain Holler in July.
Hopefully, other black recording artists thought to be washed up have taken notice of Richie and Rucker’s success down south. Specifically, we’re hoping the following 10 artists have, as we make the case for why the likes of Nelly and Brandy should pick up a banjo:
10. Nelly. It’s not fair to call Nelly washed up, but he’s hardly on the vanguard of the rap game, and it’s always better to reinvent oneself from a position of power, as it projects something less unseemly than bald desperation. Of all modern rappers, Nelly’s shown the least fear of sing-songy rhymes, hails from Missouri (basically the south), released an album called Country Grammar, and has already collaborated with Tim McGraw. Put on a Stetson and meet us at the Opry, baller.
9. Ruben Studdard. Nashville goes apeshit for American Idol winners, as evidenced by the runaway success of Carrie Underwood, Scotty McCreery, and even Kelly Clarkson in a scene-stealing cameo, to the point where Nashville Star was rendered instantly redundant. Studdard’s AI championship hasn’t exactly translated into success through more traditional musical channels. Time to hit the dirt road, big fella.
8. Leon Hendrix. Jimi’s baby brother has nothing to lose, except everything.
7. Brandy. This teen once topped the pops and was Kobe Bryant’s dream date to prom. Nowadays she’s better known for having a brother who filmed himself boning Kim Kardashian, and would be lucky to land a gig putting on Rihanna’s heel during a wardrobe change. The good news: She’s already named for a drink that’s sufficiently toxic to curry instant favor among bumpkin boozers. What’s that equal? Mo’ money for Moesha.
6. Lenny Kravitz Heralded as the next Hendrix (Jimi, not Leon) for never conforming to racial expectations, dude’s gotten to the point where he needs a break from Guess Who covers ‘n shit. Plus he would totally have a “hot older man who’ll piss off her parents” fling with Taylor Swift, thus giving her at least two albums’ worth of fresh “he’s an asshole and I’m hurt!” material.
5. Kelly Rowland. Waiting for Beyonce to acquiesce to a Destiny’s Child reunion every five years does not a career make, and Rowland’s got real talent. She’d look great in that urbane Nashville condo they use for every video that’s not set in a wide open space with fireworks randomly going off, regardless of whether or not it’s the Fourth of July.
4. Tina Turner. What’s love got to do with it? In Nashville, a shitload — and rest assured Ike’s ex would have the red carpet rolled out for her in a way even Lionel couldn’t expect. Plus, she sang “Proud Mary” before Creedence was recast as a super-competent jug band. Instant farm cred there, even apart from what she got from her actual 1973 country album, originally released as The Country of Tina Turner.
3. Michael Jackson (in hologram form). Thanks to holograms, musicians never really die these days, even if Tupac is secretly alive. Plus, country music loves its outlaws (and it doesn’t get more “out” than pedophiles), and no criminal’s ever been smoother than Wacko Jacko.
2. Chuck D. He fought the power, and now he has none. But he can still fell a thousand men with a distant death stare, which should land him a supporting slot on Toby Keith’s east coast tour. The D is for dust, Dallas, and destiny–and GAC‘s Top 20 is Chuck’s.
1. Bobby Brown. His name could totally pass for a white dude’s. At the end of the day, that’s what matters most. It’s also his prerogative.