'Jed Zeppelin': They're Country, But Raised on Rock 'n' Roll .
By DON STEINBERG
Eric Church: 'There's a lot of Iron Maiden in what we do.'
It might seem odd that Eric Church's song titled "Springsteen" reached No. 1 on Billboard's country-music chart this summer, but it really shouldn't. More than ever, country artists are channeling the rock of the 1970s and '80s.
Though Nashville traditionalists don't fully approve of all the rocking, Mr. Church is nominated for more Country Music Association Awards than anyone else this year, with the ceremony set for Thursday. "Springsteen" is nominated for song of the year.
It's not just about Bruce. On country radio these days, it's easy to hear echoes of Bad Company, Bachman-Turner Overdrive and Joan Jett. For music fans raised on the straightforward guitars and ragged drumbeats of classic rock, the latest country music has a familiar ring.
"What you're hearing is a change in the way country songs are mixed," says Brian Philips, president of Country Music Television. "You're hearing dirtier guitars, turned up louder in the mix. The rhythm section is more prominent. The drums are heavier. The vocal is a little more defiant. It's a rock mix. It's very different from what you would have heard in Nashville a decade ago."
Rock and country have fed on each other since before Elvis Presley showed up at Sun Studio, of course. What's different now is that today's country stars grew up in a world when rural America was less isolated than before. Country traditions abide in some quarters, but for these artists, rock—even heavy metal—was the currency.
Randy Houser's summer hit "How Country Feels," with its power-chord and kick-drum opening, sounds eerily like AC/DC's "Highway to Hell." The first bars of Thomas Rhett's "Something to Do With My Hands" evoke Aerosmith's "Dude Looks Like a Lady." Lady Antebellum's "Friday Night" is very "Jessie's Girl" (Rick Springfield). Love and Theft's summer hit "Angel Eyes" channels Tom Petty. Dierks Bentley's raucous "5-1-5-0" pays homage musically to the Eagles' "Life in the Fast Lane," though its title is a nod to Eddie Van Halen, who used "5150" (a California police code for somebody acting crazy) to name his guitar and a Van Halen album.
"We joke and make up names in the studio, like Jed Zeppelin," says Ronnie Dunn, formerly of country duo Brooks and Dunn and now a solo artist who recently released the single "Let the Cowboy Rock." Brooks and Dunn's work included a remake of the 1973 B.W. Stevenson classic "My Maria." Their hit "You Can't Take the Honky Tonk out of the Girl" sounded like the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up."
"That's what we were going for," says Mr. Dunn. "I tell people my ultimate fantasy for a band is where the Stones meet Merle Haggard."
Superstar Kenny Chesney has a song, "I Go Back," where he recalls his passionate younger days listening to the Steve Miller Band, John Mellencamp and Billy Joel. In July, Mr. Miller joined Mr. Chesney onstage during an Oakland concert, and they performed the classic hits "Rock'n Me" and "The Joker" together. The Dixie Chicks famously covered Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide." Oklahoma good ol' boy Toby Keith, on his 2011 album "Clancy's Tavern," performs Three Dog Night's laid-back "Shambala."
In the song "Springsteen," which has the solemn vibe of Mr. Springsteen's "I'm on Fire," the singer-songwriter Mr. Church recalls his own teenage glory days listening to the radio.
"When I grew up, yeah, I listened to country music," says Mr. Church, 35, who was raised in small-town North Carolina. "But if you were going to a football game, rock 'n' roll was playing in every car and every truck. You were listening to everything from AC/DC, Metallica, all the way to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Mellencamp, Springsteen, Seger, Petty."
Mr. Church figures the first song he learned to play on guitar might have been "Born to Run," or maybe "Jack and Diane."
"I went to an AC/DC concert in an amphitheater, and it just damned near changed my life," he remembers. "Guys with their fists in the air. The raw energy of rock 'n' roll is something no one else has been able to duplicate. In our show, we try. There's a lot of Iron Maiden in what we do."
Country lyrics have evolved, too. They remain rich in confessional narrative and honky-tonk wordplay, though increasingly there are fewer tales of woe, more attitude and gratitude. Often the down-home words contrast with the guitar-amped sounds. Mr. Houser's "How Country Feels" kicks in on the highway-to-hell riff, then cuts down a dirt road to heaven: "You never rolled in the hay/Never thrown it in four-wheel/Climb up on in here, girl/Let me show you how country feels."
"They're almost overcompensating these days for kind of injecting even metal influences into some of the country songs," Mr. Dunn observes. "They'll overwork the lyrics to testify that they are country: 'I've got my dog on my seat in my truck, on the dirt road, in the backwoods.' It's almost like you catch yourself apologizing for rocking out."
If today's country music sounds like 1970s rock, another reason may be because what passed for rock during that musically diverse era was infused with twang. Bad Company were considered hard rockers, but listen to 1975's "Feel Like Makin' Love" again some time. It doesn't sound like the electronic pop that's on rock charts these days, and if newly released it would be most likely to get airplay on a country station. You could say the same about many hits from the Eagles, Grateful Dead, Neil Young, the Band, the Doobie Brothers, America, Bob Seger, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Olivia Newton-John, Linda Ronstadt and, of course, Southern rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers. Bad Company weren't the only Brits to cowboy up. A good slice of the Stones' fertile early-1970s period was country, and the Who gave voice to country-style violin (in "Baba O'Reilly") and banjo (in "Squeeze Box"). Country's plaintive steel guitar accents Elton John's "Tiny Dancer." And the quirky '70s hit parade featured countless country-flavored novelties: "Convoy," "Afternoon Delight," "Still the One," "Rhinestone Cowboy," "Angel of the Morning," "The Cover of the Rolling Stone," "Delta Dawn," "Dueling Banjos."
Country's spread into rock territory has coincided with a geographic incursion. Country is thriving where you'll never find a hayseed. In Philadelphia, where venerable rock station WYSP last year became another major-market rock casualty, country station WXTU is having its best run ever.
"I think people are surprised how well country does in the Northeast," says Natalie Conner, the station's general manager.
Country-music sales trail behind rock and R&B, according to Nielsen SoundScan. But country's 5.6% increase in album sales in the first half of 2012 (over 2011) was a bigger rise than any other genre.
Pollstar says the highest-grossing concert tour of the summer was Mr. Chesney and Tim McGraw's tour together, which featured their new duet, titled "Feel Like a Rock Star," of course. The tour reached $96.5 million in gate receipts and sold one million tickets, according to Pollstar. Their two football-stadium shows in Foxboro, Mass., broke the sales record for a New England country-music event. Mr. Chesney broke the New York/New Jersey record in 2011.
Bill Flanagan cultivated the long-shared DNA of rock and country when as an executive at CMT he created the "CMT Crossroads" TV series, pairing country artists with rockers. In one episode, Taylor Swift rocked out with Def Leppard.
"It seems totally incongruous," Mr. Flanagan says, but he traces a direct line: Ms. Swift grew up listening to Shania Twain, whose producer (and ex-husband) Mutt Lange also produced the classics by Def Leppard and AC/DC.
"When the series began, we assumed it would be young rock artists wanting to work with older country artists like Merle Haggard or Willie Nelson. It's actually worked out the other way," Mr. Flanagan says. "Now it's Keith Urban getting to play with his hero John Fogerty. Ninety percent of the country artists we talk to ask if they can do it with Springsteen. We had to create a No-Bruce Zone."
Write to Don Steinberg at email@example.com