By Annie Reuter and Kurt Wolff
T-Pain did not visit Nashville to write country songs.
He was there on other business, but during the trip he wound up connecting with some of country music’s best-known songwriters like Rhett Akins and Dallas Davidson. He even did a little recording, including appearing on a massive No. 1 hit song for Luke Bryan last year.
You won’t find T-Pain on “That’s My Kind of Night” as the verse he recorded for didn’t make the final cut. But his name did: “Put in my country ride hip-hop mixtape/ Little Conway, a little T-Pain, might just make it rain,” sings Bryan in the song.
“I was on the song before the album came out,” T-Pain told Radio.com. “I did the third verse on it, and I did the bridge with Luke. Once the album dropped and I wasn’t on the song I was like, ‘Oh, I guess they changed their mind.'” But, he continued, “it’s all good. I brought my flavor to it and that was actually pretty cool. It happens.”
Alongside hip-hop, dance music is also seeping into Nashville. Last week, Jerrod Niemann earned his latest No. 1 hit with “Drink to That All Night,” a dance-friendly track that employs Auto-Tune and takes more than a few cues from EDM. The song has now topped both the Billboard and Mediabase country singles charts.
Related: What is EDM?
“I saw the song title and thought, well, it seems kind of cliche and not very original,” said Niemann about “Drink to That All Night.” Then “when I heard the song, I was like, ‘whoa, that’s very original.’
“It’s about challenging myself in the studio and getting myself out of my comfort zone,” Niemann continued. And at the same time, he also wanted to “challenge the listener — maybe get them a little bit out of their comfort zone.”
Take also “Hey Brother,” the pop hit from Swedish DJ Avicii, which was remixed for country radio (by producer Dann Huff) and earned some spins. Like Niemann, both Blake Shelton and Tim McGraw have also messed around with Auto-Tune — the latter on his recent single “Lookin’ for that Girl.”
There are EDM hits on country radio, Tim McGraw toying with Auto-Tune, and some of country’s top songwriters working with T-Pain. Has Nashville gone crazy? Maybe so. At the same time, these developments can be seen as a sign that the walls between musical genres aren’t as impenetrable as some used to think.
“I think music fans are less inclined to stick to just one kind of music these days,” Luke Bryan told Radio.com. “I think they’re listening to all forms of music, and they just pick which song of the genre they like, and they put it in their playlist. I think a lot of the walls and stereotypes have come down. You can be a rock, rap and country fan all in one, and nobody’s going to look at you funny about it.”
Country music is often described as being hermetically sealed, a genre unto its own with music that’s “honest” and “pure,” but country has been welcoming outside musical influences for decades. The croon of Bing Crosby made an impact on country’s mountain-music roots during the 1930s. The development of rock n’ roll in the 1950s also left its mark, both in songs with a strong rockabilly backbone and many more than deliberately turned the other way, toward a swankier, more uptown sound. In the 1960s and ’70s, Bob Dylan left his impressionistic mark — and when The Johnny Cash Show debuted in 1969, it was no coincidence that Dylan and Joni Mitchell were musical guests.
More recently, artists like Colt Ford, Bubba Sparxxx, and Big Smo have been creating a sound that’s a clear country-rap hybrid. A-list singers like McGraw and Taylor Swift have cut duets with hip-hop stars. And Shelton and Jason Aldean are among those who’ve utilized elements of hip-hop in some of their recordings — the latter most notably on his 2011 smash “Dirt Road Anthem” and last year’s “1994.”
“To me, doing something that has a little bit of a hip-hop flavor is no different than doing something that has a little bit of a rock flavor, or R&B,” said Aldean. “It’s a different style of music that you are influenced by that you are bringing to the table.”
“Music’s music,” he continued. “When I was coming up playing in the clubs, you’d go in a country bar, you’d hear a country band playing. And then during the breaks it’d be hip-hop and dance music. It’s our generation. And I don’t think it’s a big deal.”
“We had some pop stations that were wanting a different version of ‘Cruise’ that we could send out, and he [Nelly] is a label-mate,” said Florida Georgia Line’s Brian Kelley. “We heard he was a fan of what we were doing and the song. We knew he wanted to do it, and literally a day or two later we had the track and we cranked it up on the bus.”
“We’re huge fans of Nelly,” he continued. “He’s a country boy at heart.”
The “Cruise” remix wasn’t even Nelly’s first appearance alongside a country artist. In 2004, McGraw guested on Nelly’s hit “Over and Over.” And country and hip-hop had crossed paths before that, too. Neal McCoy recorded a song called “Hillbilly Rap” in 1996, and five years earlier, dance group the KLF released “Justified & Ancient,” which featured Tammy Wynette on vocals.
The partnership of hip-hop and R&B artists in country music (and vice versa) doesn’t surprise Scott Borchetta, president and CEO of Big Machine Records, McGraw’s label.
“When you look at what’s happening in country music today, a lot of the younger artists grew up with hip-hop as part of their DNA,” Borchetta explained. “So when you look at the foresight that Tim had to partner with Nelly, I think it gives you a sense of the vision Tim has for where music is now and where it’s going.”
McGraw took his vision a few steps further in that direction during his CBS TV special last year, too. Florida Georgia Line and Nelly performed together on the show, while McGraw teamed up with Pitbull and Ne-Yo. “I love singing with Ne-Yo,” McGraw told CBS This Morning last year. “He’s made me a better singer.”
Borchetta agrees. “There’s a soul to Tim that Ne-Yo brings out in him that is really incredible,” he said. “After the [CBS TV] performance, I spoke with Tim and said, ‘We’ve got to cut a record like that, because you sing so incredibly well in that space.”
“Cruise” was certainly one of country music’s biggest hits last year. Another was Bryan’s hit “That’s My Kind of Night,” which not only landed him another No. 1, it became the title of his tour this year.
Dallas Davidson, one of the writers behind “That’s My Kind of Night,” doesn’t care what critics think — he’s just glad it became a hit. “The traditional country people are not going to like it,” he said, “but it’s 2013. The young kids and actually the people buying records, which is all that matters to me, they like the new stuff, and that song gives it to them.”
The track includes elements of hip-hop including Auto-Tune, drum loops and slight beat boxing which is something that has been making its way into other Davidson tracks as well. He wrote Blake Shelton’s “Boys Round Here” with Craig Wiseman and Rhett Akins, for instance. And the video for “Boys Round Here” is built around what Davidson called the “fine line” between the hip-hop and country lifestyles — and the points at which they come together.
“We got big jacked up trucks, we’re chilling out with pipes and all that stuff, and there’s a guy in an Impala bouncing up and down and it’s got big rims on it,” Davidson said. “So, what’s the difference? That’s where our two worlds coincide.”
Davidson credits his studio time with T-Pain as bringing out his creativity and opening doors that have been stuck shut for too long.
“When you’re in a country songwriting dynamic you can only do so much,” Davidson said. “You’re pigeonholed, and I hate that. You can’t do this, you can’t say that. When you get in a room with Pain, you can say whatever you want. Pain brings out the creativity in me for sure, because there’s no boundaries. I cuss. You can’t say sh– or f— in a country song, but you can damn sure say it in a rap song. I’m not promoting cussing by any means, but it’s sure nice to be able to talk like I actually talk. It’s a very free writing atmosphere.”
So is there room for continued growth between hip-hop and country in 2014? Davidson seems to think so.
“There’s always trends, but I think that kind of music is going to stay,” he said. “I really love what is going on right now, and I’m glad to be a part of it. It’s kind of a movement. We get hated on a lot — a whole lot, matter of fact — but I can take it.”
Niemann agrees that such collaborations are here to stay. “People get upset when you mess with their music and their formats and the crossing of the lines,” he said. “What people don’t understand is that all these lines have been crossed many, many times before.” He goes on to cite songs by Johnny Cash and Charlie Daniels as sharing something in common, as they also contain spoken-word elements. “I hate to call it rap, but it’s the same thing.”
T-Pain questions whether the same acceptance of outside influences goes on within the hip-hop community.
“I don’t think hip-hop has the openness that they [country artists and fans] have,” he said. “There are some rap artists who won’t even work with Frank Ocean just because he’s gay. I’m a fan. I don’t think that’s cool. I don’t think the openness is there for it to actually really catch on.”
But T-Pain is willing to test it out on his next release, Stoicville: Rise of the Phoenix. He said that album will likely feature a track he’s written with Davidson and Akins called “Thug Addict,” or possibly a song Akins’ son Thomas Rhett gave him called “Small Town.”
“It’s fun,” said Davidson of his cross-genre collaborations. “With what I bring to the table and what Pain brings to the table, it’s just crazy because it works so well. We’re just trying to make good music. He does his rapping thing and I do my attempt at rapping. It’s all about the melodies in the end.”
And that, Davidson continued, “is what we try to write in country — really melodic songs. He [T-Pain] is one of the most melodic people, if not the most melodic guy I’ve ever written with. It just works. It’s fun and it’s different.
“Some of the old guys are going to be like, ‘What the hell is happening with country music?’ I don’t really give a s— because we’re having fun. And hopefully some hit records will come out of it.”
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