Darius RuckerAlan Jackson had a No. 1 hit with "Gone Country," which poked gentle fun at fading rockers who suddenly see Nashville as fertile territory for a comeback. When that song came out in 1994, Jackson could have only guessed at the greater number of pop stars who would come calling on Music Row in the years and decades to follow.
Only one, Darius Rucker, has been an overwhelming success. But the one-time Hootie & the Blowfish frontman — who performs on tonight's CMA Awards — has enjoyed so many smashes, and such a renewed career, that he has just about single-handedly ensured years of crossover attempts to come.
The CMA Awards will also give us another would-be country artist: Lionel Richie, who's about to release his first album in the genre. The list of established country artists he'll be collaborating with in a duets segment includes Rascal Flatts, Little Big Town, and —ironically, or maybe not so ironically — Rucker.
Who from the world of mainstream pop has made it, a la Rucker, and who's died trying, like Jessica Simpson? Here's a run-down of some major stars who've tried to established a beachhead in Nashville, and how they fared, on a scale of 1 to 10:
DARIUS RUCKER. Hootie's singer made the rounds at country awards shows for a long time before he ever released a record, humbling and ingratiating himself along the way as someone who was starting afresh instead of trying to hold onto past glories. It worked, and Rucker became one of the genre's top male stars. He had some guidance on the way from Capitol Records, which resisted his desire to make a truly twangy debut album and instead asked him to sound just like Hootie… which was country enough. He released six country singles in the years 2008-10; an astonishing five of those went to No. 1, while the other one reached No. 3. Crossover success rating: a perfect 10.
RAY CHARLES. Rucker did have a predecessor to look back to, as far as an African-American guy coming in and unexpectedly conquering country. The difference was, Charles knew he was only a visitor and didn't stick around long. Still, his 1962 album "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music" remains a landmark in the genre… or genres. At the time, there was little cynicism about Charles' motives for tackling Hank Williams tunes, and the album is still considered by critics to be one of his best works. Crossover rating: 10.
MICHELLE BRANCH/THE WRECKERS. In 2005, the pop singer/songwriter teamed up with little-known pal Jessica Harp to form a country duo. Between their background, Harp's facial jewelry, and the still pop-leaning nature of the sound, they might've seemed a long shot for country radio success. Yet, the following year, they hit No. 1 with "Leave the Pieces." But Branch and Harp appeared to have some sort of fallout and split up before ever releasing a sophomore album. Branch recorded a solo album that was intended to be marketed as country, but the first single from that project, "Sooner or Later," was a flop, stalling at No. 46. Apparently she and country are done with each other, as Branch has said her upcoming 2012 comeback will be pure pop. Crossover rating: 8.
JEWEL. She made the move in 2007 after parting ways with her label following a poorly received album of dance-pop. Making a direct transition from disco to country seemed a little abrupt, but it worked for her, as her 2008 release "Perfectly Clear" reached No. 1 on the country albums chart and her debut single in the format fell just short of the top 10. But a second country album didn't do as well, and subsequent singles didn't even reach the top 30, leaving her security within the genre in doubt. Crossover rating: 6.
BON JOVI. They were the first rock band ever to have a No. 1 country single, with their duet with Jennifer Nettles, "Who Says You Can't Go Home." But how much of that was due to country programmers really thinking of it as a Sugarland song that had Jon Bon Jovi on it? We found out when the band released 2007's "Lost Highway" album, which even had the singer coming to Nashville to do the keynote address at the annual country radio convention. The crossover attempt sold well — but arguably mostly to their old fans, since it failed to generate any country hits, despite the presence of format-baiting duets with LeAnn Rimes and Big & Rich. ("You Want to Make a Memory" peaked at No 35.) By the time of their next album, any mention of a Nashville influence was notable by its absence. Crossover rating: 5.
JESSICA SIMPSON. In 2008, she declared that there was no going back to pop for her. Meeting country radio programmers, she said, "The only [concern] is people thinking that I'm just trying to jump in for a little bit and then go back to pop. (But) here to stay.'' Asked if there was no chance of her backtracking on the move, she said, ''No, because there's no other thing I could backtrack to" — meaning that her former dance-pop had never been the real her. Well, she's made good on that no-reversal vow, at least so far, if only because she hasn't released a record since. But the part about being in country to stay didn't stick, because she parted ways with Sony's Nashville division not long after the "Do You Know" album disappeared from the charts in 2008. It was a better album than it was given credit for, as was the single, "Come On Over," which went to No. 18 after Simpson performed it on the Grand Ole Opry. But perhaps never was a quiet parting of the ways so predestined. Crossover rating: 3
BRET MICHAELS. The Poison frontman took an interest in Nashville in the early 2000s, singing "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" in live duets with Kenny Chesney, or at gatherings of Big & Rich's Muzik Mafia. But as much as everyone was happy to have him stop by to sing that pop-metal chestnut, country labels didn't see much crossover potential in his new material. So even though his stint as a judge on "Nashville Star" should have given him a further leg up, he ended up releasing his country album independently, to little or no attention. Crossover rating: 1
The parade of carpetbaggers, would-bes, and wanna-bes continues unabated, though most of them are arriving on independent labels, since the Nashville majors aren't much into making any "here to stay" claims on behalf of crossover artists in the post-Simpson era. Broadway/TV star Kristen Chenoweth just released her first country album, to minimal airplay and sales, as did CNN host (!) Robin Meade.
Other artists have promoted a single to country radio, then quietly slipped off when it didn't do anything — including Bob Seger and John Mellencamp.
Then there are those singers who hang around Nashville constantly — or even live there — and keep threatening to release a country album, but don't. In that category, include Sheryl Crow and Kelly Clarkson… who, given the scorn that can come with a failed crossover attempt, may be the two smartest gals in music.
So, now the big question: Will Lionel Richie become country's own Richie Rich with his bid in the genre? Stay tuned... and stay "Gone Country."