If you enjoy listening to pop stars cover the songs of other pop stars, thank your lucky stars for YouTube. There you’ll find Bruce Springsteen covering Lorde, Arcade Fire covering Prince, and Miley Cyrus covering Bob Dylan and Dolly Parton and OutKast.
A cover always comes with the promise of alchemical transcendence and the threat of bad karaoke. But those stakes seem negligible in the information age. These days, a cover is an opportunity for artists to cement their bond with the flock by saying, “Yeah, there’s an overwhelming abundance of music out there, but I like the same stuff you like.”
Which is why we have “Nashville Outlaws: A Tribute to Motley Crue,” a new compilation that tells us plenty about the utility of covers in 2014 and even more about the aesthetic import-export laws of country music. Featuring Florida Georgia Line, Justin Moore, Darius Rucker and a dozen others, the album doesn’t transpose hair metal into twang so much as dilute hard rock into much softer rock.
This endeavor should surprise no one keeping tabs on Nashville. The hive mind of the country-music biz has maintained a clear mission in the 21st century: Give the fans what they want.
So when Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean start rapping in their songs, it isn’t because they have dreams of a guest verse on a Rick Ross album. It’s because they know their fans think rap music is cool. Those EDM and heavy-metal flourishes you hear on country radio here and there? Same thing. Instead of turning people on, country stars are simply trying to appear conversant in the stuff their fans have found on their own. Strangely, the leaders behave like followers.
Over to you, all-powerful fans of country music. Do you want to hear a version of “Girls, Girls, Girls” where Brantley Gilbert simply replaces Vince Neil’s hair-dryer falsetto with whiskey-burnt grumbles? Do you want to hear the Eli Young Band sing a version of “Don’t Go Away Mad” that sounds slathered in Purell? Do you want to hear Rascal Flatts remove the naughty words from “Kickstart My Heart” and throw in some banjo sprinkles?
Maybe you do. There’s an undeniable warm-fuzziness in knowing your heroes grew up on the same diet of MTV and monoculture that you did. But were the singers on “Nashville Outlaws” listening to the feral, horny, ridiculous Motley Crue that the rest of us heard? If so, where’s the shamelessness?
The album’s highlights are few but fun. The great Gretchen Wilson sings “Wild Side” with enough fire and abandon to humiliate just about everyone else on the track list. But not LeeAnn Rimes, whose “Smokin’ in the Boys Room” gets the job done with acoustic guitars and a faithfulness to the original lyrics, giving the song a clever gender twist.
And then there’s the Mavericks and lead singer Raul Malo completely reimagining the Crue’s 1989 hit “Dr. Feelgood.” By adding Latin percussion and handsome brass, the band transports the song from the Sunset Strip to East Los Angeles, doing all the things a great cover song should do.
It says, “I like the same stuff as you — but I hear it like this.”
performs at Jiffy Lube Live on Friday.