Reggae covers classic country but plays it safe
Crazy cross-genre mashups used to be surprising, but now they're common. From Shockabilly covering Thelonious Monk on That's the Way I Feel Now to Pickin' on Led Zeppelin's bluegrass version of classic rock, almost everything's been done before. We're becoming so jaded that it's getting harder to even make an impression.
On the surface, Reggae's Gone Country looks like another novelty attempt to shock the public. Modern Jamaican singers covering classic country hits? Why not, we've had reggae-fied Radiohead. Despite seeming like a gimmick, this album is rooted in an enthusiastic vision. Cristy Barber, Vice President of Marketing and Promotions at VP Records, championed this idea to bridge two of her favorite musical worlds: the country music she grew up with and the reggae vibe she's immersed in with her record label.
The label makes their pitch that it's not as strange a match as it sounds. Both genres are rooted in regular people making a voice for their experience and the songs can range from relationships and loss to spiritual devotion. Additionally, country music is fairly popular in Jamaica, so the songs were already familiar to many of the artists. Barber, along with John Rich (Big & Rich), laid out a strategy: select the set of classic country songs, pair them up with modern reggae singers, lay down a solid backing track with a "dream team reggae band", and then add a veneer of country sound to sweeten the tracks.
For the most part the songs qualify as country classics, although I would have traded out the Statler Brothers' Flowers on the Wall for Hank Williams Sr. or Johnny Cash. Still, it's a solid starting point. I wasn't familiar with the reggae singers that Barber selected, but it seemed like a nice range of vocal styles.
Some of the songs, like George Strait's The Chair or Crazy naturally slipped into a reggae beat. Maybe it's because the cut time country beat is not so far from a chank. While that is part of the vision behind the album, those songs didn't stand out as strong new interpretations.
By contrast, Duane Stephenson's work on Eddie Rabbit's Suspicians emphasized the R&B feel of the song. The lazy groove has a loose jamming feel and Stephenson's phrasing is soulful. He occasionally uses falsetto to push the tune. Luciano's take on Jim Reeve's He'll Have to Go is another of the more interesting songs. Luciano's rich warm voice is smoother and cheerier than Reeve's deep baritone, but the looser delivery suits the song. The reggae arrangement stands out more strongly on this track, too.
It's clear, though, that Barber and the singers she's selected are too respectful of these classics to push any boundaries. This means that the songs are solid, but fairly predictable. Another weakness was the decision to paste in the pedal steel, fiddle, and banjo parts. Adding the country embellishments softened any impact of the reggae reimagining of the songs. For example, the steel and fiddle on He Stopped Loving Her Today pulled the song firmly back into country despite the chank beat. It's still a good song, just less interesting than it could have been.
Country fans will find plenty of touchstone moments to enjoy. Reggae fans might be disappointed that the reggae vibe wasn't given a freer hand.