Over the past decade, CMT’s Crossroads has made a show of country music’s crossover itch, getting the genre’s biggest stars to take the stage with an array artists from around the pop universe. Brad Paisley and John Mayer have swapped songs, so have Sugarland and Bon Jovi, Kenny Rogers and Lionel Richie, Emmylou Harris and Mumford & Sons, and Taylor Swift and Def Leppard even did a duet of “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” The novelty is fun, and the marquee names make for interesting TV, but considering the greater connectivity of the web, the rock stars, pop heroes, singer-songwriters and handful of R&B crooners that CMT has paired with country artists isn’t particularly mind-boggling. Hip-hop may be country music’s latest obsession, but Crossroads has yet to tap a rapper for the show, and while the show’s next installment — The Band Perry and Fall Out Boy — takes a step in a new direction, it’s still a safe one.
Veterans of the Chicago hardcore scene, Fall Out Boy’s feelings-filled embrace of emo, punk and the accessibility of late-90s alt-rock and pop-punk made them one of the most successful purveyors of riff-driven angst during the middle aughts. But the band’s success, along with that of groups like My Chemical Romance and Panic! At the Disco, proved to be the last gasp of the Warped Tour world, which began to move from a relatively formidable pop force to a niche market by the end of the decade (such is the Internet). Fall Out Boy went on hiatus in 2009, but returned this year with a new record, Save Rock and Roll. The album’s successful first single, “My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark,” was a blast of pop-punk produced for the EDM era and was eventually remixed with contemporary hip-hop’s go-to guest MC, 2 Chainz. The song, it turns out, also proved to be a sleeper favorite in Nashville.
In July, Taylor Swift — as close as it gets to a country-pop-punk princess — invited FOB frontman Patrick Stump on stage in New Jersey to perform “My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark,” calling the cut one of her favorites of the year. Keith Urban dug the song so much he brought in its producer, Butch Walker, to help out on two songs on his latest record, Fuse. With a buzzsaw guitar riff that gives way to sunny acoustic strumming, and some always wonderful, always genre-less “whoa-oh-ohs,” Urban’s Walker-produced “Even The Stars Fall 4 U” indeed boasts a sonic make-up of a Hot Topic compilation blasting through the speakers at a Cracker Barrel. When Fall Out Boy and The Band Perry’s Crossroads episode airs November 29th, don’t be surprised if the electric guitar-inclinded Perry siblings take to the crunchy, sky-high riffs of “Sugar, We’re Goin Down,” or if Stump and Pete Wentz move through the kiss-off “Done” with a breezy, palm-muted chug.
“I think Patrick’s melodies, maybe, lend themselves to country naturally,” Wentz recently suggested to Radio.com regarding the genre’s current fascination with his band, though admittedly he had not noticed. “Country lyrics have been the most interesting aspect of country music to me. The thing that I like is like when you can’t pigeonhole a country artist.”
Despite terms used to classify — and chart — these artists, Swift, Urban and the Perrys swim in the same pop gene pool as Fall Out Boy. All are songwriters who understand that a hook is a hook is a hook whether it’s being played by a mandolin, a distorted guitar, a synthesizer or sung by an Auto-Tuned voice. Both country and pop-punk have their respective sets of strict genre rules, but once mastered, the limitations force innovation. Just as Swift melded her country bona fides with a vibrant pop palette to reach her current Unstoppable Force status, FOB in 2013 retain aspects of their hardcore and pop-punk past, like the all-too-crucial breakdown, while embracing elements of dance music and hip-hop. Crossing over, or blurring musical lines, isn’t so much a big, earth-shattering move nowadays so much as it’s the natural order of pop songwriting. Essentially, real recognizing real, and then real wanting to ape real because, holy crap it sounds real good.
In recent years, as contemporary country has moved its home from the range into the suburbs — where pop-punk has always flourished — audience overlap became inevitable and best evidenced by the delighted shrieks that met Stump when Swift called him on stage. The kids on Tumblr care not to define taste along dusty genre lines, giving mainstream stars further freedom — if not implicit encouragement — to indulge in experimentation outside their designated formats. Fall Out Boy, in particular, seems to offer country artists a contemporary incarnation of an arena rock and roll band, a style more or less absent from the Top 40 these days (save for the post-post-grunge stylings of acts like Imagine Dragons), though still very crucial to those who grew up with both Johnny Cash and Axl Rose.
Country and rock, of course, have always been familiar bedfellows, their current conflation originating around the days of the Allmans and Lynyrd Skynyrd; and frankly, the closest thing to traditional rock music seems to exist within country music these days. So it’s no surprise contemporary country artists have found kindred spirits in FOB, who did call their last record, mind you, Save Rock and Roll. But that recent fancy seethes with an uncertainty of the future, as country attempts to navigate clunky relationships with pop’s true dominant forces: EDM and hip-hop. The latter in particular has been a serious bone of contention around Nashville in recent years, with Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean and even that big ol’ teddy bear Blake Shelton scoring hits with songs that cop hip-hop tropes ranging from Auto-Tuned vocals to Nelly and Ludacris guest verses, while critics decry banal lyrics about trucks, objectified women and more trucks. “Bro country” is the fun term that’s been coined, and the “old farts” and “jackasses” — as Shelton quaintly referred to country’s older generation — are none too happy about the so-called de-evolution of their music into what they see as pop-rap schlock.
Fall Out Boy then, with their own newly-found toe-dipping in the rap and electronic worlds, are a tepidly progressive influence for country music in 2013. Their upcoming Crossroads session with The Band Perry — who retains a definitive country sound despite flitting about the musical spectrum — should offer a fascinating snapshot of a genre reaching a generational and musical tipping point. Fall Out Boy won’t necessarily push country more towards the traditionalists or the new guard, though perhaps they might be able to find some sort of common ground between the two. The band has endured its own slew of sea changes in the pop-punk world, watching the genre go from basements to big stages as it toyed with glam, metal, emo, pop, rap and dance to varying degrees of success and tolerability (see, or don’t actually: Blood on the Dancefloor); and yet, FOB is still standing — packing arenas no less. So perhaps country thinks it can learn a thing or two from Fall Out Boy about surviving the inevitable tide changes. More likely though, they’re here for the hooks — just like the rest of us.
– Jon Blistein, Radio.com (Additional reporting: Nadia Noir, CBS Radio Los Angeles)