Eric Church, Zac Brown & the Increasingly Blurred Lines Between Rock & Country
By Kevin Rutherford
“The Outsiders” begins slowly but ominously, with a guitar melody that creeps along while the singer quietly speaks of “the other ones” and being cut from “a different kind of cloth.” Soon comes a burst of sound as a roaring guitar crunch fills the speakers. The singer, too, moves from a low voice to a higher register, this time belting out the song’s outlaw-glorifying, bad-boy lyrics at high volume (“We’re the junkyard dogs, we’re the alley cats/Keep the wind at our front, and the hell at our back”).
From that description, you might expect a review of a rock song from *insert band name here*. It may be surprising, then, to learn that the artist behind this hard-hitting song is Eric Church, one of the biggest stars in contemporary country.
Last month Church unveiled “The Outsiders” as his brand-new radio single and the first song from his upcoming album. And the song definitely feels like rock: guitar solos, a bass solo, a outro worthy of a prog-rock act. Sure, Church’s vocals betray him, still settling snugly into a country sensibility. But when it comes to country as many have known it for the past few decades, certain portions of this song feel entirely foreign.
But Church isn’t the only country artist looking to further break down the barriers between country and rock. Last week Zac Brown Band, purveyors of a jam-oriented country sound, tossed up a new song called “Day for the Dead.” They’d already unveiled the song to fans during live shows, but for this new version (which was just released on iTunes) they pack an added weapon: rock music’s awesome uncle, Dave Grohl. “Day for the Dead” is already a fast-paced country-rock thrill ride infused with squealing guitars, fiddle and organ. With Grohl behind the drumkit, though, the song takes on a new persona, becoming a cacophonous stoner-rock stomp led by Grohl’s rapid-fire drumming, which gets downright frantic at times.
Curiously, just as that Brown-Grohl ‘stoner-rock stomp’ was released to the public, the latest Billboard rock charts were playing a different tune. On the Hot Rock Songs top 10? A mixture of alternative-to-the-alternative, acoustic and folk rock, ’80s throwbacks and electronic-infused material. Lorde is at No. 1 with her everything-but-the-kitchen-sink mashup “Royals,” while AWOLNATION‘s “Sail,” a tune in a very similar vein, sits nearby. Imagine Dragons can rock, but also goes for occasional electronic and/or folk influences.
The hardest rocker? Arguably Paramore with the sunny “Still Into You.”
The idea of a hell-raising “rock” star in country music is nothing new, though the music was admittedly different back then. In the ’50s and ’60s, country and rock often crossed paths seamlessly. An obvious example is Johnny Cash, who in “Folsom Prison Blues” sang about literally killing a man. The recently deceased George Jones is also a major stone from which many contemporary country artists have stepped, as is Merle Haggard (a country legend who actually did spend some time behind bars) and “outlaw” artists Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Of all country music to cross over to the rock charts, though, it’s Cash who remains the prime example; his 2003 cover of Nine Inch Nails‘ “Hurt” hit No. 33 on the Alternative Songs chart.
A number of contemporary country artists have already seen huge success in playing the rock card. Jason Aldean, for instance, has been a major player in this development, thanks to such songs as “Take a Little Ride,” “The Only Way I Know,” “Hicktown” and “My Kinda Party.”
“It’s not just country served right down the middle,” Aldean said when describing his sound to Radio.com. “I love traditional country and grew up with a lot of that stuff. But it’s not something I particularly want to get out on stage and sing for an hour and half every night. I want [my music] to be a little edgier than that.”
Florida Georgia Line, perhaps the biggest breakout act in country this year, is another group showcasing a rock influence in many of its numbers, including behemoth hit “Cruise.” And Brantley Gilbert sounds like he could be fronting a rock band on songs like “Kick It in the Sticks.” Even the ladies get into the game occasionally–Miranda Lambert‘s hellraiser of a tune, “Mama’s Broken Heart,” is chief evidence.