Radio Hits One: Kelly Clarkson, Lionel Richie And Countrified Pop Tunes
After Kelly Clarkson went to No. 1 on Billboard's Country Songs chart last year with the Jason Aldean duet "Don't You Wanna Stay," I wondered hopefully if the Texas-born pop star would finally go country with her next album. So I was a little disappointed a few months later, when she debuted the bland "Mr. Know It All" as the lead single from her fourth album, Stronger. But months after the song came and went as a moderate Hot 100 success (it peaked at No. 10) and was supplanted on pop airwaves by the chart-topping follow-up "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)," something happened that made my initial reaction quite ironic: "Mr. Know It All" was remixed as a country song. It peaked at No. 21 on Country Songs earlier this month, and cable country music networks have the video in heavy rotationthe same video VH1 was airing six months ago, with a new audio track dubbed in.
"Mr. Know It All" seems like an odd candidate for the country treatment in many ways. Brett James, a country songwriter who's penned hits for Kenny Chesney and Carrie Underwood, had a hand in the original, but he was just one member of a large team of writers and producers dominated by writer Ester Dean and producer Brian Kennedy, who've both worked on chart-topping Rihanna singles and a bevy of other R&B hits. Country has always placed a high value on big emotional ballads and carefully crafted lyrics; this is a strident midtempo song with the painfully vapid opening couplet, "Mr. Know It All, you think you know it all/ but you don't really know it all, ain't it something, y'all?" Perhaps it was simply the presence of "y'all" that marked the song for country crossover potential.
"Mr. Know It All" was not re-recorded or substantially reworked. The new versionremixed by Dan Huff, a two-time winner of the the Academy of Country Music's Producer Of The Year awardsimply places Clarkson's vocal from the original album version over some softer, slightly twangy new instrumentation. It's a clever and relatively cheap way to open a song up to a new audience, and I'm surprised it doesn't happen more oftenafter all, country crossover stars like Shania Twain and Taylor Swift have often dialed back the fiddle and banjo for pop radio mixes of their singles, so why can't pop stars just dub some in? A year ago, when Adele's "Rolling In The Deep" achieved the rare feat of appearing on pop, rock, dance, R&B and even Latin airplay charts, I remarked, "The only thing left for Adele to do is throw a steel guitar and maybe a Reba McEntire verse on the song and see if she can make a run at the country charts." After all, the country music establishment has proven quite welcoming to big stars from other genres willing to don the proverbial (and sometimes literal) cowboy hat, from Kid Rock to Jimmy Buffett.
Of course, this isn't the first time Clarkson has countrified one of her hits. In 2007, a couple years after "Because of You" became one of the biggest hits off of her blockbuster album Breakaway, she and Reba McEntire re-recorded the song as a duet and hit No. 2 on Country Songs. McEntire took on another pop hit recently, covering Beyoncé's "If I Were A Boy" last year, but it didn't work out nearly as well for her: it peaked at No. 22, making it her least successful single in five years. Still, the songs McEntire chose to interpret are far more in the tradition of pop ballads being reworked in country hits.