Why Is ‘Going Country’ The Chosen Path For So Many Aging Rock Stars?

This past Friday, Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler released his debut solo album, a country record entitled We’re All Somebody from Somewhere. For long time Aerosmith fans, the decision to look to the South might be a bit of a surprise. After all, Tyler and his trademark wail have been an essential part of the hard rock scene for more than 40 years; the thought of him singing country can certainly be a tad brow-raising at first. Still, it might make all the sense in the world considering Aerosmith’s 2012 album Music from Another Dimension! failed to make much of an impact. With the country world looking as lucrative as ever, you could see why he’d want to give that market a shot.

One thing’s for sure, he’s certainly not the only rock performer to make the crossover into country in recent years. One of the most prominent examples of this was Bon Jovi. Their 2005 album Have a Nice Day featured a lot of the band’s trademark arena rock sound, but there was also the single “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” which became one of the band’s biggest hits in a decade. It became even more popular after being re-recorded as a duet with Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles. Two years later, the band released Lost Highway, which was essentially a country record with the occasional rock tune thrown in. The album debuted at No. 1, and spawned a top 40 hit with “(You Want To) Make a Memory.” While the band would return to rock on subsequent releases like The Circle, it was clear that the country world was quite kind to them, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see them return to that realm sometime in the future.

Of course, not every ’80s hair metal act to make the country transition has the same success. Consider Poison frontman Bret Michaels, who released a country album in 2005 called Freedom of Sound. This happened around the time he became a judge on the music competition show Nashville Star, and seemed to reflect a permanent change in genre for Michaels. Instead, the album failed to find an audience, and he would quickly return to Poison’s pop-metal sound. Def Leppard flirted with the country crossover by collaborating with Tim McGraw on the 2008 single “Nine Lives,” but that appeared to be a one-off as well. Basically, plenty of rock acts have briefly dipped their toes into the country world, only to return to the sound that made them famous in the first place. It remains to be seen if that will be the case with Tyler.

Granted, that isn’t necessarily going to be the case every time; consider Staind frontman Aaron Lewis. When he released the country EP Town Line in 2011, it might have seemed like an experimental, fun side-project from someone who had gotten a bit tired of re-writing “It’s Been Awhile” yet again. Instead, it seems to be a permanent move for Lewis; he released a full-length album in 2012, and has a follow-up entitled Sinner coming in September. Meanwhile, Staind hasn’t recorded an album since their 2011 self-titled effort, and they don’t appear to be in a hurry to head to the studio any time soon. Lewis’ country recordings have not been as popular as his work with Staind, but it seems to be a rewarding area of work for him.

All of this begs the question, why are so many rock acts looking in the country direction these days? For one thing, it might have to do with how much more popular country is than rock lately. Straight-ahead rock artists rarely have major hits anymore, and even established pop rock acts like Fall Out Boy don’t have it much easier. The occasional breakthrough of a song like “Shut Up and Dance” often feels like a fluke. Meanwhile, the country industry is booming and has several different sub-genres that are thriving. While maligned by critics, the bro-country phenomenon has many artists succeeding with tunes that aren’t really too far removed from rock. With that in mind, it’s natural that rock stars would cease an opportunity for newfound success within the cottage industry. Additionally, there’s the generally traditional vibe that surrounds country music. As modern rock continues to evolve (particularly with the revival of alt-rock), artists whose style is a bit more “old-fashioned” (or conservative, to be more concise) might just feel a tad more at home in Nashville.

So, does any of this mean Steven Tyler will have success as a country artist? Well, that remains to be seen. Early singles “Love Is Your Name,” and “Red, White, and You” made the country charts, but neither one became a serious hit (they peaked at No. 19 and No. 29 on the Billboard Country charts, respectively). On the other hand, the early reviews have been positive, including a rave review from the Washington Post, which suggests that Tyler’s country turn might actually be able to work. Tyler is famous enough that anything he does will immediately be noticed; whether that will lead to a successful album remains to be seen.