Many hit-making singers and bands are pointing themselves toward musical dirt roads. Are they making it work or are these cases of being country after being country was cool?
Lewis is the voice of stormy rockers Staind, who steadily gained a following through the late 1990s before hitting it big with the power ballad “It’s Been Awhile” from 2001’s “Break the Cycle.” The band was a fixture of hard rock radio for about 15 years, and its biggest songs continue to find a wide audience.
As the 2010s began, Lewis, a native of New England, made a complete 180-degree turn into country, releasing three LPs and an EP.
Stretch of the imagination? Until “State I’m In,” out earlier this year, Lewis’ efforts sounded just like a countrified version of his work with Staind — maudlin mid-tempo songs that asked very little of him creatively. “State I’m In” breaks from that box a bit but still doesn’t secure his place as a top country artist.
Company he keeps: Country icons George Jones and Charlie Daniels put their stamp on Lewis early, showing up on “Country Boy” from his 2011 EP “Town Line.” Not to be outdone, Willie Nelson shows up on the title track from Lewis’ 2016 record “Sinner.” Reading the fine print, he has collaborated with and relied upon some of country’s finest and longest-tenured session players.
Success so far: Each of Lewis’ country records have sold well; “Town Line” and “Sinner” topped the Billboard Country Albums chart, while “State I’m In” has peaked at No. 2 to date.
Best songs: “The Road” from 2012’s “The Road”; “Sunday Every Saturday Night” from 2016’s “Sinner”; “Reconsider,”and “The Party’s Over,” “Burnt the Sawmill Down” from “State I’m In.”
Do the boots fit? So many of the songs on Lewis’ first country records find him justifying his presence in the genre. When he actually lands on the common ground between country and rock — the hard luck and hard living — his music actually resonates.
Rucker applied his rich South Carolina baritone in the service of Hootie & the Blowfish’s jangly college-rock. The band’s 1994 debut “Cracked Rear View” went on to sell more than 20 million copies, before the inevitable backlash produced a series of diminishing returns. The last Hootie album came out in 2005, though the band is currently on tour.
Rucker pivoted into his solo career with 2002’s soulful “Back to Then.” Since 2008’s “Learn to Live,” he has planted his feet on country territory, to great success.
Stretch of the imagination? You can take the artist out of Carolina, but you can’t take the Carolina out of the artist. Hootie & the Blowfish always possessed a laid-back, homespun charisma that carries perfectly into Rucker’s country sound. The band’s brand of rock lived closer to the alt-country and Americana side of the dial and, with Rucker’s sonorous voice selling each and every hook with sincerity, the transition has been seamless.
Company he keeps: Rucker’s country albums have featured guest performances by Brad Paisley, Lady Antebellum, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and Sheryl Crow and the songwriting talents of Chris Stapleton and Radney Foster.
Success so far: Rucker owns one platinum- and two gold-selling albums, as well as a greatest hits’ collection worth of successful singles. In 2014, he won a Grammy for best country solo performance, honoring his take on the oft-covered “Wagon Wheel,” which he turned into a triple-platinum single.
Best songs: “This” and “Come Back Song” from 2010’s “Charleston, SC 1966”; “Lie to Me” from 2013’s “True Believers”; “You Can Have Charleston” from 2015’s “Southern Style”; “Count the Beers” from 2017’s “When Was the Last Time.”
Do the boots fit? Rucker both has made the most seamless transition from rock to country of the artists identified here, and released the most consistently charismatic records.
Named for a nun, this good-natured band broke through with its 1997 hymn to devotion, “All For You.” The band remained a commercial force through the early 2000s, its harmony-rich, Tom Petty-lite approach to rock scratching an itch for those who appreciate catchy songs about life’s simple gifts and graces.
With 2016’s “Lighter in the Dark,” the band declared its good intentions toward the country world. A series of three EPs — “Water,” “Wind” and “Fire” — over the past two years have maintained the band’s connection with the elements of that style.
Stretch of the imagination? Not unlike Rucker and Hootie, Sister Hazel didn’t have far to travel to cross the country line. The band has long been rooted in the more accessible side of Southern rock with big-hearted songs, Ken Block’s Everyman vocals and Ryan Newell’s dynamic lead guitar, which wraps together the various cords and chords of Americana.
Company they keep: Rucker joined the band for “Karaoke Song” on “Lighter in the Dark.” The band also has graced the sacred stage at the Grand Ole Opry.
Success so far: “Lighter in the Dark” landed at No. 4 on the Billboard Country Albums chart less than a month after its release. The “Water” EP also cracked the Top Ten on that chart in early 2018.
Best songs: “Fall off the Map,” “Take It With Me” and “That Kind of Beautiful” from “Lighter in the Dark”; “Roll On Bye” and “More Than I Want To” from 2018’s “Water” EP
Do the boots fit? The band’s recent projects sound authentically country without writing off or waving goodbye to its previous work. Bending its notes ever so slightly — warm harmonies become practically Eagles-esque, for example — Sister Hazel finds a welcome, suitable home within country music.