Reggae's Gone Country

As unlikely as this may seem to some, there is a strong connection between reggae music and country music. Both, when done right, are forms of roots music. Each style is also mostly associated with common people. Is Reggae's Gone Country any good?

The songs that work best include Freddie McGregor singing Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.” For starters, McGregor is a great singer – probably a better natural vocalist than Miller is. The song’s easygoing reggae groove fits the tramp’s lament perfectly. Another true winner is “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” by Tessanne Chin. Crystal Gayle was never one of the world’s best country artists to begin with, and Chin just completely owns it when it comes to covering the song. She sings it as a soul song, which is really how it should have been handled in the first place.

On the other hand, nobody else should ever sing “He Stopped Loving Her Today” -- ever again. This is George Jones territory, and Beres Hammond – bless his heart – is trespassing. The same goes for “Crazy,” which, in that case, belongs to either Willie Nelson or Patsy Cline. Also, applying Auto-Tune to Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” isn’t a good idea, even as a joke.

Then there are songs that could go either way. Taking on “Straight Tequila Night” seems like cover suicide upon first glance, yet Tarrus Riley gives it his best Jimmy Cliff impression. He has a wonderfully smooth voice, and the arrangement retains the lyric’s emotional power. Gramps Morgan even has a name that would have fit right in with the cast of the old Hee Haw program. He sings with a gruff, Toots Hibbert-like voice, which ends up working. The arrangement is also a blast. Who knew pedal steel guitar and reggae rhythms could go together so well?

A few of these songs just don’t work in an Island context. “Wolverton Mountain” and “El Paso” are just too darned regional to make sense as reggae songs. “Flowers on the Wall” is a hoot, though. Not only does it sport pedal steel work, but a jauntily plucked banjo also drives it. The group L.U.S.T. covers this song with all the giddy gusto required, including some cool, Statler Brothers-like low harmony parts.

Granted, this reggae-ization of country music is a bit of a gimmick. Nevertheless, at its best it’s a finely executed gimmick. Just listen to Luciano coo “He’ll Have to go.” This may not have been written with lover’s rock in mind, but it sure works as sweet Jamaican seduction. Don’t expect to hear it on your country radio station any time soon, however. This album is probably directed at adventurous reggae fans, rather than curious country aficionados. It would have been even better with a little more star power. Wouldn’t you love to hear Ziggy Marley doing Merle Haggard or Toots Hibbert doing Ray Charles? Of course you would! This album may not be the ultimate reggae and country crossroads project, but it has its charms.