When Cyndi Lauper burst onto the music scene with her 1983 debut album “She’s So Unusual,” everything about her image found Lauper living up to the title, from her quirky speaking voice and eccentric thrift store wardrobe to the fiercely independent mindset that showed itself in pop songs about feminist empowerment and female masturbation.
So more than three decades later, it might seem a bit unusual for her to be seemingly conforming by delving into a project of country music material. But for the 64-year-old singer-songwriter with a four-octave vocal range, it wasn’t really a stretch, especially given the fact that she heard much of that music as a kid, either on her Aunt Gracie’s black-and-white transistor radio or while spending time with her “Nana” watching Patsy Cline sing on “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” television show.
Dream of the country
“I always wanted to sing a country record. I learned a lot about singing from listening to Patsy Cline, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Johnny Burnette and all those rockabilly guys along with Wanda Jackson, who was the first rocker,” Lauper explained. “When I met John Turi (of Blue Angel), he started playing me all these [early rock & rollers] people. At the time, this music I sang was right around when country and blues kind of walked hand in hand. There were blues people writing and listening to country music and writing those kinds of stories.”
Lauper’s interest in that time period found her exploring the blues side of the coin when she released 2010’s Grammy-nominated “Memphis Blues,” on which she did duets with the likes of B.B. King, Ann Peebles, Charlie Musselwhite and Allen Toussaint , while digging into the catalogs of Little Walter, Albert King and Muddy Waters .
It was with this in mind that Sire Records founder Seymour Stein approached Lauper about coming to Nashville to record material predominantly drawn from that 1950s-’60s music era. With Stein providing a list of suggested songs and an introduction to storied Music Row producer Tony Brown, Lauper fell in love with the process and the locale of her latest project.
“I didn’t do all the songs on the list I wanted to do. Just like with the blues album, there are tons of blues songs I wanted to do along with tons of country songs,” she said. “I wouldn’t have sung ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ or even ‘She Bop’ had I not listened to country singers like Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. But Dolly is a different character. There’s something about her that you just love her, and if you don’t, there’s really something wrong with you. It was a great honor to go down to Nashville and make music inside of Nashville.
“(Prior albums like) ‘Sisters of Avalon’ and ‘Shine’ were made outside of Nashville in Hendersonville,” Lauper said. “Then I actually got to work in Nashville proper. It’s a great place because there’s still a very strong music community and they’re very supportive of each other and of me. I love the fact that they still have honky-tonks and places where people can sing.”
Having narrowed her selections to classics recorded by iconic artists like Cline (“I Fall to Pieces”), Jackson (“Funnel of Love”) and Marty Robbins (“Begging to You”), Lauper also was joined by an array of famous names helping out with the in-studio heavy lifting, including Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Jewel and Emmylou Harris.
Highlights abound, whether it’s Lauper and Jewel mastering the Texas swing of Patsy Montana’s seminal “I Want To Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” complete with the latter’s robust yodeling, or Harris lending some crystalline harmonies to the bouncy title cut. And while Gill’s extraordinary guitar work is all over “Detour,” he plays Conway Twitty to Lauper’s Loretta Lynn on a lively reading of “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly.” Equally notable are Nelson’s contributions to a laid-back version of his “Night Life.” As much a fan as she is a performer, Lauper, not surprisingly, was thrilled by who showed up at the studio.
Also a fan
“I think all these country guys influenced me, and I knew about Willie Nelson when I was in Blue Angel because he wrote ‘Crazy’ and I was very aware of Patsy Cline. I used to have a Patsy Cline button in 1980. I really loved her music, her sound and voice,” she said. “I was listening to [Willie’s] early work at that time because I knew about him. I met Emmy (Harris) on another project and I still want to sing with her again. I wouldn’t mind being in a band with her. She’s just so great and I love Alison Krauss — I always have. I’m a big, huge fan of all these people. For me, it was a great experience to go down there and have all those people play on my record. It was extraordinary.”
Dave Gil de Rubio is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.
Cyndi Lauper was joined by an array of famous names helping out with the in-studio heavy lifting on her latest album, including Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Jewel and Emmylou Harris.