Reggae Loves Country: A 50-Year Romance : The Record Proof of Jamaica's love for country is all over reggae history. A new album collects more evidence.
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Reggae Loves Country: A 50-Year Romance

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Reggae Loves Country: A 50-Year Romance

Reggae Loves Country: A 50-Year Romance

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And I'm Robert Siegel. And now to a new album whose title alone might raise some eyebrows - "Reggae's Gone Country." You heard right, it's a collection of reggae covers of country songs. And the connection between country and reggae run deeper than you might imagine, as we learn from reporter Baz Dreisinger.

BAZ DREISINGER: Picture this. You're at a massive street dance in Kingston, Jamaica, and the speakers are blaring the latest reggae and dancehall tunes. But the crowd erupts when the DJ drops this one.


DREISINGER: Surprised? Don't be, says veteran Jamaican reggae singer, Freddie McGregor. He, like so many West Indians, is a huge country music fan. His favorite singer?

FREDDIE MCGREGOR: Definitely Marty Robbins. My all-time country artist - (singing) down in El Paso, I rode in the city. I fell in love with a Mexican girl. Love that song, yeah.

DREISINGER: McGregor is featured on "Reggae's Gone Country" with another one of his favorites, first recorded in 1964 by Roger Miller.


DREISINGER: Proof of Jamaica's love for country music is all over reggae history. Many classic reggae tunes are, in fact, country covers. The 1961 country hit by Claude Gray...


DREISINGER: ...became Bob Marley's second single.


DREISINGER: The new compilation of country covers was co-produced in Nashville by John Rich of the hit-making duo Big & Rich. He says the Jamaican artists were blown away by music city.

JOHN RICH: I could really see they were country music fans. They were taking pictures of everything. They wanted to go downtown. They wanted to look at every microphone and every knob on the board.

DREISINGER: Jamaica's passion for country music began with the advent of the first commercial radio station on the island in 1950. Jamaican writer Colin Channer explains that songs by artists like Skeeter Davis and Patsy Cline were part of the playlist.

COLIN CHANNER: When I was growing up, for example, there were two radio stations, and we grew up thinking of music as being either local or foreign. And the different genres of foreign music didn't matter to us that much. So we didn't grow up in Jamaica with the same kinds of segmented understanding of what music was, but also what kind of music you were allowed to listen to, in a way that I think people in the U.S. did.

DREISINGER: Country's popularity was boosted by the birth around the same time of cinema in Jamaica, where Westerns were a big draw.

CHANNER: A lot of Westerns are essentially morality plays. And if you look at the way in which the church is important in Jamaica, you can see how stories with moral themes, stories of revenge, stories of comeuppance would be popular there. You could see how people in Jamaica who consider themselves to be good churchgoing people would appreciate it.

DREISINGER: Westerns and country tunes also appealed to Jamaica's love of the outlaw, the so-called badman figure famously played by Jimmy Cliff in the 1973 film "The Harder They Come." Years later, dancehall deejays Josey Wales and Clint Eastwood took their names from a Western and its star.


DREISINGER: And spaghetti Westerns like "A Fistful of Dollars" are beloved in the over-the-top dancehall scene.

CHANNER: What is a dance but a saloon? Saloons in movies often get shot up, dances get shot up. Motorcycles are like horses. People think they're good guys and they're bad guys.

DREISINGER: Still, Channer says, it surprises people that Jamaicans like country music because Jamaica is a predominantly black nation and in the U.S., he says, country music carries a certain racial history and baggage.

CHANNER: Jamaica has such a strong music tradition of its own and a deep, deep portion of Jamaica's music tradition is involved in struggle against a sort of world power structure which is conceived of as white. And we conceive of country music as white music, but I think a good story is a just good story. And Kenny Rogers is a good storyteller.

DREISINGER: And stories are what it all comes down to, says reggae singer Beres Hammond, who's featured on the new compilation.

BERES HAMMOND: Country tells stories. You know, it tells about the home, tells about the heart and the breaking up and the getting back together and it's almost like soap. You know how soap keeps you glued to your television station because you want to know what the next chapter is.


DREISINGER: This narrative tradition runs deep in folk music across the Caribbean. And there may even be a social currency that appeals to country listeners there, says University of the West Indies professor and blogger Annie Paul.

ANNIE PAUL: Country and Western is music that comes from people at the bottom of that society, so maybe there's some sort of sympathy there.

DREISINGER: Then again, there's the shameless sentimentalism of country music, which appeals, Colin Channer says, to an island that relishes shmaltz more than folks might expect.

CHANNER: Celine Dion, that we'd sort of look at as one of the most sort of over-the-top, schmaltzy, sentimental kind of singers - beloved in Jamaica, especially by men who consider themselves to be hard or men who consider themselves to be tough.


DREISINGER: The producer of the new compilation says he'd like to keep the synergy between Nashville and Kingston going.

RICH: My friends from Jamaica came to Nashville to visit me. I'm gonna go back down there and repay the visit and get up and jam with them in some of the clubs, maybe play a festival. I don't know that there's a cooler music scene anywhere in the world than down in Jamaica.

DREISINGER: Some Jamaicans might say the same of Nashville. For NPR News, I'm Baz Dreisinger.


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