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Kelly Clarkson performs at the 2011 Annual American Music Awards in Los Angeles. (Matt Sayles/AP)
Kelly Clarkson performs at the 2011 Annual American Music Awards in Los Angeles. (Matt Sayles/AP)

Music

Pop pulls on the cowboy boots Add to ...

Ten years ago, Johnny Reid was a singer-songwriter with a home address in Brampton, Ont., and a Scottish accent, neither of which was drawing much water in Nashville. Yet when Reid was shopping a demo song around town, the avid fan of soul, rock and country took a chance. Instead of hiring a drawling singer, he simply recorded the tune in his own voice. “I got a call and they said, ‘Hey, man, I really love the song but who’s the singer?’” Reid explains on the phone from outside Music City, where he now makes his home.

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Though he has sold over a million albums since then, the two-time Juno winner reckons the gatekeepers are still baffled. “They’re looking at this Canadian-Scottish immigrant and thinking, how did we miss this? Where did this come from?”

Pop radio and country music are an odd couple, but thanks to crossover artists from Shania Twain to Taylor Swift, they’ve made it work. It’s only recently, however, that the country audience has entertained advances from other genres. Whether it’s a pop star like Kelly Clarkson scoring a hit via a country duet, or Johnny Reid dominating Canadian country radio and CMT with nary a Stetson in sight, the border between country and pop is more porous than it’s ever been.

The country-radio success of the singles from Reid’s seventh album, Fire It Up (out Monday), with its horn sections and Reid’s mighty, Wilson Pickett-indebted roar, shows how much the landscape has changed. The largely banjo-and-fiddle-free new country sound appeals more to boomer rock fans raised on the likes of Bob Seger, the Eagles and Tom Petty than mushy adult contemporary or heavily Auto-Tuned Top 40. Thirty years ago, Reid’s title track would have been deemed pop-rock. Today, it’s country, yet Reid is pulling in huge audiences in Canada’s major cities as well as country’s rural strongholds.

But without the 10-gallon hats and twanging guitars, what is it about these pop artists that makes country fans warm to them?

“Country isn’t just a sound, it’s a lifestyle,” says Kelly Clarkson, her voice, with its Southern accent, rising above the TV crews packing up after a shoot at the Four Seasons in Toronto. “It’s almost like a personality thing, and I fit very much more into that. What’s funny is, musically I fit into pop, but personally I’m way more in the country world.”

The easy charm of the American Idol winner, The Voice guest mentor (she works with members of the team coached by country star Blake Shelton) and soon-to-be cast member of ABC’s new singing show, Duets, stems partly from her roots in Burleson, Tex., – which is also the home town of her manager since 2007, Narvel Blackstock. Clarkson warmed to Blackstock in 2002 when Reba McIntyre (Blackstock’s artist, and also his wife) guested on Idol. Her then-manager wanted her to be “the biggest singer in the world,” often demanding she receive star treatment. That attitude, she says, is “totally different from how I am. And you know, your management is a representation of you.”

Many expected that Clarkson would use her new connections to give up pop for country. She didn’t – her latest album, Stronger, is a pop-rock juggernaut. It’s rife with guitars, and just enough modern production to sound at home next to Rihanna; the album’s title track currently sits atop the Billboard Hot 100. But Clarkson seems to have dual citizenship as far as the country audience is concerned: Her duet with Jason Aldean, Don’t You Wanna Stay, topped the country charts; and on her Canadian tour dates, she skipped big cities and played casinos instead – a standard trajectory for country stars, who go to the rural markets where most of their fans live.

Like Reid, Clarkson has convinced audiences to follow her across genres. On the subject of the booming drums that dominate Stronger (in contrast to the programmed beats of most Top 40), Clarkson declares, “I love how a live band sounds. It’s my favourite thing, and I like those elements on the record and I have to fight for that.”

The reality of music fandom, both Clarkson and Reid take pains to stress, is that most people like a wider stylistic range than one genre can capture. The industry is slowly making room for genre-busting polymaths like Jack White, at whose mention Clarkson visibly brightens.

“I love him. He is working with so many different people, and the common denominator with him is that he loves music, all different kinds. Most people do; I think [artists]just get thrown into what people think society’s going to be willing to accept.”

Johnny Reid plays 32 Canadian tour dates starting April 10 in Victoria. Kelly Clarkson appears on The Voice, which airs Mondays at 8 p.m. ET on CTV.

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