There are a lot of things you associate with Steven Tyler. Silk scarves, scraggly mustaches and halcyon days gone by aside, Tyler isn’t exactly the kind of guy you expect to record a country album. More than 40 years after the bad boys from Boston first made their mark on rock 'n’ roll, though, Tyler is embarking on a truly bizarre solo project as a country artist.
Tyler has long teased his foray into country music. During a “surprise visit” at the Grand Ole Opry last September, Tyler told the audience that he would soon be releasing his first solo country album. "I grew up in the woods of New Hampshire. ... I have more country in me than people think," Tyler told Rolling Stone Country in 2014, the same year that he joined Brad Paisley to perform on the Country Music Association Awards. New Hampshire doesn't exactly inspire a rustic rural image, but nonetheless, Tyler is dead set on bringing his brand of country music into the world.
The album isn’t coming until later this year, April perhaps, but Tyler has already released two singles to his adoring fans via Twitter. After just hearing these two tracks, it is clear that Tyler is going all-in on this country music thing. He didn’t just release an album of mostly rock tracks and market them to country audiences. No, this is going to be a country album, and it is going to be totally fucking insane.
Last year, Tyler released “Love Is Your Name,” the lead track from this forthcoming album. The song leads off with plenty of fiddle, sounding much like something you’d hear from Tim McGraw or Keith Urban or some other generic male country artist. Tyler’s characteristic blown-out voice immediately reminds you that yes, this is the guy who once performed “Dream On” and “Sweet Emotion.” That’s when things really start to feel weird — and then you see the video.
The video for “Love Is Your Name” is a weird love story set in a hippie commune, narrated by Tyler, and may or may not be a depiction of a cult ritual. A young blond woman carries Tyler’s characteristic mic stand scarves around the planet (or something) until she brings them back to him. Meanwhile, Tyler dances around a fire and (probably) absorbs the energies of the younger musicians around him. It’s a sublimely weird, if not particularly remarkable, song.
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On the second release from this as-yet-untitled album, "Red, White & You," released just last week, Tyler really makes his appeal to country audiences. One country stereotype after the other — sweet potato pie and Tom Petty — roll out before Tyler really gets to the gold. Not only does he want to indulge in tired-ass middle America tropes, he wants to “bang bang baby like the 4th of July.” It’s truly comical, like something you’d hear on a country parody album.
It’s a bizarre dichotomy, the comparison of sanitized American stereotypes and screwing that reminds you of fireworks. He “don’t give a damn about the summertime blues,” because he just needs America and some “American girls.” If it weren’t already clear that Tyler has become a caricature of himself, he’s somehow managed to outdo that in creating this new country-fried persona.
It’s not a stupid move for Tyler to try to capitalize on some of the audience share that country has been able to command away from rock and pop music in recent years. Despite country’s minor contraction in 2015, there’s still plenty of money to be made, especially if you’re dealing in mediocre music that hits all the markers for radio success. In fact, “Love Is Your Name” made it into the top 20 country singles when it was released last year.
Which means that this album will probably be one of country’s biggest in 2016, and that’s probably the most succinct commentary on an industry that apparently wants to continue making a joke of itself. Country crossovers could actually be a real benefit to the genre — like that time Robert Plant made a bluegrass album with Alison Krauss — but this is not the way for a rock legend to earn acclaim from country critics.
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It’s also notable that in releasing this album, Tyler is totally pissing off his Aerosmith bandmates. In 2015, Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford told Rolling Stone that Tyler had “abandoned” the band, and that the production of this album was the reason that a number of the band’s tour dates were cancelled. "I guess he seems to think his solo career is going to go great guns,” Whitford said. “He doesn't seem to realize that — in my opinion — his fans around the globe want to see him in the context of Aerosmith and don't really care for whatever he thinks he's gonna do."
Whether or not that’s true — there will be plenty of people who buy and love this album just because it is Steven Tyler — it does pose an interesting question: Will Tyler be able to create the same magic that he did with Aerosmith as a solo artist? Does he still have anything interesting to bring to the music world? Time will tell.
There is no limit to the wonders Steven Tyler’s foray into country music could bring us. Perhaps he will tour the country in American flag spandex and cover Johnny Cash songs. Maybe he’s just trying to indoctrinate us into that cult, and we’ll all end up flocking to the American Airlines Center to bring our leader his scarves in a few months. Either way, as Tyler prepares to release this album, it’s going to be a hilarious ride.