If there was ever any doubt as to how Eighties hard rock influenced contemporary country music, press play on Nashville Outlaws: A Tribute to Mötley Crüe. Released today, the album assembles a cadre of modern country artists to interpret some of the Crüe's biggest songs, along with a smattering of more obscure, deeper cuts from albums like 1997's Generation Swine and 2008's Saints of Los Angeles.
Rascal Flatts handle "Kickstart My Heart," Brantley Gilbert does "Girls, Girls, Girls" and Eli Young Band tackle "Don't Go Away Mad (Just Go Away)" while Florida Georgia Line cover the Red, White & Crüe compilation's "If I Die Tomorrow" and Cassadee Pope (with an assist from Cheap Trick's Robin Zander) takes on Saints' "The Animal in Me." The project's first single, currently at radio, is a duet between Justin Moore and Mötley Crüe's Vince Neil on the epic power ballad "Home Sweet Home."
"If that song came out now, even how they recorded it back in the day, it'd probably be on country radio," says Moore, "and one of the more country things on country radio."
Neil, however, says he initially wasn't sure if there was a home for his notoriously wild band in country music. When Big Machine Label Group, who is releasing Nashville Outlaws, first approached the high-voiced singer, he hesitated.
"Because I'm a diehard rock & roll guy, who listens to classic rock radio in my car," Neil tells Rolling Stone Country. "What I remember of country, 30, 40 years ago, isn't what it is today. Today, it's rock & roll. It's more rock than a lot of the rock & roll out there is."
Nikki Sixx, Mötley Crüe's bassist and chief songwriter — who along with drummer Tommy Lee and guitarist Mick Mars round out the group — shared Neil's wariness.
"We started talking about it and, at first, like Vince said, well…I'm not sure," Sixx recalls. But then he realized the genius of what modern country artists were doing, both on radio and especially onstage: furthering the "party never ends" attitude that the Crüe and their peers depicted on MTV. If Nirvana and the grunge revolution doused that decadent fire, then young country artists raised on Mötley Crüe, Bon Jovi and Def Leppard rekindled it.
"It's very smart of the new country music artists to look at that whole thing in rock where it just became a downer. Bands like us weren't around…there weren't new versions of us. So those fans started going somewhere else," says Sixx of the rock-to-country migration. "I remember watching some country awards show, and I was going, 'Jesus, they have pyro, girls, production, lasers, smoke and shredding guitar players.' I was like, 'This looks familiar.'"
The lyrics and rock-based sound also caught Sixx's ear. "I was really impressed by their songwriting skills, the ability to take that lyric and thread it all the way through and build it," he says. "And Vince said to me that it was like Seventies rock at its peak. You can almost hear songs like 'Free Ride' in it."
Jaren Johnston of dirty country outfit the Cadillac Three, who turn in a greasy, slide-heavy version of "Live Wire," sees obvious similarities between the lyrics coming out of Music Row and those that originated from the Sunset Strip in the Eighties.
"They were talking about convertibles and hot legs. I get that. Now, you take the convertible and replace it with a truck," says Johnston. Himself a hit songwriter, Johnston has had his songs cut by Tim McGraw and Keith Urban. "[Bands like Mötley Crüe] were singing about cocaine and shit too! At least that hasn't hit country yet. Not since Hank and Waylon back in the day anyway," he says laughing.
The Cadillac Three are perhaps the Nashville Outlaws act closest in style to the band they're honoring, a point that isn't lost on the group's singer. "I love the mentality of Mötley Crüe because they were badass, they didn't take no shit from nobody and that's kind of the way we look at ourselves," Johnston says.
"Mötley Crüe were the band that would come to town and steal your girlfriend," says Raul Malo, lead singer of the Latin-flavored country group the Mavericks. "I love that about them honestly." Malo and the Mavericks provide, if not the high point of the tribute, then certainly the most musically adventurous: a flamenco-like reinvention of "Dr. Feelgood," that 1989 tale of doomed drug dealer "Rat-Tailed Jimmy."
"It's definitely an East L.A. meets Miami kind of [sound]. It's really what the Mavericks do anyways. We don't really worry about what genre or where it comes from. We just kind of go with the vibe," Malo says. "That's why we chose that song; because I thought we could step out of ourselves and have some fun with it."
While the album has its share of musical surprises like the Mavericks' "Dr. Feelgood" or LeAnn Rimes' sultry "Smokin' in the Boy's Room," the 1973 Brownsville Station jam that Mötley Crüe cut for their Theatre of Pain album, the song choices themselves are equally daring. The group's last studio album, Saints of Los Angeles, was a moderate success, yet even the most devout metalheads likely aren't cueing up non-singles like "The Animal in Me."
"You feel the artists were going to pick the hits, and a lot did," says Sixx, surprised by Cassadee Pope's selection of "The Animal in Me." "That was a deep track on Saints of Los Angeles, and it was always one of our favorites."
"I didn't really want to do a more well-known song. I wanted to dig a little deeper and I think 'Animal in Me' is pretty different from what I do, different from my album," says Pope, one of the few female artists carving out her spot on male-dominated country radio. "I think the lyrics are pretty risqué. It's definitely an interesting take on a love song."
Likewise, Aaron Lewis, the singer of grunge-rock group Staind, who has gained a foothold in country with his traditional-sounding album The Road, looked past the hits. He chose "Afraid," from Generation Swine, Neil's reunion album with the band after quitting the group (or being fired, depending on whom you ask) in 1992. In Lewis' hands, it's a Haggard barroom weeper.
"That song is more country than any other song on the album. It's that old school," says Neil.
"From the only guy who is the actual rock guy on the record," adds Sixx.
"A lot of times, listening to today's country radio, I tend to have a hard time finding the country in it," says Lewis, explaining his unexpected approach to "Afraid." "If I'm going to make country music, I'm going to make country music."
Like Johnston, he too sees the similarities between the Crüe's onstage rock-god production and today's country stars. "There are artists out there who have borrowed their shows as if they stood side stage and took notes from Nickelback. And Nickelback did the exact same thing, probably looking at bands like Mötley Crüe," says Lewis. "That time frame of music, and that genre of music, it brought such a larger than life spectacle of a show to the table that really hadn't been done. Now it's bounced from rock to pop to country."
Johnston and Lewis aside, you needn't have been a bad boy rocker to have been influenced by Mötley, a band for whom drug and alcohol addiction, car crashes and jail time became the norm. Darius Rucker, country's approachable everydude, counts himself a fan.
"Oh God, of course. They were so big, how could you not have been a Crüe fan?" he asks. Rucker contributes the socially conscious ballad "Time for Change," from Mötley's six-times platinum Dr. Feelgood album, to Nashville Outlaws.
"I always thought it was such a cool tune. It wasn't a power ballad like they used to do, or one of those big metal songs. We thought it could be a song that came out today [in country]," Rucker says. "That's what I love about popular music. It always borrows from other stuff that came before. You can hear the influences and I think that's a good thing."
Ironically, country music is the one genre that didn't influence Mötley Crüe, who are currently in the midst of their, they promise, final tour. The farewell trek stops in Nashville on October 15th. While traces of country may have crept their way into songs like "Home Sweet Home" and "Don't Go Away Mad," the merging of sounds was never a conscious decision for the band.
"It was never for me. I never really sat down and had country music as my mainstay," says Sixx. "But it was in the background. When I lived in Idaho as a kid with my grandparents, that's what was on the radio."
Neil cites the songs of Johnny Cash and Johnny Rivers as his country music memories, although the latter is decidedly more rock & roll.
Perhaps that's why the guys are adamant about what the Nashville Outlaws project is and is not.
"We think this is for country fans, by great country artists who happen to be rock fans as well," says Sixx. "Mötley Crüe is not making a country record."
Laughs Neil: "That'd be bad."
(Additional reporting by Carson Meyer)