Cross-genre pairings are nothing new in country music: Willie Nelson has lit up the charts with duet partners ranging from Julio Iglesias to Snoop Dogg. Johnny Cash once collaborated with members of Nirvana and Soundgarden. And CMT has made a whole show, Crossroads, out of rock-country mashups. But this year has seen more than its share of head-scratching duets — some that resulted in awe-inspiring, unique music, and others that genre-crashed and burned. Here are the 10 collaborations that surprised us most in 2014.
From McBride's R&B covers album Everlasting
As a producer, Don Was has worked with artists as artistically challenging as Bob Dylan and Garth Brooks (as Chris Gaines, no less). But one of his most natural pairings came with Martina McBride, who called upon Was to oversee her album of soul and R&B covers, Everlasting. McBride's huge voice demands a certain level of care — when to rein it in, when to let it soar, for example — and the producer made wise choices throughout the project, especially on "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man." Full of subtle flourishes and tasteful bombast, the McBride-Was collaboration on the Aretha Franklin gem deserves mad R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
CMA Country Christmas, December 1st
What happens when you take two of the most powerful voices in contemporary music and combine them on a behemoth, cross-genre, Oscar-winning hit? You get a blow-the-roof-off performance like this one between the distaff half of Sugarland and the Tony-winning Broadway and film veteran. The fact that Nettles and Menzel were so clearly jazzed to sing "Let It Go" with one another just injected another level of joy to their harmonious and soaring take on the Disney film ballad. Any hearts frozen to the holiday season were surely thawed by this dynamite duet.
World AIDS Day (RED) Concert, December 1st
When U2 lead singer Bono injured himself in a bicycle accident and was unable to appear at this pop-up concert in Times Square, he personally invited several of his pals to perform in his place, including Bruce Springsteen, Kanye West and Chris Martin of Coldplay. Underwood was an inspired choice, as was her song "Change," an album cut from 2009's Play On. Accompanied by the gentle strumming of the Edge, and her touring guitarist Shawn Tubbs, Underwood gave an impassioned reading of the ballad, which directly, and artfully, addresses compassion fatigue and challenges the notion that one person is an ineffective agent for change. We're betting Bono approved.
From Streisand's duets album Partners
While the sweetly sentimental acoustic duet "I'd Want It to Be You" is more in Babs' adult contemporary wheelhouse than Shelton's bro-country territory, The Voice mentor meshes nicely with the Oscar winner on a heartwarming ode to lifetime friendship. That the song winkingly nods to his hit "Honey Bee" and her Funny Girl past is just the earnest icing on this cross-genre cake. Although the pair didn't record in the studio together — she cheered him on by phone — Shelton can claim a bit of Streisand history as Partners' debut atop the Billboard album chart made the stage-and-screen star the first artist to score Number One albums in each of the last six decades. He also no doubt got a kick out of The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon's "impersonation" during Streisand's appearance on the show.
CMT Music Awards, June 4th
The R&B smoothie and the Sugarland singer met at President Obama's inauguration in 2009 and became fast friends as competitors on the 2012 ABC singing show Duets. Their mutual affection was palpable in this performance of "All of Me," as the pair played a charged acoustic take of Legend's sensual celebration of a flaws-and-all kind of love. Nettles and Legend offered up their hand-in-glove harmonies and Hayes, who composed a guitar arrangement especially for the show, rounded out the performance with his deft picking.
56th Annual Grammy Awards, January 26th
Gary Clark Jr. had already been nominated for awards in two different genres — Best Traditional R&B Performance, which he won, and Best Rock Song, which he lost to Paul McCartney — when he jumped onstage with Keith Urban midway through the 2014 Grammys, rounding out the evening with a little country twang. The two frontmen traded verses, guitar solos and punches during a four-minute performance of "Cop Car," with Clark adding some grit — in the form of flubbed lyrics and a few less-than-perfect guitar bends, none of which soured the overall vibe — to a song that might've otherwise sounded too squeaky-clean.
Bridgestone Arena, December 19th
What goes around, comes around. At a sold-out Garth Brooks show on December 4th, fans were entertained not only by the action onstage, but also the antics of a particularly enthusiastic fan in the front row. That person was Justin Timberlake, who'd decided to enjoy a short break in his own touring schedule by flying to St. Louis and hitting up Brooks' concert. Two weeks later, Brooks returned the favor by walking onstage at Timberlake's arena show in Nashville. Backed by a massive backup band and more than 15,000 screaming fans, the two sang "Friends in Low Places" together, turning a lonely man's drunken lament into a show-stealing duet.
CMA Awards, November 5th
If more proof was necessary that the layer-cake harmonies of Little Big Town can enhance anything, look no further than the quartet's kicky vocal teamwork with the pop starlet on her hit, "Bang Bang." Bedazzled in light-up suits that changed colors, backed by a drumline, and throwing themselves wholeheartedly into the silly, saucy jam, LBT's Jimi, Karen, Kimberly and Phillip were clearly having a grand old time backing up the petite powerhouse. Was it country? Not even a little bit. But it was a blast of fun on an otherwise mellow show.
CMT Music Awards, June 4th
CMT's big party took place in early summer, but some people still have their mouths agape over the show's wonky collaboration between Florida Georgia Line and ZZ Top. Make that two-thirds of ZZ Top. Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill opened with a straightforward snippet of "La Grange," then made way for FGL, special guest Luke Bryan and their current R&B man-crush, Jason Derulo. With the ZZ Top guys half-heartedly playing backup, the younger artists performed a wildly uninhibited mash-up of "This Is How We Roll/Talk Dirty to Me" – the highlight of which was a synchronized twerking sequence. In an awkward two-shot with FGL's Brian Kelley, the camera caught Gibbons looking bewildered, as if to say, "This may be how you roll, but this is not how ZZ Top rolls."
Glastonbury Festival, June 29th
It doesn’t get more random than Dolly Parton drafting Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora to arrange a country-gospel take on Bon Jovi’s 1989 hit "Lay Your Hands on Me" for her 2014 LP, Blue Smoke. Actually, it does get more random: Check out the Bon Jovi guitarist making a cameo with Parton during her triumphant set at Glastonbury 2014, a festival headlined this year by Arcade Fire, Metallica and Kasabian. Other acts on the Glasto undercard included Jack White, Lana Del Rey and the Pixies, making the festival a Teflon cavalcade of cool. But the massive crowd responds to this unexpected pairing with a standing ovation. Once again, at 68, Parton proves how her awesomeness transcends any and all musical or cultural boundaries, by bringing a sleeveless Richie Sambora to shred licks and bust out manly, Trey Parker-parody-worthy call-and-response vocals on a stage typically reserved for the likes of Radiohead.