As a proud child of the MTV generation, if you had told me back when “She Bop” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” were ruling the airwaves that this lady with the wild orange hair and chirpy voice would some day record a country album, I’d have thought you’d overdosed on pop rocks.
But over a long and impressive career that stretches well beyond just those early pop hits, Cyndi Lauper has explored a wide musical range and on “Detours,” she plants her colorful flag firmly in stylistic territory that seems a world away from the songs for which she’s best known.
Her first country album, “Detours” is clearly a labor of love for the singer, who has said in interviews that she grew up listening to country divas like Wanda Jackson, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. She also makes the connection with early country to the blues and R&B melting pot that ultimately led to rock and roll. Lauper and producer Tony Brown (who’s worked with a veritable Hall of Fame roster of country legends) decide to go for a very crisp and polished sound throughout the album, hurling these decades-old songs into the present. Recorded in Nashville (of course), Lauper and Brown bring in a mix of younger players and veterans of the genre and take on a dozen covers, most of which will be very familiar (well — to those of us past a certain age).
Lauper’s voice is as versatile and strong as always, and suits the mixture of upbeat barnburners and torch-song ballads that she’s chosen. She opens with a jaunty take on Wanda Jackson’s classic 1961 single “Funnel of Love,” which Lauper uses from the very beginning to illustrate the kinship between classic country and melodic pop. “Detours” keeps the upbeat tone going, a swing number made popular in 1945 by Jimmy Walker. Lauper’s take, with harmony vocals by Emmylou Harris, is endearing.
There are no shortage of classic country ballads to choose from, and Lauper picked some great ones for “Detours.” Her expressive voice shines on “Misty Blue,” a versatile standard that’s been a hit at various times for artists in pop, R&B and country. Lauper’s take on Skeeter Davis’ classic country waltz “The End of the World” is reverent and heart-felt, showing — as she does throughout the album — her respect for this material.
Willie Nelson duets with Lauper on another country slow-dance, “Night Life,” a bluesy gem that he wrote and originally recorded 56 years ago. Marty Robbins’ old-west 1963 ballad “Begging to You” sounds like it was written for Lauper, who steers her voice directly into the country idiom with genuine feeling and authenticity. She sounds as much at home singing alongside sweet fiddles as she did 30 years ago surrounded by spritely synthesizers.
The two Patsy Cline numbers, “Walkin’ After Midnight” and “I Fall to Pieces,” seem almost too-obvious of choices, but Lauper handles the venerable material with grace and ease, delivering lovely vocals over crisp and breezy accompaniments. Less successful is Lauper’s collaboration with Jewel, “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” Listening to Jewel’s yodeling is like someone jamming a screwdriver in your ears while chugging curdled milk. Not pleasant, but the gods invented the “Are you sure you want to delete this?” prompt for occasions just such as this. Press yes.
She makes up for the album’s one blight with the beautifully solemn finalé “A Hard Candy Christmas.” Lauper harmonizes with the great Alison Krauss on the iconic holiday gem from “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” and creates a recording destined to make holiday playlists many years into the future.
“Detours” is not a novelty album or a cynical marketing ploy. It’s charming and nostalgic, but with a fresh vibe that will hopefully bring these decades-old songs to a new round of listeners.