They say politics make strange bedfellows, and apparently so does country music. In what might seem like an improbable collaboration Country Music Hall of Famer Jeff Cook and veteran actor William Shatner have joined forces to create one of the year’s most intriguing albums. A blend of humorous tunes and poignant ballads, Why Not Me was released on Heartland Records last week.
“I’ve probably known Bill for 10 years maybe. We met an awards show on the West Coast, ” says longtime Alabama member Jeff Cook, who records as a solo artist on Heartland. “Bill and I both have a mutual friend, Brian Curl with Heartland.”
Shatner has previously recorded four spoken word albums, but this marks his first country effort. “Brad Paisley has become a really good friend of mine over the years, and I’ve been admirer of his and country music for the longest time, and when Brian Curl asked me if I would like to make a country music album I jumped at the chance,” Shatner tells Sounds Like Nashville. “But then I needed the material and I didn’t realize until it started to happen that there are songwriters in Nashville that make a living just writing songs and sending them out to people who need good songs.”
Curl signed Shatner to Heartland in January and put the word out that he was looking for songs for the album. He listened to about a hundred submissions before passing along 20 to 25 to Cook and Shatner. “We all got songs pitched to us and then we narrowed it down,” Cook says of arriving at the 12 on the album. “I was a little apprehensive and couldn’t quite get my head wrapped around what we were going to do, but after we got the first one together, I realized this can work. It’s a very unique project. Bill doesn’t actually sing on this. It’s a very different thing.”
Shatner and Curl traveled to Fort Payne, AL, in May where they recorded the project at Cook’s studio. “I was performing in Germany and I flew in from Germany late one night and the next morning I was at Jeff’s studio,” Shatner recalls. “I stayed overnight at his castle. I recorded my stuff in one day and we had a grand time. Jeff did wonderfully well.”
The songs are a blend of Shatner’s distinctive recitations combined with Cook’s vocals as well as guest vocals from Neal McCoy and Home Free on the title track and newcomers Cash Creek on “I Should’ve Loved Her,” which was written by Lucas Hoge, Tim Gates and Brad Hull. Spoken word has long held a place in country music with Red Sovine, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Porter Waggoner known for their recitations. Shatner is known for his spoken word projects, including acclaimed albums produced by singer/songwriter Ben Folds, but has he ever thought about trying his hand at singing? “The older I get I’m closing in on it, but there is a line which shifts,” he explains of his unique delivery. “There is a line between speaking and singing that in my case I’m trying to fuse the two of them together so that the talking is singing and the singing is talking and where that line is I think is different from each number. I don’t want to be off key or weakly sustaining a note so that I’m squeezing that line. I’m not sure where it is from time to time. The finer you can draw it, the listener is saying, ‘Is he singing or talking?’ If I can achieve that, then I’m successful in what I’m trying to do.”
Cook thinks fans will enjoy the project. “It’s not like anything really I’ve ever heard before,” says Cook. “There were some songs back in the day that might have a verse or something with talking in it. It’s like when Mel Tillis recorded ‘Detroit City.’ We may have created some new talking songs.”
The songs on the album cover a variety of lyrical territory from “What Some People Throw Away,” a poignant song about an encounter with a homeless man that has an unexpected twist to the quirky “Too Old To Be Vegan” and “Beam Me Up,” which puts a spin on “Star Trek” mythology and references Jim Beam whiskey instead. “When I heard it, I started laughing and said, ‘We’ve got to have that song,’” says Shatner, well known for his “Star Trek” role as Capt. James T. Kirk. “I do my best to avoid Star Trek references when it isn’t necessary, but this one was so cute and so off beat that I thought I had to do it.”
Shatner was pleasantly surprised to discover that other songs had been written specifically with him in mind, among them “Got a Thing for You,” penned by Tom Paden and Eddie Kilgallon. “I called Brian up immediately and asked, ‘How did you guys know?’ And he said, ‘We looked you up.’ So they just set out to write a song about what I’m interested in, the horses, Kentucky, Shakespeare,” says Shatner, who owns a horse farm in Lexington, KY. “I guess my interests are someone unique and all together it forms me as an individual, but the fact that they went to the trouble of looking up what I did and what I do, even to the first three pulls on the Cuban cigar, it’s beautiful and brings tears to my eyes. I’m so filled with emotion.”
The first single is the rowdy “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink Alone,” written by Corey Lee Barker and Gary Hannan. “I said to Brian, ‘There’s two drinking songs here, which are great fun and I guess we could only do one,’ and he said, ‘No, we’ll do two. It’s a country music album,’” Shatner recalls with a laugh. “I began to understand the ways of country entertainment and that a drinking song is good. And we’ve got two of them!”
The title track, penned by Barker and Shawn Sackman, has a strong message that Cook and Shatner hope audiences will embrace. “It’s the next ‘We Are The World’ song for country music,” says Shatner, who is excited that Neal McCoy guests on the track. “Neal and I have become buddies. He’s one of the great human beings.”
The album concludes with “What Would Dreamers Do,” written by Kilgallon and Paden. “The writers of the song said. ‘That’s what I teach my children,’ and I said, ‘You know, that’s what I’m teaching my children,’” Shatner says.
Though Cook has been battling Parkinson’s Disease, he says he’s been responding well to treatment and improving lately. His performance on the new record sounds just as smooth and rich as the vocals he’s always been known for delivering throughout Alabama’s career and his solo work. He’s looking forward to performing with Shatner on the Grand Ole Opry to promote their new venture. [The date has yet to be set. Stay tuned.]
Shatner has also recorded a Christmas album, which will be out this fall, but he says country fans might not have seen the last of him. “If this is a success, I’d love to delve into it deeper,” he says of country music. “It’s great and I love it. If I can do more, I will do more.”