Image: Dixie Chicks
JIM COOPER  /  AP file
Beginning Dec. 16, 'Rock Band' fans can download songs by Brad Paisley, Miranda Lambert and the Dixie Chicks (left). Sure, country music is popular. But does it rock?
By Games editor
msnbc.com
updated 12/10/2008 8:45:52 AM ET 2008-12-10T13:45:52

“Rock Band” has just gone a little bit country.

Yes, the latest downloadable content from the popular rhythm game is actually called “Going Country.” It includes five tracks from such artists as Brad Paisley, Brooks & Dunn and the Dixie Chicks. Fans who are so inclined can, starting Dec. 16, download “Mud on the Tires” from the game’s online store. They can strum in time to Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder & Lead.”

I’m not sure how I feel about this.

Listen, I’m no country music hater. I own a Dixie Chicks album. I’ve been known to blast Hank Williams (senior, of course) when I’m in a melancholy mood. But when I think “Rock Band,” I think ROCK. I think Blue Oyster Cult, Judas Priest. I think Journey.

But Paul DeGooyer, senior vice president of games and music for MTV, says that the tracks they picked “might twang a little bit,” but they still rock plenty hard. No one’s going to mistake “Hillbilly Deluxe” for Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.”

“With this first release, we want to edge people into it,” DeGooyer told me. “We don’t want their heads to explode.”

There might well be some exploding heads when hardcore “Rock Band” fans find redneck women invading their turf. But really, the decision to go country makes business sense for MTV on all sorts of levels. For one thing, MTV Networks owns Country Music Television. And DeGooyer says they’ve heard, through fans of the channel, that folks would like a little more steel guitar with their Smashing Pumpkins.

“They’ve been very vocal about the artists they’d like to see in the game. And the artists in this first edition reflect their preferences,” he says.”

The new music will be available on the Xbox 360 on Dec. 16 and for the PlayStation 3 starting Dec. 18. Players can download the individual tracks for $1.99 (or 160 Microsoft points) or the whole five-pack for $8.49 (or 680 Microsoft points).

Country music has certainly soared in popularity in recent years. Carrie Underwood, Rascal Flatts and Tim McGraw appear alongside Hannah Montana, Alicia Keys and (oddly) the Eagles in Nielsen SoundScan's top 10 selling artists list for 2007.

David Card, a music-industry analyst with Forrester Research, says he thinks it was a good move to add country into the “Rock Band” mix. When his company surveyed 2,100 online adults about their music-genre preferences recently, country came up third, behind classic rock and rock. Alternative rock — a genre very well-represented on “Rock Band” — was number four.

“I think it’s pretty smart, actually,” said Card of the new songs. “I think there are a bunch of teenage boys and young adults that are country fans — they’re just in the middle of the country, not on the coasts.”

But what’s interesting is that although the top artists of 2007 most certainly included country stars, Nielsen’s list of top-10 selling digital artists has nary a country singer on it. Fergie was tops, followed by Timbaland, Rihanna and Justin Timberlake, which suggests that pop-music listeners are more comfortable downloading music than perhaps the country-music set.

Still, Card points out that “Rock Band” has been a big crossover family hit. “Maybe the country songs will play well with the middle-aged, family audience.”

Music games like “Rock Band” and the “Guitar Hero” franchises have played a major role in the continued success of the video game industry — even in troubled times. “Rock Band” is the number one title of 2008 in terms of revenue, according to the NPD Group. And MTV says players have downloaded over 30 million paid songs since the game launched a little over a year ago.

MTV’s DeGooyer says the decision to go country “wasn’t done on a spreadsheet. It was more of a creative call, about what could and should be done in ‘Rock Band.’”

And to those fans, the purists who think that country and “Rock Band” are not like peanut butter and chocolate?

“It’s OK guys, you have 500 other tracks that you’ve told us you’re tremendously happy with,” he says. “Give us a little room to experiment.”

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