“There’s that word again: Unique. I can’t think of a better word to describe it. I might challenge you to go into a record store or go online and find something like it.”
Jeff Cook, founding member and lead guitarist for Alabama, is home thinking about one of the odder projects he’s ever recorded in his 50-year career. Over the course of three days last year in Cook’s Alabama studio, William Shatner, Cook’s friend for nearly 40 years, hopped into the vocal booth and, with his own inimitable spoken-word style rarely seen in country music, laid down vocals for what would become Why Not Me?, his debut country album released last year.
“Things just flowed,” Cook tells Rolling Stone. “We rarely had to cut things over twice. I was surprised that we went through it as quick as we did.”
Beginning with 1968’s The Transposed Man, which juxtaposed William Shakespeare works and other poems to contemporary pop songs (“Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” “Mr. Tambourine Man”), William Shatner has long been a mercurial musical figure existing in his own universe. There’s the 1977 live double album, indulgent even for a time when indulgence was contractually obligated for most groups, that saw Shatner recite Cyrano and War of the Worlds. An oft-parodied spoken word version of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” arrived a year later, followed by an album of biblical readings, collaborations with everyone from his friend Brad Paisley to Bootsy Collins to Ben Folds and whatever the hell this is:
Most recently, Shatner released Shatner Claus – The Christmas Album, an update of classic Christmas songs featuring Henry Rollins, Iggy Pop and Rick Wakeman.
But now, at 88, William Shatner has decided to go country, culminating – or continuing? – with his recent appearance with Cook at the Grand Ole Opry earlier this year. “I’ve admired country music for the longest time,” Shatner tells Rolling Stone. “Because country music generally tells a story, the lyrics lend itself to what I do.”
Shatner is not a complete stranger to country music. In 2003, he appeared as a American Idol-style judge in Paisley’s reality TV-spoofing video “Celebrity” alongside Jason Alexander and Jim Belushi. Paisley returned the favor, recording a cover of Steve Miller’s “Space Cowboy” for his 2011 album Seeking Major Tom.
Musically, Why Not Me? checks off all the boxes of a proper country album, thanks to Cook, guest vocals by Neal McCoy, Home Free and Cash Creek and a slew of Music Row songwriters who contributed to the album. But like most of Shatner’s work, the line between serious and self-parodic is a grey one, with heartfelt, sincere songs like “Should’a Loved” and the title track bumping up against titles like “Too Old to Be Vegan” and “I Hate to Waste Good Beer.”
In November 2017, Brian Curl, president of Nashville label Heartland Records, pitched the idea of a country album to Shatner after signing Cook to a solo record deal the year before and releasing his Gotcha Covered, Vol. 1.
“I knew that Jeff had been a Star Trek fan and I have been a fan of Bill’s acting also,” says Curl. “Since Bill had recorded spoken-word albums over the years, I thought it would be a great project to put the two together to record a duet album.”
Curl enlisted Music Row songwriters he had worked with to write most of the songs specifically for the album and tailored to Cook’s vocal style and, far more difficultly, Shatner’s spoken-word delivery.
“When I asked him how this album was different in the recording process than his others, he said that no one had ever given him demos to listen to before,” Curl says. “I think having the demos given to Bill beforehand allowed him to know more about how he wanted to phrase words when we went in to record.”
“I didn’t really understand until I started getting [the songs] that what I had heard a long time ago about the Brill Building in Times Square [was like Music Row],” Shatner says. “In the summertime, when the windows were open, you could hear the music from the variety of offices where every composer had a piano and they’d be pounding out their songs and singing them. In my imagination, I walked by the Brill Building many times and looked up with fascination. When I began to receive these songs, it occurred me that this was the Brill Building but moved to Nashville.”
Shatner says he was unfamiliar with Music Row before starting the album, but grew to admire the legion of songwriters. “These people who had written the songs were so talented that I would learn the song’s delivery and timing from them,” he says. The only difficulty? “How do I do the spoken word and still get the emotion that the held note contains? I had to wrestle with it and try to solve it. Each song reflects something that I responded to even if it was a fun, hearty camaraderie song like ‘I Hate to Waste Good Beer.’”
“He’s a master at delivering lyrics,” adds Cook, who co-produced the album with Shatner and Curl. “He’s much more than just an actor. He’s a poet and an entrepreneur and I admire the fact that he explores new frontiers as far as recording.”
I ask Curl who the audience is for an album like this. Country music fans? Shatner buffs? Collectors of musical curios that Shatner’s discography has long satiated? It’s easy to see purists scoffing at the very idea of Captain Kirk in a cowboy hat.
“I hope the album is one that reaches the hearts and souls of not only country music fans and Bill and Jeff’s fans, but all fans of music in general,” he says. “I feel there are enough different styles of music on the project that there is something for everyone.”
Adds Cook: “He has that aura about the way he gave orders on the Enterprise. He has a wonderful way of delivering the message with the lyrics. He’ll never stop talking that way.”