Back in 1990, Cyndi Lauper was working with alt-country singer k.d. lang, when lang noticed a little something unexpected in the vocal stylings of the pop icon.
“Oooh, there’s a little country in you,” lang told her at the time. And, says Lauper, “I knew she was right!”
Maybe it took an iconoclast like lang to detect the twang in the girl from Queens, New York, but for Lauper it was never far from the surface. Though she became inextricably linked to the flame-haired, pop punk persona on her 1983 debut, She’s So Unusual, the “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” singer actually began her career in the early ’80s as the lead singer of a retro-rockabilly band called Blue Angel.
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“When I was singing with Blue Angel, I felt that music – it’s a soulful thing,” the singer tells PEOPLE.
With her latest album, Detour, out Friday, Lauper returns to those roots, covering some of the classic country tunes she recalls hearing years ago on the transistor radio in her Aunt Gracie’s kitchen: Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Wanda Jackson. “It’s singing I grew up hearing,” Lauper says. “That heart-achy thing. I connected with that stuff.”
The singer, who takes on Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” and Jackson’s “Funnel of Love” on the album, was no stranger to Nashville – she recorded her 1996 dance album Sisters of Avalon in the city – “but it was exciting to come here and make a record that’s an homage to country,” she says.
She recruited some of Nashville’s finest for help on the tracks, including Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris (who cooked Lauper a dinner tempting enough that she broke her gluten-free diet) and Vince Gill, who gamely sings with her on the Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty duet "You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly."
“He’s so awesome!” she says of Gill, who also plays guitar on the album’s title track. “It’s like he’s got big-ass angel wings or something!”
Although she’s not likely to be donning a Nudie suit or trading in her platform heels for ropers anytime soon, the singer did try out a little honky-tonking while she was in town, but “there were a lot of rules!” she says. “You had to have your ID, stand here, don’t stand over there, get in line to get a drink … instead, I found a candy store and made myself really sick!”
Lauper is far from the first rock/pop icon to go country (see Brett Michaels, Steven Tyler, Sheryl Crow and, notably, Darius Rucker, who post-Hootie has topped the country charts with several singles) and the Kinky Boots composer admits she’s an outsider, but, she says, “I felt welcomed here. In Nashville, musicians are musicians, and there is a common ground and respect for each other. Their warmth was very moving.”
Listen to Lauper’s first country single, Funnel of Love.