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David Bowie ‘Co-Wrote’ a New Country Song. Wait, What?

When country singer Chris Young heard a demo of a new song in consideration for his next album, he didn’t need a rock encyclopedia to identify a key part of it. “This song started and I said, ‘That’s the lick from ‘Rebel Rebel,’” Young recalls. “I immediately knew what it was. I wouldn’t say that I’ve exhausted David Bowie’s catalog, but that one is instantly recognizable.”

But Young wasn’t being pitched a remake of Bowie’s 1974 glam-stomper. He was listening to “Young Love & Saturday Nights,” an original song that recreates the guitar riff from Bowie’s hit in its intro and also turns that melody line into a chanted “na-na-na-na-na” chorus. Released this month, “Young Love & Saturday Nights” became the latest example of a pop trend crossing over into country: so-called “interpolation songs,” in which a classic song’s melody, hook, or even chorus is re-recorded and incorporated into part of a new tune. 

In pop, the technique has become increasingly commonplace, heard in Olivia Rodrigo’s “Déjà vu” and “Good 4 U” (with portions of Taylor Swift and Paramore songs, respectively) and Doja Cat and SZA’s “Kiss Me More” (which uses part of Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical”). But bit by bit, Nashville — a town that prides itself on original songwriting — is hitching its wagon to the practice.

Last year, Cole Swindell’s “She Had Me at Heads Carolina” re-created a portion of Jo Dee Messina’s 1996 hit “Heads Carolina, Tails California” and rode it all the way to a Song of the Year win at the 2023 ACM Awards. Morgan Wallen’s album One Thing at a Time tapped into a small portion of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Midnight Rider” on the song “Everything I Love,” and Jake Owen floated his novelty “On the Boat Again” by recasting the loping refrain of Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” into a new song about a dude stuck in traffic who can’t wait to get on the water and “tie one on.”

As jarring as some of those incorporations may sound, the Nashville community sees interpolations as inevitable. “Generally speaking, trends that happen in pop music generally make their way into country several years down the road,” says Rusty Gaston, CEO of Sony Music Publishing Nashville, some of whose older songs have been interpolated. “It’s something that’s become more prevalent and accepted in country,” adds Rusty Block, one of the writers of Owen’s “On the Boat Again.” “People already know part of the song, and that’s an advantage.”

Owen himself first wandered into this territory in 2018. With John Mellencamp’s approval, his single “I Was Jack (You Were Diane)” was built around a remake of the springy guitar riff of 1982’s “Jack & Diane.” At the time, when the interpolation concept was still largely untested in country, Owen wasn’t sure how it would be greeted. “I thought, ‘Either John Mellencamp is going to hate me,” he says, “or the critical mass public who are fans of that song will think, ‘Is this a joke?’” Instead, “I Was Jack (You Were Diane)” became a top 10 country hit and, along with last year’s Swindell smash, helped legitimize the trend.

According to Block, Owen’s “On the Boat Again” emerged when a group of songwriters were “sitting around and throwing out ideas, as you do at a session.” One of the writers, Blake Pendergrass, suggested the phrase “on the boat again.” “He didn’t have to say anything else,” Block says. “I thought, ‘We’re going to use the most iconic part of that song, just that little section, as a chorus for our thing and then deviate from that for the rest of the song.’”

Both Block and Owen realized what they were up against when it came to borrowing from one of country’s most beloved standards. “I grew up in Florida, and my whole being has been on boats since I was a kid,” Owen tells Rolling Stone. “So it just made sense, from a standpoint of fitting the brand of what I do. And I had already done it previously, and it worked. And people liked it. So why avoid it?”   

Several different trends at once are feeding into the movement, especially in country. Start with the influence of TikTok and its musical soundbites. “In this day and age, you’re listening to songs for a shorter amount of time,” Block says. “I might be hypothesizing here, but that familiarity helps when there’s not that much time for people to grasp a song.”

The lure of additional revenue streams is also undeniable. In each case, the original songwriter is included in the sometimes lengthy writing credits (“She Had Me at Heads Carolina” is credited to six writers) and receives publishing royalties. According to Owen, Nelson’s son Lukas, a golf buddy, said he thought the track was “awesome” and offered to send it along to his father. Owen himself has never heard directly from Willie, but a source in the Owen camp confirms that Nelson is receiving half the royalties of “On the Boat Again.” But approvals aren’t always a given. Gaston says “a very successful country artist” asked for the use of a song by “a very successful alternative-rock song artist in the U.K.” and was firmly denied: “They said, ‘Absolutely not.’”

In the case of “Rebel Rebel” in Young’s “Young Love & Saturday Nights,” the song-publishing gold rush of the last few years also played a role. Last year, Warner Chappell Music bought the Bowie song catalog for a reported  $250 million — and, as with all such purchases, began looking for ways to monetize it. The company asked one of its songwriters, Jesse Frasure, to dip into the Bowie catalog and see what could be utilized. Thus, “Young Love & Saturday Nights” was born. As the lyrics suggest, it’s an ode to “good girls that can’t keep from falling/for bad boys that their daddies don’t like.” 

Once he adjusted to the grinding Bowie guitar part in the track, Young, a songwriter himself, came around to its merits. “There are a lot of songs where people use something as a sample or have exactly the same melody or lyric,” he says. “This is different. This is creating something new, with a nod to something that pre-existed. And if you get the reference, it just made the song even cooler for you. Just to have a song that has David Bowie listed as a songwriter is amazing.”

How Bowie himself would have felt is unclear. In a 2002 interview with NPR, he said, “I think the only music I didn’t listen to was country and western, and that holds to this day.” Young admits he’s not sure Bowie was a fan of music coming out of Nashville. “I don’t know if he was,” he admits. “So that is very interesting. I don’t think we got a finite answer on that.” (Bowie’s estate declined comment for this story, as did Warner Chappell Music.)

Asked how he would respond to those who say such interpolations amount to an easy way to score a hit, Gaston counters, “It’s not that easy. The concept of a new song still has to be original and compelling and genuine and honest. ‘Young Love & Saturday Nights’ is a completely new idea, a completely new hook. Yes, they get the benefit of this great guitar riff that inspired it, but it’s a true country song right now. And you’re going to turn people on to a David Bowie song who never heard it before.”


Don’t count on the trend dissipating in country anytime soon: at least a dozen more such song combos are in the works. Owen doesn’t see it as a bad thing. Growing up, the Florida native would hear 2Pac and Puff Daddy recycle familiar hits.

“They were sampling all kinds of old-school songs and putting a new message on top of it,” Owen says. “Of course, country music seems to be the last to latch on and always fall in line with things that are happening, due to the traditionalist side of it. Which I don’t blame. But I also think that sometimes stymies growth.”

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