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Unusual as ever, Cyndi Lauper brings her country show to Clearwater

“I didn’t want to do a cookie-cutter record,” Cyndi Lauper says of new album Detour. She’s in Clearwater this week.
Published Jun. 2, 2016

Girls Just Want to Have Fun. True Colors. Time After Time. She Bop. Cyndi Lauper's biggest hits are among the quintessential pop songs of the 1980s, a decade that persists in flexing inexhaustible influence over the modern music landscape.

But while the rest of the pop world keeps trying to recapture the chipper, cheery sound she brought to the top of the charts, Lauper has had her sights set elsewhere.

In 2008, she released a dance album, Bring Ya to the Brink. In 2010 came Memphis Blues, a collection of classic soul and blues covers. In 2012, she scored one of her biggest critical triumphs by writing the music for the Broadway smash Kinky Boots. And in May, she dropped Detour, an album steeped in classic country, rockabilly and swing.

"I never took from just one genre," she said in a conference call with journalists before launching her new tour, which stops at Ruth Eckerd Hall on June 8. "Even Girls Just Want to Have Fun — it's Jamaican, it's street and it's Motown-ish, all mixed together. That's why it sounds like that. But it's a pop format. Don't ask me; that's how it was."

The whole pop-star-goes-country thing feels a bit like a cliche at this point, but Lauper insists it's no gimmick. She has written songs in Nashville and even plays the dulcimer.

"I cut my teeth as a singer listening to all the rockabilly rock 'n' rollers," she said. "Wanda Jackson and Patsy Cline were right up there."

That's Detour, which features cameos from stars like Willie Nelson ("It was like Yoda walking in"), Vince Gill ("It's almost like angel wings when he walks in") and Jewel ("We worked it out where she could come and yodel"), among others. She worked with vaunted Music Row session musicians to try to get the sound just right.

"Those guys play all the time together, so they're used to each other, and they play fantastic," she said. "But you could be Joe Blow singing over them. I had to figure out how it was going to become a real record instead of, 'Second verse, same as the first,' always the same. I didn't want to do a cookie-cutter record."

Who would expect that from Lauper when, to borrow the title of her 1983 debut album, She's So Unusual? Detour is both delightfully sweet and delightfully odd. It's kooky to hear her thick Queens accent take the place of Loretta Lynn's Kentucky twang during the spoken-word segment of You're the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly, but her sweet, warbling soprano is a perfect fit for Patsy Cline classics like Walkin' After Midnight and I Fall to Pieces.

"It's a singer's record," she said. "This is a special record for me. And I wanted to do it while I could still sing really good. I still take vocal lessons three times a week."

Lauper, who turns 63 this month, says she still keeps tabs on popular trends in music. She follows the iTunes charts, keeps an eye on pop and hip-hop and says the sound of Detour's first track, an old Wanda Jackson tune called Funnel of Love, was inspired by California's psychedelic beach-rock movement.

"I'm a big one to go through all genres," Lauper said. "When I travel around the world, I check and see what's going on in that country, too, because I don't think you should sing at people. I think you should listen back, you know what I'm saying?"

And so you wonder: After dabbling in dance music, the blues, Broadway and classic country, will Lauper ever do another straight-up pop record?

"I want to sing the roots of what popular music is," she said, and right now that means country and the blues. But she's about to tackle another musical, her followup to the Tony-winning Kinky Boots. She demurs on the subject and the style, saying only: "It's going to take years and years. I know it is. I don't want to jinx it."

Like each of Lauper's projects over the past decade, it'll probably sound like a little bit of everything. Everything, that is, except what she has done in the past.

"I think that I can do things and have commerce and art at this point in my life," she said, "and I think I can be the artist I always felt inside that I wanted to be."

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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