Country star Chris Young’s latest single, “Young Love & Saturday Nights,” is a vivid love letter to summertime weekends, old trucks, dive bar bands, and crushes. And it might sound immediately familiar: The guitar lick that opens the track is lifted directly from David Bowie’s 1974 hit “Rebel Rebel.”
Bowie is credited posthumously as a songwriter on the track, making it one of the genre-melding icon’s few forays into country music — noteworthy, because Bowie himself was not quite a fan of the genre.
“I think the only music I didn’t listen to was country and western, and that holds to this day,” Bowie told NPR’s Terry Gross in 2002. “It’s much easier for me to say that, the kind of music I didn’t listen to was pretty much that.”
So how did Bowie, who died in 2016, end up on the track?
Warner Chappell Music became the custodian of Bowie’s musical legacy — acquiring the worldwide rights to over 400 of his songs, including “Rebel Rebel” — when the company purchased his extensive music catalog in 2022.
Ben Vaughn, president and chief executive officer of Warner Chappell Music Nashville, says his team asked songwriter Jesse Frasure to “get creative using elements from Bowie’s catalog to write a new country song. He ended up doing an interpolation of ‘Rebel Rebel’ and the demo he turned in was an instant smash.”
“Getting the call from Bowie’s estate and Warner Chappell to creatively explore his catalog was an exciting day,” Frasure said in a statement. “Interpolations to me are a way of tipping a hat to my heroes and maybe even introducing their music to a new audience.”
He added that it is an honor to have Bowie’s music “be heard in the country genre.”
WCM A&R executive Spencer Nohe then pitched the song to Young’s team while their legal counsel, Steve Butler, negotiated the deal.
Young writes many of his own songs, but when he first heard the demo written by Ashley Gorley, Josh Thompson and Frasure, he knew he wanted to record it.
“It tackles universal themes that a lot of people can related to. That’s the end goal of the song: to make you feel like you’re in it,” Young told The Associated Press. “And the fact that David Bowie’s catalog got picked up and they decided to do something special like this, and list him as a songwriter on the song, is a really cool thing.”
But how would Bowie himself feel about the posthumous collaboration?
“Hate is a strong word,” said Tiffany Naiman, UCLA’s director of music industry programs and an expert on Bowie, of the icon’s feelings toward the genre. “I think he had a very difficult relationship with certain parts of America including country music.”
It might have not been his thing, she said, but that didn’t mean he never listened to country music. She urges listeners to consider Bowie’s documented love of Elvis Presley, who began his career as a country star, and Bowie’s cover of the country track “It Ain’t Easy” by Ron Davis, recorded during his 1971 “Hunky Dory” sessions and released on 1972’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.”
Young himself told the AP that he doesn’t think his song is “introducing David Bowie to a new genre.”
Bowie might not have leaned into country music, Young says, but “if you asked country fans, ‘Hey, do you know who David Bowie is?’ they’re going to name a song. And even if they don’t, they’re going to recognize the weight of the name.”