If I were a Nashville hitmaker, I'd be mining the ever-popular duet, looking for one of those old songs, like the ones that worked for Allison Kraus and Robert Plant.
And even if I weren't in Nashville. Note the hit "Young Folks" from a couple of years ago, or the Ben Folds-Regina Spektor duet on Folds' latest cd. Heck, even 80's crap like "Don't You Want Me" survives because the man and woman create a relationship in the song.
I love duets, especially when at least one of the singers actually wrote the song. Then they know how it should be sung. For my money, the greatest duet writer working right now is Steve Earle. He has those songs that women want to sing with him, and he's had plenty of them agree to join forces--Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Stacey Earle, Allison Moorer, Sheryl Crow, and several others.
If I were a Steve Earle hitmaker, I'd release a cd of nothing but his duets with other people. Imagine getting "Poison Lovers," "You're Still Standing There," "Comin' Around," and all of the others on one cd. He can trade verses with men, too--Marty Stuart, Greg Trooper, and Jason Ringenberg.
Actually, though, I have the perfect duet song in mind, and you see it at the top of this post. " I Couldn't Say No," written by Robert Ellis Orrall is a song that I can't believe hasn't gotten a second life and hasn't made a bunch of money for a bunch of somebodies. I first heard it in Chicago in 1980, where, if it wasn't a regional hit, it was at least a song that got a bit of airplay on their true FM stations, like WXRT. I had no idea who Orall was, but I was well-acquainted with his singing partner, Carlene Carter. Carlene is a daughter of June Carter from a previous marriage, I think, though she considers Johnny and June her parents. So much so that in a New York club, when she introduced a song by saying, "Here's one that will put the cunt back in country," she was mortified to find out that her parents were in the audience. Carlene Carter has a classic country voice, but she has often flirted with the rock and roll lifestyle, in particular in relationships with Nick Lowe in the 80's and with Howie Epstein (bass player for Tom Petty and producer of her cd's) in later years. The latter association led to some difficulties with heroin, I think.
But back to the song. It's a great song, unheard of for the most part, but you can hear Tim McGraw and Faith Hill doing it or the Sugarland vocalists or some odd couple pairing like Plant and Kraus. It's a catchy song, based around just a couple of chords until you get to the chorus, and though they're working it on the piano, you could imagine it in any number of settings played on whatever instrument you wanted. Both in its verses and its chorus, the narrative payoff is ultimately about the failure of the singers' relationship; it's a kind of bittersweet "feel good" song. And it isn't a song where you get the feeling that there's a kind of artificial trading of verses. The two singers go back and forth in a game of romantic one-upsmanship where nobody ends up winning. But you revel in the tragedy of how things don't work out because the music is so good.
So, viva la duet, and somebody please remake this one. It won't be as good as the original, of course, but at least it will be out there.
"I Couldn't Say No" by Carlene Carter and Robert Ellis Orrall is no longer in print, but you can see the cheesy music video here.