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Jessica Simpson's country career hits sour note

The Associated Press, Tuesday, April 14, 2009, 8:36am (PDT)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Jessica Simpson's courtship with country music seems to have had a shorter shelf life than her marriage.

After lackluster sales for her country debut, "Do You Know," Simpson and her Nashville record label have parted ways, leaving many wondering what's next for the 28-year-old entertainer.

"Right now it seems like she's taken a break from recording. There is nothing else on the books," said Ian Drew, senior music editor at Us Weekly magazine.

A spokeswoman for the one-time pop princess says Simpson remains part of the Sony Music Group on the Epic label, but is no longer working with the company's country division, Sony Music Nashville.

"She was on loan to Sony Nashville for her country album," said Lauren Auslander.

As for her future in country music? "We don't know yet," she said.

"Do You Know" started strong but faded fast. The lead single, "Come on Over," a flirtatious, steel guitar-laced slice of country pop, peaked at No. 18 last summer and the album debuted at No. 1. But the second single, "Remember That," stalled at No. 42, and the third, "Pray Out Loud," failed to chart.

To date, the disc, Simpson's fifth studio release, has sold around 178,000 copies a long way from her 3 million-selling 2003 disc, "In This Skin."

"Everywhere I saw her around the U.S. at different radio station events she was always well-received," said Lon Helton, editor and publisher of the industry trade publication "Country Aircheck." "For whatever reason, the music did not resonate."

Simpson came to country after her 2006 pop outing, "A Public Affair," fell flat. The Texas-born blonde touted the move as a return to her roots. She performed on the Grand Ole Opry, signed autographs at the Country Music Association's annual festival, and toured with country's multiplatinum trio Rascal Flatts.

But she got more publicity for her life outside of music, most of it far from positive. She was ridiculed when it seemed as if she had gained a few pounds, and the status of her romance with Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was constantly scrutinized.

She was also criticized for a few erratic concert performances. At a February show in Michigan, Simpson apologized to fans after she forgot the lyrics to a song and asked her band to start over on another.

Some detractors viewed her country career as a calculated attempt to follow other pop stars who have found success on country radio.

"Working the country market is very different. You really have to work it at country. You have to spend your life on the road building an audience and she didn't really put the work in," Drew observed. "She walked the walk and talked the talk, but she didn't have the street cred that she needed to make it work."

But others say Simpson shouldn't bail too soon. She may just need more time to find an audience.

"It doesn't seem like she was even on the country music scene long enough to prove what she is capable of doing for this industry. She never got the chance," said Neely Yates, music director for country station 96.3 in Lubbock, Texas.

Helton wondered whether the singer was a victim of bad timing. Pop rockers Darius Rucker and Jewel were crossing over to country about the same time, which he called unusual in country music.

"What was the ability of the market to absorb and focus on more than one pop singer at a time coming over?" he asked.

The question now is whether Simpson will keep her record deal. After two disappointments, Epic may be ready to move on without her.

"She's never really sold a lot of records except for the album out at the height of 'Newlyweds,'" said Drew, referring to her popular reality TV show, "Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica," which chronicled her ill-fated marriage to Nick Lachey. "Other than that, she's never been able to sell much of anything."

But in a recent interview, Rascal Flatts' Gary Levox said Simpson is in a no-win situation with her critics: "She's in a spot where whatever she does, they pick her apart. They need to just leave her alone and just let her sing."

"She's a wonderfully gifted singer," added bandmate Jay DeMarcus. "All the other stuff overshadows what she's really about and it's unfortunate, because there's more to her there than just tabloid fodder."

On the Net:

http://www.jessicasimpson.com

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