One of the biggest female country stars of the seventies became one quite accidentally. Her mere presence in country music infuriated traditionalists, but her pop-flavored country foreshadowed the boundary blurring recordings of future genre straddling stars like Dolly Parton, Shania Twain and Faith Hill.
Olivia Newton-John was born in England, and raised in Australia. A talent show win down under earned her a ticket back to England, where she made inroads in the music industry in the sixties. After a solo single went nowhere in 1966, she earned a slot in a manufactured band called Toomorrow, and co-starred in a movie of the same name. When the group disbanded, she earned her big break as a cast member of It’s Cliff, a television variety show starring Cliff Richard. This led to a deal with Uni Records.
Her first single for the label was a cover of Bob Dylan’s “If Not For You.” Her twangy take on the song had quite the country flavor, and it was a surprise top ten hit in the U.K. It also found success in America, hitting the top thirty on the pop chart and going #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart. Her next single, a cover of the country classic “Banks of the Ohio”, stalled in America but was a big hit in Europe and Australia.
Newton-John’s handlers saw that she had potential in America as a middle-of-the-road act, and her comfort with old-time melodies and acoustic settings made them think she could be marketed as country stateside. The theory was tested with “Let Me Be There”, which married a pop melody to a country production. The song was a smash in America, selling a million copies and going top ten on both the country and pop singles charts. It earned Newton-John her first Grammy, for Best Country Vocal Performance, Female, in early 1974.
Newton-John’s stateside label MCA worked to quickly capitalize on her country success. They took six tracks from her European album Long Live Love and added more country-oriented material to finish out the collection, including what would serve as the title track, “If You Love Me (Let Me Know).” While the song was almost a carbon copy of “Let Me Be There”, it was an even bigger hit, going top five pop and all the way to #2 on the country charts. The next single, “I Honestly Love You”, was a #1 pop smash.
Newton-John went into the 1974 CMA awards with a leading four nominations: Entertainer, Female Vocalist, Single and Album. She was the winner that night for Female Vocalist, becoming only the fourth woman in the eight year history of the show to win, defeating such country stalwarts as Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn.
Some members of the country music industry were infuriated. Johnny Paycheck said at the time that “We don’t want somebody out of another field coming in and taking away what we’ve worked so hard for.” Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton and Barbara Mandrell were among the acts that formed the dissident Association of Country Entertainers, a short-lived organization that protested the infiltration of “non-country” acts into the format.
Newton-John was bewildered by the reaction, but continued to make a big impact in the country format, while also racking up pop hits. In 1975, she won two Grammys for “I Honestly Love You.” Her 1975 album Have You Never Been Mellow topped the country and pop charts, while the title track and “Please Mr. Please” were multi-format hits. The newly established American Music Awards named her both Favorite Pop/Rock Female Vocalist and Favorite Country Female Vocalist multiple times.
Newton-John played the country circuit across America, appearing at state fairs and rodeos along with concert halls. She recorded both current and classic country songs like “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and “Ring of Fire”, and her recording of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” was a #1 hit in several countries. She even recorded her 1976 album Don’t Stop Believin’ in Nashville, using local musicians.
By this time, the pop-country cross-pollination was staggering, with Linda Ronstadt and John Denver scoring big country hits, and often sounding more country than genre mainstays like Crystal Gayle and Tanya Tucker. In a 1977 Country Music cover story, Newton-John noted that the lines weren’t that clear anyway. “I can’t tell myself if a song is country. Crystal Gayle, for example, sounds very pop to me…She seems to be more in the vein that I’m in, yet she has more trouble going into the pop thing…I think the gap is very narrow now.”
Ironically, some of the female artists who had criticized her – Parton and Mandrell, in particular – began to embrace the crossover sound that had made Newton-John a superstar. While Mandrell was covering soul hits and Parton was getting ready to take on Hollywood, Newton-John was already there, prepping for her first major film role in the musical Grease.
While this role would lead to her becoming a full-fledged pop star, she didn’t abandon country music entirely. “Hopelessly Devoted to You” was written for the film by her producer John Farrar, and it featured enough country instrumentation for it to work in both formats. It was a huge pop hit, but also went top twenty on the country chart.
The trend continued with her next album, Totally Hot, in 1978. The pop hits “A Little More Love” and “Deeper than the Night” reached the lower end of the country chart, but the album track that was targeted to the country market, “Dancin’ ‘Round and ‘Round”, was a top thirty country hit. The album reached #4 on the country albums chart.
Newton-John spent the next decade starring in more films and recording more pop hits, selling multi-platinum with the Xanadu soundtrack and her studio album Physical. The title track of the latter set topped the pop singles chart for a stunning ten weeks. But while her projects later in the eighties would find less success, she wouldn’t return to country until the late nineties.
She noticed her songwriting was taking on a country flavor after releasing her first self-written project, Gaia, in the mid-nineties. She pursued a country deal and ended up singing with MCA Nashville. In 1998, she released Back With a Heart, an album that featured songs co-written with Nashville songwriters. It became her first top ten country album in twenty years, and her highest-charting album overall since 1985.
Newton-John released a duet album in 2002, partnering with other Australian artists. Included in the set was “Sunburned Country”, a duet with country superstar Keith Urban. Her recent albums have featured scatterings of country instrumentation, and she continues to dedicate a significant portion of her live shows to her country hits.
- “Let Me Be There”, 1973
- “If You Love Me (Let Me Know)”, 1974
- “Please Mr. Please”, 1975
- “Let it Shine”, 1976
- “Come On Over”, 1976
- If You Love Me, Let Me Know (1974)
- Have You Never Been Mellow (1975)
- Come On Over (1976)
- Don’t Stop Believin’ (1976)
- ACM Most Promising Female Vocalist, 1974
- CMA Female Vocalist, 1974
- Grammy: Best Country Vocal Performance, Female (“Let Me Be There”), 1974
- Grammy: Record of the Year (“I Honestly Love You”), 1975
- Grammy: Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female (“I Honestly Love You”), 1975