Artists of Then, Now & Forever
Written by Bill Dannof, John Denver, Willie Nelson, Taffy Nivert, and Dolly Parton
What should be little more than an exercise in nostalgia is the most unexpectedly moving country recording in recent memory.
Deftly arranged by Shane McAnally, three classic country songs are woven into one, performed by thirty of the genre’s CMA Award-winning stars, past and present. The guest list includes titans of tradition like Alan Jackson and Charley Pride, alongside pop-flavored superstars like Ronnie Milsap and Rascal Flatts.
It’s only fitting that the three songs that are woven together have one foot solidly planted in tradition and the other in crossover popularity. The core of “Forever Country” is “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” as pure a tribute to the simplicity of country life as home as has ever been written. But for all those trappings, it first gained notice as a British pop hit for Olivia Newton-John, who would share top billing with its writer, John Denver, as the most resented genre interlopers of the mid-seventies. To hear it sung with the reverence of a Carter Family hymn is a minor revelation, and “Forever Country” would’ve been successful if it had limited itself to that one composition.
But by the second verse, we hear Kacey Musgraves begin singing, “If I should stay…” in the background while Eric Church continues “Country Roads” in lead. It’s a subtle foreshadowing of the larger role played by “I Will Always Love You,” but first, we get a visit from “On the Road Again,” a Willie Nelson song that captures the road life of a country singer and was one of Nelson’s most traditional offerings during his period of pop stardom in the early eighties. He wrote it for the movie he was starring in, Honeysuckle Rose, and it became his biggest pop hit up until that point. It fits in effortlessly, as if its chorus was written to be the bridge of “Country Roads.”
And then, there’s “I Will Always Love You.” A simple country love song written by Dolly Parton as a roundabout way to say goodbye to Porter Wagoner, it wandered beyond the limits of country music much like its writer did. First, Parton herself took it to #1 for a second time in 1982, with a new Hollywood pop arrangement befitting its appearance in her film, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. And then, another movie, another superstar, as Whitney Houston’s earth-shattering reading became the biggest solo pop hit of all time and led the The Bodyguard soundtrack to worldwide sales of over 45 million copies.
How fitting that “Forever Country” mirrors that transition. The most powerful part of the song is the traditional arrangement of the bridge, where three of the best traditional vocalists – Reba McEntire, Alan Jackson, and Vince Gill – showcase the pure mountain beauty of its melody. And then, after a moment of silence that recalls the Houston record, we get some of our most powerful female voices in all of their glory: Carrie Underwood, then Martina McBride, then Trisha Yearwood, and then Faith Hill. (For those who keep score of such things, Yearwood is still the best. Some things never change.)
And just when the song seems in danger of going over the top, everyone else falls silent as Dolly Parton, the greatest icon on a record chock full of them, closes it out all on her own, singing words that may have been sung by more powerful voices, but never with the sweet and simple innocence that only she can summon so charmingly.
There is so much talent on this record that I haven’t even mentioned: Alabama. Tim McGraw. Keith Urban. Brooks & Dunn. George Strait. Miranda Lambert. Dierks Bentley. Little Big Town.
That’s not an exhaustive list.
But because they all are here in service of the song(s), their collective talent only reinforces the one eternal truth about country music, which us lifelong fans cling to when the genre’s days seem the darkest. A great song, sung well, simply presented, will last forever.