Single Review: Artists of Then, Now & Forever, “Forever Country”

“Forever Country”
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.

Grade: A

11 Comments

  1. If they are able to perform this live at the CMAs, that might be the biggest CMA event since Alan Jackson’s “Where were you…”. I’m assuming they are going to just show the video, but what a 50th it would be if they did do it live.

    My first thought when I heard this arrangement was kind of chills. The part you mentioned with McBride, Gill, Jackson, Underwood, and Yearwood produced some of the best harmony I’ve heard in a long long time and really convinced me that yes, you can mash up 3 of Country Music’s biggest songs and have it sound really really good. I was shocked when I heard this the first time and I’m still loving it on repeated hearings. Say what you want about where mainstream Country Music is going, but for this one song this year, they paid the perfect tribute.

  2. I may be wrong but I think all of the ‘older’ artists from, except Randy Travis, won the CMA Entertainer of the Year. It may explain why the great Kenny Rogers was excluded from the video.

    What a true gift this video is. So many incredible artists weaving the past and the present together. And what better way to end it than with the one and only Dolly Parton.

  3. As I put it elsewhere, this was a lot better than I thought it might be. I’m really not a fan of the medley concept, but this was really, really good.

    And once again I am reminded of how good Luke Bryan could be as an artist if he actually sang good songs.

  4. Good song. Glad to see the Danoff-Nivert-Denver song a part of it. Denver remains one of my all-time favorite singer-songwriters.

  5. I was skeptical about this from the moment I first read about it, but all credit to Shane McAnally (whose regression toward the mean I’d honestly tired of a couple of years ago) for the very effective arrangement here. The interplay of the three songs really works in a way that highlights the importance of each song while still retaining their individual strengths.

    I would have loved to see a few more veterans in the mix, but that’s really my only quibble with the recording. Yearwood, of course, sounds incredible, but that’s to be expected.

    That music video, though? Looks like something that a local Board Of Tourism would put together. It’s cheesy in a way that the song itself avoided.

  6. Well, it’s official – the song debuts at #1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. AMAZING. It’s only the 3rd song to ever do that in the history of the charts (the other two: Garth Brooks’ ‘More Than A Memory’ and The Voice winner Craig Wayne Boyd’s ‘My Baby’s Got a Smile on Her Face’)

    What’s even more incredible is that this is the 3rd time that Dolly’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ has topped the country chart in some form. She sent her original version to #1 in 1974, re-recorded it in 1982 for The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas soundtrack where it topped the chart again, and now this version has done it for a 3rd time. (And that’s not including Whitney Houston’s version that topped the Hot 100). What an amazing life this incredible song has had.

    http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/chart-beat/7519013/forever-country-artists-then-now-forever-charts

  7. On your list of credits, you missed Brett Eldridge, singing the “West Virginia, Mountain Mama,” solo and part of Willie’s song during a blend. Also the Randy Travis clip was actually the first thing I noticed about the whole song.

  8. To add to caj’s chart trivia this week:

    Tim McGraw has three songs in the Top 20 of the Country Airplay chart for the second week in a row thanks to his features on singles by Florida Georgia Line and Big & Rich. This is the second time he’s accomplished the feat (he also did it at the end of 2001). The only other artist to have three songs in the Top 20 of the airplay chart at the same time since 1990 was Kenny Chesney in 2004 (for four weeks).

    Keith Urban collects his 36th (37th if you count “Start a Band” with Brad Paisley) Top 10 in a row on the Hot Country Songs chart, dating back to his second single “Your Everything” in 2000, when the chart was solely airplay based.

    Also on the Hot Country Songs Airplay/Sales/Streaming hybrid chart Pentatonix debuts at #18 with “Jolene” featuring Dolly Parton. I assume all of its points stem from streaming and sales and not airplay. As far as I can tell, this is Dolly’s highest ranking since “I Will Always Love You” (featuring Vince Gill) peaked at #15 in 1995 (again when the chart was solely airplay based)… unless she received credit for Brad Paisley’s 2006 #1 “When I Get Where I’m Going”. I’m not sure.

  9. Michael A, I believe Dolly does get credit for the Paisley duet. At least Joel Whitburn credits her in his Billboard reference books.

  10. @ bob:

    I have always maintained that John Denver tends to be sold criminally short by the public. In fact, he is still vilified by a lot of old-world country aficionados to this day, nineteen years after his death, because his style wasn’t then, and still isn’t, Nashville’s idea of country, though there’s plenty of the country sound in his stuff, like on “Country Roads”. He was always much more of a folk performer, having come from the New York folk music scene of the 1960s that gave us Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul, and Mary (the latter of whom gave Denver a songwriting boost when their version of his “Leaving On A Jet Plane” became a big hit in the fall of 1969), and, believe it or not, Emmylou Harris (with whom Denver would get a sizeable 1983 C&W hit with “Wild Montana Skies”).

    The thing is, he was a terribly underrated talent just because he set himself apart from everybody else; but it’s nice to see him get a little bit of love from some of today’s performers.

  11. @Eric:
    He certainly is underrated – Even here on CU. In the 100 Greatest Men feature, he was only ranked 90th.
    He is a member of the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and many of his best singles and album tracks were solely written by JD. “Matthew” is my favorite album track. I love story songs.

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