The late, great Olivia Newton-John was a wonderful country singer.
She’s often portrayed as a pop singer who crossed over to country music, but country songs and sounds were part of her signature musical sound from her very first album, If Not For You, which was released in America on Uni records in 1971. That label didn’t have the foresight to send her singles “If Not For You” and “Banks of the Ohio” to country radio, despite the former being dominated by twangy slide guitar and the latter being one of the earliest historically documented country songs.
When MCA relaunched her career in America, it did so with “Let Me Be There,” a steel guitar-drenched country song that had a more organic arrangement than a good portion of what was on country radio at the time. It climbed the country charts first, becoming a top ten hit there a few weeks before it did the same on the Hot 100 pop listing. It was her first gold single and also brought her the first of four Grammy Awards, for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. The Let Me Be There album went to No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart, but peaked outside the top fifty of the Billboard 200, a common disparity for core country artists until the SoundScan era launched two decades later.
MCA doubled down on their new country star, skimming every country-flavored track from her three most recent international albums and tacking on “If You Love Me (Let Me Know).” That hit was even bigger, going to No. 2 on the country singles chart and No. 5 on the pop chart. Its U.S. exclusive parent album, If You Love Me, Let Me Know, would eventually top the pop album charts on the strength of its second single, “I Honestly Love You,” but it was the title track that drove her biggest country music success. After winning the ACM for Top New Female Vocalist in the spring of 1974, she became the first non-American country artist to win a CMA Award, taking home the Female Vocalist of the Year trophy. That same evening, she was also nominated for Single and Album of the Year, as well as Entertainer of the Year.
That win produced a well-documented xenophobic backlash against Newton-John, which escalated the following year when Charlie Rich lit John Denver’s Entertainer of the Year envelope on fire. Those two incidents together are a reminder of how this had nothing to do with music and everything to do with identity. Olivia Newton-John’s breakthrough country hits sound like Hank Williams compared to “Behind Closed Doors” and “The Most Beautiful Girl,” both of which were also major pop hits.
It’s a shame that her country music career has been reduced to “Aussie wins country awards and Nashville gets angry about it,” because she truly was a core country artist in the seventies, and it remained one of her musical pillars for the rest of her recording career, as this feature will celebrate. Newton-John loved making three kinds of music: big pop ballads, country songs, and healing songs. Even when being interviewed about her synthesizer-heavy 1985 pop album Soul Kiss, she wistfully mused that she wanted to make a country album, but her label insisted she do contemporary pop. Once she was no longer expected to play the pop game, she regularly wrote and recorded country music, right through her final studio album.
Newton-John’s death has been a seismic pop culture event that would likely have surprised even her. As a long time fan who has advocated for her significance on this site for the better part of two decades, it’s been a little overwhelming. Of all the tributes and lists that I’ve seen, I’ve yet to come across one that fully gets that she was, indeed, a country singer who also sang other styles of music, not a pop singer who tricked country radio into playing some pop songs. Part of that’s her own humility. She didn’t want to look like she was trying to be an American country artist when she was from a completely different part of the world. The irony is that she made music that was more country than most of her critics. Even her cowgirl hat wasn’t for show: she owned several ranches and raised and rode horses that most country singers wouldn’t know how to mount.
Here are 25 great country and country-influenced songs that Newton-John recorded throughout her career. A playlist of all 25 tracks can be found at the end of the post, or you can access it directly here. There are many more worth discovering, especially among her seventies and post-1992 recordings. If you’ve got other favorites, share them in the comments!
If Not For You (1971)
“If Not For You”
Written by Bob Dylan
“Banks of the Ohio”
Olivia Newton-John’s debut album, If Not For You, hasn’t been available in America since its initial limited release, so most of her U.S. fans think the American edition of Let Me Be There was her debut album. Both of the hit singles from If Not For You were included on the U.S. Let Me Be There.
“If Not For You” is a winning cover of the Bob Dylan classic, heavily influenced by the George Harrison version. It became her first big international hit, and even went to No. 1 on the AC chart in America.
“Banks of the Ohio” didn’t have much success stateside, but it was her first No. 1 hit in her native Australia. Her version of the country classic leans into the murderous plotline, and instead of the woman being on the receiving end of the knife, it’s Olivia who kills the beau who won’t make her his bride.
Primary Wave is releasing a 2-CD deluxe edition of the album next month with 17 bonus tracks, making her debut album available here in its original form for the first time in decades.
Written by Olivia Newton-John
The earliest demonstration of Newton-John’s songwriting talent is this devastating divorce ballad: “The hurtful things we say still penetrate, and whispered ‘sorry’s’ always come too late. And then the damage has been done. What are we going to tell our son?” This was later included on the U.S. release If You Love Me, Let Me Know.
Music Makes My Day/Let Me Be There (1973)
“Take Me Home, Country Roads”
Written by Bill Danoff, John Denver, and Taffy Nivert
“Let Me Be There”
Written by John Rostill
“You Ain’t Got the Right”
Written by Ron Haffkine, Dennis Locorriere, and Ray Sawyer
Olivia’s gorgeous rendition of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was a top fifteen hit in the U.K. She captures the wistfulness of the lyric with a wisdom beyond her years.
“Let Me Be There” failed to chart there, but was promoted to country radio by her new label, MCA, in North America. It’s the first time producer John Farrar fully incorporates steel into one of her singles, and it works exceedingly well. It became something of a country standard in the seventies, being covered by Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn, Tanya Tucker, and Elvis Presley before the decade was out.
“You Ain’t Got the Right” is even twangier, and has a plotline any country fan could love: two habitual, lifelong cheaters hook up, and one of them falls for the other and manages to get hurt. Stella Parton’s kindhearted but slightly ridiculous “Ode to Olivia,” written in Liv’s defense after the Music Row backlash to her award show domination, is a rewrite of this album track.
“Country Roads” and “Let Me Be There” appeared on MCA’s 1973 compilation Let Me Be There. “You Ain’t Got the Right” showed up a year later on If You Love Me, Let Me Know.
If You Love Me, Let Me Know (1974)
“If You Love Me (Let Me Know)”
Written by John Rostill
If You Love Me, Let Me Know spent eight weeks at No. 1 on the country albums chart, in two runs that were months apart. The first trip to the top was off the strength of the title track, which is a shameless rewrite of “Let Me Be There,” yet still manages to replicate the charm of her breakthrough single. In my opinion, it’s a hair better than its predecessor.
The rest of the album collects country-flavored tracks from Olivia, Music Makes My Day/Let Me Be There, and her 1974 album, Long Live Love, which was released to capitalize on her Eurovision participation that year. They were smart enough to include a pop track from Long Live Love – “I Honestly Love You” – which went to the top ten on the country chart, but was a massive No. 1 hit on the pop and AC charts. It cemented her status as a pop star, and powered the album to No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
Have You Never Been Mellow (1975)
“Please Mr. Please”
Written by John Rostill and Bruce Welch
There was some chatter at the time that “Please Mr. Please” was a calculated effort on Newton-John’s part to pander to the country music community following the backlash against her big industry award wins the previous year. It was an understandable inference to make, given the lyric “If I had a dime for every time I held you, though you’re far away, you’ve been so close to me. I could swear I’d be the richest girl in Nashville, maybe even in the state of Tennessee.”
But this song wasn’t written for Olivia Newton-John. It was written about her. Co-writer Bruce Welch had been her partner for years, and when she broke it off with him and moved to America, he tended to his wounds by writing “Please Mr. Please,” referencing the city, state, and indeed, the style of music that she’d chosen over him. His rock-flavored single tanked, bit Newton-John covered it for Have You Never Been Mellow. She turned it into the country song it was destined to be, and gave one of her best vocal performances to date. Not a bad parting gift for the lover that she left behind.
Clearly Love (1975)
“Let it Shine”
Written by Linda Hargrove
Clearly Love is one of Newton-John’s weaker efforts from her country years, but includes a very cool cover of Linda Hargrove’s “Let it Shine.” Newton-John had a knack for showcasing strong female songwriters throughout her career, and she turns in a lovely version of Hargrove’s composition. Hargrove deserved more attention than she got during her own recording career. Her original recording of “Let it Shine” isn’t on YouTube, but it can be found on her debut studio album, Music is Your Mistress.
Come On Over (1976)
Written by Dolly Parton
“Come On Over”
Written by Barry Gibb and Robin Gibb
Come On Over is a big step up from Clearly Love, and it features some of her best country moments, including her cover of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and the two songs included on this list.
“Jolene” is another example of her elevating a strong composition by a female songwriter, and her cover gave Dolly Parton her first major international pop success, shortly before Parton herself would become a force on the pop charts. Her version of “Jolene” is among the best of the many covers that have been released over the years. Like Whitney Houston would do many years later to even greater effect, Newton-John takes flight with the song’s melody, which she’d push even further in her jawdropping live performance of the song on her 1982 Physical tour.
Newton-John was also among the first major singers to mine the Bee Gees catalog for potential hits, a few months before everyone under the sun would be topping charts around the world with their songs. “Come On Over” originally appeared on their Main Course album, where it is presented as a piano ballad. Newton-John not only transforms it into a country song, but she also sings it in a lower register, further distinguishing it from the falsetto-heavy original version. This was her final top ten country single, though several more of her albums would reach the top ten of the country albums chart.
Don’t Stop Believin’ (1976)
“Don’t Stop Believin'”
Written by John Farrar
Don’t Stop Believin’ is Newton-John’s strongest country record, largely because it was the only album she recorded with Nashville musicians. Just listen to the steel guitar on the title track, which is essentially a country rewrite of her massive pop hit “Have You Never Been Mellow” from the previous year. Ironically, this was the album that got her pop career back on track, with the gorgeous and not even slightly country “Sam” becoming her first top twenty pop hit in two years and her first top ten hit in the U.K. in five years. With Grease right around the corner, she wouldn’t record in Nashville again for another 22 years.
Making a Good Thing Better (1977)
“I Think I’ll Say Goodbye”
Written by Marshall Chapman and Jim Rushing
Making a Good Thing Better was more of a holding point than a step forward for Newton-John’s career. Its commercial success was compromised by her lawsuit against MCA Records, resulting in them not promoting the album. But even if they had done so, Newton-John hadn’t given them much to work with this time around. Still, buried on the album is Newton-John again elevating a promising female songwriter. Her version of Marshall Chapman’s “I Think I’ll Say Goodbye” is a traditional country song that she delivers effortlessly, though some Nashville studio muscle would’ve been welcome on the track.
“Hopelessly Devoted to You”
Written by John Farrar
The easy narrative goes like this: Newton-John’s career was waning, as her country and AC audiences were dwindling and her most recent studio album hadn’t even gone gold. So she made a movie and used the film’s transformation of her character Sandy from “wholesome good girl” to “leather-clad bad girl” to rejuvenate her pop career and leave country and AC behind.
That narrative gets a key fact wrong. Newton-John and her producer John Farrar had no intention of leaving her original audience behind, and they made that clear with “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” which takes advantage of the film’s fifties setting to produce a pop-country ballad in the vein of Brenda Lee, one of the only women to be in both the Country and Rock halls of fame.
And it worked: “Hopelessly Devoted to You” was a top twenty country hit, and if you listen to it closely to pick up the country instrumentation, you’ll never miss it again on later playthroughs. No surprise then that it’s the song the Chicks used to pay tribute to Newton-John, one of the band’s biggest musical influences. Natalie Maines is one of the very few vocalists with enough range and interpretive skill to cover a Newton-John classic, and she knocked it right out of the amphitheater.
Totally Hot (1978)
“Dancin’ ‘Round and ‘Round”
Written by Adam Mitchell
Totally Hot is an excellent pop album. That it was included on the country albums chart and that the brilliant pop singles “A Little More Love” and “Deeper Than the Night” managed to enter the country singles chart had more to do with Newton-John still being perceived as a core country artist, rather than the sounds of those singles or the album as a whole.
That being said, it did include one country song, and it’s a keeper: “Dancin’ ‘Round and ‘Round” finds Newton-John using music to escape her loneliness again, this time in the arms of strangers on the dance floor. MCA took the double-A-side approach to the final single from the album. A remix of the title track was serviced to pop radio, while “Dancin'” became her final single of her original MCA run to be worked to country radio, reaching #29 in 1979.
Magic [Single] (1980)
Written by John Farrar
Trying to explain the plot of Xanadu is a fool’s errand. My best attempt: Newton-John plays an ethereal goddess with the voice of an angel, and she comes down on earth to inspire others to follow their dreams, leaving the world a more beautiful place before she returns to the heavens. In a sense, she’s playing herself.
I’d love to say that seeing the entire film would put “Fool Country” in some sort of proper context. Truth is, the entire epic finale is insane, completely disconnected from a storyline that was already wafer-thin and full of more holes than a golf course. You just have to sit back and enjoy the experience in all of its manic glory, including “Fool Country,” which encompasses the part of the finale that showcases her “punk rock” side and her “cowgirl” side. The latter is more twangy and pure hillbilly than just about anything that country radio was playing in 1980.
Written by John Farrar and Tom Snow
The success of his Grease compositions “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “You’re the One That I Want” was enough to land John Farrar his own record deal. His 1980 self-titled album included two songs that Newton-John covered for her landmark Physical album one year later: the tender ballad “Falling” and the country-tinged pop song “Recovery.”
Newton-John highlighted the song’s country elements on her groundbreaking video album that accompanied the audio album’s release, going full C&W as she rides on horseback throughout a reasonable facsimile of the American West. Primary Wave’s outstanding remaster of this album is the best way to listen to “Recovery,” which is one of the darker songs that Newton-John tackled during her career. Essentially, she’s choosing loneliness over companionship and the potential wounds that come along with it: “I’ve lived without tenderness for too many years. Why would I need it now?”
Gaia: One Woman’s Journey (1994)
“No Matter What You Do”
Written by Olivia Newton-John
“I Never Knew Love”
Written by Olivia Newton-John
Gaia was the result of many sleepless nights while Olivia was undergoing treatment for cancer. She originally had no intention of recording these songs as an album. She later noted that it was like they were being delivered to her by some higher power. For the first time, she wrote every song on an album, which would become the norm from this point on, though she’d never again write each song completely by herself.
Free of any concessions that needed to be made toward pop radio, she was also able to arrange these songs in the way that she saw fit. For several of the tracks, she used a New Age-inspired approach, but for others, she went back to her country roots. Two of the best tracks in that style were “No Matter What You Do” and “I Never Knew Love.”
“No Matter What You Do” was the album’s lead single, and it sold well enough to enter the top forty of the Australian chart, the only market where it was released on a major label. It’s a twangy delight, and it captures her growth as both a singer and a songwriter since she last immersed herself in country sounds. It’s like her worldview has been completely reset, and the battles she fought have changed her for the better, but she must leave behind those who aren’t properly equipped to travel on this new journey with her: “No matter what you feel I’ve done to you, know that my heart was true. If reaping what you sow is real, I know I planted in truth.”
“I Never Knew Love” finds its joy in discovering the right person to continue on the journey with you, and I suspect its true influence wasn’t a romantic partner, but rather her relationship with the most important person in her life: her daughter Chloe: “They say only ask and you’ll receive. I never knew that applied to me.” When she sings “I never knew love,” she’s reveling in the fact that she knows it now.
Back With a Heart (1998)
“Back With a Heart”
Written by Olivia Newton-John and Gary Burr
Olivia’s first proper country album in more than two decades would’ve been more enjoyable if she’d reunited with producer John Farrar. The arrangements don’t perfectly suit her voice the way that Farrar’s almost always did. (Let’s not talk about Soul Kiss.) So despite this being her only deliberate attempt to make a full country album in her later career, most of her best country moments from that time period are found outside of Back With a Heart.
The title track is a winner, though, and unsurprisingly, it’s the only track with some real twang. The song serves a testament to her resilience and her ability to overcome whatever life throws at her with grit, determination, and relentless positivity.
Sordid Lives (2001)
Written by Beverly Nero and Margaret Rose
“Will the Circle Be Unbroken”
Written by A.P. Carter
Newton-John played wise-cracking country singer (and wrongfully imprisoned ex-convict) Bitsy Mae Harling in the the screen adaption of Sordid Lives. She nails the witty and sardonic title theme, which slyly undercuts the hypocrisy of conservative Christians: “Now who’s to say who’s a sinner and who’s a saint. Who’s to say who you can love and who you can’t? Now it’s easy for the pot to call the kettle black. They’re just jealous of the hot and lusty sordid lives they lack.”
But the revelation is her cover of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” which repurposes the mournful lyrics to be about her “sister,” a reference to her lesbian partner who has died. Sordid Lives doesn’t pull any punches: one of its main characters is a man who has been institutionalized for 23 years by his family because of his homosexuality. Connecting the Carter Family standard with the loss of a partner in a lesbian relationship is the film’s most powerful statement that love is love. Newton-John’s performance of “Circle” is extraordinary and heartbreaking.
“Sunburned Country” (with Keith Urban)
Written by Olivia Newton-John and Keith Urban
Country music’s two biggest Aussie stars come together on “Sunburned Country,” a song they co-wrote about their wide open spaces back home. Lest anyone think that living a country lifestyle is uniquely American, Keith and Olivia will set you straight: “The creeks and the rivers, the dust and the mud. All of us understand this land gets in your blood.” No Coca Cola cowboys or cowgirls here.
Sordid Lives: The Series (2008)
“You Look Like a Dick to Me”
Written by Olivia Newton-John and Amy Sky
Newton-John wrote and performed so many great country songs for the Sordid Lives television series, which served as a prequel to the film. But the sheer audacity of this particular number required that the series be represented by it. Bonus points for the co-writer being Amy Sky, who wrote astonishingly meaningful healing music with Newton-John on Grace and Gratitude and Liv On.
Liv On (2016)
“Stone in My Pocket”
Written by Olivia Newton-John, Beth Nielsen Chapman, and Amy Sky
Part of what’s been so overwhelming for me about Olivia Newton-John’s death is the outpouring of grief and celebration. The scale of it. The scope of it. The sincerity of it.
One great piece that was written came from Walter Chaw writing for Decider. In his tribute, he notes that “her brand was kindness.” That’s been lingering with me because there is a lot of truth to it, and for those most familiar with her films and pop hits, it’s a definitive statement.
But reflecting on her career and her life beyond her 1992 cancer diagnosis, I think I’d say her brand was more than just kindness. Her brand was healing. She dedicated the last years of her life to a cancer center in Melbourne that has been healing for both patients and their families. That is the reason – not Grease or “Physical” – that Melbourne is giving her a state funeral.
So it’s fitting that the last entry on this list comes from Liv On, an album written and performed with Beth Nielsen Chapman and Amy Sky. It’s an album written specifically for people who are grieving. As an artist, it was her final album, and I have no doubt is a source of comfort for her family, friends, and fans now that she is gone.
The whole album is worth listening to as a whole. “Stone in My Pocket” is the track that serves as her final country recording. It’s an upbeat song about how we carry around our losses with us. The lyrics capture the sadness. The arrangement captures the resilience we find to carry on despite of it:
I’m thrilled that in death she is finally getting the celebration that she always deserved. I never met Olivia Newton-John, and my mind tells me I shouldn’t be grieving her death as much as I am. I’m going to keep writing about her to work through the grief and to keep the memory of her work alive. “I’m a mess, but I guess that’s the best I can do.”