Every #1 Country Single of the Eighties: Michael Martin Murphey, “What’s Forever For”

“What’s Forever For”

Michael Martin Murphey

Written by Rafe Van Hoy

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

September 17, 1982


#1 (1 week)

September 25, 1982

Michael Martin Murphey already had a decade of recording success under his belt when he pursued mainstream country radio in 1982.   He’d started out as a songwriter in southern California, but soon moved to the burgeoning Austin, Texas music scene, where he was a pioneer in what came to be known as Outlaw Country.

He earned some pop success in the seventies, most significantly with his hits “Wildfire” and “Carolina in the Pines.”  He made a pivot to country with his self-titled 1982 album, and right out of the gate, he scored a No. 1 hit with a cover of an England Dan & John Ford Coley album track that Anne Murray and T.G. Sheppard had also taken a stab at by the time Murphey released it as a single.

“What’s Forever For” is a tender ballad about the rising trend of divorce, and it makes for an interesting counterpoint to the sardonic wit of the Jerry Reed divorce hit that preceded it at the top. 

It’s certainly a classic single, but is it actually a great record? Or was it just well-timed, expressing a feeling that addressed a major societal shift of the era?

To my ears, it’s the latter.  This style of singing and production has retroactively been given the catch all category “Yacht Rock,” which is a nice way of saying “wimpy ballads.”  Everything about “What’s Forever For” is saccharine, and it’s essentially a blueprint for where contemporary Christian music was about to go, borrowing elements from pop and rock while stripping out all of the tension and complexity of the human experience.

Divorce is bad. I’m good.  Why is the world changing so much around me? What isn’t everyone else as fundamentally good as me?

Well, Michael, sometimes people get married just because they don’t want to learn how to cook.  

“What’s Forever For” gets a C.  

Every No. 1 Single of the Eighties

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  1. I liked this song okay but I actually prefer Anne Murray’s superb version much better. I was really surprised she didn’t choose to release it from her Somebody’s Waiting album.

  2. I definitely like this song better than a C grade. I think I’m the right age/era for it, though, and yes, it was a really excellently timed song. I’ve always liked it but it is rather syrupy.

  3. I guess I have a more nuanced opinion of this song. Is it more of a well-timed hit than an actual classic. and does it presage some of the excesses of contemporary Christian music? Probably.

    Still, it’s kind of hard to ignore the song’s sentiment that people hurt one another in a relationship while never really acknowledging that what they’re doing is in fact self-destructive. If children are involved, then it’s the children that get hurt the worst; and the “adults” usually either don’t care or don’t notice until it’s too late.

    I don’t think Murphey’s sentiment is “Divoce is bad, I’m good”, so much as it is whether or not lovers actually believe in the concept of “Till death do us apart”. Of course that’s just my theory.

  4. I will expand even further as to what I hear as the fuller reach of this song.

    For all it’s sonic syrupy wimpyness, don’t the lyrics celebrate emotional grit and some pretty heady reflections on eternity?

    Sure, the lyrics soften and sentimentalize the concept by calling it “forever,” but this is a song about glory, love, and faith. It’s a song that wonders about eternity.

    I can’t help but filter this song through Soren Kierkegaard’s concept of the eternal as signifying perfection. We are spiritual being with the capacity for self consciousness and the potential for communal fellowships with other people.

    Rafe Van Hoy’s lyrics localize this capacity for the eternal by focusing on personal relationships within the lyrics.

    This song is less about marriage and divorce and more about a consideration of love as standing outside of time. It’s about allowing for the embodiment of glory and light.

    If love is as close as we get to the eternal, I hear the song wondering what would eternity be without love?

    Or “What’s forever for?”

  5. Well, Michael, sometimes people get married just because they don’t want to learn how to cook.

    Did I laugh out loud at this? Why yes, yes I did. Well done! I had no idea that this was originally recorded by England Dan and John Ford Coley. That was quite the timing, as of course England Dan was going to be making his country debut the next year.

    (I could honestly take or leave most of MMM’s music from that period of time. Hearing that stuff, I was quite surprised to find out later that he wrote and originally recorded “Back Slider’s Wine.” I think it was because the first version of that song I ever heard was from Gary Stewart, doing it in the style he was known for, which was quite different from what MMM was doing.)

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