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Once Derided On Stage, Denver Is Now “Forever Country”

It might not have been intentional, but “Forever Country,” the new superstar-laden single and video promoting the fiftieth anniversary of the CMA Awards, wades into a more than forty-year-old dust-up about “what is country” that ensnared the CMA Awards itself.

The song that kicks off the classic country medley is John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” That song was only a top 50 Country hit in 1971. But on the new single, “Country Roads” takes its place alongside Dolly Parton’s “I Will Love You” and Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again.”

Denver’s reverse crossover from pop singer/songwriter to regular country hitmaker culminated in an Entertainer of the Year win at the 1975 CMA Awards. And in a notorious incident when presenter Charlie Rich, after a rambling monologue, torched Denver’s “and the winner is…” card on stage.

Rich himself was a former pop and rockabilly artist—and often considered “too pop” as well. His ‘70s hits were as influenced by cocktail jazz and the Great American Songbook as by traditional country. But Rich had made a home in country music. Denver was one of a handful of reverse crossovers—Olivia Newton-John, the Eagles, and Linda Ronstadt were among the others—embraced by a new generation of pop-trained country radio program directors.

Rich’s son has denied that there was any animosity between Denver and his father. He characterizes it as nothing more than a drug-and-alcohol fueled bit that didn’t work. And bits that don’t work are a regular feature of awards shows. But whatever Rich’s personal feelings, the incident became a touchstone in a “what is country” dialogue that predates the first CMA awards and continues today.

Actual reverse crossovers to Country are almost non-existent for pop hits these days—a reflection of the dearth of acoustic-flavored music at Top 40 at the moment. But the presence of Pink and Elle King as duet partners on current hits by Kenny Chesney and Dierks Bentley respectively has not gone unnoticed, especially given the relatively weaker position of female acts at country radio.

Radio programmer resistance stalled Thomas Rhett’s pop-flavored “Vacation” in the 30s, while Dustin Lynch’s “Seein’ Red” grows slowly in the same area. Sam Hunt’s R&B leanings haven’t prevented him from having multiple Country No. 1s, but are often watched warily by radio. And some PDs are still fighting the battle of Taylor Swift, unsure whether her exit from country music is good or bad for the format.

But while country PDs debate what’s country among today’s offerings, the debate is generally forgotten about anything that country listeners eventually ratify. That’s why Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem,” concerning for its quasi-rap feel a few years ago, is now among the format’s top 25 most-played gold.

And three songs in the new single/video have some pop crossover element. “On The Road Again” gave Nelson his signature pop hit at the height of the “Urban Cowboy” boom, a period of equal excitement and concern for the format. “I Will Always Love You” was No. 1 twice and a chart hit three times for Parton, but millions more know it better as Whitney Houston’s signature song.

And you can probably hear more John Denver than Charlie Rich in today’s Country hits, if only because “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” have direct descendants in country’s ongoing glut of songs celebrating small-town living, especially once Hank Williams, Jr., took fused the sentiments of “Country Boy” with Southern rock to create “A Country Boy Can Survive.”

Rich, for me, has plenty of songs that wear well now, with none of the hokeyness that marked Denver even at the time. “There Won’t Be Anymore” (plucked from a ten-year-old album at the height of Rich’s stardom) and “On My Knees” (from the same era, but remade in the late ‘70s), both achieve an almost Smiths-like level of profound sadness. And Keith Urban’s current “Blue Ain’t Your Color” clearly ventures into Rich territory.

Another constant remains in the “what is Country” discussion. It is often the artists who come to Country from somewhere else who become the defenders of tradition. It may or may not have been Rich’s intent to protect the format from interlopers, but it was Denver who took a fiddling song to No. 1 that year. In the early ‘00s, it was Kid Rock & Sheryl Crow whose “Picture” became the retro-traditional hit that no Country artist would have attempted. Today, the song that looks at the current field and declares “That Ain’t Country” is the song in the lower reaches of the chart by Aaron Lewis, the former lead singer of the Active Rock act Staind.

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Sean Ross is author of the Ross on Radio newsletter and VP of music and programming of Edison Research.

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