Olivia Newton-John Played a Pivotal Role in Country Music (RIP)

British-born, and Australian-raised singer and actor Olivia Newton-John passed away on Monday, August 8th at the age of 73 after a long battle with breast Cancer, leaving the world bereft of one of the most cherished and recognizable entertainers in history whose work and influence bridged the worlds of acting and music like few others. Battling breast Cancer for over 30 years, she died at her ranch in Southern California, with her husband, John Easterling, sharing the heartbreaking news Monday afternoon.

Olivia Newton-John will be remembered for many things in the coming hours, days, and weeks as the world mourns, and though the remembrances will be dominated by references to the movie musical Grease, or perhaps some of her biggest pop hits such as “Physical,” the impact and influence that Olivia Newton-John left upon country music in the mid 70s would be criminal to resign to a passing footnote or afterthought.

Olivia Newton-John was an international pop star first and foremost, and didn’t necessarily intentionally market her music to the country audience in the United States to start off. However, the more folk-oriented approach of her early catalog meant it was deemed more favorable to categorize as country in North Americana, and she turned out to be a formidable artist in the country music realm.

After competing in the Eurovision Contest with the song “Long Live Love” in 1974, Newton-John was signed to EMI Records, and released an album of the same name. But in the United States, the album was rebranded as If You Love Me, Let Me Know, and included material from her previous three albums. When the title track went to #5 in pop, but #2 in country, it created the mandate to make Olivia Newton-John a country artist in North America.

If You Love Me, Let Me Know became a #1 country album in 1974 where it stayed for eight weeks, and it became the fifth most popular album in country music that year. Olivia Newton-John also went on to win the 1974 Country Music Association Award (CMA) for Female Vocalist of the Year. This sent shock waves of worry throughout the population of country music’s more traditional-styled artists. She was considered a foreign pop star invading their territory. Over the seven year history of the CMA Awards at that time, only three women had won the Female Vocalist award—Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette three times respectively, and Lynn Anderson in 1971. For many, Olivia Newton-John’s success was a sign that the pop incursion into country music had gone too far.

In response, a meeting was convened at the home of Tammy Wynette and George Jones, who were married at the time, and were country music’s major power couple. At that meeting with George and Tammy were Dolly Parton, Barbara Mandrell, Bill Anderson, Porter Wagoner, Conway Twitty, Jim Ed Brown, Dottie West, Brenda Lee, Faron Young, Cal Smith, Hank Snow, Mel Tillis, and others. This was a major cross section of some of country music’s biggest stars at the time, and they were all concerned about the direction of country music, specifically due to the success of Olivia Newton-John.

The performers decided to form their own organization called ACE, or the Association of Country Entertainers, whose stated goal was to lobby for the representation of traditional country artists on the CMA Board of Directors, and for more balance on country radio’s playlists. ACE was ultimately short-lived, and dissolved rather quickly. But when another outsider in John Denver won the CMA Entertainer of the Year in 1975, the controversy was sparked anew, especially after the reigning CMA Entertainer Charlie Rich pulled out his lighter and burned the envelope containing John Denver’s name.

As for Olivia Newton-John, she was no more guilty for her success in country music than John Denver was. It was record label executives and radio promoters who chose how to market Newton-John’s music in North America. And despite where she was from, her music objectively fit the format when compared to many of the other singles on country radio at the time from performers born in the United States.

Though the CMA Awards controversy is what is most remembered by history, some artists rallied behind Newton-John, including Dolly Parton’s sister and fellow performer Stella Parton, who released the song called “Ode to Olivia.”

“We ain’t got the right to say
to say you’re not country
You’ve just a country girl
It’s so plain to see
If you’re not a country girl
Neither are we

They don’t treat us this way
When we sing in your country
Who said a country girl
Had to be from Tennessee”

As opposed to wilting to the controversy, Olivia Newton-John listened to the criticism, and doubled down. Olivia Newton-John released her second country album Have You Never Been Mellow in 1975, and it also saw great success, going #1 in country for six weeks. Then she decided to record her next country album Don’t Stop Belivin’ in Nashville in 1976, and it included multiple long-time A-list session musicians such as Charlie McCoy on harmonica, and Weldon Myrick on steel guitar. Newton-John also eventually moved to the United States to live full time.

But Don’t Stop Believin’ failed to achieve the success of her previous country albums. Then once Olivia-Newton John starred in Grease opposite John Travolta in 1978, the entire world changed for her, including her music. She became exclusively a pop performer, and an international superstar, with all the controversy of the mid 70s via country music’s gatekeepers quickly forgotten by many.

Undoubtedly, the success of Olivia Newton-John and John Denver in the mid 70s helped push country music in a more pop direction at that time. But in truth, it was already headed that way by many artists native to the country genre, Charlie Rich included. The difference was Olivia Newton-John was outside of the Nashville bubble, and that’s what made many artists so speculative, and in certain instances, jealous.

But even with the controversy, Olivia-Newton John owes a big debt of gratitude to country music, and country music to her. The popularity of Olivia Newton-John opened up country music to new audiences, including international ones, while Newton-John’s success in country helped create a foundation under her career, and facilitated her move to the United States. It also made her a sympathetic character in popular culture.

Olivia Newton-John’s long struggle with breast Cancer is over, and she’s in a better place now. But the music she made, the roles she played, and the debates she stirred in country music will go on forever. Because country music loves nothing more than to argue about what country music is. Olivia Newton-John proved that more than anyone.

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