Olivia Newton-John And the Everlasting Pop-Country Musical Divide

Olivia Newton-John died on Monday at her ranch in southern California. She was 73. How she will be remembered in the coming days, weeks, and years will depend on a variety of factors. Some will remember her for her role as Sandy Olsson in the hit movie Grease. Others will remember her for pop hits like “Magic” or “Physical,” among many others.

Of course, there may be others who remember her for her brief – yet controversial – run in country music, when her victory as the Country Music Association’s 1974 Female Vocalist of the Year sparked debates within over what was and wasn’t country music. She beat out Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Tanya Tucker, and Tammy Wynette, prompting 50 organization members to meet at Wynette and George Jones’ home and form a dissident organization called the Association of Country Entertainers (ACE) – its purpose to “preserve the identity of country music as a separate and distinct form of entertainment,” and its members including, among others, Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty, Bill Anderson, Faron Young, Barbara Mandrell and Porter Wagoner.

Newton-John, apparently, was the dividing line between where country music had been and how far it had drifted from its roots, with artists such as Johnny Paycheck, Barbara Mandrell, and Bill Anderson, among others, expressing their dismay at her success within the format. “We don’t want somebody out of another field coming in and taking away what we’ve worked so hard for,” said Paycheck, according to Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann’s Finding Her Voice.

In a way, I can sympathize. After all, what exactly was country music in the 1970s? Could the same format really house Crystal Gayle’s cocktail lounge staple “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” alongside Emmylou Harris’ take on Kitty Wells’ “Making Believe”? Could the same decade known primarily for sporting rugged, authentic outlaws taking the power back from the industry paradoxically stand as also one of the biggest years for pop and country crossover melting pots? Could an entire genre of music belong to suburbia and cotton farmers, coal miners, and factory workers? At a glance, it doesn’t make much sense. To critics, country’s pop-crossover mentality defiled its heritage; to others, it was a sign of progress toward a more respectable image and widespread appeal.

Newton-John wasn’t the cause for this everlasting debate, nor was she honestly anything close to the culprit history might portray her as. If anything, her success within country music was simply one of the big tipping points of a debate that’s followed the genre ever since its inception – even if history may indicate it started elsewhere, like, say, with the arrival of the smoothed-out Nashville Sound of the ‘60s.

Indeed, conventional histories say country music’s early resonance sprung from its timeless simplicity and appeal to rural listeners. Labels like “traditional” and “neotraditional” imply a straight line that can be traced back to the hillbilly legacies of performers like Hank Williams or Lefty Frizzell, or further back to Roy Acuff and Jimmie Rodgers. But, in truth, it’d also be fair to say there’s a “traditional pop-country” sound and history, too. After all, the most popular act on the Grand Ole Opry in 1938 wasn’t the aforementioned Acuff – it was a trio of male harmony singers from Chicago: The Vagabonds. They were known mostly for their sentimental ballads that carried only spare guitar accompaniment, and always appeared in matching casual, collegiate outfits, rather than rustic outfits. They weren’t alone in pushing what was then known only as “hillbilly” music toward a softer, more mainstream sound, though they were beaten out in popularity when Acuff joined that same year – a fiddle-playing, nasal-sounding singer whose immediate success brought an end to the Grand Ole Opry’s push toward softer sounds.

The Vagabonds. Image from Hillbilly-Music.com

Really, despite history having us believe that pop sounds have often overtook country ones, there are actually points that give credence to the opposite approach, like when Vernon Dalhart’s richly smooth, operatic stylings became popular before Jimmie Rodgers’ rough-edged “blue yodels” did (Dalhart’s own “Wreck of the Old 97” was the first country to sell one million copies), or when the softer ‘70s and ‘80s pop styles of Kenny Rogers, Lee Greenwood, Anne Murray, and, yes, Olivia Newton-John, among others, were dethroned at the top of the charts by the neotraditional revival brought forth by acts like George Strait, John Anderson, and Ricky Skaggs. And basically, just as there is a traditional thread that can connect, say, Anderson to Lefty Frizzell and Strait to Bob Wills, there’s also a thread that can connect Rogers to Dalhart.

In truth, however, only rarely have artists fallen squarely on just one side of the divide in actual sound. Barbara Mandrell, for instance, may have called the influx of pop-country crossover sounds in the ‘70s “the worst crisis country music as an art form has faced in twenty years” and recorded a song called “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool” as a defense mechanism, but not only did she herself find crossover success by the end of the decade, it would also be fair to say her music of the era regardless carries the smooth pop polish she was so against. Even George Strait’s pop-inspired “Marina Del Rey” stands in sharp contrast to a honky-tonk debut like “Unwound.”

In reality, then, Newton-John was more right at home in the country format than anyone had a right to say. Born in Cambridge, England in 1948 and raised in Australia, she actually first found success with folk music – one of her earliest singles was the traditional “Banks of the Ohio,” and her first UK hit in 1971 was a cover of Bob Dylan’s “If Not For You.” Starting in 1973, she moved toward pop music and blazed the charts with bright, synthesizer-infused, up-tempo numbers like “Let Me Be There” and “If You Love Me Let Me Know.”

How, then, did she find her way over to country music? In a way, she didn’t – music publishing and record label executives found her way for her, thinking they could make more money by promoting simultaneously to both pop and country markets. “My producers said they were releasing it country and I didn’t even know what they were talking about,” she later said. So it wasn’t her fault, and it really wasn’t her record label’s fault, given that the country music industry at the peak of its glitzy, crossover-ready era and Newton-John’s music really didn’t sound that out of place alongside, say, Lynn Anderson’s take on the Carpenter’s “Top of the World.” As it’s typically gone in Nashville throughout time, it’s OK if the trendy concoctions are cooked up in-house, but never from the outside.

To be fair, Newton-John wasn’t the only outsider to draw ire from the industry. Charlie Rich’s infamous burning of the slip announcing John Denver’s 1975 win for Entertainer of the Year scans with more than a bit of irony, given that Rich himself was hardly loyal only to country music. But, considering she once expressed a desire to meet Hank Williams (then dead more than 20 years), and, because of aforementioned label interference, denied she even was a country singer, the target was placed squarely on her back. “Olivia Newton-John has gone on national television denying she is a country singer. This upsets us. We would rather see a Tammy Wynette or a Loretta Lynn or somebody who will say, ‘Yes, I am country,’ win [awards],” Bill Anderson once said.

Again, though, the irony is that even artists produced “in-house” – particularly aforementioned ACE members – who were initially outspoken against the pop trends Newton-John represented later mined the same sounds looking for larger markets. Newton-John, on the other hand, actually listened to her critics and tried to appeal more to country audiences, first through singles like “Please Mr. Please” and “Every Face Tells a Story” and then by recording part of her 1976 album on Music Row. To those same critics, though, she’d still always only be an outsider, and the only artist who came to her defense was Stella Parton, whose own “Ode to Olivia” states the following:

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”

Newton-John would eventually shift back toward pop and find further success as an actress, so it’s fair to say she had the last laugh. But her brief involvement with country music is an example of country music’s most timeless and heated debate at its ugliest, shunning a performer who had as much of a right to be included within the family as anyone else. Our personal preferences may favor one sound to another, but not only does country music offer a big enough house for everyone to be included, it’s one where both sides of the divide have their own legitimate histories that have somehow overshadowed one another throughout time – and that’s a shame, because they can perfectly co-exist. To paraphrase another colleague’s tribute to Newton-John, I’d rather have an artist who’s sincere than authentic, because while the latter is defined by what others say, only we can determine the former attribute for ourselves – and that’s what really matters.

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