British-born, Australian-raised singer and actress Olivia Newton-John died on Monday August 8 at the age of 73 after a long battle with breast cancer, leaving the world bereft of one of the most beloved and recognizable in history. whose work and influence have brought the worlds of theater and music together like few others. Battling breast cancer for more than 30 years, she died on her Southern California ranch, with her husband, John Easterling, sharing the heartbreaking news on Monday afternoon.
Olivia Newton-John will be remembered for many things in the hours, days and weeks to come as the world mourns, and though memories are dominated by references to the musical. Fator perhaps some of her biggest pop hits such as “Physical”, the impact and influence that Olivia Newton-John left on country music in the mid-70s would be criminal to resign to a note of footnote or an afterthought.
Olivia Newton-John was first and foremost an international pop star and didn’t necessarily intentionally market her music to country audiences in the United States to begin with. However, the more folksy approach of her early catalog meant that it was deemed more favorable to categorize her as country in North America, and she proved to be a formidable performer in the country music realm.
After participating in the Eurovision Song Contest with the song “Long Live Love” in 1974, Newton-John signed with EMI Records and released an album of the same name. But in the United States, the album was retitled If you love me let me know, and included material from his previous three albums. When the title track rose to #5 pop, but #2 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 No. 1 country album in 1974 where it remained for eight weeks, and it became country music’s fifth most popular album that year. Olivia Newton-John also won the 1974 Country Music Association Award (CMA) for female singer of the year. This sent shockwaves of concern through country music’s more traditional style artist population. She was seen as a foreign pop star invading their territory. In the CMA Awards’ seven-year history to that time, only three women had won the singer award – Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette three times respectively, and Lynn Anderson in 1971. For many, Olivia Newton’s success -John was a sign that pop’s foray into country music had gone too far.
In response, a meeting was called at the home of Tammy Wynette and George Jones, who were married at the time and were country music’s major couple. At this 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. . They were a cross section of some of the biggest stars in country music at the time, and they were all concerned about the direction of country music, especially given the success of Olivia Newton-John.
The artists decided to form their own organization called ACE, or the Association of Country Entertainers, whose stated goal was to push for representation of mainstream country artists on the CMA board and for more balance. in country radio playlists. ACE was ultimately short-lived and dissolved fairly quickly. But when another stranger to John Denver won CMA Entertainer of the Year in 1975, controversy flared up again, especially after reigning CMA entertainer Charlie Rich whipped out his lighter and burned the envelope containing John Denver’s name.
As for Olivia Newton-John, she was no more guilty of her success in country music than was John Denver. Record company executives and radio promoters decided how to market Newton-John’s music in North America. And regardless of its origin, its music objectively matches the format compared to many other singles played on country radio at the time by American-born artists.
Although the CMA Awards controversy is what history is best remembered for, some artists rallied around Newton-John, including Dolly Parton’s sister and colleague, Stella Parton, who released the song titled “Ode to Olivia “.
“We have no right to say
say you’re not country
You’re just a country girl
It’s so easy to see
If you’re not a country girl
We are also not
They don’t treat us that way
When we sing in your country
Who said a country girl
It must have been from Tennessee”
Instead of withering in the face of controversy, Olivia Newton-John listened to the criticism and doubled down. Olivia Newton-John released her second country album Have you ever been sweet in 1975, and it was also very successful, going No. 1 in the country for six weeks. Then she decided to record her next country album don’t stop believing in Nashville in 1976, and it included several longtime session musicians such as Charlie McCoy on harmonica and Weldon Myrick on steel guitar. Newton-John also moved to the United States to live full time.
But Do not stop Believing failed to achieve the success of his previous country albums. Then once Olivia-Newton John starred in Fat opposite John Travolta in 1978, the whole world changed for her, including her music. She became an exclusively pop performer and international superstar, with all the controversy of the mid-’70s via country music gatekeepers quickly forgotten by many.
Without a doubt, 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 in that direction by many native country artists, including Charlie Rich. The difference was that Olivia Newton-John was outside the Nashville bubble, and that’s what made many artists so speculative and, in some cases, jealous.
But even with the controversy, Olivia-Newton John owes a great debt of gratitude to country music and country music to her. Olivia Newton-John’s popularity opened up country music to new audiences, including international ones, while Newton-John’s success in the country helped build a foundation for her career and facilitated her move. in the USA. It also made her a likeable character in popular culture.
Olivia Newton-John’s long battle 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 sparked in country music will last forever. Because country music loves nothing more than discussing what country music is. Olivia Newton-John has proven that more than anyone.