On Tuesday night, the sweetest little video you ever did see premiered during an episode of Dancing With The Stars. Featuring practically every living artist who has ever had a Top 20 hit in the past 30 years, ranging from Brett Eldredge to Dolly Parton, the video is a celebration of country music’s rich heritage. The lyrics of John Denver’s “Country Roads” and “I Will Always Love You” are enough to inspire a nostalgic attachment in folks who disavowed their country fandom years ago.
By the looks of this "Forever Country" video, you’d think that things were all hunky dory in the world of country music, but we all know that’s not the case. Many of the folks featured in this video haven’t had albums on the country charts in actual decades. Of those who have continued to sell records — Willie Nelson, for example — you still won’t find any of their best-selling tunes on a single major-market country radio station.
Country music has always had a soft spot for sentimentalism. Everyone loves to invoke the legacies of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard and George Jones whenever he or she is trying to curry a little favor with fans or appeal to the genre’s equally prominent penchant for pretending that we’re all still living in the good old days. But for whatever reason, those sappy tributes never seem to translate from the awards shows to the airwaves.
It would appear that country music’s tastemakers are perfectly fine with celebrating the past while absolutely refusing to factor the genre’s history into its future. You can say what you want about the successes of offbeat artists in the past few years, but for every Chris Stapleton that scraps his way to acclaim, you’ll find three Sam Hunt clones in his place. There is a real problem in country music right now — perhaps there has been from the beginning, even — of selling out tradition in favor of the hot new thing.
Which is precisely why people get so excited when things like “Forever Country” actually happen. It is so insanely rare, at this point, to hear a song that sounds this twangy on the radio right now that a recording of this magnitude will no doubt move the needle. Who doesn’t want to hear George Strait and Darius Rucker and Miranda Lambert harmonizing all together on one of country’s best songs?
It is, to be sure, an excellent video. Shane McAnally did an incredible job weaving these iconic songs together in a way that doesn’t feel any more forced or contrived than it was already going to. But that’s not what is at issue. The problem is that country music just trots out efforts like this when it has something like the 50th anniversary of the Country Music Association’s fancy awards show to celebrate. As a result, these attempts at reconciling the past and the present feel grossly hollow.
For many fans of actual country music, it’s too little, too late. They’ve already happily trotted over to Americana, where they can, as singer-songwriter Caleb Caudle puts it, listen to country music before it started to suck. There are plenty of folks out there who will tell you that real country music is still out there, they just don’t call it country anymore. In a lot of respects, that’s still true, but the success of projects like “Forever Country” is indicative of a broader interest in a distinctive pop-country song.
“Forever Country” isn’t something that was really intended to satisfy hardcore traditionalists. It’s a lighthearted remembrance of some of the genre’s most important moments, and a solid one at that. In any other context, perhaps an alternate universe where an Alan Jackson record would actually crack the Billboard top ten, you’d probably be wiping tears away and fighting off the warm fuzzies.
But after watching “Forever Country,” I felt a little like Sturgill Simpson after the Country Music Association announced its new award that bears the name of Merle Haggard — jaded, cynical and a little nauseated. Country has long exploited its rich legacy for a quick boost of popularity, and there’s a point where it starts to feel downright disrespectful, even if Dolly and Willie are playing along.
Ultimately, it’s all a little disappointing. It’s not as if the 50th Annual Country Music Association Awards are going to be any different from the 49th or 48th, especially considering this year’s list of nominees. Or, more telling, the folks who won’t be walking home with trophies on November 2, like Brandy Clark. It may be charming to watch 30 of the biggest country music artists all sing the same songs, but it sure isn’t indicative of any actual respect that the genre might have for those artists.