HITS Daily Double


What started as a riff on the BBC Music’s “God Only Knows” viral promotion turned into a global initiative far beyond the realm of the Country Music Association’s wildest hopes. To mark the 50th anniversary of their annual Awards, two action groups met and strategized “Forever Country,” an all-star musical tribute that mashes up John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Roads,” Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” and Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.”

With a video—featuring Dierks Bentley, Luke Bryan, Faith Hill, Miranda Lambert, Tim McGraw, Kacey Musgraves, Brad Paisley, Blake Shelton, Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban, as well as heritage artists Brooks & Dunn, Reba McEntire, Ronnie Milsap and Charley Pride, plus Nelson and Parton— directed by Joseph Kahn, “Forever Country” already racked up close to 45 million views and became only the third record since 1958 to debut at #1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs.

Beyond pulling together 30 artists to go into the studio with producer Shane McAnally and take part in filming the video, Universal Nashville President Cindy Mabe spearheaded a marketing push that looked like “an artist album launch. We built advertising campaigns, radio specials, contesting, satellite tours, direct to consumer outreach, as well as partnering with all the streaming and video accounts, bloggers, and social influencers.”

“A core group of [Sandbox Entertainment head] Jason Owen, [Taillight TV GM] Chandra LaPlume, [Little Big Town’s] Karen Fairchild, Shane McAnally and I met with a few key people from Joseph’s crew, and they kept pushing for a mash-up, which we weren’t buying into,” recalls CMA CEO Sarah Trahern. “By the third meeting, we decided to try. We realized that at four minutes, and a multi-artist song, it might not work [at radio], but we should see how it felt.”

Noted songwriter/producer McAnally played with a variety of candidates before landing on the ultimate musical and conceptual cocktail, moving from celebrating the countryside to the life these musicians live and, ultimately, an homage to the fans. As he says of finding the perfect balance, “Our original demo was a mash-up of ‘Gentle on My Mind,’ ‘On the Road Again’ and ‘The Gambler.’”

“I was really frustrated when the board came back with idea of adding ‘I Will Always Love You,’" he continues, "because that song is so personal; I didn’t think it would ‘mash up’ in a way that didn’t seem like we were just forcing the biggest commercial song to come out of Nashville, well, ever. That seemed a bit obvious to me, but I’m thankful that others felt really passionately about the emotional payoff of that particular song."

“The chord structure of ‘I Will Always Love You’ ultimately led to ‘Country Roads,’ as [collaborator] Josh Osborne and I found two of those songs had similar changes, even though the meters were different,” McAnally adds. “That’s where a lot of the magic came from: letting the songs meet somewhere in the middle in the way they were respectively phrased.”

Trahern marvels at the response the original demo received when presented to the board. “He got a standing ovation on the demo. After that, the discussion turned from if we would do this to how.”

Working largely during the annual CMA Music Fest, the song was recorded and the video taped against a greenscreen. Though coordinating 30 artists over four minutes with three songs seems impossible, McAnally notes, “There was absolutely no diva behavior! Everyone came in, asked what we needed them to do and were really pleased to be part of it.”

Still, Country radio isn’t always interested in stretching what works. A fairly long three-way of songs everyone knows, interwoven with country stars of varying currency, was an unconventional ask in today’s country radio climate. Still, the response Trahern received was mind-blowing.

“Our overall goal was to create buzz for the 50th Awards ceremony,” notes the HGTV veteran. “Pulling so many of our great artists together we knew would be an amazing video project that might now work at radio.

“But when we played the final track at our summer meeting, our radio industry leaders lent their support and suggested a historic ‘roadblock’ rollout of the track at the same time across all the radio groups. Truly, they wanted make it a universal moment among our country-music outlets.”

Then Mabe stepped in to work her magic. “This was important because it tells the story of why country music and our artists are so unique. The song and video represent the heart of our format—combined with the power of 30 artists, it allowed for a blueprint marketing reach outside the U.S., as well as localized versions in territories around the world.

“The only hazards,” Mabe continues, “were not making it big enough or inclusive enough. We had to get the exposure it warranted, and we needed the help of Vivendi, our parent company, who opened doors for us, as well as all the Universal territories who invested in the idea and built promotions and localized content.”

In Brazil, Paula Fernandez performs in Spanish against a backdrop of the video. BBC-TV and BBC Radio Two—along with U.K. platforms Daily Motion and Watch Ever—gave the song pop traction. Posting on 25 international iTunes charts and 18 International Spotify charts, “Country Forever” hits the mark. Ranking #1 in Canada, #2 in Australia and New Zealand, and Top 25 in Scandinavia, it took country to new horizons. It also found itself debuting on the Spotify Global Viral Top 50 chart, where it’s currently holding steady at #2. “Shane’s amazing juxtaposition really makes this a new work,” Trahern says of the unintended connection. “The music takes on a new meaning with the three songs together.”

It doesn’t hurt that the song and video are both compelling. ABC‘s VP of Alternative Series & Specials Scott Igoe recognized the potency instantly; while he has a vested interest in promoting his network’s broadcasting of the CMA Awards, he also saw the power of the actual music—and worked with SVP of Alternative Programming Rob Mills, his boss, to find the biggest possible look for the all-star video. With Good Morning America already buying in, they approached Dancing With the Stars to debut the clip.

“You have three classics that are completely reinvented for this one integrated, four-minute performance,” Igoe says. “And the video not only shows both country’s biggest stars coming together for this special event; it represents the best of the heartland. If you want to show the viewers something historic that reflects the country, this is it!”

“I was driving in the D.C. area last week, listening to country radio, and the DJ teed it up as one of the most requested songs ... I was so proud, because this project has had so many touchpoints across our industry."
—CMA boss Sarah Trahern

Between a covers project to involve even more artists at CountryForever50.com and focusing on the younger demographic through new acts via Radio Disney Country, the ripples for “Forever Country” and the 50th CMA Awards Anniversary continue. “Frankly,” Trahern offers, “I thought we might get spins that first weekend, and it might go away; but that’s not been the case.”

“I was driving in the D.C. area last week, listening to country radio, and the DJ teed it up as one of the most requested songs, then tagged ‘Forever Country’ out with positive listener comments,” she points out. “I was so proud, because this project has had so many touchpoints across our industry. From artists to radio to production to labels to the international partners to publishers, we couldn’t have projected the success at radio or iTunes, but they all came together for the cause.”

Mabe concurs. “What set this apart was motive. Because of the magnitude of the message of this piece, the identity of country music and building a bridge to the future with the reach of this show—but also the music—people can feel the love and respect that went into and comes from it.” As a genre with a decidedly family feel, country music has long been a format where the artists pull together in the name of the music. With “Forever Country,” they make that reality literal—and it worked.

The 50th Annual CMA Awards having aired 11/ 2 on ABC, and Trahern is thrilled at where this project has put the 59-year-old trade organization. “I’ll admit I’m surprised about two things: the continued legs of the recording internationally and the overwhelming, emotional response from fans. They’ve really embraced ‘Forever Country,’ buying the singles and requesting it at Country radio.”