While it may feel like the pop country debate is a new problem in country music, it’s actually almost as old as the genre itself.
For decades country music fans have argued and debated over whether artists were actually “country.” And the debate once again flared during the CMA Awardsway back in 1974 when a crossover pop star beat out some of the top artists for one of the night’s biggest awards.
Olivia Newton-John saw only modest success from her first two albums, mostly on the UK pop charts. But after releasing her second American album, Let Me Be There, which featured a mix of new songs and recycled tracks from her earlier albums, the British singer found herself charting not only on the pop charts in America, but she also scored a string of country hits.
The title track from Let Me Be There reached the top 10 on both the pop and country charts. She then scored her biggest country hit of her career in 1974 with “If You Love Me (Let Me Know)” which just missed the top spot on both the country and pop charts.
The follow-up single, “I Honestly Love You,” was a bigger hit at pop radio, reaching the top of the pop chart while only peaking at #6 in country music.
But after a string of hits, apparently the Country Music Association was eager to welcome Olivia Newton-John into country music – and at the 1974 CMA Awards she was nominated for Album of the Year, Single of the Year, Female Vocalist of the Year, and the night’s top prize, Entertainer of the Year.
While Entertainer of the Year ultimately went to Charlie Rich, Olivia Newton-John shocked many in country music when she took home the award for Female Vocalist of the Year, beating out Nashville powerhouses like Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Tanya Tucker.
The presenters messed up her name while reading the winner, which may or may not have been an intentional slight at a foreign-born pop artist winning a CMA Award, but Olivia Newton-John wasn’t even there to accept the award in person.
The win wasn’t popular among country music traditionalists, including powerhouses like George Jones and Tammy Wynette. The country music power couple, who were married at the time, decided to form a counter-group in protest of the influx of pop artists into country music.
The new group, called the Association of Country Entertainers (ACE), consisted mostly of Grand Ole Opry members, names like Dolly Parton, Barbara Mandrell, Hank Snow, Mel Tillis, Bill Anderson, Porter Wagoner, Dottie West, Faron Young, Conway Twitty, Brenda Lee, and Ernest Tubb.
Unfortunately ACE failed to really make much of an impact in country music, and ended up folding in 1981.
After the ’70s and the Grease era, Olivia mainly stayed in the pop realm, scoring #1 hits like her signature song “Physical” in 1981, as well as “Magic,” and “You’re the One That I Want” with John Travolta from the Grease soundtrack.
It wasn’t the last controversial award by the CMAs: The following year, John Denver was named Entertainer of the Year, much to the surprise and disappointment of many of those same traditionalists who were upset by Olivia Newton-John’s win the year before.
But while it may have been enough to cause some members to protest back in the 1970s, it seems that country music has grown more and more willing to accept pop artists into the family over the last 50 years.