'Forever Country': Inside Story of How Epic Mash-Up Song & Video Developed

Dolly Parton
Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images

Dolly Parton performs during Dolly Parton Pure & Simple Tour at Mann Center For Performing Arts on June 15, 2016 in Philadelphia.

Until now, A-list music-video director Joseph Kahn’s most famous clip was Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood,” which featured a mere 15 guest stars. He doubles that tally with his new video, “Forever Country,” which has Kahn wrangling no fewer than 30 stars of the past and present, each singing just a line or two before handing the baton to the next country celeb.

The video was commissioned by the Country Music Association in honor of the upcoming 50th anniversary edition of the CMA Awards, so give everyone credit for stopping at a modest number and not going for 50 stars.

The video, which premiered on Tuesday night's Dancing With the Stars, features everyone from veterans like Brooks & Dunn and Reba McEntire to the fresher-faced Jason Aldean and Kacey Musgraves, the common thread being that they’re all past CMA winners. Dolly Parton puts in the climactic cameo, offsetting any sense of celebrity fatigue that might be setting in after four minutes with a positively messianic appearance.

But it’s not just the number of personalities onscreen that verges on going over the top. It’s the number of songs being sung by those stars, since “Forever Country” is a mashup of Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and Parton’s own “I Will Always Love You.”

How’d they keep that overstuffed “We Are the Word”-type song from going off the rails? Kahn and the man responsible for the music, Nashville producer/songwriter Shane McAnally, filled Billboard in on how the project secretly came together over the past few months.

In case you’re wondering, yes, the "c-word" did come up as something to be avoided, if at all possible. In the early stages of thinking about how all these songs and voices would blend, “I think I used the word 'clusterf---' more times than any other word,” McAnally said, laughing.

It was Kahn’s idea to do a mash-up, which he then left to McAnally to figure out how to musically execute. “When the CMAs called me, they solicited my opinion about whether there were any country songs that I would like to do a video for, for the 50th anniversary,” the director says. “As I thought about it, that seemed too limited in terms of trying to get the entire history of country music into one song. So I pitched the CMA board the idea of doing a mash-up, of three different songs, so you get more of a breadth of the history. The first reaction from everybody was that that’ll never work. And to be honest with you, I didn’t know, either. I’m literally the moron in the room going ‘Hey, let’s do this,’ and I can be as theoretical as I want, but Shane had to make it real.”

McAnally was in on those first calls, being on the CMA board partly as a result of his star-making work with Musgraves and Old Dominion. He happily took on the assignment, but admits he chafed against one element that the board was insistent on, during the two-month trial-and-error period of trying to create the right mash-up.

“We definitely started with songs in mind that had the same tempo and same chord progressions,” says McAnally. “Originally I wanted to incorporate (Glen Campbell’s) ‘Gentle On My Mind.’ (Kenny Rogers’) ‘The Gambler’ was another song that we had in one of the original mash-ups. But everybody kept coming back to ‘I Will Always Love You,’ saying that was sort of the quintessential song. And I kept resisting, saying, ‘How in the world am I going to get that song to work with these other songs?’ I presented another demo that everyone loved, but they kept saying, ‘We need “I Will Always Love You.’" I didn’t disagree with that, but I didn’t know how I was going to get it in there without making the whole thing a ballad. They wanted movement, but they wanted that song!

"But (co-arranger) Josh Osborne and I were playing around in my office and finally realized that you could sing the verses of ‘I Will Always Love You’ in the same tempo as ‘Country Roads’ and weave 'em in without changing the chord structure, and it just worked. So all of those people with different opinions that may not be technically right, I’m glad they didn’t know any better, because I wouldn’t have ever tried it on my own.”

Go Behind the Scenes of the Star-Studded 'Forever Country' Video

Initially, they didn’t know how many stars they’d get to participate. “The people that came to it early, like Miranda Lambert, Luke Bryan, and Brad Paisley, had to cover a lot of ground, because I didn’t know if every line would be covered,” McAnally says. “So I had Miranda sing big pieces of ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ and pieces of ‘On the Road Again’ because I kept saying, ‘I need your voice, if I don’t get all these singers, to cover these patches.’ Some of those people were really generous with their time, singing a lot more than what ended up on the track. As we neared the finish line, it came down to some folks literally having just one line left they could sing, and it was like, 'Please, God, just let this work with their voice.'”

Most of the vocals were captured as they came through Nashville on tour stopovers. When it came time to do the video in the two days leading up to the CMT Awards and CMA Festival in June, nearly everyone was in town to stop by the soundstage, although a couple of last-minute vocals were recorded the same day the singer shot a video cameo. “George Strait came in that morning, we did his vocal, and then they sent him over to the warehouse where they were shooting the video,” McAnally recalls. “Literally as he’s driving from the studio to the warehouse, we’re dropping his voice in and sending a track over for him to (lip-synch) to.”

Nearly everyone asked made it into the finished product, although a few artists either couldn’t do the vocal or couldn’t do the video. Only one artist appears in the video but not on the music track -- for obvious reasons: Randy Travis, whose health problems have taken him out of performing. “He gives that look,” says Kahn, “and even though he’s not singing, he’s connecting.”

There are almost more special-effects scenarios in these four minutes as anything short of an Avatar sequel, albeit with churches, forests and Ryman Auditoriums standing in for other planets. So it’s a surprise when Kahn says, “I generally hate green-screen videos. I wanted it to feel stylized, but also organic, like they were actually there, so that was a big challenge. Because the song itself had three different melodies that laid on top of each other, that’s when I came up with the idea of layering the locations, where you see them constructing and deconstructing and each leading naturally to the next … I had to pre-visualize everything -- where everyone was standing, how I was going to light it, how it would blend -- and film it with plates, so literally by the time the artists showed up, it was already pre-edited.”

Although he’s one of the biggest names in music videos, Kahn hasn’t done a huge number of country shoots before, though he worked with Nelson and Faith Hill in the mid-'90s and early 2000s. Consider him a Nashville convert.

“The amazing thing was that every artist showed up on time and then did their job and then left, which is unheard of in the music industry!" he said. "The normal experience you have is that everybody is late, and there’s usually a temper tantrum at some point, and someone gets freaked out. These are just the quirks of the industry. But nothing like that happened. It’s like the most well-adjusted group of superstars you could ever have, and I think that’s specific to country music. If everybody behaved that way, my life would be so simple.

“To be fair, though,” Kahn adds, “I am working with Taylor Swift a lot.” He basically became her court videographer, spending most of 2015 making “Blank Space,” “Bad Blood,” “Wildest Dreams” and “Out of the Woods” in quick succession. "And she grew up with that discipline, and she’s exactly the same in that way. That’s the reason those videos came out so good, because she would show up on time and do her job, and you can literally just get more shots in during the day and make it better.”

Neither Kahn nor McAnally has been resting on any laurels since wrapping up the now-revealed project: They’re both on the multitasking road again. McAnally is back in the studio working on Old Dominion’s sophomore album, while Kahn somehow managed to shoot an entire feature film -- Bodied, a satire set in the hip-hop world -- during the two months he was in post-production on “Forever Country.”

The video could hardly have premiered with a better slot, but will country radio follow up its bow with any regular rotation? “I have no idea what the life of the radio single will be beyond the video release,” McAnally says. “I would love to see it continue to grow and get played in places where people are asking for it -- maybe everywhere.

"It’s a little outside the current format, being pretty traditional with a lot of traditional artists, and the songs of course are songs from the past. So I’m not sure how it sits among country top 40 radio as it is. But we did not go after that; if we get it, it’s a nice bonus.”