“Forever Country,” the all-star ode to country’s past, present and future, and billed as by Artists of Then, Now & Forever, blasts in at No. 1 on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart (dated Oct. 8). It also debuts at No. 21 on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100.
The track, which celebrates 50 years of the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards, is a medley of three classics: John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” from 1971; Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” (1974); and Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” (1980). Denver died in 1997, but Parton and Nelson are both featured on the track, along with 28 other CMA Award-winning acts.
“Forever” premiered on radio airwaves and streaming services, and via digital retailers, Sept. 16. Its Joseph Kahn-directed video debuted Sept. 20. Profits from the sales and streaming of the song will benefit music education causes through the CMA Foundation. (Since the early ’90s, Kahn has helmed clips for such stars as Mariah Carey, Eminem, Lady Gaga, Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, U2 and many more, including Nelson previously.)
“Forever” launches at No. 1 on the Country Digital Song Sales chart with 93,000 downloads sold in its first week (ending Sept. 22), according to Nielsen Music. It also soars in at No. 1 on Country Streaming Songs with 5.7 million first-week U.S. streams. On Country Airplay, it rises 39-33 with 5.4 million impressions following its first full week of tracking (Sept. 19-25).
“Forever” is only the third song to debut at No. 1 since Hot Country Songs began as a multi-metric chart in October 1958. Garth Brooks made history when “More Than a Memory” arrived at the summit on Sept. 15, 2007 (when the list was based solely on radio airplay; the ballad bowed with 36.3 million audience impressions). Craig Wayne Boyd, the seventh-season winner of NBC’s The Voice, followed with a No. 1 entrance for his coronation single “My Baby’s Got a Smile on Her Face” (Jan. 3, 2015; by then, the chart was based on airplay, sales and streaming, as it has been since Oct. 20, 2012, and the song was driven almost entirely by first-week sales of 99,000).
As “Forever” starts atop Country Digital Song Sales and Country Streaming Songs, radio programmers are intrigued, although somewhat cautious, about its long-term airplay prospects. “It sounds amazing on the air,” says KRTY San Jose, California, GM/music director Nate Deaton. “The fact that it is a mashup of three well-known songs makes it all the better. Audience reaction has been amazing and, of course, the biggest question is who is singing what line.”
“I like the production, and the participation of the various artists is respectful of the past but brings in a contemporary feel, as well,” says WKLB Boston PD Mike Brophey. “Understanding that the base songs are from pretty far back, the song itself appeals more upper-demo. However, the mix of artists creates interest all around.” Still, Brophey says, “Like most ‘event’ or ‘novelty’ songs, interest tends to fade quickly.”
“Short-term radio hit, long-term anthem,” predicts Alpha Media executive VP of programming Scott Mahalick. Ultimately, though, “It’s bold and different, and we like that.”
“This is why being in country is so great,” says Charlie Cook, VP of country for Cumulus Media. “We all love the format, we all love the music and the artists, and we all pull together.”
As “Forever” stokes nostalgia, the three songs on which it’s based all soar in sales. Denver’s original “Roads” increases by 181 percent to 5,000 downloads sold and debuts at No. 38 on Country Digital Song Sales. Nelson’s “Road” rises by 126 percent, and Parton’s “Love” surges by 314 percent (both to approximately 2,000 each).
“Roads,” Denver’s debut hit, stopped at No. 50 on Hot Country Songs in 1971; it rose to No. 2, however, on the Billboard Hot 100.
Parton’s original “Love” led the June 8, 1974, Hot Country Songs chart, and a rerecording (accompanying the movie The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, starring Parton) ruled the Oct. 16, 1982, list. She charted the ballad a third time, as her duet version with Vince Gill reached No. 15 in 1995.
Nelson’s “Road” topped the Nov. 8, 1980, Hot Country Songs chart.
Additional reporting by Jim Asker and Keith Caulfield.
Plus: The Chainsmokers Discuss Halsey Collabo While Playing With Candy at iHeartRadio Fest 2016