Olivia Newton-John, If You Love Me, Let Me Know

If You Love Her, Let Her Know: How Olivia Newton-John Became a Country Star

Olivia Newton-John’s chart-topping 1974 album remains a touchstone for 1970s culture, bringing the best of country music into mainstream pop.

If You Love Me, Let Me Know
Olivia Newton-John
MCA Records
28 May 1974

Before she shimmied onto the big screen in black sharkskin pants, a move that catapulted her to global superstardom faster than you can say, “Ooh, ooh, ooh, honey,” Olivia Newton-John was a highly celebrated—and controversial—country artist in America.

Aside from “Hopelessly Devoted to You“, which married 1950s doo-wop to her countryfied brand of easy listening, Randal Kleiser’s 1978 musical film Grease pivoted Newton-John away from the sound that yielded consecutive million-selling singles and number-one albums. Subsequent releases adopted the edgy quality of her character Sandy’s transformation from ingenue to vamp, dabbling in rock and new wave at the turn of the decade.

But for almost five years, Olivia Newton-John’s music was the equivalent of apple pie, her honeyed locks, rosy complexion, and pastoral stage costumes giving the illusion of an All-American Girl. It was an image the British-born Australian innocently embraced, performing at county fairs and rodeos across the United States as her records raced up the Billboard charts.

What cynics viewed as calculated cosplay was, in fact, an organic development, the seeds of which were planted as a child. Her father, Brinley, an academic and former MI5 agent in Britain’s war effort, moved his family Down Under after receiving a posting at the University of Melbourne. A liberal gentleman with a vested interest in the arts, Brinley was responsible for his youngest daughter’s introduction to country music. Following a divorce from Newton-John’s mother, he sent vinyl records as absent-parent gifts, the first being Tennessee Ernie Ford’s 1959 album Gather ‘Round.

Already a fervent animal enthusiast, Olivia Newton-John’s favourite cut on the album was “Old Blue”. Popularised by American blues musician Jim Jackson, “Old Blue” plotted the narrator’s relationship with his faithful dog over a repetitive, toe-tapping rhythm. Ford’s version slows down in the middle as he sorrowfully recounts Old Blue’s death and burial, a sadness 11-year-old Newton-John vicariously related to; on the grounds of the university, she frequently rescued stray greyhounds, discarded after they ceased to be useful in competitive dog racing. Unable to keep them, Newton-John surrendered these dogs to local animal shelters. Along with the displacement of her family unit, an unusual occurrence for the time, she understood heartbreak at an early age.

Liner notes on Ford’s album articulate a broad geographic interpretation of “country” music. The 12 tracks on Gather ‘Round were ostensibly campfire songs, character-driven pieces wrapped in simple melodies hailing from “the British Isles, the Deep South and the Western ranges”. The international genealogy of folk slash country slash world music was emblematic of Newton-John’s experience: she, too, was a hybrid of different countries, born in England to a Welsh father and a German mother but raised in Australia, ultimately settling in America. To her, the notion of strict, impassable boundaries separating one part of the world from another – or one genre of music from another – was strange.

Olivia Newton-John started singing professionally in her teens. She formed a traditional jazz group with three friends from the Melbourne area and soon landed a weekend job performing folk songs at her brother-in-law’s coffee lounge. After winning the final at a national talent competition at 15 with “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from the Broadway musical Gypsy, she became a fixture on local television. One week, she appeared on The Go!! Show, Australia’s answer to Britain’s Ready Steady Go!, performing Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion“, the next she was doing music hall for her contracted work on the daytime show Time for Terry.

These experiences conferred on her a rich and eclectic musical education, reflecting Australia’s global approach to music consumption. The colonial shackles of the nation meant 1960s Australia took its cultural cues from Europe. The influence of England’s Mersey Beat sound – the Beatles’ 1964 tour prompted a level of hysteria rarely seen in the country before or after – expanded the existing groundswell of American rock ‘n’ roll until these new styles of popular music had a firm hold on young record-buyers.

Australia’s first music charts were published in a teen magazine called Go-Set, using set data from different radio stations. There was no organisation according to genre; whichever songs received the highest airplay on each station were collated into one all-encompassing list. Rock ‘n’ roll mixed with the traditional music of the older generations, presenting a dynamic snapshot of the population’s tastes. However, the Billboard charts in the United States were multifarious, utilising distinct categories to differentiate genres since the ’40s. Newton-John’s naïvety about American chart politics caused the integrity of her “country” music to be hotly contested.

Olivia Newton-John’s debut album, If Not for You, hit shelves in late 1971. Recorded at the legendary Abbey Road Studios in London, the LP was a surprisingly accomplished collection of contemporary singer-songwriter cuts, ranging from Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” to Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee”. Bruce Welch, rhythm guitarist for the Shadows, the British instrumental group who also backed Cliff Richard, created the tasteful arrangements with Newton-John’s longtime friend and eventual hitmaker, John Farrar.

The three-way creative relationship was profoundly synchronous: Farrar met a teenage Newton-John when his group, the Strangers, closely modelled on the Shadows, were employed as the house band for The Go!! Show. In 1966, Newton-John returned to England and toured as a double act alongside Farrar’s future wife, Pat Carroll, another alumnus from the Australian television show. By 1971, Welch was dating Newton-John and working in a trio featuring Farrar and the Shadows’ lead guitarist Hank Marvin. The intersectionality of their lives shines through on If Not for You, engendering a tight-knit musical camaraderie that elevates the oft-covered song selection.

Olivia Newton-John’s first taste of American success came via the title track, a cover of the opening number on Bob Dylan’s 1970 New Morning LP. AllMusic describes Dylan’s recording as “full of Nashville touches; the pedal steel guitar, the simplicity of the music, and, most profoundly, the love-struck vocal”. Olivia’s version owed more to the arrangement by George Harrison, incorporating the same instantly recognisable slide guitar lick (indeed, the first three songs on Side Two of Harrison’s All Things Must Pass would all be recorded by Newton-John ).

Curiously, she did not particularly like the song “If Not for You“, but she recorded it at the insistence of Farrar, Welch, and her Australian-born manager Peter Gormley. Her dog Geordie made an uncredited appearance when he bumped a microphone stand during the instrumental break, a detail that pleased Newton-John so much it was left in. Released on the Uni label in America, the single unexpectedly hit number one on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart (then named Easy Listening). When the accompanying LP was announced in trade magazines, Newton-John’s “foreignness” was fetishised, presenting her as “England’s newest gift to America”.

The most country-sounding song on If Not for You – at least by the Tennessee Ernie Ford metric – was itself a transatlantic offering. “Banks of the Ohio“, an 1800s murder ballad where the male protagonist declares his love and, in the face of rejection, commits a fatally violent act, set its tragic tale somewhere on the thousand-mile-long Ohio River separating Midwestern America from the southern states. The explicit location notwithstanding, “Banks of the Ohio” may have originated from European immigrants who settled in the Appalachian region, bringing their oral storytelling traditions with them. The grisly form can be traced back to 16th-century Britain, Ireland, Scotland, and Scandinavia, but an outstanding article in Esquire confirms murder ballads “also exist in [American] blues, spirituals, and slave song traditions.”

Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash, and Porter Wagoner all committed “Banks of the Ohio” to wax, but Olivia Newton-John discovered it through Joan Baez, who prudently excised the most gruesome verse. Whilst largely faithful to Baez’s rendition, Farrar and Welch did make one major change, re-gendering the lyrics so Newton-John’s persona carries out the villainous role. Her characterisation is unconvincing – it is difficult to believe Australia’s perpetual girl-next-door is capable of anything remotely close to this riverside transgression – but the fresh perspective energises the song: Mike Sammes’ bassy vocal in the chorus becomes the disembodied, haunting voice of her lover, and a trilling addition at the end sounds like the triumphant siren song of other women who disposed of their men in the same way. 

“Banks of the Ohio” peaked at number one in Australia but could not push past the lowest rungs of the Billboard Hot 100. When ensuing singles “What Is Life”, plucked once again from the George Harrison songbook, and “My Old Man’s Got a Gun”, backed by a fussy cover of Ricky Nelson’s 1959 hit “Just a Little Too Much”, also failed to ignite, the potential for sustained American success soon fizzled out. Her second album, 1972’s Olivia, was not released in the United States, despite a high-profile television appearance on The Dean Martin Show that same year.

A John Denver song reversed her fortunes. Denver’s ubiquitous “Take Me Home, Country Roads” reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1971, held from the top slot by other British-Australians, the Bee Gees. A year and a half later, Olivia Newton-John’s cover enjoyed a top 15 place in England, where “country roads” meant winding laneways and rolling green hills. The hymnal introduction, reportedly Newton-John’s idea, emphasised the difference in interpretation, inviting English listeners to winsomely imagine majestic American landmarks like the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River from afar.

By 1973, her American record label Uni had merged into MCA Records. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was Newton-John’s first single on this conglomerate and, according to Rolling Stone, “stiffed” on the charts. Artie Mogull, vice president of the A&R department at MCA, believed in the record and used a grassroots strategy to build an audience. He observed the song gaining traction on country radio in the southern states, so he shipped the single to similar stations nationwide. This did not improve its chart position, but listener requests indicated a space for Newton-John in the country market.

Mogull suggested a country-oriented record as the follow-up, advice that struck a chord. Olivia Newton-John originally aspired to be a big balladeer akin to Shirley Bassey, pitching dramatic numbers such as Jacques Brel’s “If We Only Have Love” for her albums, but her voice simply did not possess the same muscularity. She came to realise she was “not a power singer, but more of an interpretive one”, conceding that the tunes selected by her producers Welch and Farrar were a better fit for her airy tone. The new direction was agreed upon.

Although the two were no longer romantically entwined, Bruce Welch found Olivia Newton-John’s next single. Welch met with John Rostill, former bass player for the Shadows, on his return to England after a lengthy overseas tour. “John had written several songs of his own, which he played to me, asking for my honest opinion,” Welch said. “Since going to work in America he had absorbed many musical influences he had heard around him, and it had improved his writing no end.” Two songs he shared possessed a light country-pop style which Welch “knew… would be ideal for Olivia to record”. Welch insisted on cutting these to a demo tape to play for her manager, Peter Gormley, who, fond of country music, was excited about the material’s commercial promise. He quickly found himself back in the studio with his ex-girlfriend and John Farrar recording “Let Me Be There”, the most important song of her career to date.

Rostill’s lyric of starry-eyed devotion finds truthfulness in Olivia Newton-John’s unshowy performance. She eases off during the verses, giving lines like “watching you grow and going through the changes of your life” a meditative, front-porch-and-fireflies quality, allowing her voice to soar higher in the chorus. Welch and Farrar’s spritely production provides the pop propulsion, using guitar lines that echo Newton-John’s declarations back to her in call-and-response. A tambourine meters out the rhythm, and a late key change provides an extra kick. Mike Sammes’ distinctive bass vocal is again employed as a male counterpoint to Newton-John’s feminine sweetness, adding to the universal singalong appeal.

Trialled as a single in the United Kingdom in the middle of the year, “Let Me Be There” inexplicably struggled to connect, shifting a measly 8,000 copies. Poor sales abroad were no deterrence for her American label; Artie Mogull thought they had a hit, a prediction aided by a brief in-person radio tour to support “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, where Newton-John’s sunny disposition and humility charmed programmers. MCA’s advertisements for the single were confidently matter-of-fact, explaining “Olivia Newton-John lives in the country in England and sings for the country in America.” This was a half-truth; she lived in a two-bedroom apartment in northwest London, but as a marketing angle, it was a convincing sell. “Let Me Be There” was a major hit stateside, impacting the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100, Adult Contemporary, and Hot Country charts.

An album of the same name was rushed into American record stores in the final quarter of 1973. Although Let Me Be There used the same cover art as her self-titled British album, it was closer to a repackage of If Not for You, teaming half the tracks from her debut with the newer country-leaning singles and her version of “Angel of the Morning”, a decidedly risqué morning-after lyric for Newton-John’s wholesome image. Let Me Be There topped the Billboard Country Albums Chart and was certified gold. The single, her first to sell a million copies, won a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance, Female in March 1974.

American chart victory brought a seismic shift in England as Olivia Newton-John lost support from record-buyers. Her third LP, 1973’s Music Makes My Day, received a middling response, even though Record Mirror applauded the varied song selection, christening it “a damn fine album”. Losing her grip on the British charts but still proving a hit with television audiences, she was asked to represent the United Kingdom in the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, a televised competition between 18 European countries. The British public selected Newton-John’s entry, the banal “Long Live Love”; New Musical Express did not mince words, remarking “whoever lumbered her with this material should be put down”. On 6 April 1974, Newton-John met her own Waterloo when “Long Live Love” went up against a booming slice of glam-rock by the Swedish contestants ABBA. The winner, it seems, did take it all – no other contestants stood a chance.

Olivia Newton-John dispensed with diplomacy in the British press the next day, expressing an uncharacteristically honest opinion: “I don’t think it was a suitable song for me or the contest… All of us felt very frustrated. But we couldn’t do anything about it.” If there were hard feelings, these did not extend to her Scandinavian rivals; Newton-John cultivated a long, sincere friendship with ABBA, inviting them to perform on her 1978 television special, Olivia!, as part of their American promotional assault.

With stock at a new low in England, she was already eyeing a bigger investment in the United States. What started as a four-month visit to consolidate her prospects turned into a permanent move on the advice from fellow Australian artist Helen Reddy, who explained the importance of being available for opportunities as they arose. “Let Me Be There” took Newton-John and MCA by surprise, but their next move needed to prove it was not a fluke. Fortunately, they had another hit lying in wait.

The other track on John Rostill’s demo tape was “If You Love Me (Let Me Know)”. It was a variation on the first song, right down to the phrase “let me” in the title and the “singing” guitar parts, but John Farrar’s adroit production sprinkles enough novel tricks throughout to make the familiar seem new. The tempo is fractionally faster in “If You Love Me (Let Me Know)”, an appropriate match for a lyric of greater urgency: unlike “Let Me Be There”, the narrator is not just asking someone to love her, she is pleading mercifully for an answer. “If you don’t,” she implores, “then set me free, take the chains away that keep me loving you.” The intensely emotive ultimatum is Shakespearean in scope, complete with hushed aside in the second verse; note the breathy catch in Newton-John’s voice as her persona figuratively caresses the arms, the hands, and the smile of her beau, uncertain whether her affection is requited. 

Softening the blow of the Eurovision defeat, “If You Love Me (Let Me Know)” entered the Billboard Hot 100 in April 1974 and scaled the chart for two months, settling at number five. An even lovelier confection than its predecessor, the song was another crossover hit, attracting pop and country listeners in equal measure and narrowly missing pole position on both the Adult Contemporary and Hot Country charts. (As a sad postscript, Rostill never got to see his songs for Newton-John bear fruit: he died prematurely at his home in November 1973, the same month “Let Me Be There” was released in America. Newton-John took one final Rostill composition, “Please Mr. Please“, co-written with Welch, into the top five in 1975.)

Olivia Newton-John’s second LP for MCA mirrored the formula of the first, beginning with her latest chart-dominating hit and compiling songs from previously released British albums. If You Love Me, Let Me Know had the advantage of a wider pool of songs to choose from, privileging those with crossover possibilities. The earliest inclusion is the only one to reveal its continental origins; “Mary Skeffington“, rescued from Olivia’s 1972 sophomore album Olivia, was penned by Scottish singer Gerry Rafferty and bears his mother’s maiden name. Rafferty helplessly watched the abuse she suffered at the hands of his alcoholic father, fashioning this sensitive tribute to her on his first solo album. Fragments of Skeffington’s life phase in and out as Rafferty constructs a temporal dreamscape of happier times, including “a holiday in a north-of-England town”. The sparse sound of the original receives a sparkling makeover in Farrar and Welch’s arrangement for Newton-John, a firm fan favourite on the album.

“Mary Skeffington” was not the sole piece of autobiographical family drama to make the cut, as a composition by Newton-John called “Changes” also received a second outing. The guitar-led folk song describes the early stages of a couple’s divorce as they contemplate the impact it will have on their child. Newton-John claimed to have written it about a friend, but it hit much closer to home: she witnessed her sister’s separation from the husband with whom she had three children, and the lyric “don’t know the proper way to say you won’t be seeing daddy every day” called forth Newton-John’s familial anguish from her youth.

Olivia Newton-John’s contributions to her albums were sporadic until the entirely self-penned Gaia in 1994, but “Changes” displayed her knack for direct, unadorned songwriting that cut straight to the emotional heart of a situation. The delicate number occasionally appeared in her concert setlists and was the only non-single to earn a place on her 1977 Greatest Hits LP. To posthumously celebrate her 75th birthday in 2023, a retro-kitsch video for “Changes” by filmmaker Maris Jones was commissioned. In the initial frames, Jones slides the rainbow-labelled MCA vinyl out from the If You Love Me, Let Me Know sleeve and places it on the turntable. The music transports her into an oversaturated fantasia, using stop-motion animation to elicit waves of ’70s nostalgia.

The remainder of If You Love Me, Let Me Know was mostly pulled from recent sessions recorded in London, selections intended to supplement Newton-John’s Eurovision contenders on a forthcoming LP in the United Kingdom. Taken as a suite, they are inordinately better than those pitched for Eurovision, sidestepping any ingratiating cheerfulness. For these sessions, John Farrar took the reins as sole producer, initiating the symbiotic studio relationship that defined Newton-John’s music for the next decade. His arrangements were increasingly adventurous, turning the honky tonk soul of Barbara Keith’s “Free the People”, previously covered by Delaney, Bonnie & Friends and Australian group Sherbet, into a guitar-led gospel rocker, closer in feel to Barbra Streisand’s version. In Farrar’s capable hands, Newton-John’s vocals grew gutsier too, unlocking newfound confidence to go beyond the ethereality she naturally traded on.

Farrar went on to compose some of Olivia Newton-John’s biggest hits, including “You’re the One That I Want” and “Magic”, but supplied only one song to this set as a writer, in collaboration with his old the Strangers bandmate Peter Robinson. “Home Ain’t Home Anymore” was inspired by a conversation with Newton-John about a trip back to Australia in 1973. Her poetic observation that faces and locations seemed different now she lived in England formed the first verse, Farrar and Robinson paraphrasing her melancholic wanderlust: “I’ve lived my life in many places, you see,” she sings, “now I don’t know just where I wanna be”. If she held questions about her future, “Home Ain’t Home Anymore” answered them, its imagery of “canyons, deep and wide” predicting the inevitable emigration to America.

There was disagreement at MCA about which of these six new tracks would be the next single. Newton-John saw an obvious frontrunner but divulged in her 2018 memoir, Don’t Stop Believin‘, “The record company actually wanted to release a different song.” The label felt “The River’s Too Wide” had the purest pedigree, thanks to its American-born writer Bob Morrison who resided in Nashville, the nation’s country music epicentre. Unfortunately, Newton-John recorded it around the same time as country artist Jim Mundy, who pipped her at the post.

“[Mundy’s] record was released and started climbing the charts,” says Morrison. “John Farrar, Olivia’s producer, called… and said: ‘I cut this song on Olivia and if it doesn’t go passed the twenties, it’ll be her next single.’ Well, Mundy’s record got to number nine.” The direct competition was deemed too risky and plans changed, but Morrison was flattered. “I met her again forty-two years later at the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame dinner,” he recounts fondly. “After the show, I got my courage up and went backstage, walked up to her, introduced myself and mentioned I was the writer of “The River’s Too Wide”. She immediately launched into an acapella version of the chorus. I got chills.”

Aided by Artie Mogull, Olivia Newton-John convinced MCA to take a chance on a quietly sung ballad instead. The ballad in question was sourced by Artie Wayne, who oversaw the publishing arm of A&M Records. When Newton-John phoned Wayne from London requesting material to record, he shipped her two options from their publishing catalogue: an idea for a cover of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” and “I Honestly Love You”, a new song by Jeff Barry and Peter Allen.

Allen, another Australian who moved to England and then to America, had signed up for A&M as an artist and songwriter. Barry, composer of a plethora of 1960s Brill Building classics including “Da Doo Ron Ron”, “Be My Baby” and “River Deep – Mountain High”, was teamed with Allen, and “I Honestly Love You” emerged from their writing sessions. Barry’s lyrics about two people in separate marriages who cannot be together (“there you are with yours and here I am with mine”) was the type of plaintive storytelling that delighted country audiences, but Allen’s complicated chord structure steered the song in a different direction.

Listening to the acetate demo in her London flat, Newton-John and Farrar were struck by what Allen and Barry had written. Farrar raced to secure recording time in an available studio off Tin Pan Alley in the West End, not knowing he had discovered a fittingly intimate space: the recording booth was hung from the ceiling, and any movements carried to the studio below, adding to the reverent stillness of the session. Farrar remembered “violin players crammed in there” and “a great piano”, where Alan Hawkshaw, a recent addition to the Shadows, played the memorable dual piano part in the introduction. Olivia recorded only three takes, and the first one was used.

Despite their enthusiasm, the recording almost wasn’t released. Peter Allen wanted to keep the song for himself, but Jeff Barry encouraged him to give it to Newton-John as a shrewd career move. In an interview for Songwriter Universe, Barry explained, “Olivia was maybe the hottest female artist at the time. And I said, ‘Peter, I’ll leave it to you. You know if you have a hit with it, you’re established in the business. And if she records it and it doesn’t come out or isn’t a hit, you can always record it.’”

Allen acquiesced, eventually including “I Honestly Love You” on his A&M debut Continental American as well. He was surprised Newton-John wanted it for a single because he did not see the track as remotely commercial, a sentiment shared by MCA, who felt the pace was too slow. In 1982, Allen invented a press-ready anecdote when reflecting on Newton-John’s version, alleging he “begged her not to [release it]. I said, ‘Don’t be crazy, it will be the end of your career. It doesn’t even have a drum on it.’ Then I went away to spend the summer in the woods or something and I came back and asked a friend, ‘Whatever happened to poor Olivia’s single?’ and he said, ‘Are you nuts!? It’s number one, the biggest record she’s ever had.'”

I Honestly Love You” took only eight weeks to top the Billboard Hot 100 charts, reaching number one in October 1974. The song MCA faltered over because it did not have a country flavour was a hit on the Hot Country chart, too, peaking just outside the top five in November. A Billboard retrospective credited its crossover appeal to Newton-John’s “empathetic and clear-eyed vocal delivery”, highlighting the final moment when “her voice breaks with emotion and resignation”. This was not a studio affectation: in her performance of “I Honestly Love You” on The Tonight Show, she blinked away tears, one escapee cinematically rolling down her cheek on the last phrase.

The tender ballad accelerated Olivia Newton-John’s meteoric rise in America, driving its parent album up the charts. Two days after If You Love Me, Let Me Know hit number one, she was named Female Vocalist of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards, held at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville. It was a contentious honour; for many in attendance, Newton-John was a usurper, muscling in on territory that was not hers. The previous winner, Loretta Lynn, admitted “the applause was [not] very big”, and in the dressing room, she found other female artists complaining about Newton-John, who accepted the award via videotape. “All I could remember was me winning the top female singer’s award in England four years in a row and how nice people were to me there,” Lynn said, “so I told the girls to cut it out. I hate to hear all that jealousy coming out.”

Her words did not stick, and incensed purists rallied to combat the perceived threat Olivia Newton-John represented to country music. Tammy Wynette and her husband, George Jones, were particularly vocal, forming ACE, the Association of Country Entertainers, to protect the representation of “traditional” musicians on the CMA Board of Directors and radio playlists. Precious few country artists spoke out in Newton-John’s defense, but Stella Parton included a show of support on her 1975 LP I Want to Hold You in My Dreams. “Ode to Olivia” riffed on titles from If You Love Me, Let Me Know, using “You Ain’t Got the Right” as the basis for her retort to the establishment: “we ain’t got the right to say to say you’re not country… who said a country girl had to be from Tennessee?” Newton-John appreciated the kindness as it swung the favour of Parton’s older sister Dolly.

ACE was short-lived, but the small-mindedness that inspired such anger would be exhumed multiple times over the next half-century. In 2019, Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” reignited the conversation about genre classification by straddling country and hip-hop, resulting in its removal from the Hot Country chart because it failed to “embrace enough elements of today’s country music”. (“Old Town Road” sat atop the Billboard Hot 100 for a record-breaking number of weeks – an honour once held by Newton’s John’s “Physical“.) Beyoncé drew attention to this insular gatekeeping on her 2024 Cowboy Carter album where, despite her proud reclamation of the genre’s origins, she was still denied airplay on country radio. The archaic belief that only a certain type of artist should access country music recalled a jab made by The Tennessean 50 years earlier when a journalist smugly wrote that Newton-John “couldn’t drawl with a mouth full of biscuits”.

Olivia Newton-John’s immaculately produced records opened the door for decades of crossover hits, bringing the best of country music into the mainstream and vice versa. Dolly Parton’s 1977 single “Here You Come Again” was made possible by Newton-John’s blurring of country-pop lines, as was the output of Faith Hill, Shania Twain, and Taylor Swift in the nineties and noughties. “I’ve never claimed to be a country singer,” Newton-John told People magazine in 1975. “I simply love [the] straightforwardness. And since the records have also sold well outside of the country audience, it seems to me that we’re broadening the acceptance for country music.”

In the year of its golden anniversary, If You Love Me, Let Me Know remains a touchstone for ’70s culture. The record sleeve, shot by Lord Patrick Lichfield, epitomises Olivia’s homespun beauty, an embroidered denim shirt signalling her country virtues (a writer for Melody Maker noted the denim shorts she wore were “chastely cropped” out of sight). John Travolta appropriated the photograph for his 1976 debut album, and Grease co-star Didi Conn brought a copy of the LP on set whilst filming the “Summer Nights” segment in the film; even Newton-John herself recreated it for the cover of her memoir. Amidst consternation from country pedants, the album’s success was celebrated by other peers: Tina Turner recorded the title track for her Tina Turns the Country On! album (1974), and Elvis Presley performed it in concert. By the time “I Honestly Love You” won Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female at the 1975 Grammy Awards, If You Love Me, Let Me Know had sold well over half a million units.

As the halcyon days of her popular music career came to an end, Olivia Newton-John’s priorities shifted. She invested energy into environmental causes and, following her diagnosis in 1992, became an advocate for cancer awareness and wellness. Her music reflected this change, entering the new age and healing space, but she was continually drawn back to country. Her 1998 American “comeback” album Back with a Heart was released on MCA’s Nashville imprint and other latter-day albums Stronger Than Before (2005) and Liv On (2016, a collaboration with Amy Sky and Beth Nielsen-Chapman) are at least partly indebted to her country-pop roots. “I love country music, and I still listen to it all the time,” she said on the red carpet of the Country Music Association Awards in 2016. “I think now the best singers are country.”

Olivia Newton-John’s final recording in 2021 was a duet of “Jolene” with Dolly Parton. It is a terrific swansong, a peace offering between Parton’s traditional sensibilities and Newton-John’s pop-informed approach, painting a full picture of country music’s evolution. As her vocals reach an otherworldly crescendo, unweakened by the recurrent cancer that claimed her life less than a year later, the refrain from If You Love Me, Let Me Know deep cut “Country Girl” rings true: “I’ll be coming home again someday, no I won’t forget that I’m a country girl, a country girl you know I’ll always stay…”

Works Cited

“Home ain’t home anymore”. TV Times. 17 August 1974.

“Long Live Love” review. New Musical Express. 23 March 1974.

“Music Makes My Day” review. Record Mirror. February 1974.

“Olivia Newton-John: Eurovision turning point”. Melody Maker. 20 July 1974.

Bailey, Jerry. “Olivia said frontrunner for CMA honor”. The Tennessean. 17 September 1974.

Kruger, Debbie. Songwriters Speak: Conversations About Creating Music. Bouley Bay Books, 2023.

Lynn, Loretta and Vecsey, George. Coal Miner’s Daughter. Henry Regnery Co., 1976.

Newton-John, Olivia. Don’t Stop Believin’. Penguin Random House Australia, 2018.

Welch, Bruce. Rock ‘n’ Roll – I Gave You the Best Years of my Life: A Life in the Shadows. Viking, 1989.

Wesley, Brian. “Olivia hits out: The song was wrong for Europe”. The Sun. 7 April 1974.

Williams, Jeannie. “Peter Allen dives into mainstream”. USA Today. 15 November 1982.

Windeler, Robert. “Olivia Newton-John is the pop and country star without a country”. People. 24 February 1975.