Shane McAnally was nothing short of terrified when he stepped into the studio to begin a project that, on paper, looked a little crazy.
The challenge of melding three iconic country song – John Denver’s “Country Roads, Take Me Home,” Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” and Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again” – into one new piece of music to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Country Music Association Awards, was “a very scary process,” McAnally tells PEOPLE.
In fact, when a mash-up was first proposed as a way of marking the anniversary, McAnally, who’s written hit songs for Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan and Kacey Musgraves among others, argued against it. “I didn’t think it would work in our genre,” he says. “I said, ‘Maybe in pop music you can just take a piece of a song, but we tell stories. And we can’t just cut into them and take a piece.'”
But as McAnally, a CMA board member as well as a top producer in town (he’s behind albums by Sam Hunt and Musgraves), and other CMA members began to consider what songs could work, the idea took shape.
“I Will Always Love You” was a song that everyone felt like needed to be a part of it but I was having a hard time with the story – it’s such a personal song. It’s to one person,” he says. “But when you play that song over, ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’, they somehow take on a life together and it feels almost like you’re speaking more to the music, and to country music specifically, when you say, ‘I will always love you.’ It feels meant to be.”
An ode to the life of a traveling musician, Nelson’s classic seemed a natural addition to the mix. “The line ‘The life I love is making music with my friends,’ kept coming into my mind and ‘On the Road Again’ felt essential,” McAnally says.
The result, dubbed “Forever Country,” was born and McAnally took on the task of producing the recording, a monumental undertaking with 30 artists, including one whom he especially wanted to impress.
“I was very scared when Dolly heard it that it might seem like a bit of a compromise to the integrity of the original song,” he says. “The song is such a simple, perfect sentiment. It was really important for her to know we handled it with care. She just listened and said, ‘Wow. That really works!’ It was really hard not to cry in front of her. I’ve cried a lot since then!”
The tune begins with West Virginia native Brad Paisley singing the opening lines of “Country Roads” (“Almost heaven, West Virginia) followed by a host of stars – Keith Urban, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Little Big Town, Luke Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Shelton”, George Strait – adding line after line until Musgraves begins “I Will Always Love You” (“If I should stay/I Would only be in your way”). Lyrics from the two songs weave in and out with different Nashville voices as Jason Aldean begins “On the Road Again,” joined by Rascal Flatts and many more.
The song premiered on country radio stations around the country Friday, but you’ll have to wait ’til Tuesday for the video, directed by Joseph Kahn, who won a VMA Award for Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood”.
“The responsibility of this feels greater than anything I’ve done,” McAnally says of the project. “I hope this is a great timepiece for the legacy of country music.”
Profits from the sales and streaming of “Forever Country” will go toward music education causes supported by the CMA Foundation.