It seems somehow un-American that the nation’s hottest country songstress comes from some other country. If she had sprung to stardom, say, from the DT ward or the slammer, that would have been more natural. But Olivia Newton-John, 26, came from England via Australia and has never played the new Nashville opry house much less the Grand Ole one. Besides, whoever heard of a double or hyphenated name that wasn’t Billie Joe or Tommy Sue?
Not too long after Olivia had earned her third gold single (Let Me Be There; If You Love Me, Let Me Know; and I Honestly Love You) and won the Country Music Association’s Top Female Vocalist of the Year award, a protest group of traditional country artists was formed in Nashville. “We don’t want somebody out of another field coming in and taking away what we’ve worked so hard for,” declared an old dues payer named Johnny Paycheck. Newton-John “couldn’t drawl,” carped the Nashville Tennessean, “with a mouth full of biscuits.” But so much for the purists—nobody loves Olivia but the people. She was anointed 1975’s Rising Star on CBS’s recent Entertainer of the Year Awards. She is up this week for three American Music Awards, an ABC network rip-off of the Grammies. In the Favorite Female Vocalist category, Olivia is, to paraphrase the Southern expression, singing in tall cotton—she is competing against Barbra Streisand and Helen Reddy. On the record racks last year, Olivia outsold every other songstress but Aussie chum Reddy herself. And in the Grammy awards, March 1, she is in contention for the biggest honor of all—Record of the Year.
Thus, last week when she was breaking alltime attendance records at the Dixie National Livestock Show & Rodeo in Jackson, Miss., Liv felt coolly beyond the Nashville criticism. “It has nothing to do with me,” she says. “I’ve never claimed to be a country singer; to call yourself that, you’d have to be born in that background. I simply love country music and its straightforwardness. And since the records have also sold well outside of the country audience,” she continues, “it seems to me that we’re broadening the acceptance for country music. I wasn’t out to do anybody out of an award. I didn’t put myself up for it.”
Actually, today, American musical tastes seem to have been integrated ahead of other aspects of the culture. The roots of a singer like Waylon Jennings are almost as much soul as red-neck, and the distinction between pop and country is really an arbitrary designation for the convenience of trade-journal sales charts. Officially, a song is categorized as “country” if it is backed up with a steel guitar, which is not a guitar at all but an electrified pedal instrument with a zitherlike set of strings. By that criterion, neither Olivia’s biggest hit to date, I Honestly Love You nor Have You Never Been Mellow, her hot new single, is technically country.
All of which is the sort of academicism which Newton-John grew up with—and rebelled against. She was born in Cambridge, England, the granddaughter of Nobel Prize-winning German physicist Max Born and daughter of a Welshman who agonized for years before choosing a life as a German professor, rather than as an opera singer. “Music is just in the Welsh blood,” says Olivia, “and it was with me through my childhood. My father had a collection of a thousand records, mostly classical, but he gave me Tennessee Ernie Ford records, too. My other musical influences growing up were Ray Charles, Joan Baez and Nina Simone.” When she was 5, Olivia’s father was made Master of University College in Melbourne and she lived there for 11 years, “long enough to make me a real Aussie girl”—though she still carries a British passport.
It was in Australia that Liv momentarily shivered the family tree. Her famed grandfather, whom she met just once, was, she recalls, “Einstein’s best friend, and look what happened to me? Two plus two is five. My older brother did what the family hoped he’d do and became a brilliant doctor. But my older sister left school at 15 to become an actress, which was a bit of a shock, and so the pattern had already been broken. In my last year I had to decide on finishing school or going after stardom. I quit school.”
She had started to sing “just for something to do,” and then got regular TV gigs until a talent-contest prize took her back to England at age 16. She started with Toomorrow, a teenybop group; then toured with Cliff Richard, Britain’s Pat Boone; and made her name in Europe with her version of Dylan’s If Not For You. In Britain before being enticed to the States, she found “my guy,” as she calls Lee Kramer. He was an importer who this month gave up his shoe business to manage Liv in America. But marriage “is a thing which frightens me,” says Newton-John. “My parents, my older sister and so many of my friends have been divorced. And I’m not ready for children yet.”
Professionally she has a winsome, laid-back quality, that so far has worked to her advantage, with a voice as clear as a chime. She has composed only a few of her own songs (like Changes on her last album, which reflects the traumatic impact of divorce on a child), can play only a few guitar chords and professes to sing strictly by ear. “I could find out what key I’m in, I suppose,” Olivia says in her clipped Anglo-Aussie accent (when singing, it’s an Anglo-Tennessee twang), “but as long as my group knows the key, we’ll be all right.”
Though already a super success, she’s modestly starting backwards, touring her down-home American constituency by bus between headline engagements at the Nevada fleshpots. She rents a Malibu beach house with Lee but protectively maintains her flat in London, with the furniture under dust covers. Realistically, though, the only thing that could stop Olivia Newton-John is if U.S. Immigration cuts off her work permit when it expires in October.