Monday, March 6, 2017

Country music's "We Are the World"

They could have called it "Lemon Aid," because it turned out to be a real lemon. But it wasn't for lack of trying.

I'm talking about Heart of Nashville's "One Big Family," the country music world's attempt at a "We Are the World"-type famine-relief record.

It happened in 1985. After the all-star charity group USA for Africa scored a worldwide #1 hit with "We Are the World," country star Ronnie McDowell decided to organize a similar project in Nashville for country artists. Charity concerts and supergroups were everywhere—this was also the year of Live Aid and Farm Aid. Even heavy metal artists, under the name Hear ‘n Aid, organized a famine-relief record.

 charity craze started the previous year with British and Irish supergroup Band Aid, which Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats organized with Midge Ure to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia. 

Band Aid's song "Do They Know It's Christmas" was a big success—it topped the UK chart in 1984 and then reached the UK Top 3 again in 1985. Geldof and Ure helped to organize Live Aid in 1985, and at Live Aid, Bob Dylan made a comment about American farmers that led to Farm Aid later that same year.

Heart of Nashville
In the midst of all this charity, country star Ronnie McDowell got the idea for his charity supergroup. The goal was to raise money for worldwide hunger relief, and McDowell managed to sign up some of country music's biggest stars.

The record was to be released under the name Heart of Country by Nashville's Compleat Records. Unlike earlier fundraisers for Ethiopian famine relief, Heart of Country would "benefit the hungry in both America and the world," as stated on the single's picture sleeve. McDowell co-wrote the song that the group would record, "One Big Family," which echoed the theme of global togetherness heard on "We Are the World."

Unfortunately for McDowell, the Heart of Country would not be met with peace and harmony. Less than 24 hours before the vocal recording session, McDowell found out that RCA Records forbade its artists from taking part in the project, which eliminated Alabama, the Judds, Louise Mandrell, and Ronnie Milsap, all of whom had agreed to participate.

Likewise, none of the expected artists from MCA Records appeared, including Lee Greenwood and the Oak Ridge Boys. Only one artist from Columbia Records—George Jones—showed up.

Apart from the Kendalls, who recorded for Polygram, most of the approximately 40 acts who actually participated were either unsigned or independent artists. The label that was going to release the Heart of Country single, Compleat Records, was itself an independent label, so it certainly seemed as if the major labels were conspiring to kill the project. 

MCA wouldn't comment on why it prohibited its artists from participating, but other labels' representatives didn't hesitate to hold forth. Joe Galante from RCA told Spin, "Yes, I told our artists not to participate. I felt that instead of being a major event, as was the 'USA for Africa' single, [Heart of Country] would be one of many trying to duplicate it."

And Dale Cornelius of the Nashville Music Association claimed to be thinking about organizing a separate fundraiser. "We're exploring it further," he said, "but don't want to jump on any bandwagon." How he intended to organize a big charity supergroup that didn't involve some bandwagon jumping is unclear.

The 45's picture sleeve
The Heart of Nashville record came to pass anyway and featured a lot of stars, many of whom were old-timers: Roy Acuff, Rex Allen Jr., Lynn Anderson, Eddy Arnold, Chet Atkins, Bobby Bare, Lane Brody, T. Graham Brown, Little Jimmy Dickens, Karen Taylor-Good, Dobie Gray, Sonny James, George Jones, The Kendalls, Dave Kirby, Neal Matthews, Kathy Mattea, O.B. McClinton, Ronnie McDowell, Lorrie Morgan, Colleen Peterson, Webb Pierce, Boots Randolph, Jerry Reed, Jeannie C. Riley, Ronny Robbins, Ray Sawyer, Troy Seals, Jeannie Seely, Rick Schulman, Gordon Stoker, Tanya Tucker, Mack Vickery, Porter Wagoner, Duane West, Bergen White, Leona Williams, and Faron Young. 

An official music video was produced. It alternated between shots of Africans and shots of the supergroup in the studio. George Jones and Tanya Tucker were the most prominently featured solo vocalists. Some of the others, such as Lynn Anderson and Faron Young, sang a single line in the song and really poured their hearts into it. Still others, such as Little Jimmy Dickens and Webb Pierce (the latter of whom wasn't listed on the single's sleeve but appears in the video), sang only with the group on the choruses and can't really be heard.

A promotional single was pressed on red vinyl. The music video was promoted by Aristo Music Associates, the first video-promotion service in Nashville. When the record was released, it spent nine weeks on the Billboard country chart, but—despite the promotional efforts and all-star cast—climbed no higher than #61. 

Nashville's major labels succeeded in nearly spoiling the project by withholding then-current stars who could have raised the record's profile substantially. And, not surprisingly, the majors never got around to creating a charity group of their own.