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Country stars amass in 'Forever Country' video for 50th CMA Awards

The 50th CMA Awards will feature Willie Nelson and other country stars. Watch the music legend rehearse for the big gig here.

Half a century ago, the Country Music Assn. in Nashville handed out awards for the first time. So began a tradition that continues to grow five decades on.

To mark the occasion, the CMA has assembled its own all-star video, “Forever Country,” which premiered Tuesday night on “Dancing With the Stars” and features 30 current and veteran country acts.

Among the participants: Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood, Vince Gill, Miranda Lambert, Faith Hill, Kacey Musgraves, Jason Aldean, Keith Urban, Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and Alan Jackson.

They've teamed  with the rest of the "Forever Country" participants in a mash-up of three classics: Nelson's "On the Road Again," Parton's "I Will Always Love  You" and John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads."

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The video was directed by Joseph Kahn, best known for his pop and rock clips for Taylor Swift, Eminem, Blink-182, Britney Spears, U2, Shakira, 50 Cent and Backstreet Boys.

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If that sounds at first like a case of strange musical bedfellows, Kahn has a ready response.

"I'm from Houston, so I grew up with country music," Kahn, 43, told The Times recently while in West Los Angeles to put the finishing touches on the shoot by filming Nelson lip-syncing his lines from one of his biggest hits.

"I've actually done a few country videos," he said, "One of my earliest videos was for Willie. That was 23 years ago, for a song called 'Afraid.' So it's a world I'm familiar with."

As was the case with, say, "We Are the World," each vocalist receives a line or two, then passes the torch to another of his or her peers. The video premiered Tuesday night on ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" as a promotional teaser for the 50th CMA Awards ceremony slated for Nov. 2 in Nashville.

"I think it's great that we're still doing that," Nelson, 83, said a few minutes before stepping in front of a green screen backdrop in a warehouse studio with his trusty, battered acoustic guitar, Trigger.

"A lot of artists look forward to it. It means a lot to a lot of young guys coming along just to be on the show, just to have their name mentioned somewhere, in print somewhere."

Director Joseph Kahn, left, with Willie Nelson during the taping of Nelson's part in the all-star video "Forever Country."
Director Joseph Kahn, left, with Willie Nelson during the taping of Nelson's part in the all-star video "Forever Country." (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles times)

It was Kahn's idea to blend three songs together rather than try to zero in on a single work to represent the CMA's 50th anniversary.

He collaborated with Shane McAnally, a decorated songwriter himself who produced the recording of the three songs.

"The challenge is actually on different levels," Kahn said. "You have the technical challenge of trying to get all these artists represented in a very short period of time. Everyone sings just one or two lines. In terms of the creativity of being able to do it visually, but not do it in a way where the visuals overtake it, or get in the way of the artists. So that's a technical challenge: How do you construct a video out of so many people just singing one line?

"The next part of it, is a sociological challenge, in that there is old country and new country, which are very different. There are elements of new country today that sound like Top 40 pop. And you have old country that's authentic, like old school — to blend those together in a video and try to make it feel contemporary and classic at the same time, that's the artistic challenge."

The rest of the lineup in what’s being promoted as “the biggest video in country music history,” includes Alabama, Dierks Bentley, Brooks & Dunn, Eric Church, Brett Eldredge, Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town, Martina McBride, Tim McGraw, Ronnie Milsap, Charley Pride, Rascal Flatts, Reba McEntire, Darius Rucker, George Strait, Randy Travis and Trisha Yearwood.

CMA officials say they wanted something unique that would bring together different eras of musicians to reflect the multi-generational appeal of country music.

Said Nelson, "One of the things that really exemplifies what you're talking about is [that when] you go to a country show -- it doesn't matter whether it's me or whoever — the audience is made up of people of all ages, kids, grandkids, grandpas, they all like the same thing: country music. It's been that way ever since I can remember."

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