- The Washington Times - Monday, February 10, 2014

With its iconic cheatin’ and breakup songs, country music has earned a well-deserved reputation for chronicling the darker side of romance — a tradition that is surely in good hands today with a parade of brokenhearted young stars offering modern twists on love gone bad. (I’m looking at you, Taylor Swift.)

But with Valentine's Day nearly upon us, it’s worth noting that Nashville — from the early days of the Carter Family to the current king and queen of country, Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert — also has contributed its share of inspiring and touching love songs.

Who doesn’t get chills hearing Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”? It ranks on several all-time lists, including one from Country Music Television, as the best country love song. But there is an argument to be made — especially after Whitney Houston’s powerhouse, genre-busting version in 1992 — that it’s actually the greatest love song. Ever. Period. Case closed.

How about baritone crooner Randy Travis’ classic “Forever and Ever, Amen?” With a history of drinking problems and embarrassing arrests, Mr. Travis is too often a punch line these days, but his 1987 ode to enduring love remains one of the most heartfelt and sentimental Valentine’s-flavored songs you’ll hear.

Keith Whitley’s “When You Say Nothing at All” — a hit in the 1980s and then again in the 1990s for Alison Krauss — still is played at weddings.

Mr. Whitley, Mr. Travis and Miss Parton all go back a couple of decades, of course, but today’s Nashville stars give us new romantic standards — Faith Hill’s Grammy-winning “Breathe” became the top-selling song of 2000. Ten years later, Lady Antebellum’s bittersweet “Need You Now” became one of the biggest-selling country songs.

And, hey, love doesn’t always go bad for the aforementioned Miss Swift — at least it didn’t in 2008’s Romeo and Juliet-inspired “Love Story,” a happy-ending ballad that solidified her status as a crossover star.

Some of country music’s best love stories happen offstage, after the curtain closes.

These days, country fans are mesmerized by the drama surrounding Mr. Shelton and Miss Lambert.

Married in 2011, the year after he won male vocalist of the year and she won top female vocalist at the Country Music Association Awards, they are — like George Jones and Tammy Wynette before them — Nashville royalty.

He is a top judge on NBC’s hit show “The Voice,” has a big tour this year and in April, for the fourth year, will host the nationally televised Academy of Country Music Awards.

She is a darling of critics and fans, wins every award you can name and just last week released her latest single, “Automatic,” ahead of an album that likely will dominate country radio for the next year or so.

Both are regulars in the supermarket tabloids, with rumors of drinking and infidelity swirling around their high-profile union. Publicly, they profess to be committed to each other.

Both could take a lesson or two from Miss Parton, who celebrates her 48th anniversary this spring with her notoriously publicity-shy husband, Carl Dean.

Like Mr. Shelton and Miss Lambert, Miss Parton has been dogged over her long career by speculation about the state of her marriage — some even doubt Mr. Dean exists.

But the country superstar says her husband, who ran his own asphalt-paving firm while she was out becoming a star, is the only man for her.

Mr. Dean, she wrote in her biography, is a true romantic at heart and sends her poems. She told the Toronto Sun three years ago, “We’re really proud of our marriage. It’s the first for both of us. And the last.”

I know what you’re thinking, cause I’m thinking it too: “Awwwwwwwwwwwww.”

Seriously, though, 48 years — that’s worth some “awwwwws,” right?

One of Miss Parton’s contemporaries, the iconic Loretta Lynn, was married almost 49 years to Oliver “Doo” Lynn — portrayed memorably by a young Tommy Lee Jones in 1980’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”

Miss Lynn acknowledges, both in the autobiography on which the movie was based and in many of her classic songs, that her marriage was hard — even violent at times.

But she also wrote of her husband, who died in 1996: “He thought I was something special, more special than anyone else in the world, and never let me forget it.”

Like so much of what she wrote — powerful, poignant and straight from the heart.

But country’s most inspiring and tumultous love affair has to be the story of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.

Hollywood took on their tale with 2005’s “Walk the Line.” Leading lady Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar and a slew of other awards for her portrayal of June. But the roller-coaster love at the heart of that movie also inspired last year’s “Ring of Fire,” with folk singer Jewel playing June Carter Cash and, in some ways, the surprisingly sweet 2007 comedy “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.” (Jenna Fischer did the June Carter Cash honors there.)

“The Man in Black” and his long-suffering but devoted wife left behind the kind of epic, tangled tale that could fuel a handful of movies.

The duo had a big hit in 1967 with “Jackson,” joking in the lyrics about a relationship in which “the fire went out,” but their 35-year marriage — No. 2 for him, No. 3 for her — is a testament to second chances and keeping the flame burning.

They got married in 1968 and were together, devoted to each other by all accounts, until they died, four months apart in 2003.

“I have always enjoyed being a part of his life,” she said. “I’ve always loved him, and he’s always loved me.”

Now that, my friends, sounds like the start of a good country song.

Happy Valentine's Day.

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