The Hard Luck Story Behind Randy Travis’ “Forever and Ever Amen”

The path that led to the creation of the song “Forever and Ever Amen,” has all the elements of a heartfelt country movie. Songwriters Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz used aspects of their hard luck and heartfelt stories to craft the love song that claimed the top spot on the 1987 Billboard charts for three straight weeks.

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Paul Overstreet

Of course, long before the song was released, Paul Overstreet grew up in Mississippi without much except a love of music by artists ranging from Marty Robbins and Elvis Presley to Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, and Grand Funk Railroad.

Two main events convinced the self-taught guitar player to leave his job as a mechanic in Texas, climb into a 1968 Ford Fairlane, and head to Nashville to become a singer/songwriter. The 1964 film, Your Cheatin’ Heart, is a fictionalized biography/musical about the life of Hank Williams Sr. Although the movie sparked Overstreet’s desire to make his own mark in music, a show by Tanya Tucker moved him to action. The day after the Tucker show, Overstreet, who had no suitcase, loaded his clothes into a laundry basket, plopped it in the car, and headed toward Music City.

Don Schlitz

Little did he know that a North Carolina native named Don Schlitz had moved to Nashville several years before, following what has been called his “uneventful stint” at Duke University. Schlitz worked nights in the computer lab at Vanderbilt University as he tried to establish himself as a songwriter. 

It was exhausting juggling the two jobs, and the grind caught up with Schlitz. In fact, his boss threatened to fire the sleep-deprived musician if he was found sleeping on the job again. But that grim prophecy never came to pass.

A song Schlitz wrote in 1976 when he was 23 years old caught fire when Kenny Rogers’ version was released in November 1978 as the title track of his album of the same name. “The Gambler” became the 1979 CMA Song of the Year, hit No. 1 on the country charts, and crossed over to the pop charts, a rare event in the 1970s. Rogers won the 1980 Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance.

The Road to Songwriting

Around the time Roger’s version of “The Gambler” was on heavy rotation on radio, Overstreet arrived in Nashville. With a new high school diploma, the teen worked blue-collar jobs, including in a water heater factory during the day while playing in country bands at night. The road to songwriting and singing took a toll on Overstreet, and he turned to alcohol to relieve the pressure and disappointment of not making headway toward realizing his musical goals. After turning to religion and kicking alcohol, Overstreet’s luck changed.

In January 1982, George Jones released Overstreet’s song, “Same Ole Me,” with the Oak Ridge Boys. The song reached No. 5 on the country singles chart and won Overstreet recognition and respect.

Dynamic Duo

It wasn’t long after that Overstreet teamed with Schlitz, and the two wrote: “On the Other Hand.”

When Randy Travis released the song in 1985, it peaked at No. 67 on the U.S. charts. But when Travis gained more name recognition, the label re-released “On the Other Hand.” The 1986 release became his first No. 1 hit. 

Travis urged Overstreet and Schlitz to write together again. The two agreed and arranged a writing session at Overstreet’s house. 

The Writing Session

On his way to the session, Schlitz tossed around some ideas. When he arrived, he told Overstreet how his young son would say his nightly prayers and then add, “Mommy, I love you forever and ever, amen.”

The two have said that the simple phrase was the catalyst they needed. With those words in mind, they sat on Overstreet’s porch to write. The two swapped stories and ideas, jotting their musings down on legal pads. As nightfall came, they worked by candlelight. At one point, Overstreet told Schlitz how his wife, a hairdresser, had once mistakenly mixed a solution that turns a woman’s hair green. 

Schlitz and Overstreet laughed about the mishap and spun it a bit to write the line:

They say time takes its toll on a body, makes a young girl’s brown hair turn grey. Honey, I don’t care, I ain’t in love with your hair, and if it all fell out, I’d love you anyway.

By morning the song was complete.

“Forever and Ever, Amen” was released in March 1987 as the first single from Travis’ album of the same name. The song went to No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard charts. It was subsequently covered by Josh Turner in 2020 and Ronan Keaton and Shania Twain in 2021.

Photo by Mark Junge/Getty Images

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