In preparation for the June launch of their Brothers of the Sun co-headlining tour, Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw premiered a new duet, "Feel Like a Rock Star," on Sunday's (April 1) CBS telecast of the 47th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards from the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
Just two days later, the song is the most-played title on country radio.
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"Rock Star" was serviced to country radio stations by Chesney's label, BNA, during the ACM broadcast. After the first day of airplay (April 2) for next week's Hot Country Songs chart, the song already ranks at No. 1 with 979 plays and an audience of 7.9 million, according to Nielsen BDS. (Lee Brice's "A Woman Like You" ranks second after a day of building airplay with 5.5 million audience impressions.)
The lofty launch of "Rock Star" is almost unprecedented in the 22-year BDS-monitored history of Hot Country Songs, considering the format's conservatism regarding out-of-the-box new music. All but three songs in the current chart's top 25 boast double-digit chart weeks, with 10 each more than 20 weeks old.
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Should "Rock Star" maintain its post-ACM momentum, it could challenge for just the second No. 1 bow since Hot Country Songs adopted BDS data the week of Jan. 20, 1990. Garth Brooks' "More Than a Memory" soared in at No. 1 the week of Sept. 15, 2007.
Perhaps in Chesney's favor, he has two of the five highest debuts in the chart's BDS-based archives. "Don't Blink" opened at No. 16 the week of Sept. 8, 2007, and "The Boys of Fall" started at No. 17 the week of July 31, 2010. (Keith Urban's "Once in a Lifetime" also entered at No. 17 on the Sept. 2, 2006, chart.)
A BNA promotion executive tells Billboard that initial excitement following the ACMs could wane but that the label still expects a "top five or top 10 debut" when the next Hot Country Songs chart is unveiled next Monday (April 9).
Despite its overwhelming early airplay, "Rock Star" has drawn both praise and criticism from programmers. One large-market radio gatekeeper who spoke to Billboard on the condition of anonymity decried the duet as "horrid, and very disappointing," adding that Chesney and McGraw's "vocals are average and the lyrics are dull.
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"I was sick of this song after the second listen. Very disappointing," he added.
KKBQ Houston OM/PD Johnny Chiang offers a slightly more enthusiastic take. "A solid song, if a bit formulaic. However, having two stars of that magnitude on the same project certainly helps."
Superstar duet pairings often - but not always - garner significant initial radio traction. A warm first embrace, however, doesn't necessarily guarantee eventual chart-topping success on the Hot Country Songs chart.
Most notably in recent years, Brad Paisley has tallied four No. 1 collaborations: "When I Get Where I'm Going," featuring Dolly Parton (2006); "Start a Band," with Keith Urban (2009); and, "Old Alabama," featuring Alabama, and "Remind Me," with Carrie Underwood, both last year.
Zac Brown Band has similarly logged two high-profile collaborative leaders: "As She's Walking Away," featuring Alan Jackson, and "Knee Deep," featuring Jimmy Buffett (2011).
Also last year, Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson's "Don't You Wanna Stay" spent three weeks at No. 1 (and crossed over to the Adult Contemporary and Adult Top 40 top 10).
Still, other duets featuring country royalty have failed to ascend to the Hot Country Songs throne. Chesney and McGraw, in fact, have both fallen short of the summit with prior star power-packed duets.
Chesney has charted four top 20 duets with co-lead solo artists on Hot Country Songs but, perhaps surprisingly, only the pairing with a non-core format artist - "When the Sun Goes Down," with Uncle Kracker (2004) - reached No. 1. Chesney's top 20 duets with two of the biggest acts in country music history each missed the summit: 2008's "Shiftwork," with George Strait (No. 2), and "Every Other Weekend," with Reba McEntire (No. 15). (Chesney's other top 20 collaboration with a soloist, "I'm Alive," with Dave Matthews, peaked at No. 6 in 2009.)
McGraw and wife Faith Hill have charted four top 10 duets but only the first - 1997's "It's Your Love" - ruled Hot Country Songs (for six weeks). "Just to Hear You Say That You Love Me" (No. 3, 1998), "Let's Make Love" (No. 6, 2000) and "I Need You" (No. 8, 2007) were hits but not No. 1s.
In line with that track record, the anonymous programmer who spoke to Billboard says that there's no one-size-fits-all pattern for such songs, no matter how big the stars involved might be. "Collaborations get people interested for a first-listen only. There's nothing wrong with them but the combination won't hold them longer than an introduction to the song.
"It's all about the quality of the piece."
What will the fate of Chesney and McGraw's "Feel Like a Rock Star" be? Early indications look promising but, again, a No. 1 outcome on Hot Country Songs can't be assured.
In addition to its massive early airplay, "Rock Star" could sell approximately 50,000 downloads in its first week, according to industry sources. The song, the first single from Chesney's 15th studio album, "Welcome to the Fishbowl," due June 19, was released digitally at midnight Monday morning following Chesney and McGraw's performance on the ACMs.
For now, radio and consumers are partying with "Rock Star."
"In the long run," says Chiang, "the sustainability of any song, whether it's a collaboration or (a solo song), depends on the song itself."