How CMA Singles of the Year Endure At Country Radio, Or Don't

A brand-new single of the year winner will be crowned on the Nov. 4 Country Music Assn. Awards, but what kind of shelf life will that song have at radio after its win? To help answer that question we took a look at the durability of CMA singles of the year champs for the past 25 years.

According to airplay data from Nielsen Music, which crunched the numbers for every winner of the category since 1990, some past honorees have nothing to show for being hits in their time, while others have endured surprisingly well. Three of them -- Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart,” Lee Ann Womack’s “I May Hate Myself In the Morning” and Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” -- didn’t receive any spins on the stations that make up the country chart panel for the week ending Oct. 25, although, as KILT Houston assistant PD/music director Chris Huff notes, “Hurt” received very little airplay even when it was a current.

Several other past winners barely register now. For the chart week examined, The Soggy Bottom Boys’ “I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow” from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? film soundtrack got just two spins, Steve Wariner’s “Holes In The Floor Of Heaven” only got four, and Brooks & Dunn’s “Believe” and Alan Jackson’s 9/11 song “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” each got six.

Explaining how novelty songs like “Achy Breaky Heart” and “I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow” sometimes make the cut with CMA voters, Huff says, “The single of the year is kind of like the No. 1 of No. 1s, but there are certainly exceptions to the rule, instances where the moment overrides conventional wisdom.”

But plenty of trophy winners are still performing strongly. Of course the most recent ones have a huge advantage in terms of airplay. So discounting the last five, the singles of the year still getting the most love from radio are Carrie Underwood’s 2007 hit “Before He Cheats” with 447 spins, Lady Antebellum’s “I Run To You” from 2009 with 421 spins and Tim McGraw’s 2004 smash “Live Like You Were Dying” with 302.

Three even older songs are still getting weekly spins in the triple digits: George Strait’s “Check Yes Or No” from 1996, Jackson’s “Chattahoochee” from 1993 and Garth Brooks’ “Friends In Low Places” from 1991.

The CMA single of the year category has existed since 1967, and while you wouldn’t expect to hear Cal Smith’s 1974 winner “Country Bumpkin” on the radio, there are some prior to the 1990 cutoff date that still enjoy a bit of airplay on reporting stations with deep gold libraries, including the Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” (1979), the Judds’ “Why Not Me” (1985), Randy Travis’ “Forever and Ever, Amen” (1987) and Keith Whitley’s “I’m No Stranger to the Rain” (1989).

Here’s a look at how the last 25 winners are faring now (Data is from the chart week ending Oct. 25):

• “When I Call Your Name,” Vince Gill (1990), 11 spins from seven stations
• “Friends in Low Places,” Garth Brooks (1991), 161 spins, 63 stations
• “Achy Breaky Heart,” Billy Ray Cyrus (1992), zero spins
• “Chattahoochee,” Alan Jackson (1993), 120 spins, 69 stations
• “I Swear,” John Michael Montgomery (1994), 21 spins, 11 stations
• “When You Say Nothing At All,” Alison Krauss + Union Station (1995), 23 spins, 17 stations
• “Check Yes or No,” George Strait (1996), 180 spins, 96 stations
• “Strawberry Wine,” Deana Carter (1997), 39 spins, 16 stations
• “Holes in the Floor of Heaven,” Steve Wariner (1998), four spins, four stations
• “Wide Open Spaces,” Dixie Chicks (1999), 24 spins, 13 stations
• “I Hope You Dance,” Lee Ann Womack with Sons of the Desert (2000), 49 spins, 27 stations
• “I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow,” The Soggy Bottom Boys (2001), two spins, two stations
• “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” Alan Jackson (2002), six spins, four stations
• “Hurt,” Johnny Cash (2003), zero spins
• “Live Like You Were Dying,” Tim McGraw (2004), 302 spins, 112 stations
• “I May Hate Myself in the Morning,” Lee Ann Womack (2005), zero spins
• “Believe,” Brooks & Dunn (2006), six spins, four stations
• “Before He Cheats,” Carrie Underwood (2007), 447 spins, 131 stations
• “I Saw God Today,” George Strait (2008), 49 spins, 27 stations
• “I Run to You,” Lady Antebellum (2009), 421 spins, 130 stations
• “Need You Now,” Lady Antebellum (2010), 521spins, 132 stations
• “If I Die Young,” The Band Perry (2011), 309 spins, 121 stations
• “Pontoon,” Little Big Town (2012), 341 spins, 103 stations
• “Cruise,” Florida Georgia Line (2013), 722 spins, 148 stations
• “Automatic,” Miranda Lambert (2014), 547 spins, 125 stations

For a single to continue receiving airplay as a gold title long after its CMA win, “it definitely has to have the ‘it’ factor,” says Bill Reed, music director of KTST and KXXY Oklahoma City. “Does it have a good feel to it? Does it sound good when framed with your station’s brand? Can you hear this song 10 years down the road without thinking, ‘What were they thinking?’ ” 

Tim Roberts, WYCD Detroit’s operations manager/PD, says the singles that endure “usually are songs that got a lot of airplay and somehow remain hip or relevant, and somehow are timeless. The best ones still sound current, like they belong in the mix.” And George King, vp programming, network formats for Westwood One, says they “must move you and bring out some kind of emotion in you each and every time you hear it.”

Programmers also must allow for evolving tastes. King says songs like “Holes In The Floor of Heaven,” “I Swear” and “When I Call Your Name” are not on the playlists for his network’s Mainstream and Hot Country formats “because as times change, so do listeners’ musical tastes. These songs, although incredible, just don’t fit the sound of what we’re playing now.” 

Stations’ various era cutoffs are also a factor. Says Huff, “There are several stations now focused on the past decade or so for whom many of the ’90s singles of the year are no longer relevant. For those that still play a fuller spectrum, most of the ’90s titles are still likely a fit. The novelty-ish titles like ‘Achy Breaky’ and ‘Constant Sorrow’ probably didn’t test into gold where they tested at all to begin with, but on the other side, evergreens like ‘Friends in Low Places’ and ‘Chattahoochee’ have been regulars on the front pages of auditorium music tests for over 20 years now.”

Airplay aside, how do these songs stack up with fans? A recent poll on NashvilleEdge.com asked fans to rank their favorite single of the year winners for the past 25 years. “Check Yes or No” was the top choice, followed by “I Saw God Today,” “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” “Friends in Low Places,” and “I Hope You Dance.”