Chart Beat

Despite Viral Success, Shirley Caesar's 'Mule' Isn't Kicking Up Support From Gospel Radio

Shirley Caesar performs in 2016
Johnny Louis/Getty Images

Shirley Caesar performs at BankUnited Center on May 8, 2016 in Coral Gables, Fla. 

'Hold My Mule' continues atop the Hot Gospel Songs chart, but most gospel stations aren't playing it.

Gospel music vet and pastor Shirley Caesar, 79, leads Billboard's Hot Gospel Songs chart (dated Jan. 21) for a fifth week with "Hold My Mule," featuring Albertina Walker and Milton Brunson.

Despite its lengthy reign, streaming is almost exclusively driving the "Mule" train, with almost no interest from gospel radio.

As the Hot Gospel Songs chart combines airplay, sales and streaming data, streaming accounts for nearly 100 percent of the current chart points for "Mule." The track easily holds its grip atop the Gospel Streaming Songs survey with 2.4 million U.S. streams in the week ending Jan. 5, according to Nielsen Music.

"Mule," however, has not made a notable imprint at gospel radio during its No. 1 run. Despite a history of airplay at the format since Caesar released the original version of the song in 1988, from Monday, Nov. 21 (the start of Thanksgiving week; we'll get to why that's a logical starting point in a moment) through Jan. 10, "Mule" has garnered a nominal 132 spins on Nielsen-monitored gospel stations (counting all versions of the song).

Let's recap how the "Mule" revival occurred in the first place.

In the tradition of recent social media memes like the Mannequin Challenge "Black Beatles" fad and the lyric-based buzz accompanying Migos' "Bad and Boujee" came the #UNameIt Challenge, which launched when DJ Suede the Remix God created an update of the 28-year-old "Mule," with special focus on the line, "beans, greens, potatoes, tomatoes" among other food shout-outs, timely, of course, leading up to Thanksgiving. (Amid "Mule"-mania, Caesar even launched an online store, selling #UNameItChallenge merchandise.)

"Mule" gained more traction when Chris Brown posted a video dancing to the song, inspiring further viral clips.

At the same time, Caesar is present at the format thanks to her current single being promoted to radio, "Fill This House." The title track from her most recent album is in its seventh frame on the Gospel Airplay chart, bulleting at No. 24. The LP of the same name crowned the Top Gospel Albums chart dated June 25 and has remained on the survey since.

"House" follows Caesar's other recent radio hit, "It's Alright, It's Ok," featuring Anthony Hamilton, which rose to No. 3 on Gospel Airplay (and No. 7 on Hot Gospel Songs) this past summer.

The promo efforts behind Caesar's new music may help explain why gospel radio programmers haven't saddled up on "Mule." Reporters to the Gospel Airplay chart (like their pop, rhythmic or R&B/hip-hop counterparts, for instance) tend to rotate current singles most heavily, with older songs still a part of the mix.

Also keep in mind that many gospel radio stations target audiences aged 25 to 54 or 35 to 64, not focusing on millennials who are more intrinsically drawn to social media and the memes that they spark.

"We did play snippets of 'Hold My Mule' around the holidays," says WTLC-AM Indianapolis music director Charmaine Little. "Our audience is a little older, so they don't like a lot of change. And, they're familiar with the original. We didn't want to mess with things."

Val Monroe, music director of WEXL Detroit, adds, "I think the internet explosion certainly put Shirley Caesar on the map for a younger audience that may have never heard gospel music before. We didn't get much in the way of requests from our listeners for the new version of 'Mule,' but the original track is still popular with our core audience. I just think experimenting with the new one would divert our attention away from our core listeners."

As radio competes with ever-evolving music platforms, programmers make many of their music decisions based on researching their audiences.

"We are still not ruling out playing the updated ['Mule'], but for now we're just kind of monitoring it," WLIB-AM New York program director Skip Dillard tells Billboard. "Shirley is still a significant artist here and we will occasionally spin the original version, but we lean heavily on what our audience wants through research. With that in mind, when I add a new record, I want to be playing it for six months or so. That wasn't going to happen with the version exploding on social media. It's really cool, but novelty songs are good for a certain period of time, and that's usually it."

WAGG-AM Birmingham, Alabama, PD Jay Bryant concurs, adding that the younger demos driving the #UNameItChallenge are more than likely not tuning into gospel radio: "What's happening online is not in any way similar to a gospel radio station, and the people using a lot of social media tend to not be your everyday gospel listeners."

Still, Bryant says that Caesar is a core artist for his station. It occasionally plays the original "Mule," while "It's Alright, It's Ok" was "a huge hit for us."

And, as in other genres, gospel programmers are always seeking to cultivate new waves of talent.

"I'd really like us to be attracting more 25- to 54-year-old listeners," says Bryant. "I must admit that many of our main artists are getting older and I think it's a major concern for us. We need to develop some younger stars in our format."