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Justin Timberlake Lands First Hit on Billboard’s Country Airplay Chart

His two-year-old "Drink You Away" debuts following November's CMAs performance with Chris Stapleton, and thanks to key support in Nashville.

Justin Timberlake has gone country.

At least, he’s gone and debuted on Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart (dated Feb. 6) for the first time as a soloist, as “Drink You Away,” from his 2013 Billboard 200 No. 1 album The 20/20 Experience (2 of 2), debuts at No. 60. (He previously scaled the chart once with *NSYNC, who reached No. 3 in 1999 as featured on Alabama’s remake of the boy band’s pop smash, and No. 8 Billboard Hot 100 hit, “God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You.”)

“Drink” concurrently climbs 38-36 on the Pop Songs radio airplay chart, where Timberlake is much more familiar. The title is his 26th on Pop Songs, to go along with 12 as part of *NSYNC. Combining his solo and group efforts, only Rihanna has made more visits to Pop Songs (41, with her 42nd, “Work,” likely to arrive next week).

Even if it’s with an old-fashioned drinking song, how does Timberlake (who was born and grew up in Memphis) find himself on a chart dominated by Thomas Rhett and alongside the likes of Luke Bryan, Carrie Underwood and even Hank Williams Jr.?

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Timberlake performed “Drink” with Chris Stapleton Nov. 4, 2015 at the 49th Country Music Assn. (CMA) Awards. Stapleton dominated the night, winning in all three categories in which he was nominated: new artist and male vocalist of the year, as well as album of the year for Traveller. Along with “Drink,” the pair performed Stapleton’s “Tennessee Whiskey.”

Buzz was evident the next day, when RCA Records saw Stapleton’s sales soar (in the iTunes Store). Traveller (released on Mercury Nashville/Universal Music Group Nashville) subsequently became the first album to re-enter the Billboard 200 at No. 1, selling more in the week ending Nov. 5 (153,000 in pure album sales, according to Nielsen Music) than it had from its arrival in May through the end of October (96,000). Also notably, it made that spike after just a full day of post-CMAs reaction. In the following week (ending Nov. 12), Traveller totaled another 97,000 in traditional sales.

Stapleton’s newfound exposure and sales boom spurred RCA to release “Drink” as a single to pop and country radio (with RCA Nashville working the song to the latter format). Nearly three months later, the song is scaling each genre’s airplay chart.

“Why miss an opportunity to have a hit?” says RCA executive vp/GM Joe Riccitelli. “Justin always believed in the song. He didn’t perform it on the CMAs to have a hit. He’s just been really passionate about it.”

The Country Airplay bow of “Drink” was “something that definitely happened organically,” echoes Steve Hodges, evp promotion/artist development for Sony Music Nashville (which houses RCA, Arista and Columbia Nashville). “The CMAs performance was a great moment and we followed up by delivering a clean version of the song to radio, so stations didn’t have to play the TV audio [or lengthy five-and-a-half-minute album version].”

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, “Drink” is receiving its warmest welcome from Nashville stations. WSIX accounted for 63 of the song’s 87 plays at country in the week ending Jan. 24, while pop-formatted WRVW led all stations with 80 plays during the week. Southern-based pop stations in Tulsa, Okla. (KHTT, 62 plays), Chattanooga, Tenn. (WDOD, 52) and Memphis (WHBQ, 47) have also hoisted “Drink” on their playlists.

“Coming off the CMAs performance, it just made sense to be playing it and talking about it,” says WRVW program director Jonathan Shuford, who notes that the song became the most-Shazammed in Nashville after the CMAs. “It was such a big pop culture moment that happened right here in Nashville. Initially, we thought we’d just be playing it for a couple of weeks, but the listener demand was so high that we just kept it in rotation.”

“First, it’s a great song. Beyond that, when you consider it sonically and in many other ways, including the subject matter, it’s more country than most of the stuff we’re playing. It sounds fantastic on the air,” muses iHeartMedia vp/programming and WSIX PD Michael Bryan. “If this were any other country artist, like Eric Church, for instance, we would not even be having this conversation.

“Plus, when Timberlake plays this song in his shows, he says, ‘This is my country song!’ I mean, even Garth Brooks has jumped on stage with him to play ‘Friends in Low Places.’ “

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Shuford adds that he isn’t concerned that listeners might scratch their heads at the station’s sudden support for what had been an album track for two years. (The 20/20 Experience [2 of 2] had generated one major hit: “Not a Bad Thing” topped Pop Songs for two weeks in June 2014.) “We’re in a day and age where the pop audience isn’t buying as many full-length albums. There’s likely a [significant] percentage of our listeners who had never heard the song until we started playing it, so it’s not really perceived as ‘old.’

“And, hey, at the end of the day, you can’t really go wrong playing a Justin Timberlake song.”