The Billboard Country #1s of 2011: Who Made It And How!
The one thing that you can count on in the Music Business as in life, is change. And change was certainly the theme for 2011! The number of songs reaching #1 was at an all time high of 34 and the number of writers matched that all time high in climbing to 80. Again this year, 50% of the singles that reached #1 (17) were written in whole or in part by the artist.
This is good news for the publishers who are investing their money and efforts in Artist/writers, not so good for "stand alone" writers and their publishers. In speaking to publishers about what they look for in a writer, the "artist" tag seems to carry a lot of weight in today's Music Business climate apparently justifiably so.
The only down side to what happened last year (2011) is that although more writers had a song go to number one, more writers and publishers will have to share the yearly performance money, or "split the blanket", to quote my old pal Harlan Howard. The financial reward may probably not be as great in some cases, but you had a number one record.
Among the songs that raced to the top, the pack leader was Blake Sheldon with "Honey Bee" which made it from zero to #1 in ten weeks. About 1/3 (11) records sprinted up the charts in 11 to 15 weeks. 50% (17) took the 16 to 25 week trip and with only five that lasted into the thirty plus week trip, "A Little Bit Stronger", Sara Evans, 33 weeks, "Country Must Be Country Wide" Brantley Gilbert 33 weeks, "Are You Gonna Kiss Me Or Not", Thompson Square, 36 weeks, and "Crazy Girl"' Eli Young band, 38 weeks, the 800 pound gorilla was Chris Young with "Voices" that took 51 weeks to get there and made it over a year (53 weeks) on the charts!
What is interesting to note is that back in 2009 Chris Young held the title for longest trip to the get to the "Ball" with "Getting You Home" (The Little Black Dress song) at only 35 weeks.
As you would expect, because of the number of #1s, 21 of the 34, only had one week at number one. "Honey Bee"' Blake Shelton' and "Keep Me In Mind" Zac Brown Band, both had 4 weeks at the top with "Felt Good On My Lips" Tim McGraw, "Somewhere With You", Kenny Chesney, "Don't You Wanna Stay", Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, "God Gave Me You", Blake Shelton, and "We Owned The Night" Lady Antebellum staying at number one for 3 weeks.
Residency on the charts after leaving #1 was in general confined to 0 to 3 weeks. The exceptions were Blake Shelton, (4 weeks), "Dirt Road Anthem", Jason Aldean (6 weeks) and "Take A Back Road" Rodney Atkins (8 weeks).
At 50% (17) of the 34 records, it may seem that the artist/writer is the [business] way to go, but the balance that a “stand alone” writer brings to the equation cannot be overemphasized. The need of the artist to put forward a personal view is generally well tempered by the “stand alone writer”. The “stand alone writer” has a different perspective on songs because he/she is not the performer, and doesn’t necessarily shape the song in his/her image.
In looking at the gender of the writers you find that 7 of the 80 writers (about 11%) involved in creating the #1’s for 2011, were women. They wrote songs for the 9 records that had female artists involved.
About 2/3 of the #1 records were under 100 B.P.M. (Beats Per Minute) The bulk were 70-90 B.P.M.’s (19) and only 3 were under 70 B.P.M (less than 10%). Although all of last years (2010) #1’s were 4/4, this year the waltz waltzed in! The Eli Young Band found favor at drive time and waltzed all the way to one of Billboard’s most played country songs.
Although Kenny Chesney’s “Live A Little” had a 56-second intro and “Old Alabama” (Brad Paisley) came in second with 33 seconds, if you average all the intros of all the #1’s together you get 17 seconds. However, if you take out Kenny’s 56-second intro the average falls to 15 seconds, the same as 2010. I guess country radio finds that intro length handy.
You can love them, hate them, be indifferent to them, but don’t ignore them. They define the situational perception of the listener.
Me, you, us, etc. - the first person ruled at #1.
Twenty of the 34 were first person (me, you), which means they were conversations between the artist and their audience or an individual on a one-on-one basis. Illustrations of this are “so listen Romeo, when you’re feelin’ kinda lonely, let me tell you where to go” (Reba), “Who are you when I’m not around” (Blake Shelton) and Billy Currington saying he’s “right on the edge of giving into you” (Let Me Down Easy).
The third person (him/her/them) allowed Justin Moore to talk about his “long lost cousin John” and tell him about his daughter” and that “she’s a doctor and he’d be proud”. Toby Keith got to talk about his dad buying “nothin’ he can’t fix with WD-40 and a craftsman wrench” so those pronouns did their job!
Was everywhere at drive time! From Thompson Square demanding “are you gonna kiss me or not?” to Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson trying to “wanna make love last” as they each try to make the other “stay here a little while”.
Love of Family
Chris Young’s “Voices” make sure mama, daddy, grandma, and grandpa were remembered for their “words of wisdom” and Justin Moore’s “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away” told about his grandpa, kids, his “long lost cousin John”, and John’s daughter the “doctor” and even his “bird dog Bo”.
Love of Country
Toby Keith as usual set the standard for “Country” with “Made In America”. From the opening line “My old man’s that old man”, “dirty hands and a clean soul”, who’s “got the red, white, and blue flying high on the farm” we all know that “he’s just made in America”.
Luke Bryan looked around and there was “Someone Else Calling You Baby” and “a tear in your eye says I should have been listening”! Kenny Chesney pined for being “Somewhere With You” being “out by the pier”, or sitting “outside your house waiting for the lights to go out”.
Taylor Swift found someone “like a full on rainstorm” who made “Sparks Fly” whenever he smiled. Billy Currington found his girl and begged her to “Let me Down Easy” when he found he was “on the edge of giving in to you” and making her promise, “if I leave my heart with you tonight” she’s gonna “treat it right”.
Good Time Party
The most obvious example of this is “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” (Jake Owen) where the “girls are always hot and the beer is always cold” and “we were comin’ alive, caught up in a Southern summer barefoot blue jean night”. Kenny Chesney got “a wake up call” to “live a little, love a lot” and “take some time and waste it on number one” in “Live A Little”. Dierks Bentley kicks pretty well in “Am I The Only One” as well.
Reba cuts to the chase about the man’s “no good, two timin’ lies coming outta your mouth” and tells him to “try to call, twitter me, text until your fingers bleed”. She really tells him where to go…. “Turn On The Radio”.
Chris Young got “words of wisdom” from his whole family in “Voices”. Dad tells him to work hard but “don’t work your life away” and Mama, Grandma, and Grandpa are all handing out “life lessons”.
I could refer back to Chris Young “Voices” again but Brantley Gilbert also speaks to core values when he says, “we weren’t raised to take, we were raised to give” in “Country Must Be Countrywide”. Blake Shelton celebrates that “God Gave Me You” for those “days of doubt” when he “lost my way”.
Bearing in mind that the “on-air personality” can use as much or as little of this year’s sometimes very long fades as he/she needs to stretch to the break, 23 records settled comfortably in the three minutes and [change] length. Eight were over four minutes, two were under three minutes, and only one broke the five-minute barrier.
These are outlines of the way listeners seem to prefer to receive their information at “worst time of day possible”. If you want to find out more about them there is a chapter on them in “Murphy’s Laws of Songwriting” The Book.
Verse (Verse Optional), Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Instrumental, Chorus.
In the spirit of “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” this structure was used effectively four times at #1. Billy Currington’s “Let Me Down Easy” and Jake Owen’s “Barefoot, Blue Jean Night” are good examples.
Verse (Verse Optional), Chorus, Verse, Chorus, (Bridge Middle 8) Chorus (with an instrumental before or after the chorus).
This old reliable took the trip to #1, 15 times! Chris Young’s “Tomorrow” and Lady A’s “We Owned The Night” showed this off well.
I use the word ‘Lift’ in this section. It can also mean Pre-Chorus, Climb, Channel, Ramp, etc.).
Verse, Lift, Chorus, Verse, Lift, Chorus, (Bridge Optional) Lift, Chorus out.
This structure is used almost exclusively at #1 on the “Pop” Billboard Charts and did the job for Taylor Swift’s “Sparks Fly” and “Are You Gonna Kiss Me Or Not” (Thompson Square) for a total of 10 uses on the country charts.
Verse, Verse, Bridge, Verse (It is also called the AABA).
Although it was only used three times, this is a good story telling vehicle. Tim McGraw showed that you could add an extra verse and bridge and it still works well in “Felt Good On My Lips”.
Traditionally this would have been Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Instrumental, Bridge/Middle 8, Chorus Out and was called rondeau or rondo (to quote W.O. Smith in his book “Sideman”). There are only two records that featured songs that were close to this structure. I always refer to “Good Morning Beautiful” by Steve Holy as the perfect rondeau. Blake Shelton’s record of “Who Are You When I’m Not Looking” which was chorus, verse, chorus, verse, verse, chorus, almost did it. Jason Aldean’s record of “Dirt Road Anthem” starts with the chorus, raps out four small verses, goes back to the chorus, then raps three small verses and goes on to chorus after chorus. So many elements of this record are similar to Billboard #1 pop songs.
One of the major differences between pop and country chart toppers is the number of repetitions of the title. Country has a lot less. Five #1’s had only three uses of title, setting the minimum standard for repetition.
The maximum number of repetition of title (19) was “Remind Me” (Brad Paisley & Carrie Underwood). I guess they really needed reminding. All the rest fell between 3 and 13 repetitions.
Because the country listener “listens into” a song, multiple repetitions over a 3 to 6 month period would have a high “burn factor” and the listener at first attracted by repetition might find it tiresome after a few weeks, so less is more I guess.
If you’re looking for humor, check out Dierks Bentley’s “Am I The Only One” where he calls “wild, man Willy” “but Idol was on TV” and went to a “joint looking like a morgue”. Irony is such a large part of country. One of many examples is Luke Bryan’s “Somebody Else Calling You Baby” when he tells her “you wanted your time and you wanted your space” what every woman on the planet knows is code for “I’m really seeing someone else” and him not recognizing that “someone else is calling you baby”.
Details showed up everything and set up some great stories. From “blow the speakers out your Chevy truck”, “paint your toes cause you bite your nails”, “he reminded me of Chris LeDoux and that Copenhagen smile”, detail ruled.
The story songs like “Colder Weather” (Zac Brown Band), “Felt Good On My Lips” (Tim McGraw), “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” (Jake Owen), etc. were stories in content but most were very conversational. About 15 of the 34 #1’s were more story than conversational.
Writing this part of the yearly analysis is always the hardest part about doing these "perspectives" on the previous year.
Aside from the "write with the Artist" approach, it is worth noting that every year, two or three "Artist/writers" actually write #1's for other "Artist/writers". Does this mean that "Artist/writers" are better than "stand alone" or non-performing writers?
No, it means that they are really "Writer/artists"! This may come as a (pleasant) surprise to some of you whose publisher has mandated that you write with "the Artist".
In the best scenario, the Writer/artist leaves the "artist" at the door and concentrates on making the song a living, breathing piece of work with a beginning, middle, and an end.
A Thing with at least any two of the "big three" (humor, irony, detail). Sometimes all three!
A Thing that invites the listener in by creating an expectation (opening lines) and then fulfills that expectation (title) in 60 seconds.
A Thing that tells a story about a situation or place we're all familiar with, with a slightly different perspective or insight that we find engaging for months of constant repetition.
A Thing that when it does really well and everyone accepts it as a "Big Thing", becomes a #1 Hit Song.
This article would not be possible without the wonderful assistance of Anna Maki and her research team of Mercedes Davis, Blake Ferguson, Lincoln Faulkner, Gracie Leathers, Lauren Perry, Chelsey Reardon, Rusty Redden, Georgie Sillem, Cami Steger, Kristen Tribble, Renee Urbanc, Kristen Westerbeck and Tania Yegelwel.