A Look at the Number One Country Songs of 2004
Most writers follow their hearts. Only when the song is finished - when they've created someone who never existed, in a place that never was, doing something that never happened - do they really begin to think about commercialism and what to pitch to whom. There are other writers, however, who purposefully sit down to "go for the throat;" who hunt for a radio hit and don't aim at having a #2 song. After all, for most of us, the theory behind joining the world's second oldest profession (writing for money) is to be the lead dog. Remember if you're not, the view never changes. Therefore, it's a good idea to know what propels a song to that most coveted of spots, the one that artists, managers, A&R and promotion people gaze at in rapture . . . numero uno!
Only 46 writers stood in the golden circle in 2004, which means more people were struck by lightning in the U.S. than wrote a #1 Country song. Of those 46 writers, six were artists who recorded the songs they participated in. The good news for non-artists, or "stand alone" writers, is that they were responsible for writing two-thirds of those #1 songs.
What's In Common?
Nobody was waltzing at drive time last year as all of the 21 #1 songs were in 4/4 time.
As for time-to-title, the majority of #1s used their titles within 60 seconds, (including an average 15-second intro). As far as repetitions-of-title, less was apparently more, as two-thirds (14 total) had only three-to-seven mentions of the title. At the low end were "In A Real Love" (Vassar/Wiseman) with three uses of title and "Suds In The Bucket" (Jenai/Montana) with four. At the high end was "When The Sun Goes Down" (James) with 32.
Interestingly, the only one getting his heart broken at #1 was Keith Urban with "You'll Think Of Me" (Powell/Urban). I know in "I Hate Everything" (Harrison/Stegall), the main character lost everything and was living in a shoebox on the side of the road, but that wasn't George Strait. He managed to learn his lesson from the loser in 3 minutes, 30 seconds and called home just in time to save his marriage, which made Keith Urban the king of lonely last year.
If you obeyed the usual A&R requests (Midtempo, Mid-to-Uptempo and Uptempo positive love songs), you had a statistical advantage over your competition, in that those types of songs made up 81 percent of the total #1s for 2004.
A third of the year's #1 songs were Uptempo (7 of 21) and collectively spent 16 weeks at #1. Midtempos numbered five in all and spent a total of 15 weeks at the top. Mid- to Uptempos likewise numbered five and spent seven weeks at #1.
While ballads comprised only four of the 21 spots, those that reached the top managed to remain there for 18 weeks.
Intros grew slightly from the old standard of 13 seconds to 15 seconds in 2004. Some much shorter than that were "Redneck Woman" (Rich/Wilson) at .05 seconds and "Suds In The Bucket" (Jenai/Montana) at .06 seconds. Much longer intros were "Live Like You Were Dying" (Nichols/Wiseman) at 23 seconds and "Days Go By" (Powell/Urban) at 26 seconds.
Theme and Person
The themes on Country radio last year were exactly what you would expect from a blue-collar team trying to keep their audience between the ditches. For example, we heard love found ("Suds In The Bucket" . "Watch The World Go By"), love celebrated ("Nothing On But The Radio" . "Remember When" . "In A Real Love"), life lessons ("There Goes My Life" . "I Hate Everything"), patriotism ("American Soldier"), love lost ("You'll Think Of Me"), drinking ("Whiskey Girl") and good old-fashioned party ("When The Sun Goes Down" . "Some Beach" . "Girls Lie Too"). Nine of the 21 were morality plays/life lessons; 5 were romantic; 5 were party time; 1 was sad and 1 was patriotic. The five songs that held listeners longer than 30 weeks were all Mid- to Uptempo party time/love songs ("Some Beach" . "Nothing On But The Radio" . "In A Real Love" . "Suds In The Bucket" . "Somebody"). Fifteen of the #1s used the first and second persons (I, me, us, you, we), which is consistent with Country songs being conversational.
By the way, for those of you doing the math at home, if 2004's #1s seemed to spend more than 52 weeks at the top, it's because they did! "There Goes My Life" (Mobley/Thrasher) actually reached #1 at the end of 2003 and "Some Beach" (Feek/Overstreet) extended its stay into 2005.
The records that reached #1 the fastest were "There Goes My Life" (Mobley/Thrasher) in 8 weeks, "When The Sun Goes Down" (James) in 8 weeks and "Live Like You Were Dying" (Nichols/Wiseman) in 6 weeks. (That song spent a huge 19 weeks at #1.)
As for total time spent on the charts, those three songs were not even close to being the longest lived. The records that took the longest time to get to #1 were "Somebody" (Berg/Tate/Wright) in 29 weeks, "In A Real Love" (Vassar/Wiseman) in 27 weeks, "Suds In The Bucket" (Jenai/Montana) in 23 weeks and "Nothing On But The Radio" (Blackmon/Hill/Long) in 23 weeks.
About half the chart toppers were longer than 4 minutes, with the other half hovering between 3 to 4 minutes (around 3.30).
Interestingly, the number of records over 4 minutes in length is unusual when you consider radio's increase in advertising minutes per hour and their assertion that songs are the "filler between the jingles." You would think that radio would jump up and down for 2-minute records. Whatever the reason, song length appeared to be on the rise as compared to 2003.
Since we were born, one way or another, we have been listening to radio. The song structure, form or shape is embedded in the radio listener's psyche. As a writer, you can lead the listener outside these structures but only if you satisfy that listener.
I have friends who get paid to read movie scripts that have been submitted to major studios. They have told me, that they can tell within three or four pages if a script will make a good film. Introduction of characters, subplots and all the other elements necessary to engage and hold us (the viewers) for two hours and change are craft.
Similarly, engaging and holding radio listeners at drive time is a matter of craft. Of the six forms (or shapes or whatever you wish to call them), the most frequently used in 2004 (10 of the 21 songs) was the Fourth form (verse/lift/chorus/verse/lift/chorus/bridge/instrumental or both/lift/chorus). Next (6 of the 21 songs) came Third form (verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/instrumental/chorus), followed by Second form (verse/chorus/verse/chorus/instrumental/chorus).
It should be noted that the only two songs to step way outside the usual structures at #1 were Alan Jackson's "Remember When" (Jackson) and Toby Keith's "American Solider" (Cannon/Keith). "American Soldier" has four similarly structured verses - the first two treated as verses; the second two lifting melodically to almost become channels ( or pre-choruses, lifts or climbs if you prefer); then a chorus, instrumental and reprise. "Remember When" uses chronology, or time passage, through six verses, treating the song like an AABA (or Fifth form) without the "B" section.
For all my time in the music business, it's always been an artist's prerogative to break the rules, because it's his or her career on the line; whereas stand-alone writers have to be content with creatively bending the rules.
Other Items To Note
Detail, humor and irony ruled! She was in the backyard - they say it was a little past nine ("Suds In The Bucket"). I was 18 making minimum wage ("In A Real Love"). Don't you remember the fizz in a pepper ("Back When")? How about the 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fu Manchu ("Live Like You Were Dying")? If your song used detail, with a twist of irony and a dash of humor, your song was a prime candidate for the top spot. Remember troops, the market for country radio is women 25-40 at drive time. Humor, irony and detail appear to be the essential elements in our conversational/story-driven genre. Indeed, the '04 crop of #1s was almost evenly split (10 conversational / 11 story) and in certain cases they were both.
Your Best Shot
The bottom line? While being a singer/songwriter generally increases your odds of success, in 2004 only six writer-artists (out of the 46 total writers) had #1s - good news for those other 40 writers and the many stand-alone writers out there. So, based on the numbers, here's your best shot at hitting #1:
Start with a conversational/story driven love song laden with humor, irony and detail. Introduce your title within 60 seconds and repeat it no more than seven times. Write in first or second person using 4th or 3rd form. Make your songs Mid- to Uptempo, anywhere from three to four minutes in length.
Now of course comes the hard part - getting them recorded and released!
The good news for all writers is that if our songs don't make it, we have so many people we can blame! (Never ourselves of course . . .)
The #1 Country Songs for 2004 (Billboard magazine Jan. 1 - Dec. 31, 2004):
1-3-04 - There Goes My Life
Performer: Kenny Chesney / Writer(s): Wendell Mobley, Neil Thrasher
2-7-04 - Remember When
Performer: Alan Jackson / Writer(s): Alan Jackson
2-21-04 - American Soldier
Performer: Toby Keith / Writer(s): Chuck Cannon, Toby Keith
3-20-04 - Watch The Wind Blow By
Performer: Tim McGraw / Writer(s): Dylan Altman, Anders Osborne
4-3-04 - When The Sun Goes Down
Performer: Kenny Chesney - Uncle Kracker / Writer(s): Brett James
5-8-04 - You'll Think Of Me
Performer: Keith Urban / Writer(s): Darrell Brown, Ty Lacy, Dennis Matkosky
5-22-04 - Mayberry
Performer: Rascal Flatts / Writer(s): Arlos Smith
5-29-04 - Redneck Woman
Performer: Gretchen Wilson / Writer(s): John Rich, Gretchen Wilson
7-3-04 - If You Ever Stop Loving Me
Performer: Montgomery Gentry / Writer(s): Bob DiPiero, Rivers Rutherford, Tom Shapiro
7-10-04 - Whiskey Girl
Performer: Toby Keith / Writer(s): Scotty Emerick, Toby Keith
7-17-04 - Live Like You Were Dying
Performer: Tim McGraw / Writer(s): Tim Nichols, Craig Wiseman
8-7-04 - Somebody
Performer: Reba McEntire / Writer(s): Dave Berg, Annie Tate, Sam Tate
9-11-04 - Girls Lie Too
Performer: Terri Clark / Writer(s): Connie Harrington, Kelley Lovelace, Tim Nichols
9-18-04 - Days Go By
Performer: Keith Urban / Writer(s): Monty Powell, Keith Urban
10-16-04 - Suds In The Bucket
Performer: Sara Evans / Writer(s): Jenai, Billy Montana
10-23-04 - I Hate Everything
Performer: George Strait / Writer(s): Gary Harrison, Keith Stegall
11-6-04 - In A Real Love
Performer: Phil Vassar / Writer(s): Phil Vassar, Craig Wiseman
11-20-04 - Mr. Mom
Performer: Lonestar / Writer(s): Ron Harbin, Richie McDonald, Don Pfrimmer
12-4-04 - Nothin' On But The Radio
Performer: Gary Allan / Writer(s): Odie Blackmon, Byron Hill, Brice Long
12-18-04 - Back When
Performer: Tim McGraw / Writer(s): Stan Lynch, Stephony Smith, Jeff Stevens
12-25-04 - Some Beach
Performer: Blake Shelton / Writer(s): Rory Lee Feek, Paul Overstreet