And the Award Goes to

Long ago, and not so far away, drive time was the time it took to get to grandmas for Sunday dinner; country music was played on mom and pop radio stations; and couples went out on a Friday or Saturday night, had a couple of drinks, and danced in each others arms to cheating songs. Putting on country music was like slipping into a favorite pair of well-oiled boots or an old pair of jeans.

Welcome to the new millennium! We email grandma, saying we have to miss the latest microwaved Sunday offering; Mom and Pop were made an offer they couldn't refuse, so they sold the radio station and left town with a sack of money after the deregulation of radio allowed the large chains multiple ownership of stations in any area. Because of stringent DUI laws, couples now stay home on a Saturday night and sit in the dark with a glass of wine, so the neighbors won't see them drinking. Behold the landscape of the "new country" consumer.

As a consequence of this improvement in our quality of life, the only time we have exposure to country music one-on-one is "drive time." Drive time happens twice a day, and depending on who is doing the research, the times are 6:30am to 8:30am, 6:00am to 8:00am, or 6:17am to 8:43am, and 3:30pm to 5:30pm, 4:00pm to 6:00pm, or 3:46 to... well you get the picture. This is exactly the worst time of day possible to receive information and have any empathy with someone whining, preaching, venting or cheating.

What we have come to realize as songwriters is that while we were making the golden calf, honky tonking and wine drinking spodeeodee here at the foot of the mountain, believing that country music would never change, the radio programmers went up and got the 21 st century commandments from the new "big guys."

And so it came to pass that our "job" became holding the woman, age 25-40's, attention all the way from the burger bun commercial to the swill Cola jingle. Let's examine this consumer. She has just dropped her children at daycare; questions her relationship with her old man; is driving to a job she hates, to work for a boss that is an idiot, in a car that is about to break down in the fast lane on the interstate in the rain. Your "job" is to deliver her all the way from one jingle to the next. And I do mean all the way. If listeners start changing the station at any time before your song is over, the station will change the rotation of your song to zero.

What does all of this have to do with award shows? How does this impact the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association awards?

Mostly, the awards presented on these shows are supposed to measure two things: what your industry peers think of a song, and the commercial impact of your work. I've always, perhaps naively, believed these two presumptions to be true.

This year I thought I'd stick my neck out and try to predict the winner based only on commercial success and audience acceptance. In the spring, I looked at the nominees for the Academy of Country Music Song of the Year:
"Amarillo Sky," John Rich/Big Kenny/Rodney Clawson/Bart Pursley
"Before He Cheats," Chris Tompkins/Josh Kear
"Give It Away," Bill Anderson/Buddy Cannon/Jamey Johnson
"If You're Going Through Hell (Before The Devil Even Knows)," Sam and Annie Tate/Dave Berg
"Would You Go With Me," Shawn Camp/John Scott Sherrill
All of them were of the quality you would expect of Song of the Year nominees. So I did the math and examined audience passion (weeks on charts, final chart position and of course the big 3 for women at drive time: humor, irony and detail). Then I applied the ultimate overlay of "what's in it for the woman listener, what's in it for the woman listener, what's in it for the woman listener?"

Using this template, I found that finishing neck and neck, at the back of the pack in terms of making women feel warm and fuzzy, were "Amarillo Sky" and "Give It Away." As a casual male listener they were speaking directly to me, and I heavily identified with them. Neither were particularly "women friendly."

"Amarillo Sky" peaked at #4 and had almost nothing in it for the woman, except Jason Aldean's very powerful performance. It was, as we say, "written smart" because the singer was not the "hard-scrabbled, farmer" in the song. (Remember you are not supposed to be a loser or over 30 at drive time). However, the "woman factor" was never mentioned anywhere in the song at all. Perhaps he inherited "kids" along with the farm. It did, however, hold the listener's interest for 29 weeks to peak at #4 before sliding off 3 weeks later.

"Give It Away" spoke directly to men, especially me. To a woman, whenever a relationship ends badly it's always the man's fault, especially at drive time. Aside from having 17 repetitions of the song title, (huge burn factor at drive time – all the others fell between the standard 4 to 7 repetitions of the title) Buddy, Jamey and Bill painted all the features that could annoy a woman the most, at the worst possible time of day. They used the dismissive pronoun, she, which infers he is over her and not even singing to his ex anymore... despite screwing up the relationship. He has already started to date again, an attempt to "move on," (obviously multiple times since he says "each woman I held") and thrown in "don't you even want your half of everything" only to end up looking like a typical man at the worst possible time of day. Guys don't try this at home!

George managed to make it to #1 on the charts and last 21 weeks (the least amount of time of all the nominees) and not get killed... probably because George is a great artist with a huge fan base and women love him. Add to that the song was very well written, with loads of humor, irony and detail, and you can understand why women allowed men to let the song to have its "time in the sun." But song of the year to women???

Moving closer to the drive time gold standard is "Would You Go With Me" (Shawn Camp, John Scott Sherrill) performed by Josh Turner. Although there was not a lot of humor and irony, the detail factor was high, and invited the woman in almost immediately (the second word of the song is "you"). It had good imagery, ("rolled down streets of fire," "lost in fields of clover," etc.) and held the listener for 22 weeks to get to #1, where it spent two weeks before sliding off the charts five weeks later.

Now we get to the two frontrunners, (in my diseased mind): "If You're Going Through Hell" (Dave Berg, Sam Tate, Annie Tate) and "Before He Cheats" (Chris Tompkins, Josh Kear). Both are laden with detail, irony and humor; make the singer look smart to women; get to the first use of title in 60 seconds; and fall within the 4 to 7 repetitions of title that seems to be the norm at drive time. "If You're Going Through Hell" carried the radio audience for 29 weeks on its way to #1, held them there for 4 more weeks and spent another 10 weeks on the charts charming women for a wonderful grand total of 43 weeks! "Before He Cheats" engaged the listener for 43 weeks on its climb to #1, spent 5 weeks there, and hung on the charts for another 7 weeks, for a total of 46 weeks. The only contributing factor that might have given "Before He Cheats" an edge is "If You're Going Through Hell" had the slightly more masculine phrase "Ask directions from a genie in a bottle of Jim Beam and she lies to you," but a type-A woman would have loved it.

So, to my surprise, the Academy of Country Music Song of the Year goes to "Give It Away!" Huh???

Still believing in logic and market forces, I set out to predict the Country Music Association Song of the year. Here we had the next 5 gladiators locked in for combat for the Country Music Association Song of the Year:

"Anyway," Martina McBride/Brad Warren/Brett Warren
"Before He Cheats," Josh Kear/Chris Tompkins
"Give It Away," Bill Anderson/Buddy Cannon/Jamey Johnson
"Lost In This Moment," John Rich/Keith Anderson/Rodney Clawson
"Stupid Boy," Dave Berg/Deanna Bryant/Sarah Buxton
"Anyway" (Martina McBride, Brad Warren, Brett Warren) managed to climb for 18 weeks until it peaked at #5 and slipped off the charts 3 weeks later. Despite being very well written, it violated the rule that you can only whine, preach or vent if you heap on lots of humor, irony and detail. Brett, Brad and Martina apparently took themselves a little too seriously without enough image provoking details for the drive time brigade.

Sarah, Dave and Deanna gave Keith Urban the vehicle to beat himself up in "Stupid Boy" (Dave Berg, Deanna Bryant, Sarah Buxton). The song spent 14 weeks climbing to #3, holding there for a week and rolling off after 5 weeks, for a total of 20 weeks. Despite the song's qualities: wonderful imagery ("a perfect prayer in a desperate hour" and "she was precious like a flower") and great irony, the drive timers didn't seem to jump up and down for Keith dumping on her as she "laid her heart and soul..." in his hands.

Looking more like a contender for drive time top dog was "Lost In This Moment" (John Rich, Keith Anderson, Rodney Clawson). Big & Rich brought listeners along for 21 weeks on the way to #1, kept them there for 2 more weeks and held on to the charts for another 3 weeks, giving them 26 weeks of fun. Detail rich; ("the candles and the tears and the roses," "jasmine floating in the air," "sweet tears,") not a lot of humor, but enough ("my knees start to tremble"); and lean on irony, "Lost In This Moment" still spoke to our listeners on the interstate.

Of course, now we are back to "Before He Cheats" (Chris Tompkins, Josh Kear). Carrie Underwood captivated listeners for 36 weeks while moving up the charts, held strong for 5 weeks at #1, and lasted 7 more before slipping off the charts, for a whopping total of 46 weeks! Its closest competition is the field of 5: "Lost In This Moment," which only totaled 26 weeks.

And the winner is "Give It Away!"

A firestorm breaks out after the awards. The Tennessean hosted a very heated debate on women writers and artists in country music with writers, artists and industry executives weighing in with all kinds of theories about the consumer, radio and women's creativity.

After a lifetime in this business, however, I have found that there is usually an explanation for everything. Sometimes it's complex, but most times it's simple and obvious. So I looked at the obvious. Now our audience is women, 25-40, listening at the worst time of day possible: drive time. It is all about women. To quote Joe Galante (RCA Label Group) and Mike Dungan (Capitol Records): "our audience is 75% women," so you would think that the song that most engaged women would win... but no.

I made calls to friends inside the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music. My question was simple: "What is the gender split in your voting/nominating membership?" Although, neither organization actually includes that information in their research, I was told "unofficially" that both were about 75% men and 25% women!

So there you go.

Women vote with their ears and pocketbooks, pushing what turns them on at drive time to the top of the charts. Men vote later with a pen for songs that invite them in and make them comfortable with being men.
© 2008 Ralph Murphy