When the Good Die Young: Great Songs and the Unexpected Reasons They Never Became Hits
The story goes like this: Clay Walker releases a ballad called ‘She Likes It in the Morning’ to radio in 2008, and after a few weeks, it dies. That’s radio-speak for it falls off the country charts and never gets played again. Fans loved it, however, and Walker sings the yoke out of it. So … what happened?
A rumor begins, turning more into truth with each passing month.
The problem (according to legend) is that the song’s title was a poor match for music scheduling programs used to create a day’s music log at radio stations. When printed, only a certain number of characters are printable under the “Title” column, so a sample playlist would look something like this:
Garth Brooks, ‘The Dance’
Kenny Chesney, ‘No Shoes No Shirt’
Clay Walker, ‘She Likes It in the
Typical radio playlists have a bunch of other code on them, like song intro time, total run time, the type of ending and what category (heavy rotation, medium rotation, etc …) they fall into, but you get the idea.
Now, a respectable radio deejay should know better and be able to introduce the song properly. But what if you’re the audacious night guy coming off a bender, and the first time you open the mic, you’re tasked with introducing this song?
“Big Bull Country 104.9, it’s Murph ’til midnight and this is latest from Texas boy Clay Walker … ‘She likes it in the …’ What!!!?? Can I say that on air?” (insert yucks and improvisations until the vocals start — something called “hitting the post” in radio-speak).
Anyone who has met a few radio guys knows there are more than a few audacious yucksters out there who wouldn’t pass up this low-hanging fruit. But a song being foiled by the number of printable characters allowed by a music scheduling program? That’s crazy, right?
Maybe, but a thousand outside factors can effect how much a song is played. It’s not an understatement to say the Band Perry‘s immediate plans were threatened last December, if not for the timing of their banning.
‘Better Dig Two’ was climbing the country charts when the tragic Newtown, Conn. shootings happened in 2012. Radio stations began “resting” the song in addition to a few others, like ‘If I Die Young.’ Being that it was the first single from the trio’s new album ‘Pioneer,’ losing this song could have pushed back their album release and plans for 2013 and beyond.
(Note: To be fair to the Band Perry and everyone at their record label, it’s doubtful they were thinking about this at the time. While no one from Republic Nashville would comment on the incident, all parties deserve the benefit of the doubt that they were joining the nation in grief. A song is purely trivial by comparison.)
What would have been a difficult business decision was avoided, as the charts had closed for winter break. Nashville does this. Every year around the third Monday in December, offices vacate and someone pushes pause so nobody loses their “bullet” (radio-speak for spot in line on the airplay charts), because country radio stations begin playing Christmas songs. By the time things re-opened in January 2013, the weight of the tragedy was not nearly as heavy, and playing ‘Better Dig Two’ wasn’t offensive.
A similar thing happened to all sorts of songs after the September 11 tragedies in 2001. Clear Channel famously had a list of songs that weren’t to be played in the weeks and months that followed. One record label executive that Taste of Country spoke with remembers Mark Wills asking stations to stop playing ’19 Somethin” after the Columbia space shuttle explosion in 2003 (his song referenced the Challenger disaster of 1986). The track had already run its course, however, and would become among the most-played songs of the decade.
Sometimes, a new artist just has to give way to a veteran, as with what happened to Jason Michael Carroll in 2011. He was an independent artist fighting to get back on radio playlists with ‘Meet Me in the Barn’ when Trace Adkins released ‘Brown Chicken Brown Cow.’ The two songs were similar enough that Carroll knew his didn’t stand a chance of making it, so he flipped singles. It’s a shame he did. Adkins’ song flopped and he’d later apologize for releasing it. One wonders if he called JMC.
The Lost Trailers released ‘Chicken Fried’ before Zac Brown Band decided they didn’t want to permit that any longer. That set the ‘Holler Back’ group’s career back a few years, but they’d rebound. Adkins himself pulled a song — ‘Arlington’ in 2005 — after complaints from families of fallen soldiers. It peaked inside the Top 20, but had No. 1 written all over it. It’s arguably the best Memorial Day song around.
Of course, personal events can cost an artist a chance at a hit record as well. The Dixie Chicks are the most famous example. The No. 1 ‘Travelin’ Soldier’ disappeared like cake at a kids’ birthday party after Natalie Maines’ famous comments. The song would still gather significant airplay today if she’d fallen ill and missed that show in England — it was truly a remarkable song. The group’s follow-up was ‘Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)’ and it didn’t even dent on radio charts.
Another radio executive who spoke with Taste of Country remembers working Ty Herndon’s ‘I Want My Goodbye Back’ when Herndon was arrested for indecent exposure in Ft. Worth, Texas. The song was scheduled to be as big as anything out there, he says, adding, “Then it came to a horrible crash!”
Hard work from the record label promotion team saved the song, and it ended up becoming a Top 5 hit for Herndon. He’d go on to have several more hits before losing his place amongst major hitmakers in the early 2000s.
A more recent example may be Jana Kramer‘s ‘I Hope It Rains,’ a playful song about ruining a wedding. The track died — perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not — before cracking the Top 40, just weeks after her engagement to Brantley Gilbert was called off. Real life didn’t quite imitate art in that case, but it was strange enough that programmers may not have been willing to take a chance.
So, about that Clay Walker rumor? Taste of Country caught up with the singer and asked him if it happened like that.
“You know, I had not heard that,” he said after two long, hearty laughs. “But I can tell you that they had a problem with the title, for sure. I definitely got that.”
“It was disappointing because, man, women especially loved the song,” Walker explains. “I still get a ton of requests for it even though it wasn’t a hit. It was a shocker to me, because the audience said otherwise. The audience said it was a hit, and that’s when you know that they missed one.”
So, we’ll say that rumor was sort of true. Perhaps it was invented by a radio programmer trying to find a reason not to play the song, but wanting to avoid the arm-twisting that takes place with record labels. Manufactured rumors work the other way, as well, as the less honorable in the industry might make up something about a song or artist to get a station to play their artist’s hit instead. If the relationship sounds like one between a used car salesman and his customer, it’s because sometimes, it is.
Taste of Country recently assembled a list of the Top 10 songs that should have been hits in 2013. All 10 earned the distinguished Critic’s Pick certification, yet you won’t find a Top 20 single stamp on any of them. Why not? Fans certainly want to know. Kellie Pickler and Lauren Alaina‘s fans are especially curious.
There’s no one reason. Maybe the masses didn’t think these were very good, or maybe the songs didn’t get the push from the record label that they could have. One has to wonder about the outside influences, however. Maybe the artist wouldn’t do interviews, or maybe some strange rumor was enough to scare away decision-makers. Something as simple as getting a spin on nationally syndicated radio shows one week, but not the next, can torpedo a son and a career.
“Fragile” doesn’t even begin to describe the atmosphere of living and dying with each week’s charts. It’s enough to cause a panic attack just thinking about it.