The fight for the awards is intensely competitive, since the prestige of a CMA nearly always translates into increased spins, increased sales, and increased tour revenues. Most of the attention is focused on what many regard as the Big Four awards – Album of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year, Female Vocalist of the Year, and the grand prize, Entertainer of the Year.
But from the standpoint of Music Row, of Nashville songwriters, and of music publishers, two awards that get nowhere near the recognition of the Big Four, Single of the Year and Song of the Year, mean every bit as much. Probably more.
Single of the Year is awarded to the artist(s), while Song of the Year is presented to the songwriter(s). This year, Single of the Year includes such diverse entries as Blake Shelton’s “Honey Bee” and the Band Perry’s “If I Die Yong.”
Song of the Year naturally includes an entry for country’s reigning queen Taylor Swift (who wrote “Mean”) and the far more blue-collar “Dirt Road Anthem,” penned by Brantley Gilbert and recent NMG feature subject Colt Ford.
Many country fans, however, rarely listen to today’s country radio and have fond memories instead for the classic songs and singles they grew up hearing. So let’s take a look back over the years at the CMA’s Single and Song of the Year champions, from the year of the very first CMA Awards in 1967.
That year, Opry favorite Jack Greene captured Single of the Year for “There Goes My Everything,” whose writer Dallas Frazier won Song of the Year for the same record, a rare double which would not happen again until 1973. Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors,” written by Kenny O’Dell, was the first to repeat the feat.
Many of the greatest country songs of all time won these awards. Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” was 1970’s Single of the Year; Donna Fargo’s “The Happiest Girl In The Whole U.S.A.” won two years later, and George Jones’s genius-level recording of “He Stopped Loving Her Today” captured Single of the Year in 1980.
Song of the Year, presented to the songwriters, has had its own fascinating history. There are gems – “He Stopped Loving Her Today” won in both 1980 and 1981 for Bobby Braddock, and “Chiseled In Stone” earned the honors for writers Max D. Barnes and Vern Gosdin in 1989.
There were also champions that now seem strange. John Denver’s “Back Home Again” was Song of the Year in 1975, the same year John himself was Entertainer of the Year after three Billboard country No. 1s. Today, many remember Denver primarily for his Pop and Adult Contemporary success, not as a country star.
Remember Dan Seals’s song “Bop”? Give yourself a star if you know it was CMA Single of the Year in 1986, and from 1985-90, Dan racked up an amazing nine No. 1 singles. Keith Whitley, who is far better remembered today, finished with five No. 1s. Keith died in 1989.
Garth’s “Friends In Low Places” and Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart” won Single of the Year in 1991 and 1992, respectively, and are excellent choices. They also immediately transport us back to those days when we hear them. And remember the sensation Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance” created, spawning several books and changing countless lives? That 2000 Single of the Year was a career highlight for Lee Ann.
The 2001 Single of the Year probably fared the worst on the charts of any winner. It peaked at No. 35 on the country charts, also earned the Grammy for Vocal Collaboration, and was by a band that never charted another country single. Remember who?
It was the Soggy Bottom Boys, and the song was “I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow,” from the rootsy hit George Clooney movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
One of the most triumphant records on the list won Song of the Year for writers Doug Johnson and Kim Williams in 2003. Before Randy Travis cut their Christian country song “Three Wooden Crosses,” he had lost his major-label deals.
Following the gigantic success at radio and with country fans of “Three Wooden Crosses,” Randy had a deal with three major labels at once, Word, Curb, and Warner.