By Ralph Murphy
Vice President for ASCAP Nashville


Most writers follow their hearts. When the song is finished, when they have created someone who never existed, in a place that never was, doing something that never happened, only then do they think about commercialism and what to pitch and to whom. So, it is a good idea to know what holds the listener in that coveted spot that artists, managers, A&R, and promotion people gaze at in rapture...numero uno. After all, when you go fishing, don't think like the fisherman, think like the fish. What held the fish from the McDonald's jingle, to the Pepsi commercial?

First of all let me assure you, I am fully aware that there are lots of great songs that don't even get close to top 10, never brush the top 5 or even have a sniff at #1.

But — I can guarantee, that when a writer or writers sit down to "go for the throat," and hunt for a radio hit, they don't aim at having a number two song. 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.

As there were only 46 writers that stood in the golden circle in 2004 it is still a fact, last year, that more people were struck by lightning in the U.S. than wrote a #1 Country song. 6 of those 46 writers 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 the #1's of '04.

Well, as no one comes to me for my opinion, they want facts... here they are.



What In Common?

Well, nobody's waltzing at drive time! All the #1's were 4/4. Also, the only one getting their heart broken at #1 was Keith Urban (Urban, Powell). I know in "I Hate Everything" (Stegall, Harrison) 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 three minutes and thirty seconds, and called home, just in time to save his marriage. So Keith Urban was the king of lonely last year.

The majority of #1's used the title within 60 seconds, (including an average 15 second intro). Two-thirds or 14 of the 2l had 3-7 repetitions of the title. So on average, it would appear less is more! The low end were "In A Real Love" (Wiseman, Vassar), with three uses of title and "Suds In The Bucket" (Jenai, Schlappi) with four. The high end was "When The Sun Goes Down" (James) with 32.



Tempo and Intro

Up tempo songs held one-third of the places at number one, (7/21) and 16 weeks at #1.

Mid tempos held five #1 spots and 15 weeks at #1. Mid to up tempos had five #1's and spent seven weeks at #1. So if you obeyed the usual A&R requests (Mid, Mid-Up and Up tempo positive love songs), you would have been 81% of the total #1's of 2004. Ballads were only 4 of the 21 spots but held the listener at #1 for 18 weeks.

Intro grew slightly from the old standard of 13 seconds to 15 seconds in 2004. Intros much shorter than that were "Redneck Woman" (Wilson, Rich) (.05) and "Suds In The Bucket (Jenai, Schlappi) (.06). Intro's much longer were "Live Like You Were Dying" (23 seconds) (Wiseman, Nichols) and "Days Go By" (Urban, Powell) (.26).



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. Love found, e.g. (Suds In The Bucket, Watch The World Go By) love celebrated, e.g. (Nothing On But The Radio, Remember When, In A Real Love) life lessons, e.g. (There Goes My Life, I Hate Everything) Patriotism, e.g. (American Soldier) love lost, e.g. (You'll Think Of Me) drinking, e.g. (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. Five were romantic, five were party time, one was sad, and one was patriotic. The five songs that held listeners longer than 30 weeks were all mid to up tempo, good party time/love songs. E.g. (Some Beach, Nothing On But The Radio, In A Real Love, Suds In The Bucket and Somebody). 15 of the #1's used the first and second person (I, me, us, you, we) consistent with country songs being conversational.



Chart Longevity

If the time spent by #1's at #1 in 2004 seem to add up to more than 52 weeks at the top of the charts it's because they did! "There Goes My Life" (Thrasher, Mobley) got to #1 at the end of '03 and "Some Beach" (Feek, Overstreet) extended its stay into '05.

The records that took the least amount of time to get to #1 "There Goes My Life," 8 weeks (Thrasher, Mobley) "When The Sun Goes Down," 8 weeks (James) and "Live Like You Were Dying," 6 weeks (Wiseman, Nichols) hung at the top spot for a total of 19 weeks at #1.

In terms of total time spent on the charts however those three songs were not even close to being the longest lived. Instead, the records that stayed on the charts 30+ weeks took the longest time to get to number one. E.g. "Somebody" (Berg, Wright, Tate) with 29 weeks, "In A Real Love" (Vassar, Wiseman) with 27 weeks, "Suds In The Bucket" (Jenai, Schlappi) with 23 weeks, and "Nothing On But The Radio" (Blackmon, Hill, Long) with 23 weeks.



Song Length

About half of chart toppers were longer than four minutes. The other half hovered between three and four minutes (around the 3.30 mark.)

The number of records over four minutes is strange, given radios increase in advertising minutes per hour, and their assertion that we are the "filler between the jingles."

You would think that they would jump up and down for two-minute records. Whatever the reason, song length appears to be on the rise.



Song Form

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 the 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 viewer, for two hours and change, are craft.

Similarly, engaging and holding the listeners at "drive time" is a matter of craft. Of the six forms, shapes or whatever you call them; the most frequently used in '04 (10/21) was the Fourth form – verse lift chorus, verse lift chorus, bridge/instrumental or both lift chorus etc. Next came Third form – verse chorus verse chorus bridge/instrumental chorus 6/21 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" and Toby Keith's "American Solider." "American Soldier" has four similarly structured verses, the first two treated as verses, the second two lifting melodically to almost become channels, pre-choruses, lifts, climbs, whatever, and then a chorus, instrumental, and reprise.

Alan opted to use chronology, or time passage, through six verses, treating the song like an AABA (or Fifth form) without the "B" section.

For all of my time in the music business, it has always been an artist's prerogative to break the rules ... because it's their career on the line. 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 (Jenai, Schlappi) I was 18 making minimum wage (Wiseman, Vassar) don't you remember the fizz in a pepper (Stevens, Smith, Lynch) 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fu Manchu (Wiseman, Nichols). At #1 in 2004 detail and irony were the champs. Factor in humor, and 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 this conversational/story driven genre. Indeed the '04 crop of #1's was almost evenly split (10 conversational/11 story) and in certain cases they were both.



Your Best Shot

Well, if you are a singer/songwriter it dramatically increases your odds, but as only six artists out of 46 writers had #1's, here's what earned 40 of you the top spot.

Love is still the big dog whether its love of family, romantic, for another place, thing or time, as a concept etc.

So your best pitches are conversational/story driven, laden with humor, irony, and detail, getting to first use of title in 60 seconds with seven or fewer repetitions of title, mid to up tempos, first/second person, love songs three to four minutes long written in 4th or 3rd form.

Now of course come the hard part – getting them recorded and released.

The good news for all writers, is that if our song doesn't make it, we have so many people we can blame for the song's failure! Never ourselves of course!!



Born in England; raised in Canada, the well-travelled Ralph Murphy has worked extensively on both sides of the Atlantic during his music career. His first #1 song in Europe was "Call My Name" by James Royal (1966). After several years as an artist and producer, Ralph moved to New York in 1969 to produce the band April Wine (two gold albums; one platinum). In 1971, Ralph had his first Country hit in Nashville with "Good Enough To Be Your Wife," #2 for Jeannie C. Riley. By 1976, Ralph and business partner Roger Cook opened Pic-A-Lic Music in Nashville. During the decade of its existence, the company prospered, more of Ralph's songs became hits ("He Got You" for Ronnie Milsap; "Half The Way" for Crystal Gayle; "Seeds" for Kathy Mattea), and Ralph served as president of NSAI. Ralph is now Vice President for ASCAP Nashville.

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