For a look back at the other major categories, visit our CMA Awards page.
- Easton Corbin, “A Little More Country Than That”
- Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now”
- Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me”
- Miranda Lambert, “White Liar”
- Blake Shelton with Trace Adkins, “Hillbilly Bone”
This year, Lambert’s two nominations make her the sixth artist in CMA history to score two slots in the category. The previous artists to have done so are Alan Jackson (2002), George Strait (1997), Jerry Reed (1971), Merle Haggard (1970), and Johnny Cash (1969). Three of the five actually won the award that year, so Lambert’s odds aren’t too bad. Lady Antebellum have the biggest hit in the running, but the last time an artist repeated in this category was…never. It could happen, but it hasn’t yet.
- “Chicken Fried,” Zac Brown Band
- “I Run to You,” Lady Antebellum
- “In Color,” Jamey Johnson
- “People Are Crazy,” Billy Currington
- “Then,” Brad Paisley
Lady Antebellum was the surprise winner, beating out critical darling Jamey Johnson with their mid-tempo ode to love and devotion.
- “Don’t Blink,” Kenny Chesney
- “Gunpowder & Lead,” Miranda Lambert
- “I Saw God Today,” George Strait
- “Stay,” Sugarland
- “You’re Gonna Miss This,” Trace Adkins
George Strait managed to win both Single and Album in 2008. “I Saw God Today” was his second single to win in this category, following 1996’s “Check Yes or No.” Double winners in this race have been fairly rare. Strait joined the company of Lee Ann Womack, Alan Jackson, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson with his win.
- “Anyway,” Martina McBride
- “Before He Cheats,” Carrie Underwood
- “Lost in This Moment,” Big & Rich
- “Ticks,” Brad Paisley
- “Wrapped,” George Strait
Not only was “Before He Cheats” the biggest country single of the year, it added a new dimension to Carrie Underwood’s musical personality. The crossover success was an added bonus. It’s rare enough to have one career single from a debut album, let alone two. Among this field of nominees, it was no contest.
- “Believe,” Brooks & Dunn
- “Better Life,” Keith Urban
- “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” Carrie Underwood
- “Summertime,” Kenny Chesney
- “When I Get Where I’m Going,” Brad Paisley featuring Dolly Parton
Two up-tempo radio records competed against three spiritual hits, and the least compelling of those spiritual songs won. “Believe” was a surprise winner, also garnering Song and Music Video trophies for the duo. They again won Vocal Duo, bringing their total to four for the night. My only guess is that BMG threw its votes behind Brooks & Dunn over labelmate Carrie Underwood, as she had the biggest and best hit in the category.
- “Alcohol,” Brad Paisley
- “As Good As I Once Was,” Toby Keith
- “Baby Girl,” Sugarland
- “Bless the Broken Road,” Rascal Flatts
- “I May Hate Myself In The Morning,” Lee Ann Womack
Womack won for her retro comeback hit. over four top five hits that also powered their parent albums past platinum. The CMA picked quality over impact in 2005, and they got it right. All five of these songs will still be being listened to ten years from now, but Womack’s is easily the best of the bunch.
- “I Love This Bar,” Toby Keith
- “Live Like You Were Dying,” Tim McGraw
- “Redneck Woman,” Gretchen Wilson
- “Remember When,” Alan Jackson
- “Whiskey Lullaby,” Brad Paisley & Alison Krauss
Jackson’s ballad is among his best, Wilson had a career record out of the gate, and the Paisley/Krauss duet is timeless. I could see any one of those three winning in a less competitive year. But McGraw’s megahit was also one of the best of his career, one of those songs that changes and challenges listeners.
- “Beer For My Horses,” Toby Keith & Willie Nelson
- “Celebrity,” Brad Paisley
- “Have You Forgotten?” Darryl Worley
- “Hurt,” Johnny Cash
- “Three Wooden Crosses” – Randy Travis
Cash died only a month before the 2003 CMAs, and while he’d already been nominated before his death, voters were filling out their ballots after he died and he ended up sweeping the show. Cash’s cover of “Hurt” is amazing, and better than most of this category. “Beer” and “Celebrity” are essentially novelty songs, and “Forgotten” sounds even more ludicrous today than it did when first released. But the Travis morality tale was a wonderful comeback record and the best of the bunch. Cash was certainly worthy, but I think the Travis record has held up the best over time.
- “Blessed,” Martina McBride
- “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American),” Toby Keith
- “Drive (For Daddy Gene),” Alan Jackson
- “I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishing Song),” Brad Paisley
- “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning),” Alan Jackson
The other three records aren’t even worth discussion. 2002 was about the spectacular work of Alan Jackson, who put out two of his best singles one after the other. “Where Were You” was a shoo-in, coming a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. However, remove that song from the list, and Jackson still has the best single, with “Drive” being a powerful, up-tempo tribute to his late father.
- “Ain’t Nothin’ Bout You,” Brooks & Dunn
- “Born to Fly,” Sara Evans
- “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” Soggy Bottom Boys
- “I’m Already There,” Lonestar
- “One More Day,” Diamond Rio
What a lackluster lineup. The Brooks & Dunn hit further proves my theory that they’re the Mariah Carey of country music: a long list of huge singles that are forgotten with time. A lot of fluff and positive country treacle this year. The O Brother hit is the only gem in the bunch. Radio didn’t play it, but record buyers still pushed the album past seven million in sales.
- “Breathe,” Faith Hill
- “Buy Me a Rose,” Kenny Rogers
- “He Didn’t Have To Be,” Brad Paisley
- “How Do You Like Me Now?!” Toby Keith
- “I Hope You Dance,” Lee Ann Womack featuring Sons of the Desert
It’s amazing that Paisley and Keith were both nominated so many times in this category in the 2000’s without winning once. Anyway, the Keith hit still sounds great today, Rogers made a nice comeback with his entry and Womack is still cashing checks from the money machine “I Hope You Dance.” Hill’s smash ballad, however, has held up the best over time.
- “Amazed,” Lonestar
- “Choices,” George Jones
- “Don’t Laugh at Me,” Mark Wills
- “Please Remember Me,” Tim McGraw
- “Wide Open Spaces,” Dixie Chicks
I still love the McGraw single, but the Chicks were given their due for their now-classic tale of a girl heading out on her own. The fact that it’s the only song in their current set list from their breakthrough album is a testament to how much they’ve achieved as artists since then, but this one is still a keeper, more so than anything else in the category.
- “A Broken Wing,” Martina McBride
- “Holes in the Floor of Heaven,” Steve Wariner
- “I Just Want To Dance With You,” George Strait
- “This Kiss,” Faith Hill
- “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me,” Patty Loveless with George Jones
Other than the disposable Strait hit, this is a strong lineup, with Wariner getting the nod for his comeback single. It was a beautiful song, and McBride and Hill also turned in great records, but the powerhouse combination of Loveless and Jones had a palpable energy. It’s one of the best country singles of the past ten years.
- “All the Good Ones are Gone,” Pam Tillis
- “Carried Away,” George Strait
- “It’s Your Love,” Tim McGraw with Faith Hill
- “One Night at a Time,” George Strait
- “Strawberry Wine,” Deana Carter
A pair of Strait singles that are pretty forgettable can be put aside immediately. McGraw & Hill sound great the first time they collaborate, but they’ve put out better songs both apart and together. The Tillis ballad is achingly beautiful, and worthy of the trophy, but not quite as much as Carter’s bittersweet debut single.
- “Blue,” LeAnn Rimes
- “Check Yes or No,” George Strait
- “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” Vince Gill
- “My Maria,” Brooks & Dunn
- “Time Marches On,” Tracy Lawrence
I can’t argue with this one. Strait can deliver quirky hits like this that would falter in lesser hands – listen to the disastrous “One, Two, I Love You” that Clay Walker tried to coattail with the following year, and you’ll newly appreciate Strait’s ability to know the difference between endearing and annoying.
- “Any Man of Mine,” Shania Twain
- “Baby Likes to Rock It,” The Tractors
- “Gone Country,” Alan Jackson
- “The Keeper of the Stars,” Tracy Byrd
- “When You Say Nothing at All,” Alison Krauss & Union Station
What a strange year, with a remarkably diverse crop of singles vying for the award. There was a paradigm shift going on in the genre, but CMA voters weren’t sure what it was. The conventional wisdom was that Shania was more Billy Ray than Garth, and the result was the single that would change the course of country music for years to come was overlooked. You can’t really fault them too much; the Krauss ballad is flawless and improved on the original.
- “Does He Love You,” Reba McEntire & Linda Davis
- “Don’t Take the Girl,” Tim McGraw
- “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” Mary Chapin Carpenter
- “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye,” Patty Loveless
- “I Swear,” John Michael Montgomery
Montgomery seemed unstoppable back then, and his wedding ballad was probably the biggest of the bunch. It’s aged the most poorly, however, and pales in comparison to the Loveless classic, which launched her to the next level, and the Chapin record, which perfected her hitmaking formula of incisive lyrics and hook-laden melodies.
- “Ain’t That Lonely Yet,” Dwight Yoakam
- “Chattahoochee,” Alan Jackson
- “Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away,” Vince Gill
- “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair,” George Jones & Friends
- “Two Sparrows in a Hurricane,” Tanya Tucker
Not a bad lineup. Alan Jackson won for his wildly popular ditty, but Yoakam’s hit still sounds fresh today.
- “Achy Breaky Heart,” Billy Ray Cyrus
- “I Feel Lucky,” Mary Chapin Carpenter
- “Look at Us,” Vince Gill
- “Love, Me,” Collin Raye
- “Maybe It Was Memphis,” Pam Tillis
Cyrus won for a dated and cheesy record that sounds absolutely horrific today. Gill’s pretty ballad was my parent’s anniversary song, and is charmingly sweet. The Raye hit is touching, though a bit of a “Where’ve You Been” retread. Carpenter’s clever as always, but the Tillis hit is a torrid tour de force, one of the best country singles of all-time and still her signature hit.
- “Don’t Rock the Jukebox,” Alan Jackson
- “Don’t Tell Me What to Do,” Pam Tillis
- “Friends in Low Places,” Garth Brooks
- “Here’s A Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares),” Travis Tritt
- “Pocket Full of Gold,” Vince Gill
Five great records by five great artists. But on any given night of the last fifteen years, there’s only one of these songs that you can guarantee was blasting out jukeboxes across the country. I’ve heard “Low Places” in Nashville clubs, Texas dives and New York Irish pubs. It’s a timeless smash that transcends genre and geography.
- “The Dance,” Garth Brooks
- “Here in the Real World,” Alan Jackson
- “Killin’ Time,” Clint Black
- “When I Call Your Name,” Vince Gill
- “Where’ve You Been,” Kathy Mattea
All five of these songs are legitimate classics that would be worthy of winning in any given year. For me, the Mattea record is the best country single of the entire contemporary country era, perfect in every way.
- “After All This Time,” Rodney Crowell
- “Better Man,” Clint Black
- “Chiseled in Stone,” Vern Gosdin
- “I’ll Leave This World Loving You,” Ricky Van Shelton
- “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,” Keith Whitley
Whitley won posthumously for his haunting ballad, over similarly heavy company. Interestingly enough, it’s the romantic Crowell hit that shines the brightest, as actual proof that one can write a love song that is neither sappy nor cloyingly sentimental.
- “Do Ya,” K.T. Oslin
- “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses,” Kathy Mattea
- “I Told You So,” Randy Travis
- “Somebody Lied,” Ricky Van Shelton
- “Tennessee Flat-Top Box,” Rosanne Cash
A nice collection of songs, but the CMA picked wisely. The only one of these five that became a classic is the Mattea hit.
- “All My Ex’s Live in Texas,” George Strait
- “Can’t Stop My Heart From Loving You,” The O’Kanes
- “Forever and Ever, Amen,” Randy Travis
- “The Right Left Hand,” George Jones
- “Walk the Way the Wind Blows,” Kathy Mattea
This time, at least there are two classics. Strait had one of his biggest and best hits with “Texas,” from an album that also included “Ocen Front Property”, another classic. Travis topped him with the record that made him a superstar, and became universally known without ever crossing over.
- “Bop,” Dan Seals
- “Grandpa (Tell Me ’Bout the Good Old Days),” The Judds
- “Nobody in His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her,” George Strait
- “On the Other Hand,” Randy Travis
- “Whoever’s In New England,” Reba McEntire
It’s amazing that the silly Seals hit triumphed over McEntire’s breakthrough smash, the Judds standard and, quite frankly, even the pedestrian Strait hit. I think the Judds have the best song here, but much like “Any Man of Mine” in 1995, “On the Other Hand” changed the course of country music when it was released, fully ushering in the new traditionalist movement that had been quietly gathering strength.
- “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On,” Mel McDaniel
- “Country Boy,” Ricky Skaggs
- “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind,” George Strait
- “Highwayman,” Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson & Johnny Cash
- “Why Not Me,” The Judds
I’m surprised these four legends coming together for a No. 1 smash wasn’t tempting enough for the CMA voters, but then again, those old-fashioned family harmonies that powered The Judds to superstardom were nothing to sneeze at. Maybe after Naomi Judd said “Slap the dog and spit in the fire” as they accepted the Horizon Award in homemade dresses the previous year, they just wanted to get them back on stage again for their own amusement.
- “Holding Her and Loving You,” Earl Thomas Conley
- “A Little Good News,” Anne Murray
- “Islands in the Stream,” Dolly Parton & Kenny Rogers
- “Mama He’s Crazy,” The Judds
- “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before”, Julio Iglesias & Willie Nelson
Julio Iglesias should be a huge red flag that we’ve worked our way back to the Urban Cowboy era. That pop confection, coupled with the campy Rogers/Parton hit, makes The Judds sound like the second coming of the Carter Family in comparison. So why won’t I argue with the CMA choice? Because Anne Murray turned in a sharp and topical single with bitter, rough edges. She lost Female Vocalist seven times; she deserved to be given her due here for one of the best records she ever released.
- “Heartbroke,” Ricky Skaggs
- “I Always Get Lucky With You,” George Jones
- “I.O.U.,” Lee Greenwood
- “Pancho and Lefty,” Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard
- “Swingin’,” John Anderson
Horn-dampened fun that the Anderson track was, it’s nowhere near as good as the collaboration between Nelson and Haggard, where they covered an old Emmylou Harris album track and made it a classic.
- “Always On My Mind,” Willie Nelson
- “Crying My Heart Out Over You,” Ricky Skaggs
- “I’m Gonna Hire a Wino (To Decorate Our Home),” David Frizzell
- “It Turns Me Inside Out,” Lee Greenwood
- “Love in the First Degree,” Alabama
The Alabama track is still catchy fun, but nothing matches Nelson’s signature classic.
- “Elvira,” Oak Ridge Boys
- “I Believe in You,” Don Williams
- “I Was Country (When Country Wasn’t Cool),” Barbara Mandrell
- “Old Flame,” Alabama
- “Somebody’s Knockin’,” Terri Gibbs
Williams’ laundry list of things he does and does not believe in is the only record here that doesn’t sound like age-old cheese.
- “All the Gold in California,” Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers
- “Coward of the County,” Kenny Rogers
- “Good Ole Boys Like Me,” Don Williams
- “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” George Jones
- “In America,” Charlie Daniels Band
You have to give Kenny Rogers credit for scoring a sing-along hit about a gang rape, but the Jones single is arguably the greatest country song of all-time. Jones was a very worthy winner.
- “Amanda,” Waylon Jennings
- “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” Charlie Daniels Band
- “The Gambler,” Kenny Rogers
- “If Loving You is Wrong (I Don’t Want to be Right),” Barbara Mandrell
- “You Needed Me,”Anne Murray
Disregard the Mandrell snoozer and you have four classic singles to choose from, with “Amanda” being my personal favorite. The other three tracks have all become perennial hits, playing on jukeboxes (“Devil”), elevators (“You Needed Me”) or both (“The Gambler”) for the last quarter of a century. For sounding as good at work as it does at a bar, the Rogers track has the edge.
- “Blue Bayou,” Linda Ronstadt
- “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away,” The Kendalls
- “Here You Come Again,” Dolly Parton
- “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys,” Waylon & Willie
- “Take This Job and Shove It,” Johnny Paycheck
Again, a list of five classics that all sound great today. But the other four all fall short of the ultimate working man’s anthem, a deserved hit for one of the genre’s most underrated artists.
- “It Was Almost Like a Song,” Ronnie Milsap
- “Luchenbach, Texas,” Waylon Jennings
- “Lucille,” Kenny Rogers
- “Margaritaville,” Jimmy Buffett
- “Southern Nights,” Glen Campbell
This is basically a collection of lesser hits by legends and a surprise crossover hit from a beach bum. The shining exception is Rogers’ smash hit, a sing-along about adultery and starving children. Really. The man can make anything a sing-along, can’t he?
- “The Blind Man in the Bleachers,” Kenny Starr
- “Convoy,” C.W. McCall
- “The Door is Always Open,” Dave & Sugar
- “Good Hearted Woman,” Waylon & Willie
- “Teddy Bear,” Red Sovine
I don’t think this one even merits an explanation, the choice is so obvious.
- “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” Freddy Fender
- “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song,” B.J. Thomas
- “I’m Not Lisa,” Jessi Colter
- “Rhinestone Cowboy,” Glen Campbell
- “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” John Denver
Sure, they all made good records, but only one of them switched languages halfway through.
- “As Soon As I Hang Up the Phone” – Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn
- “Country Bumpkin” – Cal Smith
- “If You Love Me (Let Me Know)” – Olivia Newton-John
- “The Most Beautiful Girl” – Charlie Rich
- “The Streak” – Ray Stevens
Poor Charlie Rich seems out of place with his beautiful, romantic ballad, up against three of the campiest records ever to come out of Nashville and another one out of England. Newton-John was blasted this same year for winning Female Vocalist, but the pop star made a catchy country record featuring more steel guitar than most of what’s on the radio today. Smith won for a song that rhymes “bumpkin” with “pumpkin.” But nothing beats the Twitty & Lynn duet, which features Lynn blissfully unaware that she’s getting dumped for half the song and moaning like a trapped coyote once she realizes she’s getting the shaft.
- “Behind Closed Doors,” Charlie Rich
- “The Lord Knows I’m Drinking,” Cal Smith
- “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine,” Tom T. Hall
- “Satin Sheets,” Jeanne Pruett
- “Why Me Lord,” Kris Kristofferson
A much more substantive list than 1974 featured. Rich’s classic about private lovemaking soars the highest, but there are four other great records here, too. I particularly like the Smith track, where he confronts a moralizing churchgoer who tries to guilt him for having a few drinks out on the town. (“Hello Mrs. Johnson, you self-righteous woman. Sunday school teacher, what brings you out slumming?”)
- “Four in the Morning,” Faron Young
- “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.,” Donna Fargo
- “Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” – Charley Pride
- “One’s on the Way,” Loretta Lynn
- “To Get to You,” Jerry Wallace
Fargo won for a song that has been clinically proven to cause cavities with repeated listenings, though there’s a forward-thinking layer of gender equity underneath all that sugary goodness. There are also classics here from Pride and Lynn, with the latter getting the edge with a witty Shel Silverstein comparison of celebrity life and the housewife routines.
- “Amos Moses,” Jerry Reed
- “Easy Loving,” Freddie Hart
- “Help Me Make it Through the Night,” Sammi Smith
- “Rose Garden,” Lynn Anderson
- “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” Jerry Reed
A recent book named the Smith hit the greatest country single of all-time, and while I wouldn’t go that far, it certainly ranks among the best. The Kristofferson-penned smash was transformed by having a woman sing it, arguably ushering in a sexual revolution for the fairer sex, in country music at least. If the production sounds eerily familiar to those of you just discovering this classic, it’s because Lee Ann Womack’s “I May Hate Myself in the Morning” is derived from it.
- “Fightin’ Side of Me,” Merle Haggard
- “Hello Darlin’,” Conway Twitty
- “I’m So Afraid of Losing You,” Charley Pride
- “My Woman, My Woman, My Wife,” Marty Robbins
- “Okie From Muskogee,” Merle Haggard
Both Haggard tracks are classics, and there’s a charm to the bombast of the Robbins hit. The pleading and yearning of the Twitty hit, however, are in a league of their own. It still packs a wallop every time you hear it.
- “All I Have to Offer You is Me,” Charley Pride
- “A Boy Named Sue,” Johnny Cash
- “Daddy Sang Bass,” Johnny Cash
- “Galveston,” Glen Campbell
- “The Games People Play,” Freddy Weller
Campbell’s “Galveston” is wonderful, and the category is rounded out nicely by Pride and Weller. But this was Cash’s year, and though “Daddy Sang Bass” is a nice place-filler, “A Boy Named Sue” is the bonafide classic, recorded live in front of San Quentin inmates. It’s as dark and disturbing as it is hilarious.
- “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” Glen Campbell
- “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” Tammy Wynette
- “Folsom Prison Blues (live),” Johnny Cash
- “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” Jeannie C. Riley
- “Honey,” Bobby Goldsboro
Tough call. One of Tammy’s best singles, a killer live resurrection of a Cash classic and, well, two sappy ballads by Campbell and Goldsboro that aren’t as good as the other three nominees. There’s a raw energy to the Riley hit that still packs a punch, long after miniskirts have raised an eyebrow and “sock it” entered the vernacular.
- “Danny Boy,” Ray Price
- “The Fugitive,” Merle Haggard
- “It’s Such a Pretty World Today,” Wynn Stewart
- “Ode to Billy Joe,” Bobbie Gentry
- “There Goes My Everything,” Jack Greene
With a mystery as enduring as the song itself, the swampy blues of “Ode to Billy Joe” easily exceeds most everything else in this category, with the exception being “Everything” itself. Jack Greene’s victory at the first CMA awards established a trend that would often be repeated in this category: acknowledging the A-list hit of B-list stars.
Facts & Feats
- (2) –Johnny Cash, Alan Jackson, Willie Nelson, George Strait, Lee Ann Womack
- (9) – George Strait
- (8) – Brad Paisley
- (7) – Alan Jackson
- (6) – George Jones, Willie Nelson
- (5) – Johnny Cash, Vince Gill, Waylon Jennings, Toby Keith, Kenny Rogers
- (4) – Glen Campbell, Merle Haggard, Tim McGraw, Randy Travis
Most Nominations Without a Win:
- (8) – Brad Paisley
- (5) – Toby Keith
- (3) – Faith Hill, Miranda Lambert, Martina McBride, Dolly Parton, Charley Pride, Ricky Skaggs, Pam Tillis