Top Fifty CMA Single of the Year Winners, Part Three: #30-#21

Portrait of American country music performer Charlie Rich (1932 - 1995), London, England, 1978. (Photo by George Wilkes/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Our countdown of CMA Single of the Year winners continues with #30-#21.

Top Fifty CMA Single of the Year Winners

Part One: #50-41 | Part Two: #40-#31 | Part Three: #30-#21

Part Four: #20-#11 | Part Five #10-#1

#30
“Behind Closed Doors”

Charlie Rich

1973

A classic song that has forever been ruined/made perfect for me by the “Nightmare From Hee-Haw” episode of Designing Women, in which “Daddy Jones” attempts to seduce the not-having-it Julia Sugarbaker by singing this to her in a hillbilly dive-bar. It’s one of the best uses of music in TV history. – Jonathan Keefe

#29
“Before the Next Teardrop Falls”

Freddy Fender

1975

A bilingual gem that catapulted Freddy Fender to country music stardom, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” makes a compelling case for country music heartache being a universal language. – Kevin John Coyne

#28
“I Hope You Dance”

Lee Ann Womack featuring Sons of the Desert

2000

“I Hope You Dance” was a wedding and baptism staple from the week it was added to country radio, but don’t be fooled by the Hallmark card sheen on top.  The record has an undercurrent of melancholy, from Womack’s vocal to the string arrangement, that suggest an uncompleted thought: “I hope you dance…but I fear that you won’t, just like I didn’t.” – KJC

#27
“Before He Cheats”

Carrie Underwood

2007

Carrie Underwood’s reputation as the sweet American Idol winner got a jolt with this ode to vengeful, destructive retribution. It was as close to the polar opposite of “Jesus Take the Wheel” as Underwood could get. Not only did “Before He Cheats” show off her powerhouse vocal abilities, it proved she wouldn’t be cast as merely the “nice” foil to Miranda Lambert. – Sam Gazdziak

#26
“If I Die Young”

The Band Perry

2011

There’s peaking early, and then there’s peaking early and then gaslighting your audience about how you actually didn’t peak early because you’ve always really wanted to record the background music that a JC Penney in a dying mall plays to try to sound hip. Anyway, “If I Die Young” is still great. – JK

#25
“Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)”

Alan Jackson

2002

It was an automatic given that this song would win Single of the Year in 2002, and it deserved to do so! Born from sadness and confusion about the 9/11 attacks, Alan Jackson penned a song with no bravado, but rather, a song that promoted love. At a time like that, it was nice to see love win at the CMAs. – Leeann Ward

#24
“Girl Crush”

Little Big Town

2015

In the hands of some of Nashville’s mass-production bro-country songwriters, a song with the title of “Girl Crush” could have gone bad in any number of ways. In the hands of Lori McKenna, Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose, it became a brooding tale of obsession, jealousy and sorrow, delivered by Little Big Town in a masterful vocal performance. The sophomoric minority who focused on the lesbian inferences missed out on one of the best heartbreak songs in country music in decades. – SG

#23
“Okie From Muskogee”

Merle Haggard

1970

Oddly enough, Haggard never won this award for his stunners like “Mama Tried,” “If We Make It Through December” or “Sing Me Back Home.” No, he got it for “Okie from Muskogee,” a tongue-in-cheek number that became an anthem for Conservative Middle America against the damn pot-smoking hippies of the early 1970s. Realistically, Haggard probably would have more likely to light one up with the hippies, especially later in life. Regardless of his intentions at the time he wrote the song, “Okie” became one of his biggest hits and signature songs. – SG

#22
“Elvira”

The Oak Ridge Boys

1981

Sure, this song is super silly, but the Oak Ridge Boys fully lean into the silliness with delightful results! The brash horns, thumping drums and Richard Sterban’s famous bass solo makes the song unshakably irresistible. – LW

#21
“Why Not Me”

The Judds

1985

The Judds won this award on the strength of a song where Wynonna Judd stretches her voice in ways that we hadn’t heard prior to this single.” Why Not Me” has a hooky guitar riff and the Judds’ signature harmonies. Moreover, it is one of the songs where we start to hear the evolution from Wynonna’s softer voice to her full throated, soulful vocals that she’s known for today. – LW

11 Comments

  1. How in the heck does Elvira rank higher than Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)???

    Nothing against the great Oak Ridge Boys, but geez Louise, Jackson’s masterpiece brought so many people together and helped heal so many broken hearts when it came out.

    Elvira is more of a novelty song. It’s fun but doesn’t even compare with some of the songs ranked below it. Especially great songs like Before The Next Tear Drop Falls and I Hope You Dance.

  2. Love Jonathan’s comment on The Band Perry!

    As for “Where Were You,” as much I love Alan Jackson I can’t stand that song anymore. My opinion of it shifted after I had multiple veterans (some who actually fought in the middle east after 9/11) explain to me why they don’t like it. They felt it exploited tragedy for profit and sort of painted Americans as uncultured with lines like not knowing the difference between Iraq and Iran. And I have to agree with them. Country’s strong embrace of patriotism post 9/11 also brought politicians into the genre and was part of the driving factor that got the Dixie Chicks blackballed from the genre. But that’s a whole other can of worms.

    Great series! Have enjoyed reading all of it.

  3. Josh – What percentage of Americans do you think could tell you any real differences between Iraq and Iran?

  4. I had “Where Were You” right above “A Little Good News” in the middle section of my personal list because they’re both so topical that they’re frozen in time. I think they’re both great songs, but too timely to be timeless.

    I think “Where Were You” as performed at the 2001 CMA Awards might be Alan Jackson’s finest moment as an artist and a performer. For me, the recorded version is good, but just doesn’t have the same spark. I think that the other Alan Jackson song nominated in 2002 – “Drive (For Daddy Gene)” – is a masterpiece, and if it had won, it would easily rank in my top ten of all-time winners.

  5. “Why Not Me” is such a classic. After all these years, it’s still one of my favorites. Not to mention, it brings back some great childhood memories. :)

    I also love Jonathan’s Band Perry comments! Such a shame what they did to their careers. “If I Die Young” is definitely one of my favorite songs from them. I really liked the sound they had on their first album.

  6. Re. “Where Were You?–I feel it got sandbagged by not so much a display of patriotism in the country music industry as it did by overt jingoism, and there is a difference between the two, especially in the contrast between Jackson’s song, and, for example, “Courtesy Of The Red, White, And Blue”.

    Re. “If I Die Young”–Yes, a really good example of a modern approach to old-timey string band music was set aside for a style that The Band Perry wasn’t ready for. And the one who was least ready for it was Kim Perry herself. Any time she’s tried to “rock”, the limitations of her voice, where she is either flat or warbly, are so cruelly exposed (IMHO).

  7. There’s peaking early, and then there’s peaking early and then gaslighting your audience about how you actually didn’t peak early because you’ve always really wanted to record the background music that a JC Penney in a dying mall plays to try to sound hip.

    Yep, that’s some high-quality snark right there. My hat is off to you, Mr. Keefe.

    I was glad to see you guys ranked “I Hope You Dance” below “I May Hate Myself in the Morning.” As I have put it elsewhere before, I’ve always thought the former was dreadfully overrated. While I know that’s highly subjective, I also think there’s a case to be made that it wasn’t really representative of who Lee Ann Womack is as an artist. I didn’t even think it was a good representation of the album whose title it shares; beyond that song and maybe “Ashes By Now,” I Hope You Dance was a pretty typical Lee Ann Womack album. Not that I mean to pigeonhole her, but I always thought the general reaction to There’s More Where That Came From was quite telling.

  8. I never liked “I Hope You Dance”. I did like “Elvira”.
    Re “Where Were You”, Josh wrote that he “had multiple veterans (some who actually fought in the middle east after 9/11) explain to me why they don’t like it. They felt it exploited tragedy for profit and sort of painted Americans as uncultured with lines like not knowing the difference between Iraq and Iran.” I am not a big AJ fan but I always liked this song and never thought of it as exploiting 9/11. I was working at my desk at 6WTC when the first plane hit tower 1 and I’m a Vietnam vet – a “grunt” – and back then I probably couldn’t have told anyone the difference between Iraq & Iran.

  9. “Behind Closed Doors” would be near the top of my list while I would have “Before The Next Teardrop Falls” closer to #40

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