Our countdown of CMA Single of the Year winners concludes with #10-#1.
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
“Always On My Mind”
Among the absolute finest singles in country music history, “Always On My Mind” finds Willie Nelson taking a song that had been a minor hit several times over and transforming it into a pop standard. Though Nelson didn’t write it, the song’s complex portrayal of regret is of a piece with his best compositions. His inimitable vocal phrasing is what works best about the single, though, with his just-out-of-time delivery perfectly in service to the song itself. – Jonathan Keefe
“The Devil Went Down to Georgia”
Charlie Daniels Band
“The Devil Went Down to Georgia” went up against some stiff competition in 1979, all of which are considered classics to varying degrees to this day, including none other than Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler”! The right single, however, won the award. Daniels’ rapid fire delivery paired with the heart thumping interplay between instruments made the song the most adventurous single nominated in that year and, perhaps, the most adventurous among fifty years of winners. – Leeann Ward
“I’m No Stranger to the Rain”
This song has taken on additional meaning as a result of Whitley’s death in 1989 at the age of 33, but “I’m No Stranger” was an instant classic. His voice was perfectly suited to sing about this combination of weariness and dogged determination. Country music would be a better place with him still in it, but he left some timeless music behind. – Sam Gazdziak
At his best, Kenny Rogers is a distinctive and imposing presence on his records. What makes “Lucille” such a great single, then, is how Rogers wisely makes himself a bystander, switching between first and third person accounts of some heavy shit going down in a bar in Toledo, across from the depot. There’s never been a more deeply bitter line in a hit single than, “You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille/With four hungry children and a crop in the field.” – JK
“Help Me Make it Through the Night”
A landmark recording and CMA victory in terms of country music’s recognition of women’s sexual agency, Sammi Smith’s rendition of this Kristofferson classic has rightly earned its place in the canon. The juxtaposition between the track’s light-handed production and Smith’s sultry, lived-in performance only heightens the record’s tension. In Heartaches by the Number, David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren named “Help Me Make it Through the Night” the greatest single in country music history, and, while we wouldn’t necessarily go quite that far, it certainly belongs in any discussion of the genre’s absolute best. – JK
“Harper Valley P.T.A.”
Jeannie C. Riley
The list of sins and innuendos rattled off in “Harper Valley P.T.A.” tether it to its place in time. Who among the young today can understand the controversy over miniskirts or figure out what’s so suspicious about using a lot of ice when your husband’s away? But judgmental gossip, particularly targeting women, and its accompanying hypocrisy never go out of fashion, so even the newest listener can figure out what a Peyton Place is like without knowing it was a sixties soap opera. Just turn on the news, watch who is pointing a finger today, and wait a few weeks for the news to break that they’ve done the same thing. Then revisit Jeannie C.’s growls of self-righteous indignation and commiserate. – Kevin John Coyne
“Friends in Low Places”
From a historical perspective, this is the song that helped turn Garth Brooks into !!!GARTH BROOKS!!! From an artistic perspective, it’s a near-perfect kiss-off song that instantly inspires a group singalong whenever it’s played. Brooks’ boisterous personality puts it over the top; check out Mark Chesnutt’s version — recorded T about the same time — as an example of how it sounds with a tame, restrained vocal performance.
“When I Call Your Name”
Vince Gill won Single of the Year for this song after several years of tirelessly making music and trying to break through. The song became a masterpiece on the strength of the combination of Gill’s impressive tenor, Patty Loveless’ sublime supporting vocals, Barry Beckett’s forlorn piano and was tied together by Paul Franklin’s signature steel guitar. It takes 1 minute and 39 seconds to get to the soaring chorus that wonderfully captures the deep sadness of a man whose wife has walked out on him, but it’s well worth the wait. – LW
“Forever and Ever, Amen”
“Forever and Ever, Amen” adheres to the K.I.S.S. rule (Keep It Simple, Stupid), but when you have Randy Travis at his best, you don’t need anything complicated. Travis’ perfectly sung ode to ageless love is one of the highlights from the New Traditionalist Era/Great Credibility Scare of the late 1980s. Don Schlitz co-wrote “Forever and Ever, Amen” with Paul Overstreet and was just inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Travis was inducted in 2016. This song is one of the reasons why both men are considered among the best in country music’s long history. – SG
“He Stopped Loving Her Today”
As predictably #1 as “Cruise” was predictably #50. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” has certainly topped its fair share of lists of the greatest country songs of all time, and for good reason. You’ve got one of the purest country vocalists singing a song of mortal heartbreak, which appeals to the traditionalists. He sings it against a backdrop of Nashville Sound strings and cooing background vocalists, which allowed it to fit seamlessly on the radio alongside classic country and the then-modern Urban Cowboy sound. And it tells a great story with a twist ending that floors you the first time you hear it, yet never loses its potency once you know to anticipate it. If anything, knowing the ending makes the George Jones performance a little more powerful upon each listen, as you pick up on his grief for his friend and contempt for the lover that slighted him over the years. – KJC
I read somewhere that Kenny Rogers didn’t want to cut Lucille. Perhaps it was because his mother’s name was Lucille. Producer Larry Butler convinced him to try it one day when they had 15 or 20 minutes of studio time remaining. Kenny reluctantly agreed and the rest is history.
I love that both Help Me Make It Through The Night and Harper Valley PTA made the top 10 on this list. Both were such great songs, not just in their day, but also in current listens.
And as Kevin stated, what other song would be #1 on this list but He Stopped Loving Her Today. Not only the logical choice but an amazing choice as well. Great job.
Interesting note about “Harper Valley P.T.A.”, in that it topped the Billboard Hot 100 first, one week before it began a three-week run at #1 on that publication’s C&W singles chart. The song that knocked it off the #1 spot on the Hot 100? “Hey Jude” by a quartet from Liverpool you may have heard of a time or two….
About “He Stopped Loving Her Today”–I heard somewhere that The Possum was reluctant to record it because he thought was a “morbid son-of-a-b**ch”. I daresay he didn’t regret doing so afterwards.
Re. “Always On My Mind”–I would suspect that Willie recorded it in part because it was so connected to Elvis, who had it as the B-side of his 1972 hit “Separate Ways”, and Elvis had covered Willie’s own “Funny How Time Slips Away”. Also, the song was written by Mark James, Johnny Christopher (the two wrote extensively for Elvis), and Wayne Carson Thompson, and Willie’s recording was produced by Chips Moman, who produced Elvis’ epochal 1969 Memphis recordings.
Funny thing is, I would not regard “He Stopped Loving Her Today” among the better songs of George Jones. Most of his best songs occurred before the CMA awards were initiated, or while his management had him stranded on a second tier label
For my money, Paul, “A Good Year For the Roses” and “When The Grass Grows Over Me” were better songs.
Interesting list. Thanks for your efforts. Favorite here is “Forever and Ever Amen”.
Agree pistolero, but also “I’ll Share My World With You”, “If My Heart Had Windows” and “Just A Girl I Used To Know”