Few country songs have had the success of Lady A’s classic 2009 hit “Need You Now.” The song was a massive hit at its time, peaking at number-two on the Billboard Hot 100 and becoming one of the most digitally downloaded songs ever. Its success translated into four Grammy wins, including Record and Song of the Year. However, no other country song has won the top categories since, despite hits like Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant to Be,” Gabby Barrett’s “I Hope,” Sam Hunt’s “Body Like A Back Road,” and Dan and Shay’s “Tequila” being nearly as successful in recent years. What made “Need You Now” beat the odds for its win, and when can we expect another country song to take top honors?
First things first, we need to look at country’s history in Record and Song of the Year. Five country songs have won Song of the Year: “The Battle of New Orleans” by Johnny Horton, “Games People Play” by Joe South, “Always On My Mind” by Willie Nelson, “Not Ready to Make Nice” by The Chicks, and “Need You Now.” For Record of the Year, the track record is even worse: “Not Ready to Make Nice” and “Need You Now” are the only country songs to win (I’m not counting Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s “Please Read The Letter” since the Grammys classified their album “Raising Sand” as folk/Americana). So it’s safe to say that “Need You Now” didn’t have the best shot historically.
A reason why country music underperforms in the top categories might be accessibility; a lot of country songs don’t appeal to non-country audiences. This, however, was not the case for Lady A. “Need You Now” was not only a crossover hit, but it even topped Billboard’s Adult Contemporary and Adult Top 40 charts, and peaked at number-two on the Pop Songs chart. As a result, its support was very likely not limited to country voters, but rather came from across the board, especially from pop voters.
2011’s Record of the Year race was jam-packed with hits. Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’s “Empire State of Mind,” Eminem and Rihanna’s “Love the Way You Lie,” Cee-Lo Green‘s “F*ck You,” and B.o.B. and Bruno Mars’s collaboration “Nothin’ On You” were nominees alongside “Need You Now.” In a way, those nominations were historic: four out of the five nominated songs included artists of color, which was rare. Furthermore, a win for “Empire” or “Love the Way” would’ve marked the first hip-hop victory in the category ever. However, some heavy vote-splitting probably occurred: “Empire,” “Love the Way,” and “Nothin’ on You” were big hip-hop/pop crossovers, so they might have appealed to the same voters. As for Cee-Lo, his song’s language might’ve been a little upsetting to more conservative voters. “Need You Now” is also more typical Grammy bait, a ballad with real instrumentation and emotional lyrics that might’ve been perceived as deeper by more traditionalist voters.
Speaking of lyrics, who did it beat in Song of the Year? “F*ck You” and “Love the Way You Lie” were also up for Song, as well as Ray LaMontagne’s “Beg, Steal or Borrow” and Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me.” This category shows how much pop appeal “Need You Now” truly had. For any other country song, having two other country/Americana songs nominated would be a death sentence. But since the song was a huge pop hit and there weren’t any other straightforward pop songs nominated, “Need You Now” was able to overcome any possible vote-splitting. It is also possible that most — if not all — country voters rallied behind “Need You Now” as well since Lady A swept the country field too.
So when will we get another country winner? The key element for a country song to win is cross-genre appeal. Some recent country hits have had this, but another important factor is the competition. A big part of “Need You Now’s” success was the lack of another true pop hit to sway pop voters. Weak years in pop — or simply years when pop doesn’t cross over to the general field — might allow for country to take the crown back. This is, of course, unless you get support fueled by controversy like The Chicks in 2007, but that’s a whole other story.
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