A couple of weeks ago without any fanfare, Billboard added brand new “All-Time” charts for country songs, albums, and artists. As part of the periodical’s recent Nashville-centric issue, they decided to finally shine a spotlight on these charts, and now many folks, especially fans of traditional country and older artists, are a bit up in arms over them.
To see folks like Florida Georgia Line crest the Top Songs chart is disturbing enough. But to not see any mention of Hank Williams in the Best Artist list has also solicited groans. So let’s run through some observations on these charts to help understand how best to gauge their usefulness (or not), and explain some of the strange wrinkles they evidence.
This Is Nobody’s Opinion
Unlike other “All-Time” charts from various outlets (Saving Country Music has its own), this is not an opinion-based judgement call by Billboard whatsoever. This is simply the raw numbers calculated into their charting system to spit out the results. You could argue their methodology or how the charts excludes many artists before 1958 (see below), but the numbers are what they are, and can’t be argued. So you can’t bellyache about their slanted editorial board or calling for the head of whomever put them together.
According to Billboard:
Titles are ranked based on an inverse point system, with weeks at No. 1 earning the greatest value and weeks at lower spots earning the least. Due to changes in chart methodology over the years, eras are weighted differently to account for chart turnover rates over various periods. Artists are ranked based on a formula blending performance of all their Hot Country Songs and Top Country Albums chart entries.
The Charts Don’t Start Until After 1958 (Songs) and 1964 (Albums)
This is the fatal flaw of these charts, especially since Billboard is calling them the “Greatest All Time.” According to Billboard:
The Greatest of All-Time Top Country Artists, Songs and Albums rankings are based on weekly performance on Hot Country Songs (from its Oct. 20, 1958 inception through June 4, 2016) and Top Country Albums (from its Jan. 11, 1964 inception through June 4, 2016).
This means artists such as Hank Williams, Eddie Arnold, Red Foley, Roy Acuff, and many others whose heyday was during country music’s Golden Era of the early and mid 1950’s are virtually excluded from these lists, not to mention artists like The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers who did most of their bread winning before Billboard was even around.
For example, many regard Hank Williams as the greatest country music artist of all time. Yet during Hank’s era, there was no country songs chart in Billboard. The chart that Hank Williams and others populated was Billboard’s “Most Played Juke Box Folk Records” started on January 8, 1944. Sometimes there would be as little as two positions on the chart in a given week. This is also one of the reasons Hank Williams regularly referred to himself as a folk musician, not country.
Other charts were the “Best Selling Retail Folk Records,” and “Country & Western Records Most Played By Folk Disk Jockeys” started in 1949. Hank Williams was regularly bested by Eddie Arnold on these Billboard charts, who was sort of the pop country performer of the time. But none of this chart data was factored into these supposed “All-Time” charts.
Furthermore, artists like Hank Williams and Eddy Arnold didn’t release albums in those days. Everything was predicated on the single 45’s because one of the primary way people listened to records was on the juke box. This also puts these Golden Era artists at a disadvantage on the All-Time Artist chart because it is aggregated partly from album sales.
#1’s Don’t Always Tell the Whole Story
We see this regularly pop up on Billboard’s end-of-year charts. Though a #1 album or song is what every artist strives for, it doesn’t always denote the most popular music when zooming out to analyze the month, year, or in this case, the “Greatest All-Time.” Billboard says, especially relating to how they decided their greatest artists, “Titles are ranked based on an inverse point system, with weeks at No. 1 earning the greatest value and weeks at lower spots earning the least.”
For example Merle Haggard had an incredible 38 #1 hits. But even more incredible, Merle has the record for the most #2 hits in the history of country music. Sometimes a song won’t crack the Top 5, but it’s run in the Top 10 is for so long, it actually performs better than a #1. The song can get more spins, or have more sales than a #1, especially in the skewed environment of mainstream country music today where the system is gerrymandered to get as many songs to #1 as possible. That is why so many modern hits ended up on the top of Billboard’s “All-Time” songs chart.
Billboard’s All-Time charts do offer some interesting insights, but saying their “All-Time” is misleading when you leave out the most important era in country music’s history, and exclude some of its most iconic artists. Sure, if you’re looking for some insight on popularity and influence after 1958 for songs, and 1964 for albums, these charts give you a rough sketch. And shake your little fists all you want, but Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” was a massive hit, and probably deserves to be the #1 song (though it was actually a remix that helped it stay at #1 for so long). But for a truly “All-Time” chart, Billboard would need to factor in the quarter decade of music they left out, which admittedly would be difficult with how poor record keeping and charting was during that era.