The news coming out of the Carrie Underwood camp is that she will be debuting a brand new single at the ACM Awards on Sunday (4-15) called “Cry Pretty,” and regardless of how good or godawful the song is, I couldn’t be more happy. Because no matter what the new single turns out to be, it is not Carrie Underwood’s “The Champion” with Ludacris being sent to country radio.
In an ideal world, a collaboration between Carrie Underwood and Ludacris wouldn’t even exist. Not that cross genre collaborations are errant every single time, but “The Champion” was never supposed to be more than promotional single for NBC’s coverage of the Super Bowl. And in that capacity, the song served its purpose. But as downloads and streams of the song soared, the pressure to add it to country radio must have become nearly insurmountable.
Without any serious push as a commercial single, “The Champion” debuted at #3 on the Digital Songs Sales chart—the best-charting digital sales performance for a song in Carrie Underwood’s career. The song debuted on the top 50 of the Billboard Hot 100. Sales and streams then soared again when the video was debuted during the Super Bowl presentation. Even without any effort to push the song on country radio, it still bubbled up to #57 on the country radio charts due to eager programmers adding it to rotations anyway.
Look at what happened with the Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line collaboration “Meant To Be.” Initially it wasn’t supposed to be sent to country radio at all. It was recorded and released as a pop song, which it is. But due to the song’s success, they chose to try it out at country radio, and now the song has already broken a slew of records on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, and here very shortly will test the record for the longest-charting #1 single in country music history.
We had assurances from other artists about other singles that they swore publicly would never be sent to country radio, including Zac Brown’s “Beautiful Drug” that ended up being a #1, or his Sir Rosevelt side project that has now sent two singles to country radio. Thomas Rhett’s awful “Vacation” with its 14 songwriters was supposed to be “just for fun,” and was released as the 4th single from his album Tangled Up. On the country charts at the moment, there are country/pop collaborations by Chris Lane and Tori Kelley, Keith Urban and Julia Michaels, and David Lee Murphy and Kenny Chesney. Wait scrap that last one. No wait on second thought, don’t.
But Carrie Underwood stuck to her guns despite surging data that was telling her to roll the dice with “The Champion” on country radio. Carrie Underwood fans will say, “Yeah, but Carrie Underwood would never do that.” And that’s exactly my point.
It’s reminiscent of the story of Dolly Parton’s first crossover single, “Here You Come Again” from 1977. It was written and recorded for the express purpose to cross Dolly over to pop. But during the recording process, Dolly insisted the song still feature some steel guitar. Of course to be optimized for pop radio, leaving steel guitar out was important. But eventually Dolly won out. “She wanted people to be able to hear the steel guitar, so if someone said it isn’t country, she could say it and prove it,” said producer Gary Klein at the time. “She was so relieved. It was like her life sentence was reprieved.”
The leadership Dolly and Carrie Underwood displayed is exactly what Florida Georgia Line did not display with the Bebe Rexha and “Meant To Be.” And give kudos to Maren Morris, who just like Carrie, could have released her big smash single with Zedd “The Middle” to country, which has gone all the way to #1 on the Mainstream Top 40 charts. Granted, the latest Morris single “Rich” is nowhere near country either, and releasing “The Middle” would have disrupted her current single strategy. But after the success of “Meant To Be,” there is precedence if any artist wants to release a pop collaboration to country radio.
So to make a long point even longer, good on Carrie Underwood for sticking to her guns on this very sticky issue. Of course she’s more of a pop star than country, always has been, and always will be. As a true country fan, you’d be a fool to get your hopes up for her new single, whatever it is. But hey, we’ll see on Sunday. You never know. It could be another “Something in the Water.” But just like Carrie is one of the very few current country stars who keeps up with her commitments to the Grand Ole Opry, she deserves credit for not being the next or latest country star to disrespect the country format by releasing a song that was never meant to be considered country in the first place. At the very least this is the commitment all “country” performers should keep for the integrity of the format.
Sometimes it’s worth doing the wrong thing financially in the short term, for your career and country music in the long term. Eventually, everything comes back around.