Johnny Cash was a country legend, and he died just as the music downloading era took off, so it's not surprising that he has four of the country oldies that have sold the most digital copies. The surprise is that he doesn't have the #1 most active country oldie. That distinction is held by Charlie Daniels Band's 1979 smash "The Devil Went Down To Georgia," which has sold 1,213,000 digital copies. The zesty recording has been featured on the hit soundtracks to Urban Cowboy and Coyote Ugly.
The 45th annual Academy of Country Music Awards airs Sunday night, which prompted this look back through country classics. In January, Nielsen/SoundScan introduced running lists of the top 200 songs in digital history in a variety of genres, including country. I combed through the country list and pulled out all songs that were released at least 15 years ago. There were an even dozen.
These are the 12 country oldies that are most active and relevant in the modern era, as measured by their digital sales. These aren't the 12 best-selling country hits of all time. Some hits sell millions of copies in their day and then are all but forgotten. These songs, by definition, are living on.
Cash, who died of diabetes in September 2003, isn't the only artist on this list who has passed on. Patsy Cline died in a March 1963 plane crash. Cash's life story was the basis of the 2005 movie Walk The Line. Cline was the subject of the 1985 movie Sweet Dreams.
Many giant country stars are conspicuous by their absence from this list, including Reba McEntire, who will host Sunday's show, Garth Brooks, George Strait, Alan Jackson, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and Alabama. This simply means that none of their older songs has sold 396,000 digital copies, the minimum number needed to make Nielsen/SoundScan's top 200 list.
Here are the 12 country oldies (songs released at least 15 years ago) that have sold the most digital copies. I show the songs' peak positions on Hot Country Songs (country) and the Hot 100 (pop).
1. Charlie Daniels Band, "The Devil Went Down To Georgia," 1,213,000. Daniels and his bandmates wrote this lively story song, which was their biggest pop hit. It was the first single from their sixth album, Million Mile Reflections, which charted in May 1979. The song hit #1 country and #3 pop.
2. Johnny Cash, "Ring Of Fire," 1,150,000. Cash's future wife, June Carter, co-wrote this song, which charted in June 1963. It hit #1 country and #17 pop. It was featured on the compilation Ring Of Fire (The Best Of Johnny Cash). Carter and Cash were married in March 1968. They died within four months of each other in 2003.
3. Johnny Cash, "I Walk The Line," 911,000. Cash wrote this song about the transformational power of love, which hit the country chart in June 1956. It reached #1 country and #17 pop. It was Cash's first song to crack the pop chart.
4. Johnny Cash, "Folsom Prison Blues," 706,000. Cash wrote this song, which originated as the B side of "So Doggone Lonesome" in February 1956. It became a top five country hit in its own right that year. It finally became a crossover hit in 1968, when a live version from Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison hit #1 country and #32 pop.
5. Tim McGraw, "Don't Take The Girl," 520,000. This song hit the country chart in April 1994. The following month, it became McGraw's first #1 country hit. It also reached #17 pop. It was the second single from McGraw's breakthrough album, Not A Moment Too Soon.
6. Kenny Rogers, "The Gambler," 471,000. Rogers had several bigger chart hits, but this remains his signature song. The story song with the killer chorus cracked the country chart in October 1978. It reached #1 country and #16 pop. It was the first single from Rogers' sixth solo album, which was also titled The Gambler. The song spawned a series of five TV movies starring Rogers. The first aired in April 1980.
7. Hank Williams Jr., "A Country Boy Can Survive," 465,000. Williams' song, which originated in September 1981 on his album The Pressure Is On, became a #2 country hit in 1982. Williams was featured on a 2000 cover version of the song by Chad Brock. The recording, which was dubbed the "Y2K Version," hit #75 on the Hot 100.
8. Lee Greenwood, "God Bless The USA," 452,000. Greenwood's patriotic anthem hit the country chart in May 1984 (on its way to a #7 peak). Its success coincided with Ronald Reagan's "Morning In America" re-election ad campaign. The song didn't crack the pop chart until it was re-released in the wake of 9/11. The bullish sentiments perfectly captured the mood of the country in the weeks after the attacks: The song reached #16 on both the country and pop charts.
9. Alison Krauss & Union Station, "When You Say Nothing At All," 418,000. This cover version of a 1988 Keith Whitley smash cracked the country chart in February 1995. It reached #3 country and #53 pop. This was Krauss' first hit to make the pop chart. It was featured on her compilation Now That I've Found You: A Collection.
10. Patsy Cline, "Crazy," 410,000. Willie Nelson wrote this exquisite ballad, which hit the pop chart in October 1961. The song, which reached #2 country and #9 pop, was Cline's only top 10 pop hit. It was featured on her 1962 album Patsy Cline Showcase.
11. Johnny Cash, "A Boy Named Sue," 401,000. Satirist Shel Silverstein wrote this novelty song, which appeared on the album Johnny Cash At San Quentin in July 1969. The song hit #1 country and #2 pop. It was the biggest pop hit of Cash's long career, but it hasn't stood the test of time as well as the three Cash classics which are listed above it on this list.
12. Toby Keith, "Should've Been A Cowboy," 397,000. Keith wrote this song, which was his first hit on both the country and pop charts. The song, from Keith's eponymous debut album, hit the country chart in March 1993. It reached #1 country and #93 pop.
The Fine Print: Nielsen/SoundScan's list of the top-selling country songs in digital history includes John Denver's 1971 hit "Take Me Home, Country Roads." The graceful folkie ballad has sold 520,000 digital copies, which would have placed it at #6 on today's list. I reluctantly didn't include it because it was much more of a pop hit than a country hit at the time of its release. It reached #2 on the Hot 100, but stalled at #50 on the country chart. Denver didn't have a top 10 country hit until 1974's "Annie's Song."
FYI, Denver teamed with Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert (members of Fat City and future members of Starland Vocal Band) to write "Take Me Home, Country Roads." The song became Denver's first Hot 100 hit in April 1971. It was featured on his album Poems, Prayers & Promises.