For as much as we want to believe that country music is still driven by the album above all else, in the day of streaming, even our historic genre has succumbed to being fueled by hit singles.
Undoubtedly the actual best country music acts still put their focus on a top to bottom, tight-knit project that is more than just a collection of songs, the whole being more than the sum of its parts with a cohesive message tying each track together, but it would be dishonest of me to think that mainstream country follows the same trend.
Of course there are outliers. Miranda Lambert, Eric Church, and Ashley McBryde come to mind immediately, but we can’t ignore the fact that Morgan Wallen’s “Last Night” was near single handedly responsible for millions of people discovering “country music” for the first time in 2023.
Thinking about just how huge “Last Night” is (over a billion streams and still climbing fast) got me wondering what the biggest songs in the genre’s history are. Fortunately, there’s a good metric to measure this, and although it’s not perfect in today’s music economy, the most accurate measure of a song’s commercial success is units sold, which is tracked by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
When music sales were all physical, and even when iTunes first arrived, this was relatively easy to track as people were purchasing either a single or an album and that purchase, obviously, counted as one unit sold. But streaming throws a wrench into all of this. There have been numerous formulas to try and equalize streaming with actual sales and the current system counts a unit sold as one of the following.
Actual purchase (physical or digital) of a single or album
1,250 paid subscription streams
3,750 free/ad-supported streams
It can get a bit complicated and there’s plenty to be said on if that truly equates sales and streams, but that’s how things are measured now so we’ll have to take it.
The RIAA doesn’t simply maintain a list of top selling singles and albums though. Instead, they track their performance and when they hit a certain threshold, present the artist with one of the certifications listed below.
Gold – 500,000 Units Sold
Platinum – 1,000,000 Units Sold
Multi-Platinum – 2,000,000 Units Sold (in increments of 1,000,000 thereafter)
Diamond – 10,000,000 Units Sold
It should also be noted that only streams and purchases in the United States count towards the certification process.
With that being said, before I did any research into the most commercially successful country songs of all-time, I would have assumed that Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, or similar artists would dominate the list, but it turns out that’s not true.
Garth only has one single that’s been certified by the RIAA (“Lost In You”, Gold) while Shania has 12, her largest being “Man! I Feel Like A Woman”, which is 3x Platinum.
Only 8 country songs have ever reached the Diamond certification, and to be honest, I’m quite disappointed with which ones they are.
From oldest to newest, let’s look at the only 8 country songs to ever be certified Diamond by RIAA.
Florida Georgia Line – Cruise (4/1/2016)
The song that exemplified bro-country better than any other was also the first one to ever officially move over 10,000,000 units. Impressive for sure, but is this really the song we wanted to break through? Tough look for country music.
Lil Nas X ft. Billy Ray Cyrus – Old Town Road (10/22/2019)
I will go to my grave saying that this is not a country song. Is it catchy? 100%. Do I get pumped up if I hear it in a bar? You betcha. But does this belong anywhere near a country music chart? Absolutely not.
Regardless, RIAA has it classified in the country music genre, and it became a huge hit when Billy Ray Cyrus decided to let people know he was still alive.
Chris Stapleton – Tennessee Whiskey (12/14/2021)
Okay, now we’re talking.
Sure, country music traditionalists will forever say “It’s not actually a Chris Stapleton song and George Jones and David Allan Coe did it way better!!!” but let’s be honest guys. This is the song that put Stapleton on the map and to say that his vocal performance isn’t clearly the best version of the song is just being argumentative for the sake of being argumentative.
Darius Rucker – Wagon Wheel (10/27/2022)
And we’re back to mediocrity (at best).
I’m a huge Hootie & The Blowfish fan, I even sang “Let Her Cry” in my 8th grade talent show, and Darius has released some great songs during his solo career run, but this one is just overplayed to the max and that ruins it for everyone. I’m willing to bet that even he had no idea this would catch on as much as it did when he decided to release it, but hey, can’t fault a guy for making a boatload of money.
Lady A – Need You Now (4/17/2023)
Lady Antebellum isn’t a favorite of mine, but I am partial to this song. It’s well written, well performed, and overall pretty good. I don’t exactly understand how this was a song that completely blew up and will go down as one of the biggest in country music history (shoutout to suburban moms I guess), but it could be worse, as we’ll see later on.
Luke Combs – Beautiful Crazy (6/12/2023)
The first part of the wedding trifecta.
It makes me so happy that Luke Combs has gotten to the superstar status that he’s at. He’s a genuinely good guy who really seems like he’d still be playing dive bars if he wasn’t one of the biggest acts in the genre.
The story goes that he wrote this for his now wife after just 3 dates, and while that’s a risky move for sure, safe to say it all worked out for him in the end.
Sam Hunt – Body Like A Back Road (7/27/2023)
Back to the bottom of the barrel…
I’ve said it for years, but if Sam Hunt would just come out and say that he’s a pop artist, he’d be my favorite one in a heartbeat, but still trying to package these snap-track heavy, faux hip-hop beats as country music is just disingenuous.
Then again, he made a heck of a lot more money than I ever will on this one, but is that really what it’s all about?
Kane Brown – Heaven (12/7/2023)
The most recent country music Diamond certification is none other than Kane Brown, a man who’s had Whiskey Riff blocked for years…
Every now and again, Kane releases a legitimate great song like “Whiskey Sour”, but most others are pretty bad. In all fairness, “Heaven” is a decent song and certainly one of his best, but that’s not saying too much.
To close out, I’m hoping some actual good country songs will really take off in the near future and we can add some quality to this quantity driven list.
While the soul of country music will never be about numbers and metrics, it’s hard to live in this modern world without paying at least a little attention to them and rooting for the good guys to rack up a couple wins.
Now let’s listen to some Charles Wesley Godwin, shall we?