When Phillip Coleman heard Ronnie Dunn’s treatment of his song, “Cost of Livin’,” he knew he had a hit. The song, which outlines the struggle of a veteran applying for a job in recession-struck America, received bundles of critical praise upon its release as a single in June.
“To be honest, when the song came out, I just knew, with every ounce of being, I had a Top 5 song,” Coleman said. “I really thought it touched a nerve with people, and all the blogs and stuff about it had really touching things people were saying about it.”
The song received international coverage, appearing in a BBC news segment — and served as a theme for episodes of popular daytime shows Dr. Phil, The Doctors and The View. (The Nashville Scene Critics’ Poll also named it the fourth-best single of the year.)
But despite critical acclaim and commercial promotion, the song wasn’t well-received by country radio — at least in terms of airplay. “Cost of Livin’ ” peaked at No. 17 on Country Aircheck, No. 19 on Billboard’s country chart, and No. 15 on the MusicRow chart. Those numbers amount to only moderate success, at best, for a well-known artist like Dunn — who was half of country music’s most commercially successful duo, Brooks & Dunn, before they split in 2010.
Dunn and Coleman’s song certainly isn’t the only critics’ choice not to go No. 1, but the way in which the song fell off the charts has raised questions about the state of the industry.
Is the country radio climate still conducive to a strong, realistic representation of American struggles? Or has the notion of “feel-good” songs hampered a core principle of country music’s past? And why did Dunn’s song drop the way it did?
“I kept looking at the charts, and even Ronnie, at one time, texted me and said, ‘I think the song is going to start taking off now.’ And then … the week before Thanksgiving it was at No. 17,” Coleman said. “My wife is a songwriter and she keeps up with the charts, and [the next week] she said, ‘Honey, it’s gone.' "
“I looked at her and went, ‘What do you mean it’s gone?’ And she said, ‘It’s gone.’ ”
According to Country Aircheck, which uses Mediabase data, “Cost of Livin’ ” experienced a slight bump up to 2,815 spins on country stations during the first week of November. Then things quickly headed south. The next week, it dropped 91 plays. The week after that, it was down by nearly 500 plays. By Nov. 28, it had dropped off the charts completely.
In fact, Dunn’s performances of the song on Dr. Phil and The Doctors aired in December — making it seem as though promotion for the song was making a big push. But by the time those episodes aired, consumers would have had a hard time finding the song on the radio.
“Working songs” have a long history in country music. In 1955, Tennessee Ernie Ford’s cover of the coal miner’s lament “Sixteen Tons” topped the chart for 10 weeks. When Merle Haggard proclaimed in 1969 that he was going to “drink a little beer that evening/sing a little bit of these working man blues,” it became a calling card for the genre.
Almost a decade later, Johnny Paycheck covered David Allan Coe’s song, “Take This Job and Shove it” and took it to No. 1 at a time when factory jobs were peaking in the U.S.
Even Dolly Parton added a cheery touch to a depressing realization that “it’s a rich man’s game/No matter what they call it/And you spend your life/puttin’ money in his wallet” in her anthem “9 to 5.”
Coleman, while aware of country’s working-song history, didn’t set out to write a tune that would define an era. In fact, he wrote “Cost of Livin’ “ — then called “The Application” — nearly six years ago, before the recession fully kicked in.
“I was a paid songwriter in town, but all of that fell through, and I had to go out and find work,” Coleman said. “I just remember looking at that application, saying there’s nowhere on here where you can give them the true story.”
So Coleman decided to tell the world through his lyrics: “I gave my last job everything/Before it headed south/Took the shoes off of my children’s feet/The food out of their mouths/Yesterday my folks offered to help/But they’re barely getting by themselves.”
But Music Row was a tough sell.
“I was running around trying to get that song cut, and everyone that heard it was like, ‘Oh wow, I’ve never heard this put like this, it’s amazing.’ But nobody wanted to cut it,” Coleman said.
In 2007, Coleman sold the guitar he wrote the song on to help with a house payment.
A year later, Dunn heard the song and decided to cut it with Brooks & Dunn, but those plans fell through. When he ventured off on a solo career, he included it on his debut, self-titled album — but changed the words slightly.
“Ronnie, when he got a hold of it, he didn’t think it was strong enough for what he wanted to say, and he just said ‘Do you mind if I play with it and change something?’ ” Coleman recalled. “I said, ‘Man, you’re the one that’s going to sing it, and it’s going on your record, so it’s whatever you feel. You’re the one that’s gotta be comfortable saying it, so just run with it.’ ”
Dunn changed the tag on the chorus to “Three dollars and change at the pump/Cost of livin’s high and goin’ up.” Coleman, who worked for almost 10 years without getting a song recorded, gave the rewrite his stamp of approval.
After the song hit the airwaves, Coleman watched the charts anxiously. “It’s out of your control once you write it,” he said. “It’s like having children. … You send them out in the world and hope they do good.”
When the song tanked after a 22-week run, Coleman said it was “a pretty good blow to the stomach.”
“I honest to God thought, ‘This is my Mona Lisa, this is the song I’ve waited my whole life to get out there,’ ” he said. “I really thought it was going to do a whole lot better than that.”
He said he was never given a solid explanation for the song’s demise, but he did say it might have had to do with radio ownership giant, Cumulus.
“Cumulus radio … they own a big portion of stations nationwide. … What Ronnie told me was it was [one executive’s] decision that we’re not playing this song anymore,” Coleman said. “And I don’t know what his . . . he had a great dislike for the song? I don’t know. He just thought it was too depressing?”
John W. Dickey, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Cumulus, said there was no corporate agenda driving radio programming in his company.
“Do these types of lyrics [like in “Cost of Livin’ ”] not find a home in radio for a reason? That, to me, isn’t the story. That’s connecting dots that might be more interesting from somebody with a social/political agenda to connect, but they’re not dots that fairly deserve to be connected,” Dickey said. “We’re not trying to do anything but reflect the widest type of appetite for the product, in the market that we serve.”
Rather, he suggested Dunn’s song and other new singles struggle to break into increasingly tight playlists driven by market research that shows that listeners prefer more “library-driven” music from the 1990s and 2000s.
“What ultimately is fair to talk about is: How many new projects have an opportunity to get played based on where the format is today? Fundamentally … in our company, we believe there is lots of great product that we’ve seen consistently test well from the ’90s and 2000s that deserve to be played more and exposed more.”
Dunn’s promotion team declined to answer questions about the song and its chart trajectory.
Joe Limardi, operations director at the Gaylord-owned 650 WSM-AM, said he wouldn’t be surprised if corporate influence led to the sharp decline of the song.
“I think that kind of practice happens across the board in radio in general, no matter what the format,” Limardi said. “I know that many companies have a group of corporate programmers that determine, and they say ‘suggest,’ particular songs that they are going to play and where they are going to go from week to week [on the chart].
“The world of politics and music, as I see it from my vantage point, I think there are still plenty of games being played out there.”
Limardi, who previously worked for a Cumulus station, also noted that the nature of the song — a slow, weepy, depressive ballad — isn’t exactly what corporate programmers want to be spinning during the holidays. But he played it on WSM-AM — and still does from time to time.
“[Listeners] love the message of that Ronnie Dunn song. The message hit a lot of people,” Limardi said.
Another point that both Limardi and Coleman brought up is the overabundance of “feel-good,” upbeat tunes dominating the airwaves.
“I could easily say that based on what I’ve seen … a lot of the current music has been good times and fun and living life on the edge,” Limardi said.
As a songwriter, Coleman said he sometimes feels cheated by the easy success of no-brainers.
“I get to turn on the radio and hear all these songs about drinking and shaking your ass that’s going to No. 1. It makes me sick,” Coleman said. “You set out to move people’s heart or move their feet when you write a song. I’ve always aimed for the heart, but I guess the feet is what everybody wants to be moving right now.”
Limardi stopped short of proclaiming the end of “realness” in country music. He pointed to Dierks Bentley’s single, “Home,” currently in the Top 10, as an example of a critical and commercial success.
Overall, Limardi described the charts as being fickle — with inexplicable ups and downs. At WSM-AM, he has the freedom to dip into Americana, bluegrass and classic country, which he said is a better reflection of the state of country music.
As for Coleman, he recently quit a job at FedEx after receiving a few royalty checks for “Cost of Livin’.” He hopes to write full time for as long as he can afford it.
“If I ever figure the music business out, I’m going to go figure out women, then I’ll really be rich,” Coleman said.