They couldn't name that tune in nearly two years.

After whittling the 400 candidates for Virginia state song down to 50, listening to 17 1/2 hours of ditty upon ditty, narrowing the list down to eight finalists, having the songs professionally arranged, enduring complaints from their own children, frustration from finalists--even a lawsuit from a disgruntled contestant, the committee members charged with recommending a new song to the legislature decided today to take a pass.

The legislative subcommittee on the state song, formed in 1998, voted to wait at least a year before choosing a winner. In fact, committee members said, they now are counting on the public to make the decision for them, hoping that a consensus will form in support of one song after the tunes are more widely disseminated.

The non-decision perplexed and baffled the songwriters waiting to learn which song would be the one chosen as the successor to the now-retired "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia."

"I've been involved with this thing for three years," said sausage mogul and country singer Jimmy Dean, whose song, co-authored by his wife, Donna, is one of the finalists. "I've never had the faintest idea what the [heck] is going on, and I still don't."

Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta), chairman of the State Song Subcommittee, tried to explain. "Our original intent was to make a recommendation," Hanger said. "But I'm cautious at this point, because I don't want to drop the ball. Over the next year, hopefully, we can arrive at a consensus."

Hanger was unsure exactly how that consensus would form, but said the songs would be played throughout the public schools, over the Internet and on the radio. Versions of the eight finalists for state song can be heard on The Washington Post's Web site at www.washingtonpost.com/metro. Also on the Web site is a message board for comments on the songs.

Hanger said there is a slight possibility that if no consensus is reached, two songs might be chosen.

Other panel members said they hadn't heard the newly arranged versions of the songs until today and thought the General Assembly would not take up the controversial issue this year.

Also, one of the finalists' songs had not been rerecorded, and members believed it would be unfair to make a choice before it was finished.

Virginians have been looking and listening for a new state song since 1990, when then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the nation's first elected black governor, said he found references to "darkies" and "massas" in "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia" extremely offensive.

Every step of the replacement effort has been laden with angry debate.

Del. James K. "Jay" O'Brien Jr. (R-Fairfax), a member of the panel, said recently he couldn't stand to hear his children complaining about the songs anymore.

An Alexandria man sued Gov. James S. Gilmore III, the Virginia General Assembly and the song committee, charging that he was not allowed to petition them to vote for his tune. The suit, which seeks more than $10 million in damages and asks that the contest be nullified, was thrown out of court but is under appeal.

The Deans' entry has been particularly controversial. More than two years ago, Hanger and two other panel members sponsored a bill to make the Dean ditty the official state song, and ousted songwriters have argued that the subcommittee was biased from the start. Disgruntled songsters also note that another subcommittee member, Sen. Stephen H. Martin (R-Chesterfield), has accepted $1,750 in campaign contributions from Dean.

"It's like paying the referee $5 before the game," said Bob Campbell, a songwriter from Staunton whose tune was knocked out.

Hanger said repeatedly today that he thought the process was fair and that he was unbiased. He said the Deans' song was not even in his top three.

Jimmy Dean, cloaked in his familiar cowboy hat and boots, sat with his wife in the middle of the hearing room today and provided a running commentary. After their song was played for the crowd, Dean declared, "Boy, that was good."

Jeanette Carter, daughter of country singer A.P. Carter and a member of the legendary Carter family, made a surprise appearance and asked the committee members to choose her father's song, which is a finalist.

"I think Daddy would be very deserving," Carter said. "I don't know any family that has done more for Virginia."

Robert Clouse, one of the finalists and the last person to address the panel, captured the songwriters' frustration with today's decision. To the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," he sang:

"Our noble quest started in 1998

Now it's 2007 and we still have to wait . . .

How long can this go on?

Glory, glory hallelujah

You don't have the winner, do ya?"

CAPTION: Country singer Jimmy Dean turns to his wife, Donna, holding back tears while they listen to their entry in the Virginia state song contest.