It’s time for the nominations for the 49th Annual Country Music Association (CMA) Awards to be revealed! For those who have been so steeped in country awards show alphabet soup that they can no longer tell which show is which, this one is the most respected – it country music’s Oscars, as country superstar Brad Paisley calls them. Speaking of Paisley, he will re-team with fellow country superstar and Season 4 American Idol champ Carrie Underwood to co-host the show for an 8th consecutive year, which makes sense because these two have established them as excellent stewards of the show whose monologue has become one of the most if not the most anticipated and appreciated parts of the show. Their hijinks has begun – they sent out the following tweets as they taped CMA Awards promos yesterday:
My CMA co-host…Stove. pic.twitter.com/CC4MGKgokV
— Carrie Underwood (@carrieunderwood) September 8, 2015
— Brad Paisley (@BradPaisley) September 8, 2015
This year’s show takes place on Wednesday, November 4 at 8p Eastern/7p Central on ABC, live from the Bridgestone Arena. With ratings for the CMT Music Awards and ABC’s “CMA Fest: Country’s Night To Rock” special down this year, the CMA Awards may have some work to do convincing people that the broadcast will offer something fresh, especially after years of bro monotony on radio. Unfortunately, this probably means the show’s executive producer Robert Deaton is on the phone trying to convince One Direction to perform at the CMA Awards. Or Adele, but to be honest, I would be down with that.
Anyway, back to the nominations. Let’s face it: these awards shows are little more than promo platforms and the awards are excuses to put on a variety show on primetime television. But they also tell us about which blocs currently have sway in the country music industry, so there’s that. This year’s CMA nominations will be the first to give some indication of how the divorce of country’s erstwhile Alpha power couple Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton may have impacted their support. Let’s note, though, that Blake did release a new album during the eligibility period, Miranda did not. There’s also the possible impact of the separation of Reba McEntire and manager Narvel Blackstock to consider.
But politics aside, this much seems certain: “Girl Crush,” the smash single cowritten by Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose and performed by Little Big Town will rule the Song & Single categories, regardless of blocs. Its combination of critical acclaim, a buzzy national controversy and massive success make it virtually unstoppable. Sam Hunt is this year’s breakout act in the country market, which is interesting because his music is just not country. At all. But his numbers, much like Taylor Swift’s are too big for the industry to ignore him, so look for him in multiple categories. From the point of view of people interested in actual country music, the point of most interest may be how Chris Stapleton and Maddie & Tae fare in the nominations. Stapleton is a veteran singer/songwriter whose voice has the soul of the heavens, who released his debut album of solo material earlier this year and has the year’s most beloved country album. Maddie & Tae are upstarts who have bucked a recent trend of young female country acts catering to the bros in order to get radio play by taking on the bros directly and sticking to their country guns about who they are.
On to the nominations, which will be announced by rocker-gone-country and former American Idol judge Steven Tyler and rising pop/country act Kelsea Ballerini!
Entertainer of the Year
Quick Take: Garth would not be denied (a nomination, anyway), and it’s interesting to see 3 out of 5 nominees here are Sony acts, with the other 2 both Capitol Nashville acts. 3 out of the 5 nominees tour with William Morris Endeavor, 2 out of the 5 tour with Live Nation, which is more balanced than it has been in the past few years (the fact that Garth and Kenny are huge draws with AEG Live made them undeniable this year). Miranda Lambert gets in over Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton and Florida-Georgia Line, perhaps as a token female, but she also does have more respect in some corners of the industry, and she continues to be WME and Live Nation’s sole country female focus. Reigning Entertainer of the Year Luke Bryan would seem like an early favorite, but multi-category support for Kenny Chesney and Eric Church suggests that Eric Church in particular might have a chance (Kenny is unlikely to return to the winners circle here). Garth’s tour has been huge, but that’s really been the only part of his comeback that has impacted big, so I’m not sure the legacy vote will favor him here.
Female Vocalist of the Year
Lee Ann Womack
Quick Take: If there’s a surprise here, it’s that Reba didn’t get nominated. Usually, legacy helps in the nominations, and she was pretty prominent during the first half of the year. Carrie, Kacey and Miranda were the locks to be nominated, and newbie Kelsea gets in as a female who hit #1 at country radio. Lee Ann Womack is a pleasant surprise, especially since she is now on an independent label.
As for the likely winner, Miranda Lambert has weakened at radio (her current single is struggling to make the t30 after its predecessor missed the t15) but has been as visible as ever advocating for women in country and more significantly for predictive purposes, she is the sole WME/Live Nation-affiliated nominee (Carrie, Kacey and Kelsea are all represented by CAA, not WME). This would be her 6th consecutive win. The general public seems to be bored with Miranda domination here and Carrie Underwood will be visible during the final round of CMA voting with the release of her upcoming album. But Miranda has more multi-category support once again this year, and it seems unlikely she will be unseated from the Female Vocalist perch until another female with the “right” industry affiliations succeeds enough.
Male Vocalist of the Year
Quick Take: This is quite the quality category this year! Great to see Chris Stapleton who, if this were a category that really considered singing ability, would win this running away. I mean, who else can claim this?
— Chris Stapleton (@ChrisStapleton) July 27, 2015
— Chris Stapleton (@ChrisStapleton) August 17, 2015
If it’s not Chris Stapleton who wins, then here’s hoping Dierks Bentley finally snags this trophy. He has pretty much become ambassador for Live Nation this year (via festivals like Live Nation’s inaugural Farmborough Fest), he has been more active with shout-outs to rising acts and brought upstarts Maddie & Tae out on tour with him, and most importantly, he has released some excellent commercial music to country radio – along with Eric Church, the best male mainstream country that country radio’s been willing to play. All 5 of the nominees here are represented by WME and 4 out of the 5 of them tour with Live Nation. 3 out of the 5 nominees are Capitol Nashville acts (add in Chris Stapleton and 4 out of the 5 are UMG Nashville acts). With Luke Bryan the favorite to win Entertainer, it’s likely between Dierks and Eric for Capitol Nashville’s support, though Chris Stapleton and his heavenly voice could be a spoiler here.
New Artist of the Year
Maddie & Tae
Quick Take: 2 out of the 5 nominees are with Big Machine Label Group, and 2 are UMG Nashville acts. 3 out of the 5 nominees (Sam Hunt, Maddie & Tae, and Kelsea Ballerini) are represented by CAA, and 3 out of the 5 nominees toured with Live Nation’s Megaticket this year (though this seems to have an influence more with headliners than with opening acts). There’s a pretty wide range of sounds represented, from R&B/pop to wannabe funk to soulful country with soul to country/pop. Chris Stapleton cowrote Thomas Rhett’s current single. Sam Hunt is far and away the most successful. Chris Stapleton is far and away the most beloved. Thomas Rhett is most firmly lodged in the industry mainstream. This is a difficult race to predict, and it’s possible we’ll see Chris Stapleton and Sam Hunt facing each other again at the Grammys.
Album Of The Year
Jason Aldean, Old Boots, New Dirt
Kacey Musgraves, Pageant Material
Little Big Town, Pain Killer
Kenny Chesney, The Big Revival
Chris Stapleton, Traveller
Quick Take: No Blake Shelton here is a notable result. On the other hand, this is Jason Aldean’s only nomination after he didn’t get a single nod last year. 3 of the nominees are represented by CAA and 2 of the nominees tour with Live Nation. UMG Nashville has 3 nominees here, 2 of them with Mercury Nashville acts (Kacey Musgraves and Chris Stapleton). On acclaim, this would appear to be a race between Kacey Musgraves and Chris Stapleton, but if votes split, that could open the door for Aldean’s dull album.
Single of the Year
“American Kids,” Kenny Chesney
“Girl Crush,” Little Big Town
“I Don’t Dance,” Lee Brice
“Take Your Time,” Sam Hunt
“Talladega,” Eric Church
Quick Take: Lee Brice always manages to get into either the Single or Song category (last year, he was in Song for “I Don’t Dance.” Why is it still eligible? Not sure, but likely because its chart run crossed eligibility periods. Little Big Town’s “Pontoon” won Single Of The Year at the 2012 CMAs before being nominated for Song Of The Year at the 2013 CMAs, which was even more bizarre).
Disappointing but not surprising to see this category dominated by male acts, though everybody’s playing for 2nd place behind the female-led “Girl Crush,” the obvious winner. 3 out of the 5 nominees are UMG Nashville singles (2 of them Capitol Nashville). 2 major, well-acclaimed and well-received smashes that didn’t make the category come from 2 huge acts who just don’t seem to have the “right” affiliations to be nominated: Carrie Underwood’s “Something in the Water” and Zac Brown Band’s “Homegrown.” Also not in here is a single from a guy who traditionally has had the “right” affiliations – Blake Shelton’s “Sangria.” The CMAs appear ready to finally move on from him, at least. Florida-Georgia Line’s attempt at substance, “Dirt,” also went unnominated.
Music Video of the Year
“Biscuits,” Kacey Musgraves
“Girl Crush,” Little Big Town
“Girl In A Country Song,” Maddie & Tae
“Little Red Wagon,” Miranda Lambert
“Something In The Water,” Carrie Underwood
Quick Take: In contrast to the Single of the Year category, all of these singles are female-led, and the only real snub is Brad Paisley’s self-drawn video for “Crushin’ It”. This would be a fun place to reward Maddie & Tae, though it would be non-televised. “Girl Crush”‘s video is underwhelming, but the song was undeniable, so it may win here. Kacey’s kitschy “Biscuits” featured a muppet and would be a worthy winner as well. Carrie would, of course, win a popular vote with “Something in the Water.” I think this is a race between “Girl in a Country Song” and “Girl Crush.”
Musician Of The Year
Sam Bush, Mandolin
Jerry Douglas, Dobro
Paul Franklin, Steel Guitar
Dann Huff, Guitar
Mac MacAnally, Guitar
Quick Take: But seriously, can Paul Franklin please win, finally? This is probably a race between Dann Huff and Mac MacAnally (the latter is the favorite) but it would be nice to see another winner.
Song of the Year
“American Kids,” (Rodney Clawson, Luke Laird, Shane McAnally)
“Girl Crush,” (Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna, Liz Rose)
“Like A Cowboy,” (Randy Houser, Brice Long)
“Like A Wrecking Ball,” (Casey Beathard, Eric Church)
“Take Your Time,” (Sam Hunt, Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne)
Quick Take: Again, everybody’s playing for 2nd place here to “Girl Crush.” It’s a lock to win, and it’ll be great to see 3 women up there accepting the award.
CMA Musical Event Of The Year
Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard, Django & Jimmie
“Lonely Tonight,” Blake Shelton featuring Ashley Monroe
“Raise ‘Em Up,” Keith Urban and Eric Church
“Smokin’ & Drinkin’,” Miranda Lambert featuring Little Big Town
“Wild Child,” Kenny Chesney with Grace Potter
Quick Take: Noteworthy: the absence of Tim McGraw here, where “Diamond Rings & Old Barstools” could and arguably should have been nominated. Nice to see Willie & Merle here, of course. This is a tough race to call, but I’m guessing Capitol Nashville will come through with a win for “Raise ‘Em Up.”
CMA Vocal Duo Of The Year
Maddie & Tae
Quick Take: As nice as it would be if Maddie & Tae upset Florida-Georgia Line here, it probably won’t happen. FGL is too dominant commercially – for now. Nice to see Maddie & Tae with more nominations (3) than FGL, though.
CMA Vocal Group Of The Year
Little Big Town
The Band Perry
Zac Brown Band
Quick Take: Little Big Town will win this running away, though it should be noted that Zac Brown Band has had a bigger overall year. But as previously noted, Zac Brown Band has been vocal about not participating in the vote-trading and politicking of the ACMs and CMAs, and their fortunes at these shows are unlikely to change anytime soon.
Overall: This year’s nominations feel a little less William Morris/Live Nation-dominated than those of years past, with auras of undeniability helping certain acts/songs (Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” as well as Kenny Chesney and Garth Brooks’s respective tours) cut through the nominations. The best news is the multi-category support for Chris Stapleton and Kacey Musgraves despite country radio’s failure to support them, as well as the nomination for Lee Ann Womack, whose The Way I’m Livin’ is just great, great music from another one of the finest singers country music’s ever seen. The multi-category support for Maddie & Tae is also great news.
CMA voters do appear to be moving on from Blake Shelton, but the direction in which they move remains to be seen. The major successes of Carrie Underwood and Zac Brown Band continue to go under-recognized by country associations, while the lack of Tim McGraw and Brad Paisley in the nominations suggests voters have fully moved on from them onto other male acts. That makes Kenny Chesney’s multi-category presence this year (Single/Song/Album) especially surprising and notable. The Album and Vocalist nominations reflect a respectable balance between acclaimed artists/music whom country radio under-played and mainstream success stories. All this adds up to an awards show with the possibility of a touch less predictability and inertia in its list of winners than usual. Will CMA voters take the opportunity? It remains to be seen! Join us November 4th for the show, won’t you?