Welcome to the 2016 Academy of Country Music Awards nominations. This is officially the 51st year for the organization, whose awards show was launched as a reaction to the Nashville-based (and still more respected) Country Music Association Awards, in the belief that the CMAs rewarded Nashville-based acts over outlaws who flouted Nashville conventions. Today, the ACMs see themselves as a rowdier party than the CMAs. ACM CEO Bob Romeo went so far as admitting that the Chris Stapleton breakout that began with the CMA Awards in November probably wouldn’t have happened at the ACMs. But at this point, Stapleton’s success is such that even the ACMs can’t ignore him.
One of the ways that the ACMs had distinguished themselves from the CMAs was in having both the Entertainer of the Year award and the New Artist of the Year awards nominated by the industry but decided by some unspecified combination of a fan and industry vote. This year, however, neither category will be fan-voted. ACM CEO Bob Romeo admitted that this was because aggressive artist campaigns for fan votes:
[E]ight years later, artists started marketing aggressively. It got pretty expensive. How do you create protocol for that without telling artist teams what they can and can’t do? Throw out the rules? In the end, we can’t have artists’ camps complaining to us about other artists’ camps. It creates acrimony, and we’re trying to create a family, not tear the genre apart.
While Romeo named no one, the 2015 ACM run-up saw Luke Bryan, Miranda Lambert and Cole Swindell (the eventual New Artist winner) all buy promoted tweets to spur fan votes, while Miranda Lambert mounted a massive (and obvious) campaign for celeb social media endorsements, starting with Voice-affiliated names like Usher and Christina Aguilera all the way to Beyonce,, which made it pretty embarrassing that Luke Bryan won anyway (though as noted above, Luke’s team was not above buying promoted tweets).
On to the nominations!
Entertainer Of The Year
Rundown: Four out of five nominees here are represented by William Morris Endeavor Agency (all but Garth) and three out of five toured with Live Nation (exceptions: Garth and Eric Church, both of whom toured with Messina Group/AEG Live). Miranda Lambert manages to get in as the token female despite declining momentum at country radio. Label-wise, two out of the five nominees are Sony Nashville acts, two out of the five are UMG Nashville (specifically, Capitol/EMI Nashville) acts and one is an indie act (Broken Bow).
Kenny Chesney and Zac Brown Band were two acts whose touring numbers exceeded that of Miranda Lambert and were left out of the category. Kenny and Zac Brown Band are both represented by CAA; Kenny toured with Messina Group/AEG Live while Zac Brown Band toured with Live Nation. Kenny is a multi-year Entertainer winner whose time as an awards winner is evidently seen as past, while as noted below, Zac Brown Band doesn’t figure into these nominations because they see themselves as outside the politics of these shows.
Male Vocalist Of The Year
Rundown: All five nominees are represented by William Morris Endeavor agency and four out of five toured with Live Nation (all but Eric Church). Most noteworthy is that Blake Shelton, also represented by WME and who generally tours with Live Nation (though he didn’t tour last year), is out both as host and out of the nominations – that’s a sign of shifted priorities for Blake and WME finally having let go of its push for him. People are going to see this as the ACMs rejecting Blake, but remember – he never had the stranglehold on award wins here that he did at the CMAs – Jason Aldean beat him out for ACM Male Vocalist three years running, and I see this as more of a sign of all parties agreeing that Blake has “graduated.”
Luke Bryan remains an ACM Awards host, but he is out of this category (that he hadn’t been winning anyway, so odds are that the WME bloc is just focusing on Entertainer for him and trying to make sure that someone like his co-host Dierks gets a televised nomination). New co-host Dierks Bentley retains his spot, and Brett Eldredge makes his way into the nominations. This is just the first sign of the WME bloc finding places for many of its rising roster acts in the nominations.
Label-wise, three out of the five nominees are UMG (two of them Capitol Nashville), one is an indie (Broken Bow), and one is Warner Nashville (Brett Eldredge, again slipping into Blake Shelton’s spot).
Female Vocalist Of The Year
Rundown: This is the rare category in which Creative Artists Agency (the WME rival) dominates, as 4 of the 5 nominees are CAA-repped (EDIT: With Jana Kramer‘s recent switch from CAA to WME, make that 3 out of 5). Miranda Lambert is the sole exception (she is repped by WME), and given the very obvious power that the WME bloc manifested across this year’s ACM nominations, she is a shoo-in for yet another win despite a 2015 in which she lost a lot of momentum at radio and toured to middling numbers while Carrie Underwood and Kacey Musgraves made major marks with well-received new albums. To bottom line this: Miranda Lambert will win this regardless of what she does or doesn’t do as long as she is the only William Morris Endeavor-represented act who is a viable contender and the WME bloc has as much of a hold on these nominations as they very clearly do.
What’s nice about this category is that there were actually more viable contenders for nominations, including Reba, who released a well-received new album and Cam, whose “Burning House” was the biggest solo female single released in 2015 and which should be showing up in the Song and Single of the Year nominations.
Label-wise, two of the five nominees are Sony Nashville acts, one is UMG Nashville, one is Warner Nashville and one is independent (Black River Entertainment).
Vocal Duo of the Year
Dan + Shay
Florida Georgia Line
Joey + Rory
Maddie & Tae
Rundown: Three out of the five nominees are represented by William Morris Endeavor (all but the CAA-repped Maddie & Tae and also Joey & Rory) and four out of the five tour with Live Nation. The Joey & Rory nomination is now a sentimental pick, but it’s overdue recognition.
Label-wise, Big Machine Label Group has two of the five nominees, Warner Nashville has one, UMG Nashville (EMI Nashville) has one and one nominee is indie.
Vocal Group Of The Year
Eli Young Band
Little Big Town
Zac Brown Band
Rundown: This is a category where there aren’t a ton of options, but it is somewhat surprising not to see the CAA-repped but Live Nation-touring Lady Antebellum absent for the category. Then again, the group has announced a temporary hiatus, so voters probably felt no need to promote them with a nomination. Little Big Town, which is repped by CAA and tours with AEG Live will continue its stranglehold on the category, because there is no major WME priority that is a headliner there. True, Rascal Flatts is repped by William Morris Endeavor and tours with Live Nation, but they aren’t a priority at these shows. Zac Brown Band has declared that they are not part of the politics and vote-trading of the country award shows, so they can be counted out regardless of what they did or didn’t do in 2015.
Label-wise, three out of the five nominees are Big Machine Label Group acts, one is Sony Nashville, and one is UMG Nashville (Capitol Nashville).
Album of the Year
I’m Comin’ Over – Chris Young/Producers: Corey Crowder, Chris Young
Montevallo – Sam Hunt/Producers: Zach Crowell, Shane McAnally
Mr. Misunderstood – Eric Church/Producer: Jay Joyce
Tangled Up – Thomas Rhett/Producers: Dann Huff, Jesse Frasure, Chris DeStefano, Joe London
Traveller – Chris Stapleton/Producers: Dave Cobb, Chris Stapleton
Rundown: Congratulations, ACM voters, particularly WME bloc-types! In a year which saw critically acclaimed and Grammy-nominated releases by Ashley Monroe and Kacey Musgraves, a well-reviewed and commercially impactful release by Carrie Underwood and a critically-acclaimed album from Maddie & Tae with surging momentum for the females of the genre, you’ve nominated an all-male Album Of The Year slate! Way to keep up with the times!
Three of the nominations here are no surprise: the ACMs have been known to recognize commercial breakouts, and Sam Hunt’s Montevallo has been huge (lack of country bonafides notwithstanding, the album was also nominated for CMA Album of the Year and the Grammy for Best Country Album). Why was it eligible when it was released in late 2014? Because Montevallo picked up the bulk of its sales in 2015 and per ACM criteria:
An album is considered released on the first available date that the material can be possessed by a consumer via a purchase in its entirety and/or streamed legally in its entirety by a royalty-generating service. If the album was released during the two (2) prior eligibility periods, but achieved its largest annual sales during the eligibility period according to SoundScan, it is eligible unless it has appeared on a final ACM ballot in this category
Chris Stapleton’s nomination is also no surprise here, and Eric Church is a perennial nominee.
The two surprise nominees are the not especially well-reviewed and decent but not spectacularly-selling albums from Thomas Rhett and Chris Young. The former has spawned two big country hits so far while the latter spawned one big country hit so far. But to understand their nominations, here’s where we return to agency representation: both acts are William Morris Endeavor-represented acts who are working on converting to the next level. Chris Young’s current headlining tour is in 2-5k venues with AEG Live, while Thomas Rhett and the Male Vocalist-nominated Brett Eldredge co-headlined a CMT-sponsored tour late last year with Live Nation.
So while the representation of labels here (1 Sony, 3 UMG Nashville, 1 Big Machine) shouldn’t be ignored, it’s the fact that
all 5 (corrected) 4 out of 5 nominees in this category are represented by William Morris Agency that matters.
Single Of The Year
“Burning House” — Cam, Producers: Jeff Bhasker, Tyler Johnson, Camaron Ochs
“Buy Me A Boat” — Chris Janson, Producers: Brent Anderson, Chris DuBois, Chris Janson
“Die A Happy Man” — Thomas Rhett, Producers: Dann Huff, Jesse Frasure
“Girl Crush” — Little Big Town, Producer: Jay Joyce
“I’m Comin’ Over” — Chris Young, Producers: Corey Crowder, Chris Young
“Take Your Time” — Sam Hunt, Producers: Zach Crowell, Shane McAnally
Rundown: A pretty reasonable representation of the year’s biggest hits. Missing is Carrie Underwood’s “Something In The Water,” but its impact split over 2014 and 2015 and the writing was really on the wall when it won the 2015 Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance without being nominated for an ACM or CMA. Also missing: Zac Brown Band’s “Homegrown,” but see above: Zac Brown Band and Carrie are really in the same boat when it comes to the ACMs and CMAs – they’re not part of the politics of the voting there. There are 2 Sony Nashville nominees, 1 Warner Nashville nominee, 2 MCA Nashville nominees and 1 Big Machine nominees.
Video Of The Year
“Biscuits” — Kacey Musgraves, Director: Mark Klasfeld, Producer: Nicole Acacio
“Burning House” — Cam, Director: Trey Fanjoy, Producer: Trent Hardville
“Girl Crush” — Little Big Town, Directors: Karla Welch, Matthew Welch, Producer: Amanda Prunesti
“Mr. Misunderstood” — Eric Church, Directors: Reid Long, John Peets, Producer: Megan Smith
“Riser” — Dierks Bentley, Director: Wes Edwards, Producer: Jennifer Rothlein
Rundown: This is an off-camera award and the nominees are selected by a “professional panel,” not the ACM membership. The winner here may serve as a bellwether for other categories.
Vocal Event Of The Year
“Hangover Tonight” — Gary Allan Featuring Chris Stapleton, Producers: Gary Allan, Greg Droman
“Home Alone Tonight” — Luke Bryan Featuring Karen Fairchild, Producers: Jeff Stevens, Jody Stevens
“Raise ‘Em Up” — Keith Urban featuring Eric Church, Producers: Nathan Chapman, Keith Urban
“Smokin’ And Drinkin’ ” — Miranda Lambert featuring Little Big Town, Producers: Frank Liddell, Chuck Ainlay, Glenn Worf
“Wild Child” — Kenny Chesney with Grace Potter, Producers: Buddy Cannon, Kenny Chesney
Rundown: No big surprises here. This is also an off-camera award. Four out of the five nominees include a UMG Nashville act. Tough to see the “Hangover Tonight” nomination as anything but a way of bulking up Chris Stapleton’s total.
New Female Vocalist Of The Year
Rundown: Listen people, pay no attention to the fact that we nominated only males for Album. We have all of 4 nominees for New Female Vocalist. See? Four? See? We want to recognize women not named Miranda! SEE?!?!
To be serious for a second, three of these nominees are CAA-repped, with RaeLynn the only exception (she is WME). It’ll be interesting to see whether that allows RaeLynn to overcome the fact that Kelsea and Cam both had considerably bigger hits, with Cam in particular scoring critical plaudits for her album Untamed. Nice to see a nomination for the terrifically talented Mickey Guyton.
New Male Vocalist Of The Year
Rundown: Since Chris Stapleton already had his breakout moment at the CMAs and seems like a lock for Album of the Year if not also Male Vocalist, I’m thinking WME swings this one to either Thomas Rhett or Brett Eldredge. Three of the five nominees here are WME-repped. Brett Eldredge was a New Artist finalist in 2014 and a semi-finalist in 2015, while Thomas Rhett was a New Artist semifinalist in 2014 and a finalist in 2015. Both are still eligible this year because only the finalists in 2014 and 2015 were considered nominees, I guess (ACM Awards rules, to the extent they follow them, allow artists to be nominated twice in three years and until they’ve released the lead single off their third album).
New Duo/Group Of The Year
A Thousand Horses
Maddie & Tae
Rundown: This is actually an interesting category…2 of the nominees are WME-repped (Brothers Osborne and Parmalee) while 2 are CAA-repped (A Thousand Horses and Maddie & Tae). Two nominees are Big Machine Label Group, one is Sony Nashville, one is UMG Nashville and one is indie (Broken Bow). This is presumably a race between Brothers Osborne, Maddie & Tae and Old Dominion. Old Dominion may have an edge because its members have written hits for hit artists like Kenny Chesney, but Brothers Osborne has the combination of WME plus some industry heat behind their album and the largest label. Maddie & Tae had one of 2015’s better-reviewed albums and they are en route to their third hit, so they should be strong contenders as well.
Nominees for Song of the Year (determined by a professional panel) and for Songwriter of the Year will be revealed at a later date. The ACM Awards, co-hosted by Luke Bryan and, for the first time, Dierks Bentley will air live on CBS at 8p Eastern time on Sunday, April 3, 2016.
UPDATE: Here are the Song Of The Year nominees:
“Burning House” (Songwriters: Jeffrey Bhasker, Tyler Johnson, Cam, performed by Cam)
“Girl Crush” (Songwriters: Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna, Liz Rose, performed by Little Big Town)
“Nobody to Blame” (Songwriters: Barry Bales, Ronnie Bowman, Chris Stapleton, performed by Chris Stapleton)
“Raise ‘Em Up” (Songwriters: Tom Douglas, Jaren Johnston, Jeffrey Steele, performed by Keith Urban feat. Eric Church)
“She Don’t Love You” (Songwriters: Eric Paslay, Jennifer Wayne, performed by Eric Paslay)