CMA Nominations Verge On Major ‘Revolution’
Earlier this month, nominations for the 44th Annual Country Music Association Awards were announced in events spanning two days and two cities, signaling a very different mood among CMA voters than in years past. By the time the nominees in all twelve categories had been announced, Miranda Lambert sat prettiest with an unexpected female record-setting tally of nine nominations, followed by Lady Antebellum with five nominations, Zac Brown Band and Blake Shelton with four nominations apiece, and Dierks Bentley and Brad Paisley with three nominations apiece. Dual nominees were newcomers Easton Corbin and Rory Feek of Joey & Rory, alongside more established artists George Strait, Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban.
The most notable aspect of this year’s nominations is their sweeping celebration of several of 2010′s breakthrough artists, at the expense of some of the genre’s stalwarts. This year’s top four nominated artists (combining for 22 nods) have exactly two previous CMA Award wins between them (both of them Lady Antebellum’s). The sudden swerve is especially surprising given the CMA voters’ usual resistance to change. But 2009’s Taylor Swift sweep alongside the ascension of Lady Antebellum was the first sign of a membership looking for something new, and 2010’s nominations continue that trend, albeit in a much different artistic direction.
So what explains the CMA’s recent zigging away from the established and zagging toward the up & coming? What is it about the newly favored up & coming acts that drew the CMA voters’ attention? And what explains the fervor with which CMA voters have supported their new darlings across multiple categories? This piece assesses the mood of the CMA electorate and considers why it has veered so wildly after years of supporting the status quo.
Upheaval in the Entertainer Category
Nowhere was the sudden shift in CMA voters’ thinking more striking than in the Entertainer of the Year category, one that had typically been reserved for the genre’s most commercially impactful concert headliners. For the first time since 1981, this year’s Entertainer of the Year nominee slate features only two artists previously nominated in the category (Brad Paisley and Keith Urban). Joining them are two artists who spent most of the eligibility period as opening acts while transitioning into small venue headlining status (Lady Antebellum and Miranda Lambert) and an act also nominated for New Artist of the Year (Zac Brown Band). Absent from the category are perennial nominees Kenny Chesney (winner in this category in 2004 and 2006-2008) and George Strait, as well as Tim McGraw, Reba, Taylor Swift (2009′s CMA Entertainer of the Year), and Carrie Underwood (the two-time reigning ACM Entertainer of the Year), who are significantly bigger concert draws than the first-time Entertainer nominees according to data from Pollstar’s 2010 Mid-Year Tour Report (Chesney is absent this year, but his stadium tours are, and surely will be again, the biggest draw among country acts).
Chesney’s exclusion from the category is understandable considering his much publicized break from touring, while Swift’s might be explained by the feeling that the rewards for her breakthrough album era came in sufficient quantity at the 2009 CMAs and backlash over the quality of her live vocals. McGraw’s lone CMA nomination since 2005 came in the 2007 Musical Event category for “Find Out Who Your Friends Are,” and his much-publicized issues with his label Curb may explain his continued absence from the CMA nominations. The exclusions of Strait, McEntire and Underwood from the Entertainer category are more difficult to explain in light of the official criteria, which cite “recorded performance,” “in-person performance, staging, public acceptance, attitude, leadership, and overall contribution to the country music image” as factors to be considered. There were strong cases to be made for Strait and McEntire given their live appeal, well-received music,and the fact that both have managed to maintain core artist status at country radio while delivering solid album sales this deep into their respective careers. McEntire scored a four-week #1 (the longest of her career) during the eligibility period with “Consider Me Gone,” leading to a reasonable expectation that she and her music would be represented in multiple CMA categories. Underwood’s exclusion after a typically big year for her in sales, airplay, media and live acclaim has generated the most ink, with Whitney Pastorek of Entertainment Weekly and Kevin Coyne of Country Universe asserting that sexism played a role in limiting the Entertainer category to no more than one female nominee for the 32nd consecutive year.
CMA Voters Reflect an Industry In Flux
The degree to which the country industry’s deck is stacked against its women is certainly a topic worth exploring, but the focus in this space will be on complementary factors that might explain this year’s particular slate of nominees. Brian Mansfield of USA Today and Tom Roland of Billboard Country Update both pointed to a suddenly changed mood among CMA voters, with Mansfield asserting an anti-incumbent sentiment among CMA voters and Roland observing a lean toward Americana-influenced artists and releases. Certainly, this year’s nominations send a message about how the industry sees itself.
The sweeping nature of both last year’s CMA Awards and this year’s nominations points to an industry grappling with questions about its identity and financial viability. Prior to last year, the country genre enjoyed strong album sales relatively immune from digital erosion, increased radio points as younger listeners tuned in in larger numbers, tours flush with increased attendance, and an uptick in mainstream TV exposure that coincided with American Idol‘s attention to and presence in the genre. Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood, George Strait and Rascal Flatts became perennial CMA winners, symbolizing voter satisfaction with the status quo. But then the genre started to suffer from the economic downturn, too, and labels started noticing their struggles to generate album sales in proportion with airplay. 2009′s Taylor Swift sweep was recognition of an artist who had arguably become the biggest story in all genres of music by combining incredible social media savvy with songs that resonated strongly with her youthful fanbase, forging a new model artist-fan connection. But the encompassing nature of the sweep left writers like CMT’s Chet Flippo wondering where both the country genre and Swift could possibly go from here.
Voters Turn Away from the Mainstream
This year, CMA voters reflected that sentiment with a reactive slate of nominees that responds to concerns about country music getting too polished, too mainstream and perhaps too anxious to appeal to melodic pop fans there for the taking as the CHR format leans increasingly toward rhythmic fare. The especially competitive New Artist of the Year category features Luke Bryan, Easton Corbin, Jerrod Niemann, and Chris Young alongside lone holdover nominee Zac Brown Band. Absent is any female representation, whether in solo artist or duo/group form. Niemann’s inclusion is striking in that his major label debut album was released and his major label debut single peaked after the eligibility period. But his long and winding journey to that major label deal and the fact that he made that album outside the confines of major label structure likely played in his favor, especially since his album humorously tweaks Music Row formulas and conventions (for example, recent insistence on music that caters to females between the ages of 12 and 24) in several places. Easton Corbin and Chris Young represent polished but neo-traditional breakthroughs that took place during the eligibility period, perhaps a sign of what the CMA was looking for after the most impactful new artists in the past few years have leaned country-pop.
Dierks Bentley was welcomed back into major CMA categories for the first time since 2006 for his bluegrass-flavored departure from mainstream country. Zac Brown Band was nominated in several top categories for a developing canon that favors a rootsy jam-band style that has connected without a polished pretty boy package. Top nominee Lambert’s Texas country leanings reside at the opposite end of the musical spectrum from Swift’s pop, and Lambert’s 2010 breakthrough at radio via “White Liar” and “The House That Built Me” gave CMA voters the opportunity to throw their support behind her in unprecedented fashion, to the point that both those singles will compete in the Single and Song of the Year categories.
That’s What Friends Are For (CMA Edition)
Some might even argue that Lambert, who has yet to win a CMA Award, had coattails when it came to this year’s nominations. Put more even-handedly, a well-publicized circle of friends/collaborators (Lambert, her fiancé Shelton, Lady Antebellum, Bentley, and Luke Bryan among others) figures prominently in this year’s CMA nominations. Whether that circle inspired block voting or simply a lot of admiration for its attitude and output (or both), the groundwork for its presence at this year’s CMAs has been building for at least a year. Earlier this year, Phylis Stark wrote an excellent column describing the process by which the CMA-nominated Lambert single “White Liar” was pushed to #1 on Mediabase (it would miss out on the top spot on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart), and noted that a number of artists, among them Bentley, Lady Antebellum, Shelton and Chris Young, tweeted their fans urging them to request Lambert’s song to help its cause.
Even if artist campaigns to get their own songs more airplay generally draw eyerolls from radio programmers, this multi-artist effort generated a lot of publicity and turned into a celebration that reinforced the notion that Lambert is an artist with tremendous peer support who deserved more. Cameos by everyone from Jamey Johnson to Laura Bell Bundy, Kellie Pickler and Hillary Scott in the videos for Lambert’s “White Liar” and “Only Prettier” added a visual reminder of her peer support, further sending the message that Lambert’s appeal extends from outlaw country to pop country. That narrative continues with the attention currently being drummed up for the CMA-nominated “Bad Angel” from Dierks Bentley’s Up on the Ridge, featuring Lambert and Johnson.
Although Lady Antebellum’s music is more polished and pop-leaning than that of any of this year’s other top CMA nominees, its place in this circle is evident from its writing presence. In just the past year, the members of Lady Antebellum have co-written Luke Bryan’s #1 hit “Do I,” Sara Evans’ new single “Stronger,” Lambert’s “Love Song,” Josh Kelley’s debut country single “Georgia Clay,” Danny Gokey’s canceled lead single “It’s Only,” and Blake Shelton’s “Suffocating.” Coupled with the band’s commercial impact driven by crossover smash “Need You Now,” the band’s relevance to the country genre is undeniable. The band has also demonstrated its wit and engagement with the country scene through its “Lady h’A'zing” parodies of singles by Corbin, Lee Brice and Shelton, each of which has produced results more entertaining than the original and Lady A’s own music.
Blake Shelton is a first-time nominee in the Male Vocalist of the Year category, capping a year in which he experimented with two “six-pack” releases and scored #1 hits with the lead single from each of them. The experiment drew a fair amount of media attention with the release of the first six-pack, Hillbilly Bone, launched as a response to Shelton’s struggles to sell albums in large enough proportion to his airplay (Lambert, by contrast, had her first two albums go platinum or nearly so despite only one top-10 single between them, with her third looking to clear that mark easily now that she has more radio support). Hillbilly Bone delivered initially with 71,000 in first-week sales, nearly tripling the first-week tally of Shelton’s previous full-length release, Startin’ Fires. Shelton’s second six-pack, All About Tonight would bring Shelton back down to earth with less than 33,000 in first-week sales. Shelton is not an artist whose critical acclaim has outpaced his airplay and sales, and he had less commercial impact during the eligibility period than a number of peers who did not get nominated in the Male Vocalist category (including Jason Aldean, Billy Currington, last year’s CMA New Artist of the Year Darius Rucker, Josh Turner and 2010 New Artist of the Year nominees Chris Young and Luke Bryan). But he did manage a stronger overall media presence than those artists, with a narrative told via press releases and interviews that 2010 was the year that things really came together for him, in no small part due to his ties to Lambert.
Politics Is Always Local, They Say
With all this anti-incumbent sentiment reigning, it is worth noting that Brad Paisley and Keith Urban retained their perennial places in the Entertainer category without releasing new albums during the eligibility period and without releasing singles that were particularly rootsy. Paisley may have been the beneficiary of being the genre’s most active bridge between its past and present without having won the CMA’s top award , but his leadership role in raising media awareness of the effects of the Nashville flood may have been the more significant contributing factor. Urban also delivered a couple of very memorable live performances in tribute to Nashville’s flood recovery, one on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and one at CMA Music Fest. These coupled with his role in organizing All for the Hall benefits likely left a good impression in voters’ minds. Admittedly, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s leadership role in organizing Nashville Rising didn’t register enough with CMA voters, but McGraw’s aforementioned issues with Curb and Hill’s inactivity during the eligibility period were probably stronger factors
When it came to voting, these impressions seemed to bear more weight than lists of accomplishments, and the annual For Your Consideration campaigns no doubt took that into account. Nashville columnist Jimmy Carter wrote that the campaigning this year was big, especially when it came to young, less established acts trying to get into any category possible. The resulting slate of nominees reflects CMA voters’ awareness of the star-making value of the awards show platform. And in the end, that may be the most useful lens through which to view the nominations and wins.
This year’s nominations saw Dierks Bentley, the 2005 CMA Horizon Award winner, rewarded with his first major nominations since 2006 for delivering on his early promise with a risky project. Meanwhile, another young act thought to be a future standard-bearer for the genre, Josh Turner, was shut out of the nominations despite a solid album that has generated a four-week #1 single (“Why Don’t We Just Dance?”). One senses that CMA voters are waiting for Turner to deliver a stronger statement album. Similarly, while 2006 CMA Horizon Award winner and three-time CMA Female Vocalist of the Year Carrie Underwood was too impactful to ignore in the Album and Female Vocalist categories, her snub in the Entertainer category arguably reflects CMA voter sentiment that she should deliver music that proves more defining for the country genre before they add to her hefty awards tally.
The Weight of Expectations in Uncertain Times
All this is, perhaps, indicative of the lofty expectations placed on country’s newly crowned younger generation in the wake of the genre’s current financial and artistic uncertainty. CMA voter favor has come with increased speed and fervor, as evidenced by Underwood’s run in the Female Vocalist category, Swift’s sweep in 2009, and this year’s nine nominations for Lambert alongside five for Lady Antebellum. But once that favor has been cast, young artists are left vulnerable to charges that they have been overrewarded, with overly anxious voters moving on quickly to the next breakthrough story that gives hope that the genre will indeed be saved. The push-pull dynamic concerning country music’s identity has been and remains a constant factor, but the mood of industry voters will likely grow only more whimsical and reactive until they sense some kind of stabilization point for country music’s various revenue streams.