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Music City

By Holly Gleason

Maybe talk works—or at least music cuts through. As the dust settles around the 53rd CMA Awards nominations, women who seem to be trapped in terrestrial radio’s blind spot have once again shown their strength in terms of quality and critical recognition. The other big news appears to be—in many ways—that the next wave is the new wave of the old guard.

Carrie Underwood returns for her dozenth turn hosting ABC’s broadcast of the CMAs, firing up the estrogen-power with cohost firepower from the iconic Reba and Dolly Parton. Even more empowering is her return to both the Entertainer of the Year and Album of the Year for Cry Pretty, easily the night’s most coveted awards, as well as Female Vocalist

Further ramping up the grrrrl power, Maren Morris, the first woman in 18 months to hit #1 at mainstream Country radio, racks up Album (GIRL), Single, Song and Video (“GIRL”), as well as an expected Female Vocalist and Vocal Event with Brothers Osborne for “All My Favorite People.”

Kacey Musgraves, a little deeper into her album cycle with Rainbow, also lands in Female, as well as Song and Video of the Year for the affirming “Rainbow.”

And after the AP pushed out a will they/won’t they piece about “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus get the consolation prize of being nominated for Vocal Event, but are shut out of Song and Single. In a songwriter town, perhaps the case could be made that a loop bought off the internet and some clever words don’t match the longstanding songcraft of Music Row, but to pretend it’s not the biggest thing to hit country music since, well, “Achy Breaky Heart” makes either the committee or voting body look out of touch.

Male Vocalist nominee Dierks Bentley, whose “Burning Man” also features Brothers Osborne, shares a Single nomination with critics’ choice Chris Stapleton, for his awesomely soulful, Kevin Welch-penned “Millionaire." Also, Blake Shelton, whose swaggering return to core “God’s Country” falls somewhere between reckless Haggard and Hank Jr. gives Espo a twofer. WB gets a second Single nod with Jason Owen’s Dan + Shay, who fill out the category with the ubiquitously genre-smooshing (and perhaps inadvertently commenting) “Speechless.”

Even more startling is the number of next-wave/old-guard members who are (re)staking their claim—or perhaps being respected for maintaining a commitment to what they do well. Garth Brooks lands in Entertainer of the Year and Musical Event with Shelton for their “Friends in Low Places”-evoking “Dive Bar.” Recent Country Music Hall of Fame inductees Brooks & Dunn also show strong, picking up a Duo nom, plus Musical Event for “Brand New Man,” with literal brand-new he’s-the-man Luke Combs, whose sheer number of hits seemed to cancel each other out in the Single of the Year category but bore fruit in Song of the Year with “Beautiful Crazy.”

Combs, like Scott Borchetta’s newest superstar, Thomas Rhett, are next-wave males on either side of the aisle. Combs, also nominated for Male Vocalist, harkens back to cheap-bar, cheaper-beer working-man’s country, while fellow nominee Rhett blazes an eclectic trail with his Album of the Year nominee Center Point Road, which sees pop producers The Stereotypes and Julian Bunetta rubbing elbows with perennial hitmakers Dan Huff and Jesse Frasure.

Which brings us back to the old-guard/new-guard and the strong silent type: Eric Church, Keith Urban and Stapleton. All three keep their eyes on the music, play by their own rules and don’t seem to get caught up in the reindeer games of campaigning, touting their achievements or sidebar endeavors. They let their music do the talking—and Mike Dungan and Cindy Mabe’s main men are all filling out the coveted Entertainer of the Year, as Stapleton and Urban both net Male Vocalist nods and Church picks up a prestigious Album of the Year nod to bookend his Song of the Year.

Dan + Shay continue the quiet domination they began at the Grammys. Along with Single and Duo, the pop-leaning pair notch a full-length nom for Dan + Shay and a Song of the Year nod for “Tequila,” making them the musical equivalent of kudzu this year, as they pull a triple on the creative front. Big ups to Bunny Nashville’s Scott Hendricks for Warner Nashville’s new awards power.

Two women also land in Best New Artist: The blue-collar, smoky-throated Ashley McBryde and classicallyleaning, SiriusXM-launched Carly Pearce bookend Texas outlier Cody Johnson, indie sensation/mullet-sporting ’90s throwback Morgan Wallen and progressive/regressive hipsters Midland. Equally intriguing: Warner Nashville pulls two (McBryde, Johnson), as does Big Machine (Pearce, Midland), after Sony Nashville head Randy Goodman’s Maren/Kane/Combs wave of breakage a year ago.

Somewhat expected are Kelsea Ballerini in Female, alongside Miranda Lambert, with her about-to-drop Wildcard; Vocal Group usual suspects Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town, Old Dominion, Zac Brown Band and Midland, while Duo sports Brothers Osborne, Dan + Shay, FGL and Maddie & Tae, while Brooks & Dunn return to the category.

At a time of identity crisis, the unspoken truth everyone’s whispering about—what seems like a return to fundamentals. Should “Old Town Road” have had more impact? In the real world, absolutely. But here in Nashville, where there’s a larger reality dawning, perhaps the women flexing, the old-guard returning and even the breakout new artists embracing the genre’s golden eras of the ’70s and ’90s says a correction is coming. Don’t bet against it.