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“The great mystery of life is why they won’t play [Ashley Monroe’s] records. That’s the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard of in my life!”
——Vince Gill scolding bro-centric Country radio at the BMI Awards
COUNTING DOWN TO THE CMA AWARDS
Action in Nashville Leading Up to Tonight’s CMAs—
BMI and ASCAP Country Awards, CMT Shindig
By Chris Willman

At the CMA Awards, it won’t be over till the skinny girl sings—by which we of course mean Ariana Grande, who’ll perform with Little Big Town, as if to prove to an absent Taylor Swift that the CMAs can be even more pop than she is.

Meanwhile, Nashville has been awash with a nonstop schedule of preliminary events, highlighted by three successive nights of performing-rights org awards and a private show headlined by controversially shut-out-by-the-CMAs superstar Jason Aldean.

Lee Brice’s "Parking Lot Party" was one of 50 songs honored at Tuesday night’s BMI Awards, and it should get its own trophy for exceptional appropriateness, since the BMIs were held, as always, in the org’s Music Row parking garage (though it’s so tricked out with lights and sound, you’d be forgiven for not noticing any skid marks).


L-R: BMI Vice President Jody Williams, Ketch Secor, Sony/ATV's Danny Strick, Sony/ATV's Troy Tomlinson, Sony/ATV's Marty Bandier, Vince Gill, Rhett Atkins, BMI President/CEO Mike O'Neill, BMI Assistant Vice President Clay Bradley

Thomas Rhett was named songwriter of the year for contributing to seven of BMI’s 50 most-played genre tunes of the year, including bro-country standbys like "Boys ’Round Here" and "Hey Girl." Another bro, Bob Dylan, did not show up to see his co-write "Wagon Wheel" honored as song of the year, but the guy who adapted the song from a Dylan bootleg, Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor, was happy to represent, as was the Blowfish who made it into an unlikely smash, Darius Rucker.

There was an are-they-frenemies-or-aren’t-they? moment, with Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves hugging onstage as the latter picked up her certificate for penning "Mama’s Broken Heart."


Uni Nashville chief Mike Dungan and a few of his friends

The most loved man in Nashville, Vince Gill, was honored by BMI with its lifetime-achievement Icon award, the highlight being a four-song tribute performance led by another guy whose guitar heroism often gets overshadowed by his other abilities, Keith Urban. A production protégé of Gill’s, Ashley Monroe, kicked off the medley with "Whenever You Come Round." (In his acceptance speech, Gill said of Monroe, "The great mystery of life is why they won’t play her records. That’s the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard of in my life!")

Michael McDonald, in town to perform with the Doobie Brothers on the CMAs and promote Sony Nashville’s Doobie tribute album, proved he could sing as high as Gill on "When I Call Your Name." Not to be outdone as a tenor-bordering-on-soprano, Urban nearly hit those notes on the classic "I Still Believe in You," as believer Nicole Kidman looked proudly on.

Accepting his honor, Gill seemed happy to be awarded for his songwriting, something that’d been overlooked earlier in his career. "My voice always overshadowed everything else I did, whether I could play or whether I could write songs," he said. "People would go, ‘Oh, I like the voice. I don’t give a shit what he says!’"

There was less of that high, lonesome sound going on downtown at the Hard Rock as, simultaneously, Jason Aldean presided over the bill at a Broken Bow Music Group party. Also performing were Dustin Lynch, Parmalee, Chase Bryant, and Lindsay Ell, all four of whom hustled over from doing the BMI red carpet.


Dean Dillon, honoree Vince Gill, Amy Grant, and NARAS chief Neil Portnow

Some figurers had figured that Aldean would find an excuse to be out of town this week, since he and many others had grumbled about how his huge popularity translated to zero nominations this year. But he’s taking the high road, just as Swift did in all those years where she only got one or two nods but showed up anyway. Aldean even has a performance slot on the show tonight; we may want to be on the lookout for any very subtly extended middle fingers.

Who’s ready for some sis-country? Tuesday morning, a few hundred early risers in the industry trudged down to Nashville’s newly opened City Winery for a CMT event spotlighting their "Next Women of Country" initiative. Brandy Clark, the outlier best-new-artist nominee who just signed to Warner’s L.A. division, was set to cap the performances, but she had to bow out because of the flu. (She’s still set to present on the CMAs tonight, so, bring those Ebola masks, fellow stars.)

There was still plenty of burgeoning girl power to go around on this second annual event, put together and co-hosted by CMT SVP Leslie Fram, doing God’s work.

Label bigwigs such as Universal Nashville chief Mike Dungan showed up to introduce the up-and-comers, who included Maddie & Tae (currently in the top 10 with a bro-country-bashing song, improbably enough), RaeLynn, solo Pistol Annie Angaleena Presley, Natalie Stovall, Jana Kramer, Mickey Guyton, Kelsea Ballerini, and Kelleigh Bannen (we’re still trying to keep those last two names straight). Lee Ann Womack co-hosted but did not perform; also presenting was party-crashing New Yorker Gavin DeGraw.

The mimosas came in handy for anyone seeking some a.m. drinking continuity after the preceding night’s ASCAP Awards, held at the newish Convention Center. Alan Jackson and Craig Wiseman picked up the ASCAPs’ version of a lifetime achievement trophy—the Heritage—while Ashley Gorley (a Luke Bryan go-to guy) won songwriter of the year and Thomas Rhett’s "It Goes Like This" was feted as song of the year. Sunday night, SESAC had its own dinner party in the upper reaches of the Country Music Hall of Fame’s new wing, with Jerrod Niemann’s "Drink to All That" cited as song of the year and Rob Hatch as songwriter.

But now, as Blake Shelton would say, it’s all about tonight, as the CMAs kick off at 8pm on both the East and tape-delayed West Coasts. On this week’s red carpets, we polled some of the stars about who they expect to win. Consensus: While George Strait won last year as a sentimental favorite, based on his final tour, this year he’s unlikely to prevail over Luke Bryan…even if Bryan has never won a CMA before.

Thomas Rhett: "It’s really hard to go to a Luke Bryan concert and not feel like he’s the Entertainer of the Year. He just has something that’s special. I vote for Luke pretty much every year in the entertainer of the year category. I’m pulling for him. I love him to death. He already has the ACM Entertainer of the Year, but to see him take home the CMA would be awesome."

Dustin Lynch: "Luke Bryan deserves it. He’s killin' it right now. And it kind of helps that I’m going on tour with him next year too, so I really want him to win it."

Chris Young: "I think it’s probably between Blake and Luke. They seem to both of them have kind of a stranglehold on the top awards lately."

Holly Williams: "Taylor is nominated, right? She’s not? You know, I love King George. I know he’s been around and people may say he’s had it 100 times, but I love him."

Scotty McCreery: "I loved last year with George winning, so I’d love to see a repeat of that. But obviously Luke is on top of the world right now."

Chase Bryant: "They say George Strait’s not in [the race] this year. But I hope that George gets it. He was my childhood hero. It’s like rooting for the Cowboys every Sunday—you’ve gotta do it. I think he can do it again. He’s the king, man. George Strait!"

Will Hoge: "Miranda will win all of these." (Lambert has nine nominations.)

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