For 30 years, the Academy of Country Music has been the more progressive of the two organizations presiding over country music, a place where many artists—edgier, more commercially accepted—have received their first awards. This year is no exception.

Chris Stapleton—a guy dominating the sales chart, Saturday Night Live and all the awards rounds, most recently sweeping every Grammy category he was nominated in—gets eight nominations covering pretty much everything but Duo and Female Vocalist. Big Machine’s Scott Borchetta and Valory’s George Briner continue their work to launch Thomas Rhett into the top tier of superstardom with six nominations, Maren Morris takes four, Midland takes three and genre architect Shane McAnally picks up five for his work as a producer and as a songwriter.

Rhett, who hasn’t had a single to rival “Die a Happy Man,” the kind of song bigger than the artist, is the Academy’s reigning Top Male Vocalist. With another Male Vocalist turn, Rhett also has a producer and artist nomination in Album of the Year for Life Changes, a Vocal Event nod with Morris for “Craving You,” and Video of the Year for “Marry Me” showing he’s becoming a force within the genre, beyond riding a massive hit.

With perennials Jason Aldean—the two-time and current Entertainer of the Year—Keith Urban, Garth Brooks and Rhett in the category, Top Male is a turning into a watershed award. And as Top Male Vocalist watershedding goes, look for Columbia/RCA’s Chris Young’s first bow in the category. A more traditional kind of country singer, Young has quietly tacked up 10 #1s (yes, that’s right: 10 chart-topping singles). He’s always a little out of step with the younger, Bro/party country crowd, so this nomination is a big look for him, suggesting his bigger breakthrough may be on the horizon.

The other really big-news category is Album of the Year. Of course, Stapleton is in the mix with Songs From A Room, Vol. 1, along with always nominees Little Big Town for their Jay Joyce-produced Breaker, but it’s Mike Dungan and Cindy Mabe’s faith in hard-country-leaning Jon Pardi that sees California Sunrise making the cut. Rhett’s Life Changes lands here as well. But the real story is the ascendance of Old Dominion with their sophomore outing Happy Endings.

OD represent a different kind of artist-development story—in which producer/writer McAnally teams with Higham/Morris Management to work before the label. Putting the act on the road, going to SiriusXM, terrestrial radio and beyond before catching Doug Morris’ ear. Given the grueling pace the band showed they could maintain, adding Randy Goodman’s powerhouse teams to the mix has taken this act to new levels.

Bands are a story this year. After seemingly moribund reaction to groups, Vocal Group sees newcomers LANCO and Midland appearing alongside LBT, Old Dominion and Lady Antebellum. With the harmony-heavy #1 “Love Story” driving LANCO, the young band has a bright future, while Big Machine’s Midland has turned into a media frenzy.

The Luck, Texas-by-way-of-California country trio picked up three Grammy nominations for their breezy “Drinkin' Problem,” as well as Vogue spreads, igniting controversy over authenticity and a jukebox frenzy for fans of the Laurel Canyon country meets mainstream ’80s Nashville sound.

Vocal Duo stands out in large part because, in true Conway & Loretta/George & Tammy fashion, icons Tim McGraw and Faith Hill score their first nod as a duo—after debuting “Talk to A Girl” on last year’s telecast. Can they beat industry darlings Brothers Osborne, who are so highly regarded for their raw-honed rock-band attack in a harder kind of country? Remains to be seen.

But that’s what the ACMs do: shake things up, shift the spotlight, take an aggressive move toward artists who may be hovering just outside the superstar circle. Could this be the year Morris, with four nominations, ends Miranda Lambert’s longest winning streak in ACM history by taking Top Female? Will Urban’s timely and impossibly issue-driven “Female,” or Sam Hunt’s ubiquitous “Body Like a Back Road” stop the Stapelton express in Song of the Year?

Indeed, how will the most dominant, most downloaded “Body” stand up against the Taylor Swift-penned, Little Big Town mojo’d “Better Man” in Single? Midland’s breakthrough “Drinkin' Problem”? Stapleton’s Grammy-winning “Broken Halos”? Or even former host/Voice linchpin Blake Shelton’s wry “I’ll Name the Dogs”? That’s the thing about the Academy: Their voting base isn’t as Nashville mainstream, nor as concerned about the high artistic integrity of it all.

No, ACM voters are about: Did it move them? Change the genre’s direction? Spike the needle? It’s an almost indiscernible mix of what goes into these awards, and it’s hard to calculate (though no doubt we will be back with predictions).

Bubbling under, but further underscoring this wave, Kane Brown and Lauren Alaina both score Best New Male/Female nods, but also are singled out in Vocal Event. Kelsea Ballerini, nominated for Top Female, takes a Video nod. New names, different looks are finding their ways into bigger categories—following in the footsteps of Brothers Osborne’s breakout last year. Like Stapleton, behind-the-scenes creator McAnally is also someone whose fingerprints are everywhere. As a co-writer, producer and development person, he’s been involved in not just Midland and Old Dominion’s rise—or co-writing Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road”—he’s also provided nomination fodder for Kacey Musgraves, Kenny Chesney, Miranda Lambert, The Band Perry and Lee Ann Womack, as well as #1s for Luke Bryan, Darius Rucker, Rhett, Urban and countless more. Beyond the big-name nominees, the McAnally factor may be in play.

So it appears that the sea change that started to reveal itself at November’s CMA Awards is real. When only Female and Entertainer look like what you’d expect, that’s saying something. Now to wait until tax day to find out what happens. Leave it to returning host—and Female Vocalist nominee—Reba McEntire to have the pluck, wit and brio to ride this cyclone however it touches down.

UMG chief is sitting on top of the world. (9/17a)
Let's be Frank. (9/17a)
Stars across the board (9/17a)
Will she be able to clean up the mess? (9/17a)
WMG snags a cornucopia of sound and vision. (9/16a)
A chronicle of the inexplicable.
We make yet more predictions, which you are free to ignore.
2022 TOURS
May we all be vaxxed by then.
Power pop, global glam and the return of the loud.

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