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THE CMA NOMS: CRITICAL MASS

Scoff at critical acclaim all you want, but Chris Stapleton once again leads the Country Music Association Awards nominations. With his five—Entertainer, Male Vocalist, Song, Single and Album of the Year—plus Miranda Lambert’s three (she also helped Jason Aldean also net three with their duet “Drowns the Whiskey,” which picked up Single and Vocal Event nods); triples for Midland, perennial critical catnip Dierks Bentley and newcomer Chris Janson; and doubles for Kacey Musgraves and reigning CMA and ACM Duo of the Year Brothers Osborne, critical mass is where it’s at for CMA 2018!

While most of the above have had fair-to-reasonable radio response, they’re all more on the art side of the commerce vs. credibility equation. So much so, in fact, that Janson’s “Drunk Girl,” which struggled, is being recognized by a community that loves cash, but isn’t ready to cash out its songwriter bona fides in the name of lauding what works at radio.

Indeed, if 2017’s CMA Awards nominations suggested a watershed, as many longstanding artists migrated off the list, 2018 is a sea change. Suddenly the perennials are in short supply, and there are whole new horse races.

In Male Vocalist, where New Artist nominee Luke Combs bows with relative newcomers Thomas Rhett and three-time and reigning Male Vocalist Stapleton, as well as Bentley and the new guard’s Vince Gill, the suddenly old guard–and triple nominee—Keith Urban.

Urban’s artistic excellence (note: critical mass is where it’s at) makes him a quadruple threat: producer, songwriter, vocalist and guitarist. To that end, his other nods recognize his vast talents, as he earns Album (Graffiti U) and Entertainer nods. Album of the Year is the perfect example of this phenomenon. Beyond Stapleton, whose won the award twice (for Traveller and From A Room: Volume 1) and Urban, Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour and Bentley’s The Mountain are critically lauded projects that were hard work at radio, while young turk Rhett’s Life Changes offers a glimpse of what country’s future holds.

And as long as we’re talking Musgraves, she drives the critical mass right into Female Vocalist alongside seven-time and reigning Female Lambert and Maren Morris, who straddles the radio friendly/press-driven line better than most. Four-time winner Carrie Underwood joins relative newcomer Kelsea Ballerini on the more commercial side of the aisle.

Probably the biggest story is Warner Nashville’s Dan + Shay, who remain largely opaque to the larger populace despite having the genre’s biggest streaming song (91m streams on Spotify alone) and a Country radio #1 with “Tequila.” Jason Owen and Scooter Braun have maintained the duo’s vision as a pop-leaning, song-driven act, which has proven wise as the pair score nominations for Duo, Single and Video of the Year, as well as “Tequila” earning a Song of the Year nod for the duo’s Dan Smyers and co-writers Nicolle Galyon and Jordan Reynolds.

Nashville has always been a town where great songs win. For Florida Georgia Line, that means their massive crossover success with Bebe Rexha “Meant To Be” took their Duo of the Year nomination and raised it with a Single and Vocal Event.

Ditto Midland, whose momentum at radio may have flagged, but whose #1 “Drinkin' Problem,” which harkened back to the Laurel Canyon heavy-harmony country-rock sound, caught ears with its organic freshness. The Texas-based trio earned nods for Vocal Group, New Artist and Single. Notably, three of the New Artist nominees have triple nominations. Only Lauren Alaina and Brett Young are single nominees. In a competitive year for New Artists where vital breakthrough figures like Ashley McBryde, Carly Pearce and Kane Brown are shut out, it suggests the future is coming hard and fast.

The same reality is mirrored in Group, where institutions Lady Antebellum and Little Big Town were met with relative newcomers and Academy of Country Music Top Vocal Group Old Dominion along with newbies Midland and LANCO. One of the announcement’s surprises is Sam Hunt’s return. Landing a Song of the Year for “Body Like A Back Road,” easily one of the biggest streaming songs ever (nearly 338m on Spotify), he joins the mindful “Broken Halos,” “Drowns the Whiskey” and “Drunk Girl,” as well as the classic adult contemporary/country heartbreak ballad “Tequila.”

Musical event seems as much an exercise in cross-pollination as anything, with an emphasis on common musical ground. Maren Morris enlists the legendary Vince Gill for the woke entreaty “Dear Hate,” Aldean and Lambert get classic country on “Drowns the Whiskey,” Bentley and the Brothers Osborne drive hard on “Burning Man,” pop siren Bebe Rehxa enlisted Florida Georgia Line's country mojo for the love/lust of “Meant to Be” and Kenny Chesney resurrects songwriter David Lee Murphy for the reassuring groove of “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.”

After a big year of record-shattering touring, Songs for the Saints and Live from No Shoes Nation topping various sales charts and the humanitarian U.S/ and British Virgin Islands post-hurricane work of his Love for Love City, Chesney returns to the Entertainer of the Year category alongside stadium sellers Aldean and Luke Bryan, sui generis Stapleton, and Urban. It’s an interesting match-up of very different careers–and it shows both the health and diversity of a genre at a crossroads of new business and old.

As always, Nashville believes in momentum and radio success. But when the votes count—think Alison Krauss’ sweep in 1995, Lee Ann Womack’s dominance in 2005, as well as the 1980/81 and 1982/83 double Song of the Year wins for “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and “Always On My Mind”—it has a way of turning back to the root of it all: great songs played well.

 

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