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CMA AWARDS PREVIEW:
AUTHENTICITY
IN THE CROSSHAIRS

 

Carrie. Luke CombsMirandaEric Church.

Only the musically curious Keith Urban has won Entertainer of the Year, while the remaining four nominees represent a new vanguard coming into the 2020 Country Music Association Awards, airing 11/11 live on CBS.

With the first awards cycle having taken place during the shutdown, other motivators may drive the balloting. The CMAs have a history of recognizing artistry—both Alison Krauss and Chris Stapleton have swept here, while O Brother! Where Art Thou? And Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Volume Two won Album of the Year—and the impact of this year’s selections could be profound.

With touring removed from Entertainer of the Year calculations, this could well be the year where stadiums sellouts aren’t as important as every other aspect of artist engagement. That’s already been apparent in the nominations.

While Miranda and Carrie have been forces during the female desert at Country radio, Maren Morris, Ashley McBryde and reigning Female Vocalist Kacey Musgraves have brought a progressive and convention-challenging approach. McBryde speaks truth for lower-middle-class working women, Morris offers aggressive girl power as well as a Black Lives Matter reality with her just-released “Better Than I Found It” and Musgraves embodies an LGBTQ embrace that is similarly inclusive.

The big story is, obviously, Luke Combs. Nominated for everything—Entertainer, Male, Single (“Beer Never Broke My Heart”), Album (What You See Is What You Get) and two Songs (“Even Though I’m Leaving” and “I Hope You’re Happy Now”)—he projects a regular-guy reality that serves as a balancing agent in a format often more Chippenbro than actual twentysomething on Saturday night. He looks like his fans, and his songs have a Ferris Bueller-esque tilt that reflects somewhere they’ve been instead of the trope-jockeying that reduces all songs to a series of flashcard images.

When HITS did its annual Nashville issue, every manager who answered the question “Who’s the EOTY?” picked Combs. Was it momentum? The shock of “out of nowhere, the kid with the red Solo Cup no one would sign—even when his first three #1s on the demo did it?” Or is it the fact that fans know the difference and can’t get enough?

Authenticity is the one thing a stylist, a media trainer, a photo shoot or a bunch of co-writers can’t create. You are or you’re not. “Not” works, sometimes in massive waves. But when authenticity rolls in, the people roll up.

Morgan Wallen, too, showed 
up, blowed up—and now the mullet-
reviving vocalist/songwriter with “7 Summers” is the favorite for New Artist. But this year’s New Artist category offers real diversity from artists staking very original claims. Ingrid Andress has a Song of the Year nomination for “More Hearts Than Mine,” and Gabby Barrett earns a Single of the Year for her massively streaming “I Hope,” now going global with a Charlie Puth update; both women hit #1 on the Country Radio chart. Jimmie Allen isn’t just a young Black man in country music; he’s representing the old-school ’90s for real.

As for Carly Pearce and her four nominations, beyond New Artist, she’s picked up a Vocal Event and Video of the Year for “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” her duet with Lee Brice. More empowering for the Dollywood vet with hard-country leanings is a Song nomination for the #1 ballad, which she co-wrote with fellow Song nominee Combs.

Morris packs the same wallop. As a progressive songwriter blazing a new kind of country, she may be the first since Rosanne Cash to adroitly engage smart-pop idioms seamlessly. Her torchy “The Bones” earned the Academy of Country Music Top Female Vocalist Song and Single nominations, as well as a Vocal Event nod for her version with Hozier.

All the categories this year not only show diversifying but also artists rising. We expect Lambert to be in the running for Album (Wildcard), Song, Single and Video (“Bluebird”). But in any event, she represents this new female wave coming in; her tour-driven flip of Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” with Morris, McBryde, Elle King, Tenille Townes and Caylee Hammack gives two women their first noms and two more multiple nominations.

Event offers a broad musical reach. Reigning Duo of the Year Dan + Shay bring Justin Bieber to the party with “10,000 Hours,” also nominated for Single of the Year. ACM co-Entertainer of the Year and current CMA Male Vocalist Thomas Rhett enlists country’s Reba McEntire, Lady A, Keith Urban and Christian music’s Chris Tomlin for the goodness-affirming “Be a Light.”

That diversity also informs Album of the Year, where Combs, Lambert and McBryde join hard-honky-tonk West Coaster Jon Pardi with Heartache Medication and reigning Vocal Group Old Dominion with their harmony-laden and hook-heavy self-titled album. With Combs’ momentum, Lambert’s category dominance and McBryde’s smoky tell-it-like-it-is working-class country all in play, this is gonna be close.

That’s true across the categories. There are clear favorites, but write no one off. Could Combs be a locomotive and flatten all, as has been known to happen with CMA voting? Absolutely.

Could Lambert or ACM co-EOTY Underwood become the first woman since Taylor Swift to win Entertainer of the Year? Don’t bet against it. Both have strong constituencies; both make strong music—and many were startled to see Garth Brooks upend both Underwood and Church last year.

Indeed, Church could finally close his fingers on the coveted Entertainer trophy, with a string of topical singles, some working his celebratory side, others —like the current “Put That in Your Country Song”—far more outspoken. The music of this fiery live performer burns with intention.

Intriguingly, both Duo and Group serve as multi-generational categories. Brooks & Dunn and Rascal Flatts represent another era of the genre, while Midland and Maddie & Tae represent the future dawning. In the middle, you have Dan + Shay, Brothers Osborne and Florida Georgia Line, as well as Lady A, Little Big Town and Old Dominion all of whom have won their respective awards as the varying phases of now.

Final thoughts: After months of being shut down, this year’s CMA Awards stands as the most unusual in four decades. Never before have artists been unable to go out to the people, nor have there been so many ways to listen. For a genre whose fans still embrace physical product and still listen to the Grand Ole Opry on a Saturday night, has the life-exhaustion threshold zeroed out interest? Or does the Opry’s #1 status on Pollstar’s Year-to-Date Livestream Chart suggest these awards may matter more than ever? Stay tuned.

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